Getting the Real Story: Censorship and Propaganda in South Africa

Gerald B. Sperling

James E. McKenzie

The book is the transcript of speeches made at a conference, "South Africa: Getting the Real Story," sponsored by the Canadian Ministry of External Affairs and International Trade Canada and organized by the School of Journalism and Communications, University of Regina in March 1989. The conference was convened months before de Klerk became president in September 1989 and began his reform policies in February 1990 by legalizing opposition political parties, releasing Nelson Mandela and abolishing media emergency regulations. Conference participants included journalists and academics from South Africa and others who had visited the country and worked there. Under conditions of repression in South Africa, a conference on censorship and propaganda could not be convened there. Even in Canada, in the absence of political restrictions, the event turned into an arena of struggle between groups that boycotted and supported the conference. This conflict reveals that a conference on propaganda and censorship can itself be, or turn into, a propaganda and censorship campaign.

The book begins with a preface and introduction by the editors who describe the "social and economic context" of the topic and try to update their coverage of events up to March 1990. The main body of the book consists of 22 presentations and is divided into five sections. Section one, "Putting Censorship in Perspective," examines political, social, and media trends and includes both pessimistic and optimistic assessments of the future of the country. A most amusing statement is Gwynne Dyer's claim that South Africa is a "potentially normal country gone wrong because of political decisions..." (pp. 35-36). This position flies in the face of well-documented assessments of apartheid as a social, economic, political, military, and ideological system or structure, which needs more than surgical political adjustments. Apartheid can be considered "potentially normal" only if one accepts slavery in the USA and apartheid in former Rhodesia as normal practice. In fact, developments since de Klerk's reforms, e.g., the divide and rule policy of the government and "Inkathagate," reveal that apartheid is more than a series of political decisions gone wrong.

The second section, "Being a Journalist in South Africa," provides evidence and personal experiences about state repression and resistance against it, especially by "alternative media" or "media guerrillas" that countered state policy by shooting back with their only weapon--words (pp. 50, 52). Section 3, "Getting the Story Out," deals with the repression of foreign journalists. This form of censorship was especially important because the anti-apartheid struggle had become internationalized and more vocal, especially since the 1970s. Section 4, "Picture Power," examines the state's fear of TV and film, and severe measures aimed at censorship of the two media. Section 5, "Influencing the Influential," deals with government propaganda and public relations campaigns abroad. The book ends with the text of conference resolutions, and two items for and against boycotting the conference.

What is the significance of this book for communication studies? The collection of speeches provides useful evidence on media-related censorship and propaganda in a country with a capitalist economy, dictatorial political system, and constitutional racial segregation perpetrated by a minority settler regime. Usually, propaganda and censorship are considered to be "endemic" or "natural" in such a system. Still, the book enhances our knowledge of the complex processes of thought control.

The book is not intended to make contributions to communication studies or, even, propaganda and censorship theory. Still, it is quite clear that the underlying assumption of the majority of presenters is the traditional libertarian view, which considers censorship and propaganda as simply pre-Enlightenment phenomena to be found only in dictatorial states. While the editors seem to know about the alternative view (p. 10) which considers the privately owned media in Western societies as the main location of censorship and propaganda, the contributors conceptualize censorship as a by-product of dictatorship. No doubt, these explanations do not push censorship and propaganda studies forward, especially at the close of the twentieth century when the powers of the market and the state are closely intertwined and the former has overshadowed the latter.

No doubt, in South Africa the state is the main location of propaganda and censorship. Generalization or conceptualization on the basis of this case is, however, inappropriate. The two phenomena are found in all social, political, and economic institutions and have existed throughout history. Critically oriented research demonstrates that the market, rather than the state, is the main location of censorship and propaganda in Western industrial democracies, and that state censorship in countries such as the USA has been dwarfed by that of the high-tech and privately owned media.

Finally, the book lacks index and bibliographic references. The transcribed speeches have not been edited for stylistic consistency. Colloquials such as "Now that ain't bad" (p. 35) can be found throughout the text. Despite this, it is a useful source as a supplementary text in a variety of courses--South African history and politics, propaganda and censorship, international communication, and African studies. The book is of interest to both the specialist and the general public. Although there is a growing literature on the topic, public and research libraries should add the book to their collections.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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