Everyone needs unfettered media

Alleged communists in SACP must get real

NEXT month is the time of the year when South African Communist Party members begin the Red October Campaign, an annual ideological pilgrimage during which they complain about capitalism without putting forward a solid alternative.

In recognition of this campaign it is worth revisiting a little, but significant, historical fact about communism.

The Communist Manifesto, known as the scripture of a socialist society, almost never saw the light of day. Had it not been for publishers willing to risk their lives at the hands of a tyrannical German state, the world would not have known about its existence.

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels first published the manifesto it failed to make an impact because of the censorship laws in Germany. Few people knew about it. Those who did soon forgot about it before they even read it.

It was not until 24 years later that it became popular when it was published in large numbers. This was as a result of a treason trial of Social Democratic and Communist League leaders who opposed the war with France.

Gareth Jones records in a book analysing The Communist Manifesto's legacy that prosecutors searched hard for incriminating evidence against the dissident leaders. That "treasonable evidence" was found in the manifesto.

They then entered it into the court records, hoping to make the most out of its anti-patriotic claim that "working men have no country".

The unintended effect of this initiative was to enable socialist publishers to evade the censorship laws and embark on the manifesto's republication.

Since then it has been circulated all over the world.

And this is why SACP leader Blade Nzimande probably has a copy on his desk today.

And this is why it will be quoted extensively during the coming Red October Campaign.

The moral of the story is that even communist doctrines - whatever you think of them - need free media to gain traction. They deserve to be published without hindrance or threats by the long hand of the state.

If Germany had had free media in the 19th Century, The Communist Manifesto would have been popular much earlier.

Surely, South Africa's alleged communists know this history.

Jeremy Cronin, the shy intellectual in the SACP, who no longer speaks out because he is now in government, knows this story.

Our alleged communists know that restricted media would not be in a position to publish material that the powers that be considered "treasonable" or in the current South African lingo worthy of "classification".

They know all too well that what is considered "treasonable" to the state is what citizens actually deserve to know.

Many prominent communists experienced first hand the pain of having their beloved literature banned when they were pursuing the noble struggle against apartheid. Why then is the SACP supportive of potentially repressive measures such as the Secrecy Bill and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal?

The bill provides for the jailing of anyone, including journalists, who publish information deemed secret by the state. It lacks a public interest defence clause to justify publication of information that is in the public interest.

The Tribunal, still at an embryonic stage, seeks to strip editors of independence by subjecting media houses to parliamentary accountability.

This would effectively kill the Fourth Estate as we know it. This doesn't make sense, especially with the emergence of what Google's top executives have described as the uncontrollable Fifth Estate in cyberspace.

Attempts to control the media are really like chasing shadows, though the mere thought of living under draconian laws is chilling to say the least. We can't take it for granted.

But so forgetful are our alleged communists about the role of the media in popularising communist literature that Nzimande has gone to the extent of suggesting that the media are the "single biggest threat" to our democracy.

What he fails to appreciate is that free media would also be in the best interest of communists - real or alleged.

Even if we had socialist publishers in South Africa, similar to those who dared the German authorities, they too would need the freedom to operate. They too would not want to be subjected to a parliamentary tribunal.

Just imagine an alleged communist being jailed for publishing "classified" information in Umsebenzi, the SACP journal!

The decision by communists to align themselves with this repressive proposal is irrational. The workers they claim to be a vanguard of, have through Cosatu spoken out against the bill.

This while alleged communist MPs on the ANC's parliamentary benches were waiting patiently for the bill to reach the National Assembly so they could rubber-stamp it. The bill has since been shelved. I think it should be un-shelved and be placed in the rubbish bin where anti-communist apartheid laws and Bismarck's statutes rest in peace.

It is illogical of the SACP to claim to be the vanguard of the workers and yet it fails to campaign for a public interest defence clause in the Secrecy Bill.

Workers could invoke this defence when arrested for exposing "classified" dirty dealings in government departments and state-owned enterprises.

This raises questions about whether the SACP is fighting for the interest of workers or its own elite class that has spread its tentacles in government, though without bringing any fresh ideas.

Workers and the poor have the right to question the SACP's credentials as a vanguard.

During its campaign, alleged communists will have a lot to say about the poor. They will unleash rhetorical outcries against capitalists who manufactured and assembled Nzimande's luxury car. They will call for state intervention in all aspects of the economy. They will forget that the State itself struggles to deal with minor things like securing a building for the police.

Alleged communists should get real.

  • Mkhabela is editor of theSowetan