[This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of Nieman Reports.]

In South Africa, the black press is essentially two newspapers, The Sowetan and The City Press. Unlike their counterparts in the white media, these newspapers supported the truth-seeking aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]. But they bitterly criticized the clause in the document creating the Commission which granted amnesty to killers who testified before it.

Many black journalists had themselves been victims and/or survivors of apartheid’s killing machine. They had been victimized in the same way as political activists and had languished in jail just as the others had. So their interest in covering these hearings was more than just a passing fad or a “good story” needing to be written. They brought to their jobs passion, concern, anger and true understanding of the tears that flowed freely once testimony started.

Members of the black press saw the TRC as an institution designed to vindicate their former stories of the horrors of apartheid and an avenue to expose lies of the white press, which either scorned those press revelations or simply trashed them as propaganda. After the media hearing, in which Commission members heard about various roles the press played in propping up apartheid, the editorial staff of the City Press wrote the following:

“Claims by representatives of the English-language press that they could have done more to oppose the evils of apartheid must ring hollow in the light of what happened in their newsrooms. Stories by black journalists of police brutality were routinely rejected—simply because there was an unwritten rule that these black writers could not be trusted with telling the truth. On the other hand, police versions justifying the killings of students and other political activists were most of the time accepted without question.”

Following the 1994 elections, many in the black community wanted to see killers of their children tried and sentenced. They wanted to see the political leadership of F.W. de Klerk declared a criminal activity for which he should be tried. But it was not to be.…

So as the hearings started, survivors or relatives of victims of criminal activity of the apartheid regime appeared before the TRC and asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Chairman, for justice. Many were ordinary people who could not be bothered by the niceties of political arrangements between Mandela and de Klerk and who felt that the law of natural justice should be followed.

Many black journalists who followed the TRC hearings also felt this way, and the reporters’ personal feelings spilled over into their coverage of the proceedings, making it distinctly different from what appeared in the white press.

After the first few days of hearings, The Sowetan’s TRC reporter, Mzimasi Ngudle, wrote with great eloquence of those who had appeared and of the pain they’d suffered, the indignities they’d endured, and the rawness of current emotion. “The dignity and modesty of the victims brought to the fore the indelible virtues of ubuntu (humanity). All they asked for was a better education for their children, the erection of tombstones, and other basic needs. However, ubuntu cannot be stretched too far. It would simply be presumptuous and reckless to incise old wounds in pursuance of lofty hopes.… [T]here is no proven link between confession on the one hand and forgiveness on the other. The whole exercise could simply end up as little more than a religious ritual…in which a people who are ignorant of their rights will be converted to embrace peace at all costs.”

When victims went before the TRC and asked for justice, the black press highlighted their stories, as they did the efforts by the Black Consciousness Movement’s Azanian (People’s) Organization (AZAPO) to challenge the legality of the TRC in the Constitutional Court. This court challenge, arguing that the TRC should not be allowed to grant amnesty to people who committed gross human rights violations, received front-page treatment in The Sowetan. While the black press argued that justice was the only foundation for a lasting reconciliation, the white press rallied around the theme that forgiveness was the beginning of reconciliation.

…[D]iffering racial perspectives among various papers did not emerge only during the hearings; arguments raged even before the hearings began about the composition of the commissioners. The Sowetan, the country’s biggest black-owned and biggest daily with a readership of more than 1.4 million (99 percent of whom are black) wrote on October 10, 1995: “We cast no doubt about the credibility of the Truth Commission nominees but we must express serious worry about the low number of blacks nominated.… This Commission will be dealing with an important part of our past that affects, by and large, more blacks than whites. As blacks we will be shirking our responsibility if we do not ensure that our views feature more prominently in the Commission.…” Similar concerns were not evidenced in the white press.

…Also, when right-wing whites who were either in prison or coming forward to confess to crimes in which blacks had been cruelly killed, the black media argued against the granting of amnesty.

The case of ANC leader and South African Communist Party General Secretary Chris Hani, who was shot dead outside his home in Johannesburg, amply illustrates what happened. The City Press, the black weekly, wrote: “Granting amnesty to Hani’s killers would also not go down well with the ANC’s grassroots supporters. The ANC must make a decision and soon. It cannot afford to alienate its grassroots support and cause divisions within its members of Parliament while trying to curry favor with a spent force like the ultra-right. Politically, amnesty for the right-wingers would not seem to have any obvious benefits. At their trial, [Clive] Derby-Lewis and [Janus] Walus—the two convicted killers of Hani—were defiant and unrepentant to the end. Thus, even from a moral point it would be difficult to make a case for them. Reconciliation is a noble ideal, but the line must be drawn somewhere.”

Even when some of the white perpetrators of gross human rights violations were prepared to admit to their wrongs, their motive was scrutinized. In the black press the question was asked: Had they come forward out of a genuine wish to apologize, or did they do so merely as a way to either get out of jail or to avoid being put in? Often, even when their testimonies had ended, the answer to this question had not been revealed.

Mathatha Tsedu is the Acting Deputy Editor of the Sunday Independent of Sowetan and a 1997 Nieman Fellow. He spent nearly six years, from 1981 to 1986, under a banning order that prohibited him from practicing as a journalist.

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