The recent attack on Salman Rushdie revived a piece I published a decade ago about the author’s aborted visit to South African in the week when the fatwa against him was proclaimed.
The piece, published in The Guardian, had sunk without trace at the time, but got new legs when Rushdie and the fatwa came back into the news in the last few weeks when he was stabbed during a public appearance.
Back in 1989, Rushdie was due to deliver a keynote speech at the Weekly Mail Book Week and we had set up what promised to be a memorable encounter between him and South Africa’s then two Booker Prize-winners, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, in Cape Town.
When the fatwa was announced, our office was bombarded with violent threats. Gordimer and the Congress of SA Writers advised Rushdie to withdraw as his visit was dividing the liberation movement. We were upset. It was the same week in which the apartheid government banned our newspaper for a month, and we felt this was a moment to take a strong stand against censorship. What better way than to get the most famous censorship victim in the world to speak out under the government’s nose?
The Cape Town encounter turned into an unplanned showdown between two formidable and contrasting writers: Gordimer, who I described as having “been prepared to grubby herself in the messy world of struggle politics” and Coetzee, who was aloof and “had kept his hands clean”. Coetzee launched without warning into a denunciation of all of those responsible for withdrawing the invitation to Rushdie and what I wrote “must be one of the most eloquent and devastating denunciations of fundamentalism in literary record”.
“Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante, giving their blessings,” he said.
“Don’t get involved with such people, don’t get into alliances to them. There is nothing more inimical to writing than the spirit of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing. Fundamentalism means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and thereafter no more books.
“As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon.”
When I wrote this up in 2013, it was a time when the ANC government was threatening to clamp down on the media with a statutory media tribunal and a draconian “Secrecy Bill”. Press-government relations were at a low.
I hailed Coetzee’s 1989 prescience. Was this the moment the liberation movement compromised on free expression? Or was it when we allowed for a selective cultural boycott that gave politicians a veto over which writers were acceptable to engage with? Was there still a place, I asked, using Coetzee’s words, for “liberal shibboleths like freedom expression.”
This is a circuitous way to get to my point. When I re-read the piece this week, I realised that media-government relations have changed. The government scrapped those anti-media measures and is not now threatening a clampdown. Their rhetoric has changed. There has even been praise for those journalists who helped expose state capture. The threat to free expression comes now from other quarters.
Why is this? What has shifted?
Three things, I think, all of some import. The first is that nothing the media says is more critical of the ANC government than some of the things said by key ANC leaders, like Kgalema Motlanthe, Frank Chikane and Mavuso Msimang. Ten years ago, the media often sounded like the opposition; now some of the ANC often sound like the opposition.
Also, nothing showed the value of a free and open media like the role investigative journalists played in nailing state capture, especially in contrast to the journalistic lickspittles who enabled it. Had the government implemented its measures, this would not have happened.
The third is less positive: perhaps it is a sign that the traditional media no longer has the clout it used to have. In the face of the rise of social media, the traditional media has diminished audiences and resources and operates under severe financial pressure, leaving it with less influence. It is being drowned out by viral social media messaging.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits.