South African media wars Heated emotions: Irritated by criticism, Mandela attacks blacks in white-owned press.


THE LOVE AFFAIR between South African President Nelson Mandela and the country's media outlets, which are mostly controlled by the white minority, seems to be over. In recent weeks, the 78-year-old president has repeatedly attacked the press and has charged that senior black journalists were being used by conservative owners of white newspapers to undermine the African National Congress government.

Mr. Mandela first became irritated toward the media after Lillian Arrison, one of his secretaries, agreed to be photographed nude for Hustler magazine and revealed she liked sex, particularly in the shower. The president thought her actions reprehensible: She was promptly transferred to a less prestigious job.

Next came a series of articles in mainstream newspapers like the Johannesburg Star that offended the president and other ANC leaders. "Even St. Mandela has clay feet," was the headline of the first one by Kaizer Nyatsumba, a black veteran journalist. Subsequent stories suggested that Mr. Mandela was threatening to resign over economic policy disputes, that he was exhibiting "autocratic behavior. . . possibly due to growing senility" and that he was having second thoughts about letting deputy president Thabo Mbeki succeed him.

"The effect of the prominence that The Star gave to [the latter] article was that the financial markets reacted negatively to what they perceived as indications of political uncertainty," an ANC official protested, charging South Africa's biggest paper with "gutter journalism."

After a four-hour, closed-door meeting with leading black journalists, Mr. Mandela assured them that "media freedom is not, has not been, and will never be under threat in our country." But he said "wealth and power, ownership, management and senior positions in the media are predominantly in white hands," and that this has impacted on the "mind-sets of the actors in the media industry."

South African media showed much courage under apartheid, despite aggressive official attempts to muzzle them. Under the Mandela government, the press, free from any constraints, has been flexing its muscles and reveling in its adversarial role. Press freedom has a poor record in most of Africa. Now South Africa threatens to become a battle ground.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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