Marq de Villiers has been the editor of Toronto Life since 1981. Born in South Africa, he was educated at the University of Cape Town and the London School of Economics, where he received a diploma in International Relations. He has worked for Reuters in England and Spain, as a feature writer for The Cape Times in Cape Town and as the African correspondent and, later, the Moscow correspondent for The Toronto Telegram. Since settling permanently in Canada in 1967, de Villiers has visited South Africa regularly. His book, White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid’s Bitter Roots-An Eighth-Generation Afrikaner
Laments the Road Not Taken, will be published in October. The Ryerson Review of journalism assigned Anna Kohn and Lisa McCaskell to talk to de Villiers about his perceptions and analysis of media coverage of South Africa.
REVIEW Do you have one predominant criticism of press reports on South Africa?
de VILLIERS Even the best of coverage lacks the kind of historical context that makes it understandable. All we know are events. For instance, we read about the school boycott. Millions of black kids stay away from school. Why? We don’t know. We assume they are staying away in political sympathy with their elders, but we’re not told. We don’t hear about their struggles against the government’s insistence on education in their vernacular [indigenous] languages. We don’t understand that the blacks feel the vernacular traps them in a ghetto. We don’t understand that the whites, especially the Afrikaners, have a complex attitude towards language-that they fought so long and so hard for their own that they find it genuinely difficult to understand black ambivalence [toward indigenous languages]. If coverage tracked antecedents, readers would be given a historical context in which to understand those attitudes, so that when President Botha made a statement of policy, about whatever, calculated to appeal to his complex domestic constituency, it would be understood in terms of that constituency’s fundamental needs and desires and in terms of its history. Without this, Botha’s words will only be heard, not understood. Editors in Canada don’t understand this context themselves, and so don’t insist on it in the work of their reporters. I don’t think this will change. There’s little incentive for the media to do better. They’re closed off, imprisoned by their preconceptions. I think particularly of CBC Radio here.
REVIEW What historical information would you say is missing from media coverage of South Africa?
de VILLIERS It’s obviously very difficult to try to summarize this to the degree that we’re going to, but the kind of understanding that’s missing is some sense of how the Afrikaner people arrived at their assumptions and preconceptions and world view they now have. Any understanding of this has to go back to the very beginning. You have to get some grasp of how the Afrikaners, as a people, were formed. Their entire history is one of protection against outside exploitation. They felt exploited-whether they were or not is another matter-exploited first by an essentially corrupt colonial company, the Dutch East India Company, then by the British, then in a series of wars with the newly discovered black cultures pushing down from the northeast. Finally, after the Afrikaners withdrew into the interior, they were fol. lowed and fought two colonial wars against the British [in 1880 and 1899].
REVIEW How did the Afrikaners respond to this series of challenges to their survival as a group?
de VILLIERS To the Afrikaner or the Dutch settlers, escape always seemed a legitimate option. In that sense their history and the history of conquest or of avoided conquest by withdrawal has been central in determining their view of themselves. One of the roots of apartheid has been that it is a psychological withdrawal. They’ve defined their identity in terms of survival of the group. If you define yourself in that way, your central allegiance is not to the individual or even to an idea but to the group as the highest expression of what you are.
REVIEW Could you talk a bit about the Boer War [1899-1902] and how that affected the development of the Afrikaner consciousness?
de VILLIERS The Afrikaners attempted to escape into the interior of Africa, not once, but three or four times, and were constantly followed by the [British] imperial culture. Each time they withdrew farther into the interior and each time they were followed and overtaken. The Boer War was the final stand. When I was growing up, we never called it the Boer War. Only the English called it that. We called it the Second War of Independence. The first war we won 19 years earlier. The Boer War was a pure colonialist war. There’ve been very few as nakedly aggressive. The British simply had no interest in occupying the Transvaal until they discovered gold there. Suddenly it was a question of bringing civilization to the backwoods. The British, under Kitchener, in order to suppress the commandos [Afrikaner guerrilla fighters] in the field, adopted a scorched earth policy. As they burned farms and houses they put women and children into concentration camps. Three times as many people died in camps as died in the field of battle. The only solution [for the Afrikaners] was to regroup psychologically and impose a very tight and strict discipline on their own psyches. That’s where the group cohesion came from.
REVIEW What got lost in the translation from the protection of group identity to the execution of policies that really were terrible?
de VILLIERS If you examine the history of what the Afrikaners did to other people, they never impinged on other cultures in the same way that, say, the British or even the Portuguese did. They never intended to do some kind of cultural makeover, partly because they didn’t have the stomach or muscle for it, and partly because it wasn’t in their own conception of how they should operate as a people. One of the interesting things about their history is the way it has transformed the politics of survival into the politics of privilege. Now, to their astonishment, they are the oppressors, and they don’t know how to deal with it.
One of the problems has been that until recently the entire focus of the Afrikaner people was on the English and not on the blacks. That is, to modern ears, really amazing; the blacks were simply not a factor.
REVIEW But surely the very presence of black Africans should have made them a factor?
de VILLIERS There’s been a foolish debate among historians in South Africa for years-about who owned the place or who was there first. It’s a silly debate because it really doesn’t matter. There’s no doubt the blacks were first, at least in parts of South Africa, for millennia before the whites got there. When the whites departed for the interior it was uninhabited for two reasons. The primary one was that about 30 years before, the Zulu empire had suddenly exploded into a militaristic frenzy and depopulated large sections of the interior. Entire tribes were wiped out. Huge cities were found abandoned. The whole central part of South Africa was a shambles. Of course, the whites had no understanding of how this came about or the forces that had set off the Zulu explosion. They simply assumed this was the way things had always been and so, of course, they acted as if the territory was theirs to take by right. Even after the Zulu empire began drifting back to their homes, the whites kept treating these people as if they were somehow interlopers.
REVIEW How did the apartheid system become what it is today?
de VILLIERS The apartheid system in its origins-not in its execution-was an attempt to preserve the Afrikaners’ sense of identity. This is not understood and it’s very hard to see now because it’s so caught up in the simpleminded racism that has developed out of it. It’s obviously complicated, on the one hand, by a kind of European racism and, on the other, by a clear class differentiation. When the Afrikaners took over the country and the British were vanquished electorally [1948 elections were won by the Nationalist Party], when the new black proletariat started coming into the towns, it was out of that protective emotion that apartheid grew. What you got was the politics of privilege emerging out of the sour history of defeat. Today, you get one more cycle where the politics of privilege is being transformed into the politics of survival, because what is truly at stake is group survival. No Afrikaner believes in the bland assurances of the outside world or of the African National Congress that somehow, miraculously, their rights will be preserved in the transformation to come. While it’s possible, although unlikely, that individual rights will be protected, group rights certainly will not be. So what you’re asking the Afrikaners to do is to commit group suicide.
REVIEW How do the South Africans themselves view apartheid today?
de VILLIERS The curious thing is that nobody, or virtually nobody, in South Africa any longer believes in apartheid. Few Afrikaners believe in it, only the radical right. Few in the government believe in it. But they have nothing to put in its place. They’re all looking for a way out. What you’re left with is conflict, confusion and a kind of ideological deadness; there’s no centre, or rather a hollowness at the centre. That’s why the initiative, the momentum, has now gone over to the opposition. As long as the Afrikaners believed in what they were doing, they were in control-others have proved that oppression works if you have the stomach for it. But they’re implementing policies they truly no longer can believe, and so they no longer have the stomach for the game. The blacks sense this. That’s why they think their time is coming.
REVIEW What can be gained by the western media developing a deeper understanding of South African history and politics?
de VILLIERS Unless you understand what motivates people, your policies toward them will present only unpleasant surprises. It’s not the media’s role to make policy, obviously. But it is the media’s role to present sufficient information to allow policymakers to make informed decisions and to produce an informed electorate. Too much of the press simply acts as if South Africa were one great civil rights problem-Selma, Alabama, writ large-and seems to believe that if only the world got cross enough the racists would back down and give everyone the vote and the issues would disappear. It’s those false assumptions that are simplistic and are bound to lead to hardening ideological attitudes rather than to solutions.
REVIEW Do you think the Canadian government’s view of South Africa is similar to that of the Canadian press?
de VILLIERS Canada’s government is more ignorant than Canada’s media. It is also more sanctimonious. Many western governments share this dismal posture. Some are better, some worse. The press doesn’t help. It doesn’t allow governments to see clearly. The press still believes that this is a colonialist struggle, that Afrikaners are indivisible, that sanctions will automatically bring about solutions.
REVIEW Would you say Canadian media coverage has contributed to our government’s decision to impose sanctions on South Africa?
de VILLIERS I think the media coverage has very largely brought about the imposition of what modest sanctions Ottawa has imposed. From listening to Mulroney, I don’t believe he has the faintest clue about South Africa. He is following, not leading. And because the media are so relentless in their single-mindedness, their coverage allows no nuances, no shades of grey. It has gone beyond hating apartheid to hating its practitioners, and beyond that to hating all Afrikaners, practitioners or not. And once you’ve argued yourself into that hard an ideological bind, it’s difficult to find a way out. It’s because of this that the relentless superficiality of the media coverage is so damaging.
REVIEW Who among the Canadian media is particularly guilty of this?
de VILLIERS The Journal is an offender. The CBC coverage is thoroughly bad. Oddly, American broadcast coverage is slightly better than Canadian. Possibly the complexity of their own society, their own race problems, has forced them to take a closer look than Canadians, who are smug about these matters.
REVIEW How did this situation develop?
de VILLIERS The anti-intellectual nature of so much reporting precludes deeper understanding-the bias is expressed this way: What you see, is. You can understand what “is” by close observation. It leads inevitably to error. What you get, therefore, are the dramatic events, while the broad themes are omitted. In the mid-’70s I was invited to appear on As It Happens after a visit to South Africa. The producers were convinced South Africa was then on the brink of collapse, on the brink of revolution, rather. I tried to tell them this was a misreading. They wouldn’t listen. It conflicted with what they were “seeing” for themselves. They still didn’t understand that seeing wasn’t enough to bring understanding. They had already decided what was happening and saw no reason to change their minds. If I disagreed with them, I must be in error. It’s very troublesome for them to reformulate their ideas.
REVIEW Is there any in-depth Canadian coverage of South Africa?
de VILLIERS There is good work being done. Valpy [The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy] is getting better all the time. His first year there was poor, in my opinion. He lacked historical understanding. But he has found his way to many of the people within the country, white and black, whose own understanding is profound. The academics as well as the politicians. Valpy has been putting them to good use. His coverage has probably helped Canadians who are beginning to perceive that the situation is more complicated than they had first thought. Still, he hasn’t managed to persuade his own editorial board, who still seem to be fighting the Boer War. And his coverage, I hope, will help to counter the superficiality of television news..
REVIEW Why has coverage been escalating during the past few years? Is it that violence in South Africa is markedly on the rise?
de VILLIERS I think it’s that and not that. It’s hard to see why South Africa has become as fashionable an issue in Canada as it has. To some degree, the violence within South Africa now is no greater than the previous round, the Soweto riots of 1976. Still, there is a difference in the nature of events, I think. The Soweto riots flared up and were suppressed. The current round of violence is not going to stop, I believe. Violence has now become endemic. To some degree that is because the Afrikaners lack the heart and the stomach to stop it-it is part of that deadness at the centre I mentioned. And now in South Africa, everyone senses what is to come. You hear people referring to The Change, with a cap T and cap C. Many of the whites, of course, are watching with trepidation. But what’s new is that some are now looking to it with anticipation. To the extent that these changes are real, the international press, in its increased coverage, is reflecting reality. Sometimes South Africans look upon the press as vultures gathering-but then vultures do gather for good reasons. On the other hand, the international press is also reflecting the ideological biases of their home societies; South Africa is satisfying because it is one of the few unifying factors in international affairs, one of the very few issues everyone can agree on.
REVIEW Are the media reluctant to tell the Afrikaner side of the story for fear of being labelled apologists?
de VILLIERS Yes and no. The anti-South African forces will seldom tolerate opposing views and the press is clearly nervous about this. But it’s more complicated than that. The reporters share the views of the opposition. It’s less a worry about seeming apologist, therefore, than it is a question of unthinking conformism. An example: the Globe has taken a lot of flak for publishing a piece on the op-ed page last fall by a Canadian visitor to South Africa, a tourist, whose views conflict with the majority. They published numerous letters criticizing the piece and the paper for printing it. That might seem like refusal to be cowed. But it wasn’t. The piece was very easy to criticize because it was naive-and that made its critics feel righteous. The Globe gained points from the event without contributing to understanding. But when I suggested they publish a piece by, say, Piet Cillie, who used to be editor of the Afrikaans newspaper in Cape Town, Die Burget; and who has written his own mea culpa about apartheid, a piece that would have done a lot to explain how the Afrikaners thought and about how Afrikaner critics now think, the Globe declined. Possibly it conflicted with their view of what Afrikaners are.
Still it’s true that debate is far from open on the issue. If journalists do attempt to explain the situation in South Africa in a way that doesn’t match the view of the pro-sanctions opposition, they are written off as collaborationists and racists. Few reporters want to risk that. I don’t particularly want to risk it -who does? I don’t wish to become an apologist for the apartheid regime. I agree with the critics that apartheid is an evil system.
REVIEW Has the South African press played any role in ‘galvanizing change?
de VILLIERS The press has never been a radical force in South Africa. It has always been relatively conservative. This goes for English language as well as Afrikaans papers. It was never a force for social change nor a kind of advocacy press.
REVIEW Are the South African media able to report any meaningful news?
de VILLIERS Until last year, South Africa still had a relatively free press. In East-bloc and African terms it still is, but in western terms “free” is now a mockery. Reporters and editors are surrounded by so many regulations and caveats. The state of emergency has clamped down on all real reporting. But as recently as ’85 and early ’86, the press was still relatively free and, therefore, free to do its work. The editor of the Cape Times, Tony Heard, published in late ’85 an interview with the head of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, a “banned” person in South Africa. Heard was even then prohibited from publishing anything Tambo said. He ignored these restrictions “in the public interest” and was duly prosecuted. But he was charged with the lesser of two possible offences and will very likely never be sentenced. It put the government into an awkward situation. They had to prosecute or their system of security laws would breakdown utterly. But they wanted to preserve some semblance of a free press. So they vacillated. It was a risk Tony took and, of course,. since then the state of emergency has been declared and the government finally decided to give up on the idea of preserving some international reputation. They say, correctly in my view, that it was a losing battle-no one was listening.
Immediately after the Heard interview with Tambo, the government changed its tack. It started harassing reporters instead of editors. It was considerably better for their [the government’s] image, they thought. Prosecuting a senior editor was tricky, and likely to spoil your image abroad still further. Breaking a few reporters’ heads was easier-it could be excused in the heat of the battle. You rough up a reporter and throw him in jail for a couple of days. You can just say: “The guy got into trouble, and our guys just had to smash his head. Too bad. Them’s the breaks.”
REVIEW How can the outside press better inform readers?
de VILLIERS What you have to encourage among reporters is for them to take the longer view, to think beyond the daily headline and to contribute some fresh insights. When I was there last November , I spent time with Ismail Ayob, who is Nelson Mandela’s family lawyer. Ayob was representing Winnie Mandela at the time. She had just defied a banning order and was refusing to go back to Brandfort, the village to which she had been ordered. Ayob told me that as of November last year, no foreign correspondent had interviewed him. He was quite taken aback by this because, after all, he’s acted for the Mandela family for 20 years.
REVIEW Why would journalists overlook so important a source?
de VILLIERS Because they’re too busy watching people throwing stones in the townships. So what you’ve got are a lot of ironies. While I was there the authorities had passed very stringent restrictions on television access to the townships. They had a very strict set of guidelines determining who could and couldn’t go into the townships. The net effect of that, ironically, was instantly improved coverage of South Africa, because television crews no longer had the easy way out; charging in and watching a riot. They had to start talking to people for a change. They finally discovered Ayob and all kinds of other people, like Hermann Giliomee, who wrote a book called The Rising Crisis of Afrikaner Power. He’s now been “discovered.” Now everybody wanted to talk to him: CBS, The New York Times. And he was really angry because what they wanted him to do was tell them what was going on. He said: “I’m not a journalist, all I do is analyse social trends and policies.” He’s a political analyst but they wanted him first to tell them what the events were. These were foreign correspondents, basically from the U.S. and Britain. Nobody was trying to understand what was happening. They were just trying to watch what was happening.
REVIEW What exactly should the press and readers do in order to put the transitory hot news into context?
de VILLIERS It starts with editors. It is often a discouraging thing to talk to newspaper foreign editors. Few of them have much knowledge of the world beyond a tourist’s view. Few of them read books. Their academic training, where it exists, is seldom in international affairs. It starts with editors who will demand more of their writers. It needs proprietors prepared to invest in the necessary resources. And the public? Don’t rely too much on newspapers. Don’t rely at all on television. Get the background..