Thursday, 5 August 2010

South African Journalist “Disappeared”

Photo: Sunday Times

I thought that the disappearances ended with the end of Apartheid?  The last person I know that “disappeared” was one of my friends at university in 1991.  We were very lucky, he was returned after four month.  I am posting the entire post below as it appeared on the blog I Wrote This For You.  I’m posting the whole thing, word for word, because it is an “editor’s note” on the aforementioned blog and they tend to remove them to uphold the blog’s original form as a photo and poetry blog.  This post, however, is perfect for this blog and certainly belongs here.

Before I continue, I can confirm that the case was thrown out of court today after the “Kwa Bokweni court prosecutor … declined to prosecute Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika, saying he has no case to answer”.  It seems that the Hawks (South Africa’s new elite crime fighting unit that replaced the Scorpions) will pursue a case of fraud against the journalist.

Mzilikazi wa Afrika arrest
Photo: Kevin Sutherland, Sunday Times

In the letter to the President of South Africa below, it says “Does this not remind you of the actions of the Apartheid government?”  My answer to this is: why yes.  It does remind me of a time where journalists and activists disappeared; where they were beaten, tortured and murdered; where we were so very scared to support change and freedom in South Africa because it could mean jail time or worse for you and your friends.  It reminds me of a South Africa where so many people were happy to remain separate and unequal because to do anything else was either too much trouble or it was dangerous.

I do not write this easily.
I have tried my best to live my life according to my beliefs and principals, to do what I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, is the right thing to do.
Some would say that my responsibility, as an artist or as a writer, ends at creating art.
To write pretty things about love.
But none of us are only one thing. I am an artist, a writer, a lover, a brother and most importantly, a human being.
As a human being, I ask you, a fellow human being, for your help.
Yesterday, in South Africa, where I live, a journalist, who had recently written an article on corruption within the government, was picked up off the street by 6 police cars. He was whisked away, in an unmarked car, to an unknown location. His “questioning” started at 2:30am this morning. I re-post this article from the for more details.

As we write this, the exact whereabouts of Mzilikazi wa Afrika are still unknown. Erik van den Berg, lawyer for the Sunday Times, says they know he was booked into the Watervalboven police station at 5:30pm on Wednesday. Then he was booked out. He has not been booked in anywhere else in Mpumalanga. Needless to say, this uncertainty really gives this story the fear factor. No lawyer has yet been to see Wa Afrika. Is that what the country ruled by the “greatest liberation movement” in the world has come to? This is behaviour reminiscent of one of the worst kinds of government - the one we thought we had relegated to history in 1994.

Strangely, the spin side of “Operation Arrest Wa Afrika” has been much quicker. The Hawks' Musa Zondi (you ask why the Hawks were involved here - so do we) was on the radio, talking about Wa Afrika's arrest, claiming it was a normal operation and that the arrest had nothing to do with Wa Afrika's work as a journalist. Which then turned out not to be the case. In fact, he was arrested for receiving a fax that was supposedly Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza's resignation letter to SA President Jacob Zuma. After the Sunday Times checked with the Presidency and they claimed never to have received it, editor Ray Hartley decided not to run the story and it was spiked.

Perhaps someone realised that public perception matters when you arrest a journalist in the same way you would a serial killer armed with automatic weapons and on the run. But the awareness of public perceptions didn't go far enough to arrange for Wa Afrika's appearance in court or to let him see a lawyer immediately. If they needed to ask him a few questions, couldn't they just have followed due process? No spin doctor in the world can fix such crude conduct.

Of course, none of that happened, and it is no surprise that the media is so concerned here. It took nearly 24 hours for police to even tell us where and if he would appear in court. And, according to Hartley, Wa Afrika’s interrogation began at 2:30 this morning - hardly a standard time to sit down for a chat with a journalist.

Of course, political reaction has been fascinating. Mabuza released a statement last night, at the witching hour, saying he welcomed the arrest which, he claimed, was further proof of a political conspiracy against him, and that Wa Afrika was a journalist who had ignored the gains being made in the province.

Mabuza's midnight statement told you all you needed to know about the province, and about how it’s governed.

It is clear that there is bad blood between Mabuza and Wa Afrika, and now it would appear that Mabuza has the journalist in his power. That may not be technically correct, as the police are run as a national “competence”, and officially premiers have no say and no power over them. But this leads us to the real issue.

The entire arrest, the outrage and anger that followed it and the giddy response from Mabuza all point to the same problem. The fact is that in this country the same people make decisions about who to arrest, which officers to use to do it, what to charge them with, and sometimes, it seems, who will do the judging. The checks and balances that are marks of a functioning democracy are simply not there.

In this country, Luthuli House decides how and who gets the power jobs in the civil service. The ANC decides who will head the police that will arrest a reporter and who will prosecute him. And we do know the nature of relationship between media on one side, and Bheki Cele and Menzi Simelane on the other.

The reaction also tells us another sad fact about our country. Your reaction to Wa Afrika's arrest will pretty much depend on your identity and whether you belong to the ANC or not. If you voted ANC, you’re probably pretty pleased that this rabble-rouser journalist who dissed your peeps is getting what he’s had coming to him. If you’re middle-class, educated and would consider voting for someone else, you’re bloody worried.

The reaction of the media is, naturally, more than just one of shared concern. For reporters and editors the sight of one of their own being bundled into a van by police officers with overwhelming force because of a story that is not even going to be run certainly looks like a sign of very bad times to come. The fact that it happened outside a building hosting a meeting of the SA National Editors’ Forum about defending media freedom can justifiably be seen as a crude attempt at intimidation.

To the older and greyer journalists' the developments of late, with the ANC hell-bent on railroading a raft of the laws through Parliament that will effectively muzzle the media and shield politicians behind even darker windows to keep them from public scrutiny, the Hollywood-style spectacular arrest of a journalist sounds way too familiar.

And we all thought it would never happen again.

By Stephen Grootes

I was 14 years old when Apartheid ended in this country. Had I been older, had I the ability to reach people that I do today, I like to think and to hope that I would have the moral backbone to do everything in my power to bring attention to the horrors that were being committed on a daily basis in this country.
Today, I am here.
You may not live here. In fact, you probably don’t live here. I have very few readers in my home country, compared to other countries. That is why you are important. It was people from other countries that provided the pressure, externally, through sanctions, that helped end Apartheid.
You can help end this before it becomes something more.
I beg you to repost this to your own blogs and media platforms, and to either copy and paste the letter below or draft your own, and send it on to the newspapers in my country, so that our leaders know that they are being watched. Not just by South Africans, but by the world.
I implore you.
Dear President Jacob Zuma,
Firstly, I would like to congratulate you and your countrymen on hosting an incredibly successful World Cup. When the world’s eyes were upon you, you rose to the challenge.
Unfortunately, my attention has recently been bought to the detention of a reporter named Mzilikazi wa Afrika. I have several questions for you in this regard.
Why were 6 police vehicles required to arrest one journalist?
Why were photographers prevented from taking pictures, by police?
Why was he arrested for a story that was never published?
Why was he not allowed to see a lawyer?
Why did you only begin to question him at 2:30am in the morning?
Does this not remind you of the actions of the Apartheid government?
I sincerely urge you to look into this matter and to provide answers at the earliest possible opportunity. Because, as they were during Apartheid, as they were during the World Cup, and as they are now:
The eyes of the world are upon you.
(Country Of Origin)



  1. Emm, it seems RSA has still some way to go.

    In a way it reminds me of the country I live in, where journalists either tow the party line or cease to be journalists.

    Not quite the same as the RSA but press freedom in Thailand is very much under government control.

  2. Hi Mike! The thing is that there was greater freedom in the past 15 years and things like this were firmly in the past. Slowly but surely though the president is beginning to prove himself and reverse some of this.


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