Chronicle of a coming of age? A media-historiographical revisit: The TRC, Naspers and Afrikaans journalism

  • 0


This article provides a media-historiographical overview of an episode in Afrikaans media history that is still controversial after 20 years, but which can be seen as a “coming of age” of Afrikaans journalism. This episode was the serious disagreement in 1997 between a mainly older generation of Afrikaans media leaders and journalists and a younger generation on the issue of whether the former Afrikaner-nationalist media company Nasionale Pers should do a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about the years between 1960 and 1994. The media-historiographical perspective is first discussed as context. This is followed by a discussion on the development of the Afrikaner-nationalist print media with the focus on Naspers and its Nasionale Koerante division. A brief discussion about the concepts of loyal resistance and open dialogue as keys to try to unlock the events follows. An overview of the TRC is presented as a background, in which an exposition of the events as they unfolded, not only as an internal struggle, but also a public one, is presented. In spite of the bitter fractures at the time, one can state that, in hindsight, this episode can be seen as an essential turning point for Afrikaans journalism, as it was an opportunity for it to position itself in a new media political ecology; and indeed, through this episode Afrikaans journalism acquired vital cultural capital for itself for a new future.

The “TRC rebellion” (Du Plessis 2015:81) can be regarded as a turning point for Afrikaans journalism 20 years after the clash between the leadership of the then still Afrikaans media company Nasionale Pers (now Naspers, with Media24 its subsidiary publishing the original Naspers titles) and a new generation of young leaders. The clash was the result of the TRC’s request to this former Afrikaner-nationalist company to make a submission about the years between 1960 and 1994 (thus broadly between the Sharpeville tragedy in March 1960 and the first democratic elections in April 1994), and specifically the media’s role in this period. The company decided not to comply, and this decision was challenged by the “young Turks” generation. This led to a major break between the older generation of Naspers leaders, embodied by Ton Vosloo, then chair of the Naspers Board, and the younger generation, embodied by Tim du Plessis, then deputy editor of Beeld newspaper. This episode is still topical in Afrikaans media and still provokes sporadic commentary, such as in Van Deventer (2015), and is seen as of such importance that Vosloo (2015:78) is of the opinion that “it has a place in history".

A media-historiographical point of departure was therefore deemed the most appropriate, with a clear delimitation and aim as a descriptive media-historiographical narrative rather than a critical analysis. The point of departure includes the fact that the interpretation of events remains open, as “views of and theories about people and society are constantly changing, [thus] historical interpretations of any given subject also keep changing” (Berkhofer, quoted in Berger 2011:156). Babbie and Mouton (2001:403) refer to Weber’s “verstehen”, implying that “the researcher must be able to take on, mentally, the circumstances, views, and feelings of those being studied, to interpret their actions appropriately”. “Verstehen” must also, then, be applied to the Rankean “programmatic dictum” to “simply show how it really was” (“wie es eigentlich gewesen” – Carr 1961:3). The latter is considered to be “probably” the most famous statement on the nature of historiographical writing (Stroud 1987:379). This somewhat simplistic approach to Von Ranke, who is regarded as the father of modern source-based historical writing, has been critically discussed on various levels since the beginning of the 20th century. Brown (2003:2–3) argues that history is ultimately a subjective, imagined construction. It also fits into the key principle of the “open dialogue”, something that indeed is still “open” and ongoing, as can be seen in the interest that the TRC still generates. Other approaches to this article could, for example, be from a gender and media perspective, or from the perspective of the political economy of media theory. Such critical-analysis approaches, however, require further studies, and were not the purpose of this study. Indeed, regarding the field of South African media history, there is a lacuna of media-historiographical studies (Rabe 2014, 2016a), and this article aims to attempt to fill this gap with its media-historiographical approach to the topic. Media history as a focus in the field of media studies is described by Sonderling (1995:87) as a fairly recent phenomenon in communication research, with Wigston (2007:5) confirming that it is an understudied subdiscipline.

As context for the development of Afrikaner-nationalist media it needs to be briefly stated that press freedom was not a given during the colonial period. During the occupation of the Dutch East Indian Company a printing press was not even allowed at the Cape (Muller 1990:1). It was only after the second British occupation (1806) that the descendants of Dutch colonists began to develop a need to express themselves as the anglicisation of the Cape became a reality (Du Plessis 1943:6). The first British colonial governments did not, however, allow press freedom, and it was only after an epic struggle for press freedom that it was granted (Rabe 2016b). One can state that a conscious Afrikaner-nationalist press originated with the First and Second Afrikaans Language Movements (Giliomee 2012a:219). The complex consequences of the South African War (1899–1902) stimulated Afrikaner Nationalism, which led to the founding, among others, of De Nationale Pers Beperkt in 1915 (later Nasionale Pers, and from 1998 Naspers). By 1997, the year in which the TRC media hearings took place, the company had reinvented itself decade after decade, and already positioned itself as a future media technology firm. Nasionale Koerante became a division of Nasionale Pers, and later became a part of the new subsidiary Media24 when the company unbundled and restructured in 2000. Naspers newspapers had a complex editorial positioning, as was recently again alluded to in an article on how Naspers made donations to the National Party (NP) (Declassified: Apartheid profits 2017). Afrikaner journalists saw their relationship with the NP as linked, but not subservient (Vosloo 1996:112–6). What was not generally known, was that Naspers did prepare a submission to the TRC in 1997, although it was never submitted (Scholtz 1997).

In the meantime, pressure increased from especially Beeld’s editorial team – but also from elsewhere in the company – to testify (Friedman 1997). As Du Plessis (2015:84) wrote: “Naspers’s dismissive attitudes disappointed me; I thought the company was making a historical mistake. During the TRC sessions the whole country was listening, not only to what was said, but also to how it was said.” The internal struggle spilt over into the public domain through the reportage on the disagreement, even on to the front pages. Although the final number is uncertain, about 127 Naspers employees each made an individual submission to the TRC. The National Archives in Pretoria, where the TRC’s documents are held, has a record of about 40 statements (Du Plessis 2015:88). The declaration is attached as Annexure A (Bylae A) to this article. It was the work of Tobie Wiese, then a deputy editor of Insig, who wrote the first draft, after which it was finalised by Wiese and Du Plessis (2015:87). It was then sent to individual journalists to sign and submit in their personal capacities. The statement was on a blank sheet of paper without a letterhead (Du Plessis 2015:88). According to Du Plessis, each signatory gave her or his home address.

This action not only led to a divide between the older and younger generation of journalists, but was also experienced on a personal level by the two main role-players, Vosloo and Du Plessis. In fact, it was not only these two Naspers generations that were “present” in the episode, but also a third, unseen, one, namely that of Piet Cillié and Schalk Pienaar, with all three generations’ interpretation of the concept of loyal resistance that came into play. Vosloo (2015:78) felt he had to remain loyal to his mentors, especially Pienaar: “Should I negate the whole spirit of loyal resistance, as formulated by Van Wyk Louw, and by Naspers?” Du Plessis, too, agonised on a personal level, as can be seen in a formulation almost two decades later (2015:85) when he recalled how he and Vosloo had a severe argument. “To me personally,” he wrote, “that incident was the first of a few as the drama unfolded.” More would follow, “equally intense”. Du Plessis referred to the fact that Vosloo was his editor at Beeld, but more than that: “He was also a mentor and a father figure – one of the finest people I know. It was hard to know you were in disagreement with him.” The inherent pathos thus can also be interpreted on an intimately personal note, namely the fact that the representatives of all three generations – Pienaar, Vosloo and Du Plessis – each lost their father at a young age. Vosloo felt a special bond with his mentor, Pienaar, as did Du Plessis with his mentor, Vosloo, even describing him as a “father figure”.

One can state that each generation took its stand in terms of their understanding of loyal resistance. This is in line with Babbie and Mouton’s (2001:403) statement about Weber’s concept of “verstehen”, namely to understand how circumstances, points of view and feelings can change over generations and should be taken into account in order to interpret role-players’ actions.

In this revisiting of an important event in South African media history, one should also recall Sonderling's (1995:90) statement that history is more than a group of human role-players, activities and events that have happened in (a) a specific place and (b) a specific time, and that it should be complemented with the understanding that there should always be space for individual interpretation. Twenty years later it can even be stated that this struggle did Afrikaans journalism a favour by positioning it in a new era. In fact, in hindsight it can be regarded as a kind of rite of passage in the sense that necessary cultural capital for a new future could be acquired – indeed, it could be described as a “new entry-point and passport stamp” to a new future (Du Plessis 2015:91). Twenty years later one can state that the interpretation of the events is a good example of both concepts of loyal resistance and the idea of the continuous, open dialogue that moulded Naspers’s inherent culture. Indeed, this construction of events is merely one such interpretation of many – all open to new possibilities and new elucidations.

Keywords: Afrikaans journalism; Afrikaner-nationalism; coming of age; loyal resistance; Media24; media history; Nasionale Koerante; Naspers; open dialogue; Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Kroniek van ’n mondigwording? ’n Mediageskiedkundige herevaluering van: Die WVK, Naspers en Afrikaanse joernalistiek

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.