Truth commission should not be putting blinkers on
TIMES Media Limited, formerly SA Associated Newspapers, is to make a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in terms of the TRC's probe into activities of the print media between 1960 and 1994. As I spent most of that period working for the company, I take a certain interest in this.
In my view, of which the company is aware, it is ill-advised to make a submission unless all forms of economic activity are examined in exactly the same way. It is iniquitous that the TRC selects one, and only one, form of economic activity to investigate.
What about the mining industry and its alleged wholesale exploitation of millions of black workers? Or the construction industry, where some members of the industry housed their workers in unspeakably filthy and unhygienic conditions, conditions which I, as a journalist and editor, exposed? And how about the banks, insurance companies, building societies, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the accounting, medical, legal and other professions which discriminated in one form or another against people of colour?
Among the worst offenders, in whom the TRC appears to have no interest, were retailers. Gullible blacks were fleeced over the generations through systems such as the "lay-by", a form of purchase in which the buyer pays a deposit, often non-refundable, while the retailer generously agrees to "hold" the merchandise until the full amount has been paid up.
Essentially, this is hire purchase in advance. You pay up first, the retailer has the use of your money and you get delivery when you have paid the full price. And of course the unsuspecting and unsophisticated consumer believes that that particular hat or dress or pair of shoes has been stored away while he or she religiously pays up each week.
In the arena, and that is what it is, of hire purchase sales to blacks there has been atrocious exploitation. Not only are ruinous interest rates charged, but all sorts of other fees and insurance premiums are loaded on to the point that the buyer can pay as much in these charges over, say, two years as the goods themselves are worth.
Perhaps this mundane sort of thing doesn't catch the imagination of the TRC. Far better to gun for the press.
Nothing excites journalists more than reports on their own affairs. So expect plenty of bold headlines, heavy TV and radio coverage and perhaps even comment around the world, with the New York Times and others going on at length about how the "liberal" media failed South Africa and how this failure was fearlessly exposed by the TRC.
There might even be the odd piece in Time or Newsweek with sound bites on CNN and the BBC. Much of this will be based on untested newsroom gossip and idle speculation with aggrieved parties hiding behind the privilege of the TRC to make all sorts of wild accusations.
There is much of which the TRC can be justly proud. It has managed a healing process of national catharsis. It has forced whites, particularly those who supported apartheid and those who did not but chose to turn their eyes away, to face the evil realities of a system that Dan van der Vat, author of an acclaimed biography of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, called the first cousin of Nazism.
The TRC has enabled perpetrators of apartheid atrocities to seek forgiveness and given survivors an outlet for their grief and suffering.
It has made mistakes, chief among which has been a clear bias to the cause of the ANC, and will probably make some more. This is only human, and even Nobel Prize-winning bishops can't always be right. But overall it has stuck to its task and on balance it can be said that it has served truth and reconciliation.
But it can't go on forever, and that is what it would have to do if it were to act fairly and logically and give equal attention to all forms of economic activity in South Africa between 1960 and 1994.