PRINT Summer 1992


the Apartheid in the Press

South Africa has been in and out of the US news this past decade or so, and recently more in than out. Yet with apartheid apparently over in that land part US and part alien; and with a society increasingly made to seem like US or US like it, there appears little left to report. Or so it would seem.

Gone are the days of dramatic images of police and military violence in the townships, of the bulldozing of squatter camps in the dead of freezing winter nights, of security visits, arrests, and bannings, of politicized funerals invaded by body-snatching police. Gone the antiapartheid rallies, here as there, gone the muscle-flexing of labor unions calling one-day strikes, the forced relocations from shantytowns inhabited only because the rural destinations are worse. Gone the media-fueled outrage over political torture, imprisonment without trial, and trumped-up charges, gone the political death sentences masquerading as criminal ones.

Gone, one might be excused in thinking from reading today’s news, is apartheid. No more Group Areas Act dividing the country’s living space; no Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act outlawing the interracial cohabitation of consenting adults; no Population Registration Act constructing racial difference, separating black from brown, brown from white, parents from children. Apartheid overthrown yesterday, a new constitution and universal suffrage tomorrow, majority rule next week or year or decade. There is little to report today from a society now normalized, now like US.

Little to report where whites are wealthy and blacks could be if only they’d put their “primitive” ways behind them and sign up for the Protestant work ethic and constitutional democracy.The South African dream is but the American one transposed, because the American dream is universal. Yet for South Africa, as for the US, it is a dream not merely delayed or denied in an age of recession that for increasingly large numbers shows no sign of ending, but a dream that blocks political vision as it censors it.

One might be excused also for concluding from the media that with the exception of a figure like Nelson Mandela, whites alone engage in politics in South Africa, whereas blacks commit only violence. Explanation is silenced by unquestioned presupposition: black-on-black violence, reporters say, lies deep in the naturalism of ethnic roots. The argument is only possible because white violence, personal and political, is barely reported at all. Here and elsewhere, the media reproduce the political logic of apartheid by their comfortable repetition of the categories apartheid has rendered natural. Whites in South Africa are described as divided by politics: liberal, centrist, conservative. But blacks are divided by race, or, now, by ethnicity. This is a dialectic of “civilization” and “primitivism,” the civilized being political, the primitive tribal. Similarly, “white South Africa” is represented as, well, white: as “Caucasian” or European in culture. “Black South Africa,” by contrast, is imagined as African, as inevitably limited to and by the conditions “naturally” found throughout Africa and the third world.

This reproduction of racist categories fills the silences of current reportage about South Africa. In almost all its dispatches, for example, the New York Times refers to the rulers of South Africa as “the Government,” aggrandizing their status by capitalizing their nomenclature. The ruling (very white) “National Party” and the governing “Cabinet” are also capitalized. But the African National Congress becomes “the congress” rather than the more widely used and accepted acronym ANC. Similarly, F. W. de Klerk is respected as “the President” and other government officials as “Ministers,” whereas ANC officeholders like Cyril Ramaphosa are diminutized as “secretary general.” Meanwhile, the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi generally gets capitals. The respect for Inkatha and the subtle dismissal of the ANC seems to reflect the South African government’s position that the former is a legitimate party while the latter, which for economic reasons has refused to declare itself a political party (by South African law, the country’s political parties cannot accept foreign funding), is positioned as a resistance group, indeed a terrorist organization.

The US media’s preoccupation with South Africa concerns who will prevail politically, who will rule. The virtually exclusive concern, in other words, is with visible, formal power. The everyday life of the now marginalized masses is rarely addressed. What sense do US news consumers have of the urban problems confronting South Africa, black as white? Just as inner-city violence pervades the media image of the black underclass in the United States, so a sense of indiscriminate violence and criminality, and thus of a threat to the future of peace and prosperity, is the only impression we are fed of black urban life in South Africa. But what is life like in the shantytowns of Durban, say, which grow by a half million people a year as exiles arrive from the rural lands, and which lack running water, sewage systems, waste dumps or garbage collection, electricity, and almost all public schooling?

And what do the media tell us of the day-to-day relations, both changed and unchanged, among South Africans, of the transactions between employer and employee, madam and servant, neighbors and friends and strangers as the barriers of formal apartheid fall? What are the relations between blacks and whites and “coloureds” and “Indians” in public schools and universities that have opened their doors to all, or in neighborhoods once rigidly segregated by race but now rapidly shifting in demographic makeup? What “white flight” is taking place from town or country to suburb, or from cities like Johannesburg, deemed increasingly “black,” to those like Cape Town, where the racial constitution is considered more “favorable”? Black and white lovers can now live together, but how are they seen? Blacks may walk through white upper-middle-class neighborhoods, may even move in if they can afford it, but how often are they attacked by “white dogs” and harassed by private guards? What resentments are emerging as centuries—not just forty years—of racial confinement give way to testy relations of racially defined exchanges? What image of racial interaction do South Africans have concerning both their own society and other countries, through music and art and television? These issues the US media, the voice of America, have passed over in silence.

Two deeper considerations seem to structure a great deal of the reportage in the US media. The first concerns the general framing of news about political economy, especially in international reportage. Here, historical context is largely effaced, and where there is some historical connectedness to local concerns, the reportage is usually structured to reflect contemporary local interests. This may sell news but it hardly supports understanding. Consumers of mainstream newspapers and magazines and of the network news have little grasp of the complexities of South African society beyond the stereotypes of white and black, politics and violence, independence and paternalistic dependence. They have little sense of the social, historical, and institutional forces and effects of popular struggles both within South Africa and beyond.

Second, reporting about South Africa, and particularly about racial matters and relations, silently extends prevailing tropes about racial concerns in the US. In the concern to bring South Africa alive to us news consumers, to sell the news, South Africa is made to seem increasingly like the US. In this, the media assist the normalization of the status quo projected by the South African government. South Africa has an “underclass,” like US; it faces increasing urban violence, like US; and like US, it used to institutionalize racism, but does no longer, so that racism, if it continues to exist, lies only in the privacy of individual prejudice. End economic sanctions and cultural boycotts, then. With economic liberalization, racism will fade away.

The legacy of this line of analysis in the US should warn us against believing too quickly what the news media would have us see. The psychological investment that blacks in the US have placed in combating apartheid in South Africa has much less, if anything, to do with the naturalism of color considerations than it does with the political realization that resistance to racist exclusion in South Africa is inextricably tied to resisting racisms wherever they extend their exclusionary modes. In this sense, the battle for the representation of South Africa’s future has just entered a new phase.

David Theo Goldberg is associate professor of justice studies at Arizona State University. His book Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning will be published next year by Blackwell’s, Oxford, England.