Media must rethink role

When Steve Bantu Biko died on September 12 1977, there were generally two political forces that starkly opposed one another: the oppressors and the liberators.

The banning of 18 black consciousness organisations 31 days after Biko's death in political custody seemed logical under the circumstances .

The government was bent on silencing its critics.

So, on Black Wednesday, October 19 1977, the World and the Weekend World newspapers were banned and their editor Percy Qoboza and deputy editor Aggrey Klaaste were detained.

It was a threat to media freedom and the final curtain for the Black Consciousness Movement.

Almost anyone whom the political system had deemed to be a snake in the path of its stability was a candidate for having its head smashed.

The mass arrests and detentions proved that.

In the eyes of the apartheid government it did not matter whether these were black journalists or leaders.

All of them were the black snakes and the apartheid system did not bother to separate them into poisonous and nonpoisonous varieties.

Fear had become both the dominant and the determining factor of South African politics.

Biko observed: "White people, working through their vanguard - the South African Police - have come to realise the truth of that golden maxim - if you cannot make a man respect you, then make him fear you."

Along with this reign of terror, a dog psychology was being imposed on the media front.

But the media had clear choices to make: either to bark at the enemies of the system or to wag its tail in happy submission.

The World and Weekend World did not wag their tails in tune with the apartheid politics of the day.

The newspapers proved too energetic to be tamed and became what the government thought were "irresponsible watchdogs" bent on bringing the name of South Africa into disrepute.

The media today, and particularly the Sowetan because of its lineage, should consider where it falls in the watchdog menu.

Is it a hush puppy, a Chihuahua, a watchdog, a sniffer dog or a docile lapdog?

Hush puppies are prone to call for hush when circumstances call for the raising of the alarm.

Chihuahuas are not beyond confusing the wood for the trees.

Watchdogs have no axe to grind and are independently poised to stake their claim as a dependable mirror of society, irrespective of whether the image is good or bad. They know when to bark and when to bite.

Sniffer dogs never tire of swinging into action at the slightest indication of an odd smell. They can't wait to expose the stink.

Lapdogs simply cannot get enough of the caress of the hand that strokes it to feed its compliance.

Those who have shut out the valiant battle that October 19 represents on the liberation calendar should be reminded that the fruits of freedom did not just ripen on their own. It took consistent and capable nurturing to get the freedom tree to bear fruit and long hours of sacrifice by many heroes.

Steve Bantu Biko, whom writer Rian Malan proudly remembers as a saint, was one of them.

October 19 represents the memory of Black Wednesday and coincides with Biko's lifetime of 31 years.