The Creator thinks of John Pilger as a good man. He challenges the establishment. Corrupt politicians and dishonest journalist hacks defame him. In his youth he hopped around the globe from crisis to crisis, like a transcontinental Robert Fisk. In recent years, Pilger was one of the intellectual pillars of the anti-globalisation movement. All right, he is a good man; but even Homer nods, and when a good man turns to bad ends, he does so big time.
Recently the Creator took up a copy of John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time. Anyone who reads a lot of Pilger finds it repetitive, since he recycles, like Chomsky, although he has some good ideas and is a fine journalist. But while Chomsky is always willing to acknowledge a mistake, Pilger cannot do this, especially not in regard to South Africa.
In 1997 Pilger produced a documentary on South Africa called Apartheid Did Not Die, thereafter writing a piece called “The View from Dimbaza”, published in Hidden Agendas. Both the documentary and the written piece were very well constructed. They explained that the South African government, the ANC, had sold out to neoliberalism and had to be overthrown before it destroyed the country.
Ten years later the country had survived the economic crisis affecting it when Pilger made the documentary (but which he did not mention). Far from applying neoliberalism, the ANC had expanded on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (building housing for more than a fifth of the country’s population), had introduced massive social grants and pensions for the country’s rural poor, and an expanded public-works programme, including free access to drinking water and massively increased access to electricity. Meanwhile the budget deficit was down to zero, thus reducing the cost of servicing the national debt from 25% of the budget to under 10%, leaving an extra R22 billion for public spending in the 2007 budget, rather than giving it to banks.
Ignoring this, in Freedom Next Time he insists that he was right, and attempts to prove it, somewhat unconvincingly.
Pilger first complains about how little changed between 1967 when he was last in the country, and October 1997, three and a half years after the first democratic elections. White South Africans were rich, and foreigners were even richer. Perhaps this is a problem, but what is to be done about it?
One thing was to give money to the poor. Pilger complains it is not enough (though he does not point out that six rand a day, while measly for a western European, is a big boost for a single child’s food in South Africa). He cites a claim of an 8% increase in poverty between 1999 and 2002 which seems strangely high, since nothing happened in that period to provoke it. If true, it is a grievous fault, but it is probably not true; Pilger’s statistics are suspect.
Pilger’s friend Cosmas Desmond, the PAC-supporting priest, feels that land should be redistributed. If only the Constitution were changed, the land could be taken from commercial farmers and given to, er, other people. The trouble is that the commercial farmers produce the country’s food. Subsistence farming would not feed the cities where more than half the population lives. Desmond inhabits a fantasy world of happy black peasants close to the soil, a colour-reversed version of the Nazi “Blut und Boden”, and Pilger joins him there in lederhosen, clinking a steinful of lager..
Pilger rightly points to the corruption of figures like Kgalema Motlanthe and Mamphela Ramphele of the World Bank. However, many of his supporting ideas are wrong. Calling New Africa Investments Limited a “creation of apartheid” because some of its elements were once facilitated by the apartheid Industrial Development Corporation is like calling Steve Biko a creation of apartheid because he went to school in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Pilger makes the mistake of listening to Patrick Bond, who claims that “between 1995 and 2000 . . . unemployment almost doubled”, ascribing this to black economic empowerment, as if allowing a handful of black people to get rich plunges the nation into poverty. (This very conveniently covers up for the behaviour of the white people who actually control the economy.) Actually, in this period the massive unemployment in the “independent homelands” began to be counted, whereas under apartheid, it was pretended that this unemployment had nothing to do with South Africa. Bond uses apartheid’s faked statistics to falsely smear the post-apartheid government, and Pilger uses this avoid admitting that his own predictions were false. This is quite odious behaviour.
Later Pilger similarly cites Bond’s false claim about ten million electricity and water cut-offs (as was exposed in 2003, he took figures from the small town of Stutterheim and pretended that they applied to the whole country). Pilger claims that black household income has fallen by 19% (because of the confusing shifts in the value of the rand in US dollar terms, figures can probably be found to justify this).
In addition to these dubious statistics, Pilger loves negative quotes. These mostly come from white people whose agenda is not always that of telling the truth. Pilger depends heavily on the right-wing South African media for his sound-bites. Sometimes he also uses the UN, which supposedly said that 1990s economic policy was no different from 1980s apartheid economic policy (it does seem odd, then, that the results of the policy were the exact opposite of that policy’s effects).
Pilger rubbishes the ANC by any means necessary. He claims that “It was the Black Consciousness Movement that inspired many people in the townships to confront the bullets and tear-gas”. (That was true in 1976-7, but not subsequently; the BCM played hardly any role in the greater struggle of the 1980s which was led by the ANC’s United Democratic Front. But Pilger does not talk to ANC people unless they were in prison at the time.)
He goes still further: “. . . worrying questions for many in the resistance. What exactly was the deal struck between the ANC leadership and the fascist Broederbond?”. Pilger pretends (again) that there was a significant resistance which opposed the ANC, but also that the ANC sold out the people from the beginning. Obedient to white right-wing propaganda (echoing some of Van Zyl Slabbert’s disinformation) Pilger details a mysterious meeting between white racists and the evil Thabo Mbeki to sell out the struggle. In reality, what the ANC was doing was trying to bring about its unbanning; for the same reason that Mandela met with Botha, which Pilger also jeers at. It seems he would rather have seen the apartheid state win than see the ANC get any credit.
This seems, again, a harsh thing to say, but it is not. For instance, when he says that “there was widespread disappointment and dismay” over the negotiations which had been taking place, he does not say from where. In fact it came from the tiny anti-ANC movements, many of which, like the PAC and AZAPO, were covertly (and sometimes openly) helping out apartheid death squads.
Still worse, he quotes Thabo Mbeki on the “historic compromise” of 1993, when democratic elections became possible, saying that without this compromise “there would have been a bloodbath and a great suffering across the land”. This is true; had the agreement not been reached the apartheid military would probably have restored control using its well-established spies and murderers. Pilger, however, talks about the “emptiness of the threat” by pretending that it refers to Afrikaner fascists rather than to the soldiers and police of the apartheid state. (Later Pilger reveals that he is familiar enough with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to know that the apartheid military were paranoid mass murderers — he twits F W de Klerk for his involvement in terrorism. It’s OK to acknowledge this truth to the white elite, but when Pilger is talking to black people, he derides their struggle for freedom and dismisses all their efforts.
Pilger is actually — there is no point in mincing words — being racist. He says that “the black majority were misled”, as if they were fools to vote for the ANC in 1994. Since they voted for them again in 1999 and in 2004, they must simply be stupid. Pilger, who knows little about South African history, politics and economics and has scant experience of the country, deems himself entitled to judge who black South Africans should vote for. (In this racist attitude he runs parallel to his informant Bond, who has declared that the ANC do not deserve the votes which they receive from blacks.) Ironically, he later quotes Cosmas Desmond claiming that the ANC “have no respect for that which is African and no understanding that we can learn from the African experience” — apparently only white Irish and Australian visiting firemen can understand Africa.
The white affluent corporate-front Freedom of Expression Institute says things are as bad as they were under apartheid, and Pilger quotes this body as gospel truth. South Africa has become a one-party state, Pilger tells us, offering no source (it is a favourite talking point of the Afrikaner far-right). He devotes nine lines to saying that the ANC has done something (he doesn’t say what) but when discussing what the ANC should have done, most of what he mentions is what the ANC actually has done — except that Pilger refuses to admit it.
One runs out of patience in the end and puts the book down. Pilger wants to persuade us that everything has gone wrong in South Africa, even if this means telling lies. He also wants to blame everything going wrong on the ANC. Now, the ANC deserves criticism for many of its policies and even more criticism for misapplying those policies. However, it also deserves praise, which Pilger does not provide. Pilger talks as if he is revealing hidden truth, but what he is doing is copying down the dogmas of the affluent South African establishment, which hates the ANC and seeks to reverse most of its policies. Significantly he makes no mention of the alliance of white and black right wing with the corporate oligarchy — to him there is only the evil ANC and the noble white foreigners, like Dale McKinley, who would lead the struggle against it, if only South African blacks were not so stupid.
Why is he doing this? One reason seems to be that the ANC are in power and they have not always done the right thing. Pilger loathes people in power and insists that the right thing must be done. Compromises are anathema to him. He would much rather lose than win through diplomacy — thus he jeers at Mandela for smoothing the path of negotiations by offering hypocritical praise for Botha and De Klerk. If Mandela had instead insulted them, would that have been worth another few years of apartheid and twenty thousand more dead? Pilger apparently thinks so.
Indeed, Pilger seems to love extremism for its own sake. As a result, he despises incremental improvements. He prefers Mugabe-style radical change, even if it is foolish, perhaps because it is easy to write about. There is also a strong sense that he is happy to see failure and collapse — he writes about the brutality of the occupied territories of Israel and the bloodbaths in post-Taliban Afghanistan with obvious pleasure, as if he is relieved to see a simple division between oppressed and oppressor.
The trouble with this analysis, if you can call it that, is that it erases politics. Struggle is reduced to throwing rocks at armoured vehicles; the moment the struggle ends, Pilger denounces the rock-throwers turned Cabinet Ministers as sell-outs, and demands that someone must start throwing rocks at somebody. Everybody in a picturesque struggle with excellent photo-opportunities will be betrayed, so that Pilger and his friends can lament their defeat — unless they lose, in which case Pilger can lament that. Celebration of success is largely absent. Celebration of partial success is nowhere to be found, for Pilger defines all compromise as treachery. Betrayal and defeat are Pilger’s meat and drink.
Perhaps this explains why Rhodes University, one of South Africa’s most conservative educational institutions, gave Pilger an honorary doctorate. Rhodes’ Journalism Department, while it has good staff, is essentially a machine constructing servants of South Africa’s right-wing disinformation structure. Pilger, for all his other good qualities, is one of those servants.