Winning, losing and declaring a truce in the battle of ideas

Jacob Zuma’s decision to meet with Gareth Cliff and Woolworths’ decision to put Lig, Juig, Joy and Lééf back on the shelves makes me wonder about the rules of engagement in the battle of ideas in the age of celebrity and social media.

In the 1980’s those of us connected to the ANC in the ‘white left” were mostly engaged in the battle of ideas. In that war we witnessed one defeat from afar and experienced victory up close and personal – and believed it was ours.

First, watching from afar as one government lost the battle:

In Zimbabwe the signs that ZANU might be losing was the Catholic Bishops Conference starting to sound alarmed at what was happening in Matabeleland.

In South Africa as in Zimbabwe the Catholic Bishops Conference was friendly ground for national liberation movements in the battle of ideas – it was territory we had already won, so there were two ways of understanding what was happening:

  1. the Catholic Bishops Conference had been won over by the bad guys or;
  2. ZANU had become the bad guys.

Thankfully we were suspicious enough of ZANU and Mugabe to not be totally surprised as the Gukurahundi massacre gradually revealed itself. I regretfully suspect that had the situation been reversed (and our ally ZAPU had won to power) ‘some among us’ would be denying the atrocities to this day … but then, I am forced to believe that in those circumstances such atrocities would never have happened … hmm.

Putting aside that difficult conundrum … the victory we experienced up close and personal was our own over the Apartheid regime – or that was what we liked to think, anyway.

Another way of saying the Apartheid state and the National Party lost the battle of ideas is to say they lost influence over the middle ground that lay between them and the African National Congress.

We (the activists and supporters of the ANC) saw this as the fruit of our work in implementing the revolutionary injunction: “Isolate your most dangerous enemy from his potential friends!” – we were a tiresomely self-righteous lot much in love with clunky slogans, but anyway …

The National Party losing the middle ground was less a function of the work of those of us distributing awful translations of already awful ANC literature to bemused Afrikaans speaking white students at Stellenbosch and more a complicated interplay of factors as diverse and vast as the failing of the Soviet economy and the effects of sanctions on South African businesses.

But if the pamphlets (or even the establishment of  Nusas and End Conscription Campaign branches at the University of Stellenbosch) made little difference to the grand scheme of history the fact that such branches were set up in the National Party heartland and staffed and run by young Afrikaners was a crucial indicator of what was going on.  These were real hints of the shape of things to come – so to speak.

The ebbs and flows in the ideology and influence upon organisations and groups in the middle ground keeps a reliable scorecard of the broader contest.

The ANC in those days conceived of the middle ground as the organisations, forums and activities over which it could exert influence. It started with organisations and institutions which were very close to it (essentially under its discipline), through the newspapers and universities all the way to forums like the General Synod of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, within spitting distance of the Apartheid regime itself.

We are a long way from the 1980’s and the ANC that was then running its war from the wilderness is now in the fortress at the centre of its own heartland. It is not as threatened in its retreat as the National Party and the Apartheid state were by the mid-80’s, but the rumours of war are starting to be whispered in the corridors.

Like I said, the useful thing about the middle ground is that it is like a gauge of the state of play. You only need to cast your eye over the daily newspapers to realise that the ANC is gradually moving onto the defensive on important fronts in the war of ideas.

If you do have doubts, look at this extraordinary list of individuals and civil society groups that have signed in support of the Right To Know campaign in opposition to the Protection of Information Bill. All those organisations are not suddenly firm enemies of the ANC and the state … but they are drifting into opposition, a fact that is clearly starting to concern the ANC and government.

Another sign of the shifts in ‘civil society‘ is DJ Gareth Cliff feeling confident enough to attack government and President Jacob Zuma in deeply uncivil terms on his blog – its worth a read.

Jacob Zuma’s office has announced (astonishingly, I might say) it is seeking a meeting with Cliff to discuss his article.

In the same week the South African retail giant Woolworths reversed a decision to remove Christian magazines from the shelves of its stores – after an ongoing campaign that played itself out on Woolworths own facebook page.

At one level both Zuma and Woolworths live and die by the strength and popularity of their image. Perhaps they are just following that hoary old marketing maxim:  “the customer is always right”?

But I think that Zuma and Woolworths holding up the white flag in the battle of ideas is an important sign of things to come. Is presages a coming time when billions of rands and perhaps political power itself will be won and lost in the the feverish rebellions that sweep across the web.

The implicit hesitation by both Woolworths and the South African government is both healthy and wise. This is a new field of battle and the rules of engagement are uncertain. It is right to edge your way forward, using each brush with the enemy as an opportunity to learn something new about the terrain upon which the war will be won and lost.

4 thoughts on “Winning, losing and declaring a truce in the battle of ideas


    The EU Communitarian Agenda and The New Feudalists
    Skrevet af Philip Jones – søndag 26. oktober 2008
    By Philip Jones 26th October 2008

    “Communitarianism is a collectivist philosophy that explicitly rejects individualism. It does not merely relegate individualism to a subordinate position, but is openly hostile to it. It is an ideology of ‘civic society’ which is nothing less than one version of Post-Marxist collectivism which wants privileges for certain wealthy and influential organized groups, and in consequence, a renewed feudalization of society.” Vaclav Klaus.


    There were clear warnings very early on of what was to come in President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe( see Mr, Gerald Shaws’s book reviews below ). However , the international press media said nothing and covered up the stories.



    The Catholic Commission

    for Justice and Peace

    Introduction by

    Elinor Susulu

    Foreword by

    Archbishop Pius Ncube




    AS THE ZIMBABWEAN tragedy grinds on, the re-publi­cation of this ground-breaking report helps to explain why and how this once prosperous coun­try has been reduced to a des­perate condition by Robert Mu­gabe, whose apparently wise and moderate governance of an independent Zimbabwe was widely admired in the early years. And he turned out to be a blood-thirsty tyrant.

    Yet Mugabe had shown his true nature and underlying lust for power early on when he turned his Korean-trained 5th Brigade loose in rural Mata-beleland in the 1980s and 20 000 civilians lost their lives in a suc­cession of atrocities – the de­struction of homesteads and even entire villages, mass deten­tions, torture, rape and mass beatings.

    But people outside rural Matabeleland, in SA and else­where, had scant idea what was happening and no idea of the scale of the atrocities.

    There were various reasons for this. When 400 former free­dom fighters revolted against the newly elected government, Mugabe used this as a pretext to declare a state of emergency in parts of Matabeleland, creating no-go areas for the media and secretly extending the crack­down to the Ndebele civilian population, supporters of his ri­val, Joshua Nkomo.

    The sparse coverage in SA newspapers was due in part to the fact that the anti-Mugabe dissidents were being armed and trained by SADF covert forces, with a radio station in the Northern Transvaal urging the Ndebele people to “rise up against the Shona dogs”. SADF operations were covered by punitive clauses in the Defence Act and newspapers which did not get prior ministerial ap­proval for reports of SADF ac­tivities were liable for prosecu­tion.

    The Zimbabwean media, hampered by a media blackout,

    were reporting news of the dis­sidents only, with no mention of the 5th Brigade’s punitive expe­ditions against civilians.

    Mugabe was determined to wipe out Nkomo’s support base among the Ndebele, having won only 57 of 100 seats in the inde­pendence elections.

    But everything was going well and the world wanted to see Zimbabwe succeed. Diplomats looked the other way. Faint sounds of discord from Mata­beleland were disregarded. SA and international media failed to investigate the reports which were reaching family members of the victims who lived outside Matabeleland.

    But the Catholic Commis­sion of Peace and Justice took these reports seriously and em­barked on a protracted investi­gation which compiled eye-wit­ness testimony from 1 000 civilians. A shocking report of atrocities was issued in 1997. It has now been re-published and more widely distributed.

    Zimbabwean-born and edu­cated Elinor Sisulu, in her intro­duction, notes that one of the main objectives of the report was to get national ac­knowledgment of a part of Zimbabwean history which was largely unknown except to those who experienced it first hand. She says the eyes and ears of the international community were closed and many Zimbabweans were “too enamoured of our great liberation hero” to con-

    front the evidence.

    In reading the report, Sisulu was taken aback by the account of the massacre of 62 young men and women on the banks of the Ciwale river in March 1983. The silence which greeted this massacre, she says, was in direct contrast to the 1960 Sharpeville shooting which re­verberated around the world.

    She concludes that Guku-rahundi has left a festering , wound in the psyche of the Zim­babwean nation. She believes it is crucial for the healing of Zim­babwe to work towards some form of restorative justice.

    The truth needs to be told, she says, because not to tell it is to create the conditions for the crime to recur. “The silence needs to be broken. Hopefully, one day the leaders of this re­gion, who have not cried out as loudly as they should have against the heinous crimes against the people of Zimbabwe that were committed in the past 25 years, will see fit to apologise to the people of Zimbabwe.”

    The text of the report makes harrowing reading. Yet it is vital, as Sisulu argues, that its contents should be widely known, as a step towards recon­ciliation.

    Zimbabwe faces a situation which could too easily become a re-run of the 1980s, unless the SADC and the international community can flood the coun­try with election monitors and so curb the renewed round of Mugabe-led mayhem.

    The reader concludes that a heavy onus will rest on SA, its government and its people to dew. what they can to stave off an­other Gukurahundi, and to help Zimbabweans re-build their shattered economy and frac­tured society when the in­evitable happens – and Robert Mugabe is finally off the scene.

    • Shaw, a former assistant editor of the Cape Times, is the author of Believe in Miracles -South Africa from Malan to Mandela and the Mheki era.

    SOUTH AFRICA has had Olive Schreiner and Emily Hob-hous”e, and today has its Helen Suzman – women who leave a lasting imprint on their times.

    Zimbabwe has Judith Garfield Todd, who grew up as the daughter of a missionary family in rural Zimbabwe, in close touch with the people of the land. Her father, the late Sir Garfield Todd, prime minister in the old Southern Rhodesia, had been a beacon of light and hope in the dark days of the Ian Smith era and at the start of Mu­gabe’s reign, and had the dis­tinction of being detained both by Smith’s security branch and by the Mugabe regime.

    Garfield Todd disclaims any intent to write history. She has written this remarkable book from notes taken as events occurred and letters written and received at those times. And she has produced a profoundly moving and, at times, harrowing personal ac­count of Zimbabwe’s steady de­scent into tyranny under Robert Mugabe.

    The book is not always easy to read, not only on account of its often distressing content, but because Garfield Todd tells her story in exhaustive and, at times, exhausting detail.

    But this is precisely the book’s greatest merit. If not a detached history, it is an indis­pensable historical document, providing the most complete picture yet of why and how a country known as “the jewel of Africa” when Mugabe came into power, became a kind of hell of earth.
    She recalls Mugabe’s strik­ing reconciliatory speech when he took over and called for a sense of national belonging which “knows no race, colour or creed”. Yet there were signs early on that all was not well. The gradually accumulating ev­idence of the true nature of his government was disregarded, notably the stories that began circulating of atrocities against the rural Ndebele people who supported Mugabe’s chief rival,


    Judith Garfield Todd




    the late Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo. As Garfield Todd re­calls, people were being ter­rorised, starved and butchered, according to evidence given to her by a Catholic bishop, and gathered in the church’s net­work of parishes, schools and clinics in the area.

    In touch with journalists and diplomats, she coura­geously did her best to get this information out. But Mugabe muzzled the international press, deporting foreign corre­spondents and harassing the do­mestic press.

    Leading figures in Nkomo’s Zapu were detained and charged with treason in March 1982, but were acquitted by Judge Hilary Squires.

    The Minister of Home Affairs, Dr Herbert Ushwe-wokunze, was furious and denounced “the judiciary we inherited from Smith” as “not in tune with the present government.”

    The acquitted men, includ­ing Zapu struggle hero Gen­eral Lookout Masuko, were re-detained outside the court -and then they disappeared. The men had been declared inno­cent by the courts, but the state had decided to treat them as guilty.

    General Masuku was detained in appalling condi­tions for four years, and was then released, broken in health, and died soon afterwards. At his funeral in 1986, attended by 10 000 people, Nkomo said Zim­babweans could not blame im­perialism and colonialism for what had happened to Masuku.

    “We who fought these things now practise them,” Nkomo said, adding that there was too much conformity in the coun­try. “People work and they shut up,” Nkomo said.

    By now the operations of an independent judiciary had been nullified and the rule of law dis­carded by a tyrannical execu­tive government. Mugabe was using the emergency powers in­troduced by Ian Smith to rule by decree.

    The Masuku story is only one case of arbitrary rule among scores of such cases meticulously recorded by Garfield Todd.

    With both an independent judiciary and the rule of law having gone by the board, what about Zimbabwe’s free press? Unhappily the story here is equally depressing.

    As independence ap­proached, Zimbabwe’s only two daily newspapers were sold by their owners, the former Ar­gus Company of South Africa, to a Mass Media Trust, in which the Mugabe government soon grabbed control.

    The newspapers became part of the government’s propa­ganda machine. Editors were sacked. As a member of the board of directors of the Mass Media Trust, Garfield Todd could watch this process of ero­sion at close range. Having spo­ken out against it, she was kicked off the board.

    Journalists were

    intimidated as a climate of fear and conformity intensified in Zimbabwe’s first decade of independence. Early on, we gather, Zimbabweans were de­prived of the basic elements of a democratic society. When an independent newspaper, the Daily News, appeared, it was hounded off the streets.

    Garfield Todd’s autobiogra­phy offers insights into our own situation and its possible course in the future. She concludes with a plea to South Africa to as­semble powerful international assistance to plan a return of Zimbabwe to constitutional gov­ernment and the rule of law.

    Shaw, a former assistant editor of the Cape Times, is the author of Believe in Miracles -South Africa from Malan to Mandela and the Mbeki era.

  3. Good point but this kind of consumer/citizen activism, enabled by the web and other efficient and easily available means of communications, has also its dark side. Deon Maas was fired as a columnist, based on a readers’ revolt – is challenging traditional religion really such a big deal that censorship has to set in? In my home country, Switzerland, the bottoms-up wave of populism against foreigners and Islam is surely coming from the average man and woman, aided and abetted by ethnic enterpreneurs, but it is ugly.

    1. Hi Thomas, I have to say that I agree with you. The quality of “the public voice” as expressed in the most popular sites in SA is appalling – racist, stupid, aggressive – many of the comments seem to be written by people who are belligerently drunk … and this is not just politics; you choose the issue and the “democratic voice” is awful in so many different ways. This comment implies a degree of elitism in me – something I am happy to own up to: the lowest common denominator of issues as diverse as politics, race, parenting and religion in the SA context is pretty damn low. The fact that you experience the same in Switzerland is interesting – because of assumptions I might make about the ‘lowest common denominator’ being higher in your country relative to mine. One strategy that the best websites here are instituting is a requirement for formal registration of discussant’s identities. Anonymity breeds the worst excesses of aggression, stupidity and racism … hmm, I am becoming something of a misanthrope!

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