The Politics of the Mail and Guardian.

Shaun de Waal is one of the less unattractive figures working for the Mail and Guardian; he is almost the only surviving intelligent film reviewer in the media. (He is conceited and pretentious, of course, but who isn’t? Except for the Creator, who has nothing to pretend, and when you are supreme there is no question of conceit.) However, he has the foible that he does not think that his newspaper supports Jacob Zuma.
Huh? One thinks back to the “hundred days” columns, when the Mail and Guardian, along with all other newspapers, frantically cast about for pretexts through which Zuma could be praised, usually declaring that Zuma’s rhetoric was cause enough for adulation. In that newspaper Zuma’s corruption, personal immorality and public dishonesty have simply been painted over, like whitewashing fresh dogshit. In that newspaper the iron tyranny which has settled on the shoulders of the ANC’s membership represents liberation, the broad-spectrum policy vacuum is the glorious wisdom of the triumphant Left, and so on and so forth ad potentially infinitum. Should we assume that De Waal does not read his own newspaper? (In which, to judge by the huge stacks of old Mail and Guardians carried off by attendants from supermarket shelves every Friday, De Waal’s practice would coincide with the reading public).
No, De Waal is trying to support his newspaper. Perhaps he actually believes that his newspaper does not support Zuma — being homosexual, he presumably feels personally uncomfortable about backing a homophobe, however much De Waal might endorse Zuma’s other reactionary and proto-fascist tendencies. Perhaps he wants the public to believe that his newspaper does not support Zuma, and hopes to get away with such a transparent lie. (South African journalists passionately hate the existence of competing voices, which is why they hated Thabo Mbeki’s “ANC Today” column and probably why De Waal is denouncing a weblog read by seven people on exceptionally good days.)
What we are dealing with is the way in which a newspaper camouflages its real political agenda in order to win sympathy for that agenda from people who, if they were clear-sighted, would shy away from that agenda. The Creator dons horn-rimmed gig-lamps and continues.
In the beginning was the Rand Daily Mail, which was not a very good newspaper though it had the reputation of being the best newspaper in South Africa. (Like being the kindest crematorium attendant in Treblinka.) That newspaper was shut down because its proprietors wanted to suck up to the apartheid state while saving money. Some of its most solid personnel set up Business Day, which was a commercial venture. The idealistic ones set up the Weekly Mail, which was dependent on foreign assistance (mainly Scandinavian, apparently).
For five years the Weekly Mail was run by people who were clearly enjoying themselves. The Creator can testify to how much fun it was to cover the news of the day, simply because it was so extraordinarily easy to get scoops. One had only to ring up one’s friends and learn stuff which wasn’t going into the commercial press because the commercial press were all collaborating with the regime. It was as if one could run headlines like “COME OFF IT, UNCLE JOE” in competition with Pravda during Stalin’s rule. The only problem was that hardly anybody wanted to hear that stuff, apart from the ninety-five percent of the population who didn’t read newspapers.
Then the funding was pulled and the Weekly Mail died. It was killed off rather suddenly by Anton Harber (Caxton Professor of Journalism, and no doubt Durex Professor of Virginity) who scammed it into a daily paper without proper planning after getting rid of the too-idealistic Irwin Manoim. After the killing, the carcase — the logo, the leftie readership and the least competent journalists — were bought out by the Guardian Group in London, who had their own ideas about what foreign control of a South African newspaper was all about and proceeded to show it.
They installed a new set of staff at the paper — particular the managing editor, one David Beresford. He in his turn hired the very, very interesting Howard Barrell as political editor. Barrell was interesting because, as a completely undistinguished insignificant white leftie, he suddenly fled the country and joined the ANC in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was the least significant place for the ANC to be in the late 1980s; there were no structures of substantial political significance, although there was a lot of room for picking up gossip and keeping an eye on the occasional gangs of white liberals “negotiating” with the future leaders of the country.
After the unbanning of the ANC, Barrell came back as a member of the ANC (writing a rather thin history of MK), but soon became European correspondent for the Independent group. After a spell in Europe he suddenly returned home purged of all sympathy for the ANC whatsoever and announced his conversion to Washington Consensus neoliberalism. He was almost immediately hired as political editor by the new Mail and Guardian.
Weird, eh? Barrell’s rise was rapid under Beresford. His reactionary, anti-ANC, West-centred political agenda soon dominated the newspaper. It wasn’t long before he was its editor. The late 1990s was a very interesting time politically, and Barrell used his opportunities to pursue several important objectives. One was to support Cyril Ramaphosa, the mining magnates’ choice, for President of the ANC. One was to support a royalist military coup against the elected government of Lesotho. One was to support the Ugandan/Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
That’s all, er, intriguing. Support for Ramaphosa was perhaps not so surprising, since Ramaphosa was notoriously subservient before rich and powerful white people, and his alternative was Thabo Mbeki, who notoriously was not. However, the support for the coup in Lesotho was particularly interesting because Barrell ran a number of fake articles written by a mysterious figure named “William Boot” who supposedly was a white man living in Lesotho and who just adored the coup plotters. These articles were disinformation, artfully constructed; it was extraordinarily unlikely that Barrell himself knew enough to have written them. On the other hand, it seemed odd that anyone genuinely concerned for a right-wing reaction in Lesotho should adopt the pen-name of an Evelyn Waugh character from the early 1930s. No, these articles had probably been generated from somewhere else.
The DRC articles had certainly been generated from somewhere else. The invasion of the DRC was launched in association with an attempted coup by Mobutuist forces in the western DRC. It was supposedly launched by guerrillas, well-supplied with high-tech equipment, acting as a front for the armies of the two American-backed Great Lakes powers. It stank to heaven of global imperialism, and so the Mail and Guardian refused to cover anything except Western newspaper reports and Western-oriented propaganda about it.
South Africa had no interest in the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion succeeding. However, it appears that Britain had a big stake in the invasion; it also appears that the United States did, for they both imposed arms sanctions not only on the DRC but also on Zimbabwe, the DRC’s most important military ally (and absolutely necessary, since for the first year of the war the DRC barely possessed an army). This was enthusiastically endorsed by the newspaper.
Meanwhile, when South Africa invaded Lesotho to head off the coup, the Mail and Guardian ran a string of false stories exaggerating the chaos which erupted in Maseru and falsely claiming that the South Africans would face guerrilla warfare. So on the one hand the newspaper supported aggression on a genocidal scale (the DRC war is widely held to have led to the death of several million people) while on the other hand it did what it could to undermine a democratic government and to prevent that government from enjoying regional support. Hmm.
Then we notice that the Guardian at this time was very, very close to the British government, and we also notice that New Labour was very supportive of British imperialism in Africa. Now, it is perfectly possible that Barrell was not personally on the Foreign Office payroll. It is possible that he just happened to support them so completely that he might as well have been.
But it was awfully interesting, too, whom Barrell liked to hire. Like young Stefaans Brümmer, covering the war in former Yugoslavia from the Croatian side (that is, the side most linked with NATO and the United States). Later, Brümmer covered the war in Afghanistan as a more or less embedded journalist with the U.S. military there. Like young Justin Pearce, necessarily covering the war in Angola from Luanda, which happened to be controlled by the MPLA, but making no secret of his support for the UNITA movement which just happened to be associated with the United States (although the U.S., with its characteristic principled stand, happily snuggled up with the MPLA once they had defeated UNITA’s attempt to reverse the results of the 1992 election).
Which takes us down to the end of the 1990s. It was then that Barrell introduced the concept of AIDS denialism to South Africa. The concept appeared first in the Mail and Guardian, later in other newspapers, and only much later in the Treatment Action Campaign. (The TAC first had to purge itself of people like Mazibuko Jara, an actual principled Marxist who was concerned about people with AIDS and therefore complete anathema to the corporate spin-doctors of the TAC.) One of the big issues in the affair was, of course, the question of the excessive pricing of AZT, which was manufactured by Glaxo, which had recently acquired the huge British pharmaceutical company Wellcome.
It was also then that the Mail and Guardian ran the story that Thabo Mbeki was the brains behind all the corruption in the arms deal. This was a difficult story to sustain, since the most obvious people involved in the arms deal were the Shaik family whose links with Jacob Zuma (who was in charge of the arms deal) were no secret, but the story was sustained by the simple expedient of not focussing on Zuma and not focussing on Schabir Shaik but on Chippy Shaik (whose links with Zuma, like Schabir’s brother Mo’s links with Zuma, were less evident). One of the big issues in the arms deal was, of course, the British Aerospace angle; British Aerospace were intensely unpopular in Britain and it was important for the British government to pretend to be investigating them in a field which would not lead to anything. (Actually, there is little evidence that BAe played a big role in corruption around the arms deal — partly because the main player in that part of the deal was the Swedish firm SAAB.)
It was also then that the Mail and Guardian ran the story that Thabo Mbeki was a staunch supporter of ZANU (PF) in Zimbabwe. This again was a difficult story to sustain, since — quite apart from Mbeki’s frequent criticisms of ZANU (PF)’s policies — it was well-known that Mbeki had used Zimbabwe under ZANU (PF) as a bad example to legitimate his pet GEAR policy. This was sustained, again, by ignoring the real issues. The British government was very keen to demonise ZANU (PF) and ran a large-scale project against them, financing their opposition (the MDC) and supporting the opposition newspapers such as the Daily News of Harare.
In other words, the three main deception operations run by the Mail and Guardian between 1999 and 2002 were operations which happened to favour British government policies at those times. Barrell worked closely with the white right-wing Democratic Party/Democratic Alliance, and the Mail and Guardian ran a lot of DP/DA propaganda (shifting sharply from sympathy for the ANC in 1994 to covert support for the DA in 1999 through to open support for the DA in 2004, and playing an important propaganda role in the DP’s takeover of the old National Party). However, this does not seem to have been its primary objective (significantly, it never attempted to promote individuals within the DA before the rise to power of Helen Zille, and was even mildly critical of the DA’s repugnant leader Tony Leon).
By 2002, however, the newspaper had essentially shot its bolt. None of its propaganda operations had succeeded in the sense of improving the political situation for either the white right-wing in South Africa, or the British government, or global neoliberalism. On the contrary, the ANC was firmly in the saddle and the neoliberals were all but excluded from power (the DA’s internal squabbling handed power to the ANC in Cape Town temporarily, and the Western Cape until 2009). More to the point, the Mail and Guardian’s hysterical hatred for the ANC, while it appealed to the white right-wing which was the core of the anti-ANC coalition, was not a way to win over anyone outside that fairly narrow band.
There did seem to be possibilities of this happening. Already in 2002 the Treatment Action Campaign was sounding out Jacob Zuma as a possible ally. He was, of course, the do-nothing head of the government’s AIDS programme (which was really run, because of Zuma’s idleness and self-obsession, by Mbeki and Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang). However, the TAC leaped to support for Zuma — obviously not because of his policies or his practices, but almost certainly because of his obvious pliable conservatism. Mbeki had appointed him because he was personable and would do what he was told — qualities which naturally appealed to the South African white elite, too. Could Zuma possibly be the right weapon?
But in that case, Barrell would have to go. The Mail and Guardian’s circulation figures were inflated and its profits were faked. It was easy to stage a bankruptcy which created the impression that there was going to be a dramatic change in the newspaper. (Beresford was also falling ill with Parkinson’s disease, and was eventually packed off — conceivably this made it easier to get rid of Barrell, although unfortunately Beresford’s daughter stayed on for an unbearably long time as in-house pharmaceutical-company publicist). The newspaper was trumpeted as having been bought by Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean. At last, the newspaper had been Africanised! The curse of white reactionary politics was lifting (not that it would ever have been admitted before).
Of course this was bullshit. Ncube was the front-man running the British-funded loss-making newspapers in Zimbabwe, which had recently closed down because they dared not face the new media regulations in that country (which had been specifically designed to expose foreign control). He had essentially no cash of his own; significantly, he “bought” the newspaper through a Botswanan-incorporated shell company (and the Botswanan government is in the back pocket of the West, which may help explain this). It seems possible — even probable — that this represented a much more direct control by the British Foreign Office of the newspaper, no longer having to work through the Guardian (which was occasionally critical of British policy) or through relatively unreliable local journalists like Barrell (who had used his position to fight his private vendettas against real or imagined enemies in the local press). So Ferrial Haffajee, a colourless, odourless, tasteless figure, was installed.
By 2004 it was becoming increasingly obvious that Zuma was a crook. Despite the efforts of the Mail and Guardian to distract attention away from Zuma and pretend that Mbeki was the real criminal (which did not take much creativity, as no evidence had to be deployed) the net was closing on him. It is possible that the neoliberals genuinely feared that Zuma was being attacked because he was moving closer towards them, and that this explains their increasingly strident defense of Zuma across the entire press establishment (but particularly in the Mail and Guardian). It is less likely, however, that this was true; throughout his last four years, Mbeki worked very hard to try to protect Zuma from suffering the full consequences of his actions. Ironically, but for Mbeki’s loyalty in return for services rendered, Zuma would certainly not now be President.
As will be remembered, in 2005 came the trial of Shaik which confirmed that Zuma was a crook. The Mail and Guardian devoted an immense amount of effort to trying to prove that the trial was a frame-up. It ran innumerable stories from the Zuma camp, particularly cloaked by spurious left-wing propaganda. (The newspaper was the core force which constructed the myth of Zuma’s left-wing populism — a notion which was obviously promoted by Zuma’s handlers, but which could never have become part of white received wisdom if the newspaper had not repeated it over and over.) In essence, the crimes of Zuma were covered up because the ruling class now recognised that Zuma, having openly broken with Mbeki, could be manipulated into a tool for wrecking the ANC.
This was duly done. Significantly, the Mail and Guardian was much more stridently hostile about Zuma’s rape trial than about Zuma’s potential corruption trial, and for good reason. The newspaper, for one thing, knew that Zuma was bound to get off; rich people are almost never found guilty of rape in South Africa because it is pathetically easy to exploit the sexism and corruption of the judges in such an episode. Meanwhile, attacking Zuma for his sexual thuggery played well in the white community (where kaffir penises are a constant source of panic) without having any impact at all on the black community (where patriarchal violence is covertly endorsed even though publicly condemned). Most significantly, the big criticism of Zuma was that he had taken a shower after unprotected sex with an HIV+ woman (which might have reduced his infection risk, but was not usable as pharmaceutical-company propaganda). Hence this became the focus of criticism of Zuma over the entire issue; the question of rape rapidly faded from sight.
Thereafter, of course, the purpose of the Mail and Guardian’s political propaganda was to present Zuma as an unstoppable force of the people, as opposed to Mbeki who was weak, corrupt and out of touch with the masses. Once again this had a two-sided significance; while Zuma’s backers were happy because they were being supported, the concept of the “people” naturally panics white racists at home and abroad. Thus, paradoxically, the newspaper’s support for Zuma boosted both the opposition and Zuma’s support base. Meanwhile, promoting Zuma as a stupid buffoon who was nevertheless going to win undermined the traditional Mandela-Mbeki approach of dignity and expertise; it thus prepared the way for Julius Malema and the MK Veterans’ Association.
One must not take this all too far. The Mail and Guardian is not wholly responsible for our current mess. There is no doubt, however, that on every substantive issue in South African domestic and foreign policy, and in every political crisis, the newspaper has come down firmly on the side of the ruling-class, which usually means that it has come down on the side of greed, corruption and incompetence. More to the point, it is a newspaper which tells an incredible number of lies (its front-page story is almost invariably a lie nowadays, whereas even under Howard Barrell it told the truth almost half the time). In other words, not only is it a reactionary, plutocratic enemy of the people and tool of global imperialism, but it’s also a lousy newspaper.
Sorry, Shaun.


One Response to The Politics of the Mail and Guardian.

  1. muttering man says:

    Umm. The Mail & Guardian broke the story that Jacob Zuma was under investigation for corruption in the arms deal, and it consistently editorialised in support of the continued existence of the Scorpions.
    It was sharply critical of the decision to drop charges against Zuma too.
    That is not the only confusing thing about your argument, nor is it the only bit of evidence that your pro-Zuma bias argument in incorrect but we’ll leave the rest for some baffled muttering.
    Off to see an MI6 agent about funding my new blog.

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