Essays: The rebellion that can't be stopped |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The rebellion that can’t be stopped

THURSDAY night’s This Week special on South Africa (Thames) was outstanding television journalism. It left me feeling very grateful, as well as at a loss to figure out how they got away with it.

The report was composed mainly from interviews with black leaders who had been in or near Soweto during the insurrection. Most of the leaders were students — articulate, committed and chasteningly brave representatives of the new generation which has now so decisively rejected the white government’s idea that they should be ‘educated for a place in their own community.’

This official slogan was quoted with muted sarcasm by Dr Manas Buthelezi, chairman of the Black Parents’ Association, himself an impressive figure. But on his own admission, he is a member of the older generation, whose education, inadequate though it was, at least took place before the fact of second-class citizenship had been institutionalised in the policy of ‘separate development.’ The new generation, he explained, can see the reality of their condition more clearly. Seeing it, they are prepared to fight back. Obviously Dr Buthelezi was under no illusions about the kind of experience the student leaders are letting themselves in for. Nor, for that matter, were they.

Because there they were, right on the screen in front of you. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was awake. Tsietsi Mashinini, aged 19, but already dauntingly mature, vividly evoked the enforced ignorance against which he had rebelled. The Government had put a £300 price on his head (a year’s pay for a black worker), calling him a Communist. As Tsietsi was careful to point out, there could be no truth in this charge, since ‘separate development’ ensured that black students couldn’t even gain access to the books that might tell them what Communism was. ‘In South Africa,’ he said, with more irony than bitterness, if you’re not doing what the Government expects you to do, then you’re a Communist.’

Another leader, Mrs Oshadi Phakathi, was even more impressive, if that was possible. As with Tsietsi, her lack of fanaticism made her determination seem all the more inexorable. Sweet reason personified, she was just an ordinary person (although with extraordinary gifts of mind and character) who could see what must be done. The rebellion would have to go on to the end: ‘If you drop it now, you will never pick it up.’ She didn’t doubt that the cost would be high.

Looking at her, you wondered how anybody could ever want to hurt her. But another Woman, Deborah Matshoba, did the necessary job of reminding you that the South African security police aren’t just anybody. Very quietly — and again with that astonishing equanimity of spirit — she explained how one of her sister leaders had been made to stand in a bucket of dry ice. Imagine that. She clearly expected to be picked up herself at any moment, detained indefinitely, and tortured in her turn. Beyond that point, she gave us to understand, it would be foolish to make plans.

The piquancy of these interviews was only increased by one’s realisation that this is the kind of talk the South African Government can’t bring itself to listen to. And yet the most that the Government can hope to accomplish, if it succeeds in wiping these young leaders out, is to ensure that the young leaders who succeed them will be bitterly unforgiving. Even as I watched, I was afraid for what would happen to the speakers, since the programme could be copied from the screen and flown back to South Africa within a day. But as it happened, events had already overtaken anxiety.

It was announced at the end of the programme that although Tsietsi had got away safely into exile, Deborah Matshoba had been arrested two days after the interview, while Mrs Phakathi had been picked up the very next night by 11 security men. What is currently being done to both women doesn’t bear thinking of, but I suppose one has a duty to think about it. This fine programme brought their plight, and the plight of all their people, very near. Apart from making the usual clucking noises, I don’t think I had quite imagined before exactly what is at stake in South Africa. To put it bluntly, any country which has Mrs Phakathi leading a rebellion instead of leading the government needs a change of government.

The ‘This Week’ coup was particularly resounding in view of the fact that the relative dearth of committed television journalism had so recently been lamented by some of the assembled media-men in a massive drone-in called What Do You Think Of It So Far? (BBC2), hosted by Frostie in his Grand Old Man role. The idea was to discuss what 40 years of television might or might not have accomplished. Everything was comfortably self-congratulatory until Jonathan Dimbleby said that television news programmes were failing through jack of commitment: not since 1968 has there been a ‘serious, detailed account’ of what was happening in Northern Ireland.

Several people were eager to support Dimbleby in this contention, with particular reference to the BBC. Martin Bell’s memorable BBC round-up of the Irish problem was judged to be insufficient, since the IRA’s case had not been put. (In the even more memorable ‘This Week’ special on the same subject, it had been, but nobody mentioned ITV — Auntie was the Aunt Sally of the night.) Martin Bell protested as far as he was able, but the spirit of the meeting was against him. Jonathan Dimbleby warned that for one reason or another the gates to free expression on television were gradually shutting, and that it was time to resist.

The cruel truth is that the ITV companies and ITN are now way out ahead of the BBC in news and current affairs, principally because they feel less weighed down by the burden of purveying a consistent view. David Attenborough went half the way towards admitting the Beeb’s unease (and conceding Dimbleby’s point) by saying that TV ought to see itself as a publisher of various authors, rather than as an author in itself.

Somewhere about that altitude the matter was left, but at least it had been raised. (The Beeb, incidentally, did reasonably well with the Notting Hill fracas.) The discussion was not much helped by the presence of Fred Friendly, supremo of CBS, who was full of narcissistic bluster about how he took the big decision to show America the way her sons were behaving in Vietnam. Mr Friendly is a blowhard. Barbara Walters, also present, congratulated everybody present on their ‘articulation.’

Tito Gobbi’s Tuscan Summer (BBC2) was a fascinating show about the summer school for singers which the great baritone runs in Florence. Advising the tyros on points of interpretation, Gobbi was a fountain of wisdom about the arts in general — you didn’t have to be a singer to learn from him. For a true artist, as his students rapidly found, to be gifted is only the beginning.

To all those people suffering from epilepsy who have written in, my wretched apologies: the joke was meant to be against. myself, but I mis-timed it. Apologies also to Susan Hampshire, who has been on the telephone to tell me that she can learn scripts as fast as anybody. Will anybody I didn’t offend please get in touch.

The Observer, 5th September 1976