Free Expression in RSA: A Conversation with South African PEN’s Margie Orford
FREEDOM TO WRITE: Can you tell us a little about South African PEN and some of the issues you’re facing?
MARGIE ORFORD: South African PEN has been going since 1960. In the ’90s we were very focused on encouraging new and emerging literature through annual and bi-annual short story competitions judged by John Coetzee. In the last couple of years, we’ve shifted direction primarily in response to a number of very restrictive pieces of legislation aimed at the media, such as the Media Appeals Tribunal—which promotes the idea that freedom of the press is not an absolute right—and the Protection of Information Bill—or as we call it, the Secrecy Act—both of which directly contradict South Africa’s constitution, one of the few constitutions in the world which expressly guarantees freedom of expression.
Obviously these new pieces of legislation are in direct conflict with South Africa’s post-’94 democracy and with the basic tenets of PEN’s charter. What’s interesting about South African PEN, and I suppose about South African society, is that there is a very active NGO sector. So you have all sorts of organizations dealing with various aspects of social justice, which has enabled us to partner with other organizations to concentrate on a very specific niche, which is freedom of expression.
In the first drafting of the Secrecy Act, publishing any information that went against so-called “national interests” could lead to prosecution. It was as broad and as Orwellian as you like. And the consequences for journalists, writers, and the people who passed on the information—whistleblowers—were sentences up to twenty-five years. It created a very Kafkaesque environment in that it would be extremely hard to prove your innocence or guilt in a court of law. It was really draconian legislation for a country with a very immediate memory of apartheid and an era in which many, many writers were banned, detained, and imprisoned.
We found it wasn’t difficult at all to galvanize writers around this issue. And because there are grassroots organizations dealing with mobilizing popular opposition to the bill, we’ve been able to focus specifically on getting media attention, on organizing readings, and on staying on the ball in terms of raising awareness about what this bill means and what will happen.
FTW: Why should the world care about the state of freedom of expression in South Africa?
ORFORD: South Africa is the strongest African economy, and it’s one of the most vigorous democracies in Africa and probably in the developing world today. South Africa ended a civil war not through a fight to the death, but rather by saying we’ll just stop fighting and have a braii (barbecue) together and be nice. The miracle that brought about the 1996 constitution and Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, touched people all over the world, as a kind of experiment in good will and democracy.
Our constitution is a marvelous piece of paper. With our work on freedom of expression over the last year, we’ve experienced the importance of using civic campaigning to make sure unconstitutional legislation doesn’t even get to parliament.
With the Arab Spring, we saw many of those countries peacefully taking up democracy after years of rigid repression by governments. And now you have to ask the question: How do you go from a dictatorship, or a totally undemocratic state, to democracy and keep freedom of expression going?
FTW: In addition to the Secrecy Act, you mentioned the Media Appeals Tribunal, and I know there are a number of other freedom of expression issues as well, such as libel cases—and specifically, the high-profile case of the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro. Why are these freedom of expression challenges suddenly coming from so many different angles?
ORFORD: The new assaults on freedom of expression really dovetail with increasing levels of corruption between government and business in South Africa.
The Secrecy Act has gone back and forth in parliament and with the various ad hoc committees. And there has been a great deal of resistance against the bill from rank-and-file ANC [African National Congress] members of parliament. So it definitely hasn’t split things along party lines, although the opposition has been extremely vociferous against it as well.
The Media Appeals Tribunal is something different all together. The South Africa press is like the British press, with the dailies and national papers and a fabulous tabloid press that just makes up things. It is a very vigorous and talkative press; it always has been. But no government has ever particularly liked the South Africa press, and our present government is no exception. And there have been a number of cases in which stories have broken that the government hasn’t liked, that have caused a fuss. Individual politicians do not like stories that run against them.
So a Media Tribunal was proposed that would set up state regulations in which various government organizations appoint representatives to a Tribunal that oversee the press. It was widely rejected. The press didn’t reject the notion that they needed to self-regulate, but there was widespread condemnation that regulation should come in a state-controlled way or that journalists needed state accreditation. There’s been a lot of resistance to that by newspapers. So it goes away, it comes back, it goes away—it’s something we need to guard against.
What is interesting about living in a country with a great deal of freedom of expression, and with people who have a lot to hide, is that the press keeps revealing things. The information dealing with the arms scandal in South Africa, and corrupt practices, almost all of it has come out through reports in the press, and often through whistleblowers within areas where things are going wrong.
We have a combative legal system where politicians have resorted to suing individual journalists—the most famous example, of course, is the one you mentioned involving the political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, whose byline is Zapiro. President Jacob Zuma sued Shapiro for defamation because of a cartoon he drew depicting him preparing to rape Lady Justice with the help of four prominent figures. Each time Shapiro gets sued, he draws another cartoon, which people find even more offensive, and he gets sued again. Shapiro is being sued, other writers are being sued, and, of course, the newspapers are being sued. Getting sued for three, four, or five million U.S. dollars is a lot of money. This is highly stressful for writers and journalists, who, as you know, don’t make that much.
It also ties up newspapers litigation and legal costs. Newspapers here, like anywhere—especially the quality newspapers—are battling to survive in the digital age. So using libel and defamation suits this way is an infringement on freedom of expression by stealth.
FTW: That sounds like it would have a chilling effect on other people who might want to express their views in opposition to President Zuma. Would you say that’s true, that people are becoming more afraid to write or draw what they want?
ORFORD: I think it does have an effect. I was thinking of changing President Zuma’s name to President Sue-Me. But you think twice about what you write, and you think, “Should I say this? I don’t want all this trouble.” It is intimidatory. These are bullying tactics. And yet many of the journalists who have been sued continue to be very outspoken, and they’ve had a great deal of support from their newspapers and publishers.
South Africans are quite used to taking things on the chin, so for now I’ve seen no toning down in what people say. Just in the last couple of days, in one illustration of the great benefits of freedom of expression, two ministers have been fired, both of whom were found to be extremely corrupt. The stories were broken in the press, the officials denied them, the press wrote more, people tried to sue—and in the end, the ministers were fired. The effectiveness of a vigorous and free press is clear.
South African PEN is watching all this closely. Jonathan Shapiro is a member of PEN, and we’ve been supportive of him.
FTW: Nic Dawes, the editor in chief at the Mail and Guardian, has spoken of what he describes as an official animus toward the press, where the people who have come into power in South Africa feel that since they’ve helped bring the country out of apartheid and into this vibrant new democracy, they deserve a little bit of a break; they feel they’re being overly scrutinized, and they feel hostility about being held to account.
ORFORD: There is that feeling that people need to be given a break, but they’ve had a pretty long break. Nineteen ninety-four was quite a long time ago. And the press has given people a break. When I look in the mirror, well, time has passed. For example, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was, what was known as, struggle accounting, in which people had more flexibility with how they kept the books—a bit of this lingers. There is a feeling that the press hasn’t reported fairly on this and various other issues.
But I don’t think it’s true that the reporting is not fair. Interestingly, after President Zuma fired these two very corrupt ministers and suspended the chief of police [registration required], who was allegedly involved in a very dodgy R1.5 billion rental deal, the press was ecstatic to see him saying, “These guys haven’t done their jobs well, they’re out.” What Nic Dawes is saying—Nic is a PEN member and the Mail & Guardian provides very balanced reporting—is that even though there’s this feeling that the press is always in opposition, it is essentially the job of the writer and the press to be critical and to hold people to account. A lot of the critical press coverage has centered on the fact that there is a great deal of wasteful spending and corruption and that people must be held to account, quite literally.
One issue people have been trying to work out about the proposed Media Tribunal is how to work together—not to collude—but how to work together to prevent such a governmental body from being put into place. One of the projects that PEN will undertake next year is to hold a number of public dialogues. The Mail and Guardian has already started them. The idea is to hold dialogues in which South Africans can learn to listen to each other and to find a way of moving forward which is less combative. Freedom of expression often involves everyone shouting louder and louder and nobody listening. We want to facilitate, we want to create a listening space, in which you can work out how to move beyond the shouting.
FTW: Can you tell us about PEN’s submission to the Human Rights Council at the United Nations?
ORFORD: The opportunity to work on a submission to the Periodic Review came fortuitously, like manna from heaven—or, not from heaven but fromPENAmericanCenter. What we’ve been able to do are two things: First, we prepared a written submission to the UN Universal Periodical Review. This is the first timeSouth Africa is coming up for assessment under this new human rights mechanism, and it is extremely useful to us in terms of benchmarking the actual status of freedom of expression right now inSouth Africa. Second, this formal submission on our country’s performance, recorded at the UN, gives us a way of focusing attention on particular issues here inSouth Africa.
There are currently no writers in prison in South Africa, but over the last year, since the Secrecy Act has been proposed, there’s a feeling that such a thing might be possible. We’re afraid the bill has gone into a state of limbo where bad laws can unexpectedly pounce back on you when you’re not looking. We’re trying to prevent that by remaining focused and continuing to apply as pressure as much as possible. This sort of very high profile pressure does help.
This legislation has created a furor across the political spectrum, across the very stratified class and race lines that still exist inSouth Africa. People have come together around this—they see it as an attack on a fundamental part of our democracy. The Universal Periodic Review process has given us the opportunity to sharpen our focus and build upon it. I’m sure we’ll be able to use information from the Review to focus our campaigns even more over the next couple of years.
FTW: Can you tell us a little about your own work?
ORFORD: I had been a journalist since my student days. During that time, I had two government experiences of being on the wrong side of the writing fence. I worked as an investigative journalist in the early 2000s and I found, interestingly, that one of the things you can’t do with journalism is get to the truth. You can tell a series of facts, but my experience of South Africa was that the truth is much more complex than an assemblage of linear facts. And I found that in fiction I could create much more of a three-dimensional space in which I could explore how South Africans live together. I wanted to write about how South Africa was rather than how it was meant to be; how it is in everyday experience is something truly fascinating and dynamic.
The only people in South Africa who can go anywhere without being asked are cops and journalists. So I said, well, crime fiction is the obvious choice; those are the characters who say, “Why does this happen? Why are things going the way they are?” Of course, we have a very flamboyant crime scene here. I think that’s probably what we’re best known for: democracy and crime. It’s a way of understanding the kind of violence we have.
It’s also quite fun probably being the only crime writer in PEN: I can represent the world of pulp fiction amongst the world of literary fiction—and poets.
FTW: Are there any other South African PEN projects you would like to discuss?
ORFORD: We’re trying to put a new spin on two issues that concern PEN centers everywhere. The one is literature, and the other is freedom of expression. We feel it’s absolutely key to look at the link between literacy—the ability to read—and being a full citizen, your ability to express in the public domain freely what you want to say and to make sure you get what you want and need politically.
We’ve made a very direct link between literacy and freedom of expression. It’s particularly exciting. We’ve just started a new project with a number of quite big partners, including the media house AVUSA, which owns the Sunday Times—for whom Jonathan Shapiro writes—and Project Fulton for Education in South Africa. We’re working on the link between storytelling, literacy, and full citizenship. The role we’re playing at PEN is to move the debate about literacy and children’s education right to the center of political discussion. Again, an example of that discursive place that PEN can hold.
We’re trying to make sure that the issue of literacy, the fact that so many children go to school and don’t learn to read and that so many adults are illiterate, is kept in the forefront as issues of freedom of expression. If you can’t read, if you can’t write, you are excluded from a democratic system that is based on a written culture. And of course there’s the wonderful fix that comes from pure storytelling. We feel it’s an issue that other PEN centers in Africa and Asia can explore and share with us.
FTW: Are you working mostly international or national partners?
ORFORD: They are all national partners so far. The project is called Nal’ iBali, which is the Xhosa phrase for “here’s the story.” We’ve got quite a large amount of local funding from a trust that funds education. We have the partnership with AVUSA media and the main Sunday newspapers. The project will be doing a great number of inserts of books, reading materials, various things that can be used by teachers in schools.
This will be accompanied by a wide educational program around teaching very young children to read, and especially working with parents who are illiterate or semi-literate on how they can help their own children become literate. The partners we’re working with have been working in this field for quite a long time, so it’s very nice not to be reinventing the wheel but to be working with people who are broadening what they have been doing.
We will be looking for other partners as we go forward. One of the areas that we want to explore is looking at how children’s literacy works in other countries, and perhaps create a children’s literature prize and then use the stories we’re publishing to do exchanges with other countries. It all seems to fit into the PEN philosophy, to look at that international side, at how stories make the world go round and how they help us all communicate with each other across various divides.
It’s really taking that notion of literature as an emollient, as a way of breaking down barriers between people, opening up the world that they know, and making it quite political. Literacy and freedom of expression: the two are indistinguishable, in my view.