God, Spies and Lies

John MATISSON, God, Spies and Lies: Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past (Cape Town: Ideas for Africa in association with Missing Ink, 2015)

THE essence of John Matisonn’s book lies in its sub-title. He was well enough placed throughout his career as a journalist to write both personal and political memoir; basically a study of the intersection of power and the media, and its significance in South Africa’s history.

The main focus of the early part of this book is on the Broederbond and its role as bonding agent and enforcer for the National Party. Control of significant parts of the media was vital; as was the power of the malign broeder Piet Meyer (he named his son Izan to parade his Nazi sympathies), head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The long delay in the introduction of television was both tactical and reflective of the dominance of isolationism and the pre-Enlightenment in apartheid thought. Exposure of the Broederbond was entirely the achievement of journalists, in particular Hennie Serfontein and Charles Bloomberg.

How much room should there be for yet more revelations about the anti-apartheid struggle? The answer might well be infinite because they continue to counter the ANC’s hegemonic view of recent history. For example, Matisonn relates his highly honourable and little-known role in the deregistration of the South African Union of Journalists in the late 1970s so that it could function as a non-racial trade union. Around such matters of principle the anti-apartheid movement thrived. Not only that, but Peter Magubane stoutly defends the role played by the Rand Daily Mail in opposition to apartheid.

Matisonn, as one of its ex-journalists, has a great deal to say about the RDM. His overall conclusion is that it was abandoned by its craven owners, including Harry Oppenheimer, who handed the government an easy victory at a crucial moment. In weighing up mines and media, Anglo American made the wrong call. Matisonn contrasts the subsequent history of the English-language press with that of Naspers, which refused an invitation to appear before the Truth Commission, yet, without cleansing itself of the guilt of apartheid propagandist, has flourished. Nor is this aberrant: apartheid-era apparatchiks have thrived while principled anti-apartheid activists have been marginalised for their lack of deference and conformism.

At the height of apartheid the government’s security agencies boasted that they had productive relationships with three dozen journalists. Many of them have long been well-known; others simply a matter of conjecture. But Matisonn, to indignant protest from certain quarters, has exposed Tertius Myburgh, editor of both the RDM and Sunday Times as the highest-placed agent. Amongst the persuasive evidence was his termination of Serfontein’s Broederbond investigations. The process of lustration is clearly far from complete.

The core of Matisonn’s argument is that South Africa has never been well governed: the promise and successes of the Mandela presidency were soon overtaken by all-too familiar practices. Indeed, he asks if the rainbow nation was ever real. In a sense this invalidates his question, ‘When did things start to go wrong?’ There was, however, a brief honeymoon period. For instance, Matisonn’s initial experience of the Independent Broadcasting Authority was one of optimism based on the growth of community radio, licensing of e.tv and subsequent expansion in the local music industry. But the IBA fell victim to political interference, corruption and personal agendas and Matisonn paid a price for exposing the rot. Honesty was the new enemy: ‘Now I was targeted by those I considered allies and friends’ (p. 333), a bitterly disillusioning and stressful episode that will be recognisable by too many readers. Out of the experience he draws a conclusion about contemporary South Africa: its blinkered political elite more readily sees finite resources to be divided and consumed than opportunities for growth that will benefit the citizenry as a whole. Such has been the consequence, if not the purpose, of black economic empowerment.

This is a point of view commonly associated with Moeletsi Mbeki, while Matisonn attributes to his brother President Thabo Mbeki reluctance, the African Renaissance notwithstanding, to encourage independent-minded leaders. From the Mbeki presidency onwards a revolving door policy was adopted for the politically connected. The results often appear to be whimsical, but are in fact driven by politics deep within the ANC, a belligerent and arrogant state within a state in which public morality is despised. And emblematic of that is the SABC, which remains a propaganda organ as it was under apartheid, especially at election times.

This explains a major concern of Matisonn’s: the nation’s woeful lack of progress in the information technology sector that has retarded economic growth. His hopes for the future rest with the possibility that the black middle class will neutralise ANC cadres. Based on the evidence of Matisonn’s book, which points to embedded consistencies in South Africa’s history, this is a noble but possibly forlorn wish. The weak institutions, political ineptitude, poor governance, dirty tricks, government interference, persecution of whistle blowers, contempt for principled people, and the hatchet jobs on those who show ‘insufficient subservience’ (p. 418) that populate this book are all characteristic of today’s democratic South Africa, just as they were of the country run by the National Party.

In the bizarre world of apartheid, Matisonn, parliamentary correspondent of the Sunday Express, was barred from parliament as a security risk based on a few minor brushes with the law as a student activist. Yet incidents from post-apartheid South Africa are no less unbelievable. For example, the SABC archive, a national treasure, is now the property of MultiChoice, a subsidiary of the unrepentant Naspers. Such cosy arrangements are not uncommon and devalue the liberation dividend.

This book has an authenticity derived from direct, personal experience and the author has made good use of well-placed informants. But it has, perhaps, more tangents than a circle and like many contemporary publications it is too long. Clearly, the old-fashioned editor is a thing of the past, leaving the wearied reader to recall the apologist who said, ‘Please forgive this long letter, but I had no time to write a shorter one.’