from Africa in Transition

South Africa Newspaper Fights Government Censorship

November 22, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Mac Maharaj, former South African Minister of Transport, takes the stand at the Hefer commission of inquiry, to prove the spy allegations against the director of Public Prosecutions Bulelane Ngcuka in Bloemfontein November 17, 2003. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

The Mail and Guardian, an influential South African weekly, is accusing Jacob Zuma’s press spokesman, Mac Maharaj, of censorship. Maharaj threatened the newspaper with prosecution if it printed a report with accusations that he lied during the investigation of Jacob Zuma’s involvement in a shady arms deal more than a decade ago. The Mail and Guardian went ahead and published parts of the report, which Maharaj responded to by opening criminal charges. It has been announced that those charges will be investigated by the Hawks, an elite police unit. In the meantime, the Sunday Times alleges Maharaj received kickbacks from the French weapons contractor at the center of the arms investigation.

The Mail and Guardian was a vocal apartheid critic, and it was established by journalists who had worked for the Rand Daily Mail and other liberal newspapers forced out of business during the later apartheid years. During apartheid, these newspapers would publish articles with censored sentences blacked out, so readers knew the extent to which a story had been censored. The Mail and Guardian repeated this tactic last week with the Maharaj story, thereby making the point that the ANC government was resorting to tactics characteristic of apartheid South Africa.

Mac Maharaj is an old-line ANC stalwart from Natal, the center of South Africa’s south Asian population. He was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and is credited with transcribing the latter’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The irony of associating him with apartheid-era press censorship would not be lost on South Africa’s liberals and likely was deliberately intended to embarrass him.

The Mail and Guardian is a high quality must-read for southern Africa intellectuals, think tankers, and many in the business community. It is highly critical of the Zuma government, as it has been of its predecessors. Like much of the South African press, it is essentially seen as a "white" publication, though it has readers from all racial groups. The South African press is often accused by ANC leaders of being "unfair" and biased against a black government, and this episode should be seen in that context.

CFR is closed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday. I will resume posts on Monday.

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