BOSTON — Most Americans would probably agree that the First Amendment is an integral part of our society. The freedom to express ourselves, to say and do and write what we want within the limits of the law, is what makes America what it is. How would we feel if that right was taken away?
Dr. Bryan Trabold, professor of English at Suffolk University, lived in Cape Town, South Africa, from 1998 to 1999. His study of the Apartheid through the eyes of two South African newspapers of the 1980s, the Weekly Mail and the New Nation, helped to solidify his dedication to honesty through media and bringing the truth to the masses.
Trabold’s lecture, “Writing Space and Resistance in Apartheid South Africa,” which took place at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Library Poetry Center on March 25th, centered around the two newspapers and their rebellion against censorship. The newspapers used unique tactics to publish information that the South African government wanted to hide. They attempted to balance upholding the law with sharing information that they felt citizens had the right to know.
For research, Trabold read every issue of the newspapers published from 1985 to 1990 – five years of Apartheid politics spread across hard copies and microfilm.
“I feel a real sense of responsibility to give [the horror of Apartheid] the justice it deserves,” he said. Apartheid, a system of legalized racial segregation enforced by the South African government between 1948 and 1994, involved misconduct – including beatings, rapes, torture, and links to vigilantes – by the police and military. In fact, the United Nations referred to the system of Apartheid as “a crime against humanity.”
Everything in Apartheid South Africa was determined by race. Whites got nearly 80 percent of the land, and blacks were confined to racially-designated urban areas. About half of all toddlers in one of these areas, called the Ciskei, were undernourished, and over four-fifths of black families in general made less money than the Minimum Living Level (MLL).
According to a study conducted by the University of Cape Town, “South Africa [had] the most inequitable distribution of income” of more than 90 countries examined.
The South African government, in support of these actions, restricted writing space “to silence the voices of those individuals and political parties that posed the greatest threat to the apartheid regime,” said Trabold. The Weekly Mail and the New Nation fell into this category.
To circumvent the restrictions, the newspapers employed clever tactics: self-imposed black lines over sections of text through which the meaning could be inferred, and allusions, called “oblique speak,” which were supposed to be deliberate references to unmentionable information.
In this way, the Weekly Mail and the New Nation “expanded writing space to chronicle as fully as possible the violence of the South African government [and] to provide as many opportunities as possible for banned individuals and political parties to speak for themselves,” said Trabold.
In a follow-up interview, Trabold drew parallels to American media.
“Despite the impressive free speech protections for journalists in this country, there are nevertheless several constraints operating on the media as well,” he said.
“Because mainstream media sources depend upon advertising revenue for their survival, they are often reluctant to challenge corporate and political concentrations of power as aggressively as they should. As a result, the parameters of discourse within the mainstream are quite narrow, as ‘radical’ voices often get filtered out or marginalized. This occurs not because of censorship restrictions but because of the complexities of the market place.”
However, he continued on to explain that he is not entirely pessimistic about the situation.
“There are several impressive alternative media sources that one can access easily, particularly online. And it’s very important to remember that these media sources can publish, and we as citizens can read them, without fear of retaliation from the government.
“Whether Americans take advantage of this freedom, of course, is entirely up to them.”