What’s Missing? Naspers’ late half-apology for Apartheid
Journalist Sibusiso Tshabalala describes the giant media group’s apology for its role in apartheid as “too late and too hollow”.
On July 25, South Africa’s biggest media group, Naspers, did something it should have done 19 years ago: apologize for the role it played during Apartheid.
While the apology, delivered by Media24 CEO, Esmarè Weideman, took many by surprise, it did little to shed light on how Naspers — now Africa’s largest media company with a market value of over $61 billion — was complicit in the actions of South Africa’s Apartheid government during the time.
After all, Naspers, when given the chance to come clean during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, refused to give a public account of just how deep its collaboration ran with the Apartheid government. The truth was never told.
In September 1997, at the opening of the TRC hearings on the role of the media under Apartheid, it was Archbishop Tutu—the Chair of the commission—who poignantly captured Naspers’ intransigence.
“Is silence from that quarter to be construed as consent, conceding that it was a sycophantic handmaiden of the apartheid government?” asked Tutu.
While Naspers insisted that it had nothing to account for, a group of conscientious 127 journalists who had worked for the company, defied the company’s management and delivered individual submissions, expressing their disappointment with Naspers and acknowledging their role in upholding the system of Apartheid through their work.
Ton Vosloo — the longest – serving executive of the company, who retired in April as chairman—was dismayed by this. For Vosloo, the actions of the 127 journalists were “a sour note” (pdf) in his illustrious media career.
Now in 2015, at its centenary, the continental media giant—which, beyond print, now also provides pay TV to over 10 million households across 50 sub-Saharan African countries, and owns a valuable stake in the Chinese internet company, Tencent—has delivered a late half-apology.
But is it enough?
What was missing from Naspers’ apology
When the prominent anti-Apartheid activist, Steve Biko, was killed in detention, it was Die Burger, one of Naspers’ oldest daily newspapers which sided with the security police in an editorial three days after Biko’s death.
The Afrikaans newspaper argued that the accusations of the killing and torturing of political prisoners against the security police were “venomous”, with the “purpose to discredit South Africa’s police.”
For many more deaths like Biko’s, and hundreds of people held violently in detention, Naspers publications not only towed the Apartheid government’s line, but also normalized the ideology of racial seggregation and the misdeeds of South Africa’s Apartheid government.
Media Monitoring Africa—a non profit organization which critically monitors South Africa’s media—analysed over 1 800 newspaper articles from 1976 and 1987 in a study on the role of the print media during Apartheid.
The study found that besides the role played by Apartheid-era media houses like Naspers as propaganda tools used to cover up human rights violations by the state, news reporting fuelled with racial prejudice was a common feature on the print pages—used to unfairly cariacature black South Africans.
An example—mentioned in the study—is the use of the catchphrase “swartgevaar” in news reporting.
The phrase, used to describe a “uncontrollable and undistinguishable” large group of black people, who threaten the social and physical space of white South Africans, often during protests—became a mainstay in many of Naspers’ newsrooms across South Africa.
It is worth remembering that the founding editor of Naspers’ oldest, and still one of the most influential Afrikaans daily papers in the country, Die Burger—was none other than D.F. Malan, a man who would later become South Africa’s first prime minister and one of Apartheid’s main architects.
Die Burger under his editorship, and other succesive editors, would become the mouthpiece of South Africa’s Apartheid government and its exclusionist policies.
In her apology speech, Weideman made mention of the company’s “complicity in a morally indefensible regime”, but could find no other instance to mention other than Apartheid’s separatist policies which forced Die Burger’s first coloured reporter, Conrad Sidego, to use a bathroom several blocks away from the company’s Cape Town head offices.
No mention was made about how the company—formed and controlled by the progenitors of Apartheid, the National Party—defended racial seggregation, underreported on mass killings and political violence—and spun on behalf of the Apartheid government to justify its misdeeds, for decades.
Naspers true apology would’ve made mention of this—the fact that this great company, which now prides itself for having removed the racial and gender bar, was once a state propanda tool, used to legitimate Apartheid, and distort reality in a country at odds with itself at the time.
Naspers’ apology is a little too late and hollow.
Naspers was approached for comment but had not responded at the time of publication.
A version of this article first appeared on Quartz (www.qz.com)