Magazines: The Rest of the Story


Americans tend to see the world as a collection of little Americas whose conflicts mimic tensions in the United States; they also tend to assume that the conflicts can be easily divided into two sides.

Thus most American coverage of South Africa depicts that nation's conflicts as analogous to the problems of the American South in the 1950s and '60s, with National Party leaders as counterparts to the segregationist governors of that era, Nelson Mandela as the South African Martin Luther King, and the African National Congress as the South African equivalent of the Congress on Racial Equality or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. American journalists also act on the premise that all blacks in South Africa are represented by the ANC and that South Africa's destiny ultimately lies only with Mandela and State President Frederik de Klerk.

But the assumption that the ANC is black South Africa's only voice leads to a complete misreading of that nation's politics. On the right, the illusion of ANC dominance encourages the belief that hardline, militant Marxists will take over South Africa, expel all white people, nationalize property and businesses, and lead South Africa to the ruinous fate of most African nations. Human Events, in its February 24 issue, observes that Mandela "has refused to soften the revolutionary positions" he held in 1964 and has used "the high-octane phrase 'Amandia! Amandia! I-Africa, mayibuye,' the Xhosa words for 'Power! Power! Africa it is ours!'"

Leftists, for their part, were dusting off their Marxist histories and arguing that Mandela's release was part of an inevitable tide of history that would lead to a black socialist South Africa. Thus Fatima Meer, Mandela's authorized biographer, tells the readers of the March 12 Nation that the ANC "reflects the will of the disenfranchised masses" and that socialism is "an economic system that research shows is favored by most blacks." (Meer provides no information as to the nature of this research.)

The strikingly similar beliefs of the left and right do, at first glance, have a kind of sinister plausibility. Nelson Mandela is, after all, the least understood major politician of our time. While he may utter the approved litany of Marxist-Leninist phrases, there is no evidence that he believes them or, for that matter, anything else. Mandela's career prior to his 1964 arrest was not as an ANC leader, but as the lawyer bailing out ANC leaders; if comparisons with Americans must be made, the correct analogy is to Thurgood Marshall, not Martin Luther King.

Moreover, southern Africa is the only part of the world where nations (Zimbabwe, probably Namibia) are turning Marxist-Leninist. It could be that Mandela would like to establish a hard-line Marxist-Leninist state. But it is equally likely that a Mandela-led South Africa would resemble Kenyatta-led Kenya—a somewhat capitalist, somewhat multiracial, somewhat democratic nation. Political rhetoric, as Ronald Reagan's career has shown, is rarely a useful tool for predicting events.

But Mandela is not the only black politician whose opinion will determine South Africa's fate, nor is the ANC the only political organization that matters. Stephen Robinson, in The Spectator, has described South African black politics as "Chinese warlordism." Some of these "warlords," such as the head of COSATU, the trade-union confederation, base their power on economics. Others, most notably Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, are tribal leaders. The American magazine reader has no idea of which issues cause the sharpest debates among South African blacks, or even that these debates exist and are important.

Danny Schechter, the executive producer of the public-television series "South Africa Now," lists many reasons why American press coverage of South Africa is wrongheaded in a fascinating article in the winter 1989 Nieman Reports, the magazine of Harvard's Nieman Fellowship program for journalists. Foreign journalists, Schechter notes, "tend to be white and well integrated into English speaking white culture"; they "rarely speak African languages, including Afrikaans, and have little familiarity with the country's cultural styles." The "most effective indigenous leadership," Schechter adds, "is often at the grass roots level or on the factory floor. Yet these leaders are rarely sought out by a press mesmerized by celebrities."

Schechter's most telling example of faulty press coverage concerns the 1986 riots, which were crushed by the imposition of a state of emergency and 30,000 arrests. These riots were fomented by "the least organized members of the black community—youth and students," who were easily crushed, thus convincing "many television editors…that the revolution was over" and that white dominance was permanent.

Schechter notes that the South African economy has received inadequate coverage and that poor blacks, who constitute up to 65 percent of the nation's population, are ignored by most journalists. But he argues—mistakenly, I think—that the key story in South Africa is the behavior of foreign investors. Far more important are the indigenous South African corporations, owned by English-speaking liberals. These corporations, notably the Anglo-American Corp., are the primary financial supporters of liberal white political parties. They are the people a nonsocialist black government would have to rely on to keep South Africa financially healthy. But their views are little known and badly reported.

For example, James North, in the February 23 In These Times, writes that "the big business community in South Africa…does not mind desegregating beaches and restaurants. But when Mandela and the ANC continue their call to redress the terrible economic imbalance by nationalizing the mines and heavy industry and by carrying through a sweeping land reform, the business leaders will be less happy." This is the understatement of the year; North does not explain how nationalization will make the South African economy more productive. No wonder De Beers is moving its operations to Switzerland.

Black entrepreneurs in South Africa, constrained by a socialist system as thorough as any in Eastern or Central Europe, are treated by the press as if they did not exist. In her Nation article, Meer says that "economic empowerment of the underprivileged" will come about through "free, equal, and compulsory education, higher wages, increased job opportunities through affirmative action and a rationalized taxation system."

Implicit in her argument is the notion that jobs are something whites create and blacks demand. Certainly blacks in South Africa need to be empowered, but the only certain and lasting empowerment of black people comes not from paternalism or punitive taxation but from black people creating jobs—and wealth—for themselves. Not every South African black is a socialist, and the long decades of oppression by the state should convince black South Africans that the government that tortures them now will not necessarily become their friend once blacks are in power.

As flawed as much magazine coverage of South Africa is, however, a few journalists do provide useful insights into that country. A reliable rule when searching for accurate and informative South African coverage is that British journalists are more useful than their American counterparts, because they are not constrained by American preconceptions.

No writer dominates coverage of South Africa in the way that Timothy Garton Ash dominates reporting on Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the two Germanies. But the leader of the South African journalistic pack is clearly Stephen Robinson of The Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper. Robinson asks questions that other journalists should pursue and don't.

In the February 10 Spectator, Robinson compares the plight of Frederik de Klerk and Mikhail Gorbachev and finds that Gorbachev is far worse off: While hundreds of thousands of people demonstrate for freedom in Eastern Europe, only 20,000 showed up for the rally celebrating the unbanning of the ANC. In the February 17 Spectator, Robinson analyzes what would happen if Nelson Mandela died, either through an assassin's bullet or (more likely) of old age. Mandela's death, Robinson believes, would shatter the anti-apartheid movement; "it is impossible to conceive" of anyone who, for example, would "be capable of appearing on national television to appeal for calm if Mandela were to die."

Mandela, unlike any other black South African politician, actually knows how to talk to ordinary people about issues that concern them. (Instead of ritually denouncing apartheid and the police, he told 120,000 Sowetans crammed into a soccer stadium to fight crime; he told the children to stay in school.) Robinson makes a convincing case that Mandela might be the only person who can ensure that South Africa does not collapse into civil war or a military dictatorship.

Equally useful is a piece by John Carlin in the March 12 New Republic. Carlin, a correspondent for the centrist British daily The Independent, gives the most thorough biography of Mandela I've read, concluding that the liberation movement is supported by "a small, but noble minority," since most South African blacks are apolitical. Carlin also notes that even at its most repressive, South Africa was never as brutal as the totalitarian states of the world. Only 100 blacks, at most, have died at the hands of the South African police in the past decade, compared to tens of thousands slaughtered by Latin Americans, black Africans, or the Chinese. While not excusing South African police brutality, such comparisons are nonetheless instructive.

Perhaps the freeing of Mandela will inspire more extensive coverage of South Africa. If so, journalists should expand the depth and richness of their reporting, instead of relying on clichés, press conferences, and contortions. Simply assuming that South Africa is the Alabama or Mississippi of the Southern Hemisphere clouds understanding of that nation's problems.

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.