John Pilger on South Africa: Honouring the 'unbreakable promise'

March 28, 2008 -- Fourteen years after South Africa's first democratic elections and the fall of racial apartheid, John Pilger describes, in an address at Rhodes University, the dream and reality of the new South Africa and the responsibility of its new elite. (See video clips of John Pilger's visit here.)


By John Pilger

On my wall in London is a photograph I have never grown tired of looking at. Indeed, I always find it thrilling to behold. You might even say it helps keep me going. It is a picture of a lone woman standing between two armoured vehicles, the notorious ‘hippos’, as they rolled into Soweto. Her arms are raised. Her fists are clenched. Her thin body is both beckoning and defiant of the enemy. It was May Day 1985 and the uprising against apartheid had begun.

The fine chronicler of apartheid, Paul Weinberg, took that photograph. He described crouching in a ditch at the roadside as the hippos entered Soweto. People were being shot with rubber bullets and real bullets. “I looked around,” he said, “and there in the ditch next to me was this bird-like woman, who suddenly pulled out a bottle of gin, took a swig, then went over the top and marched straight into the moving line of vehicles. It was the one of the bravest things I’ve seen.”

Paul’s photograph brings to mind one of my favourite quotations. “The struggle of people against power,” wrote Milan Kundera, “ is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Moments such as that woman’s bravery ought to be unforgettable, for they symbolise all the great movements of resistance to oppression: in South Africa, the Freedom Charter, Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, the heroism of Steve Biko, the women who somehow kept their children alive on freezing hillsides in places like Dimbaza where they had been removed and declared redundant, and beyond, the Jews who rose against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Palestinians who just the other day smashed down the walls of their prison in Gaza.

Unforgettable? For some, yes. But there are those who prefer we celebrate a system of organised forgetting: of unbridled freedom for the few and obedience for the many; of socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor. They prefer that the demonstrable power of ordinary people is committed to what George Orwell called the memory hole. You may ask how we can possibly forget when we live in an information age?

The answer to that is another question: Who are “we”? Unlike you and me, most human beings have never used a computer and never owned a telephone. And those of us who are technologically blessed often confuse information with media, and corporate training with knowledge. These are probably the most powerful illusions of our times. We even have a new vocabulary, in which noble concepts have been corporatised and given deceptive, perverse, even opposite meanings.

“Democracy” is now the free market – a concept itself berefet of freedom. “Reform” is now the denial of reform. “Economics” is the relegation of most human endeavour to material value, a bottom line. Alternative models that relate to the needs of the majority of humanity end up in the memory hole. And “governance” – so fashionable these days - means an economic system approved in Washington, Brussels and Davos. “Foreign policy” is service to the dominant power. Conquest is “humanitarian intervention”. Invasion is “nation-building”.

Every day, we breathe the hot air of these pseudo ideas with their pseudo truths and pseudo experts. They set the limits of public debate within the most advanced societies. They determine who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. They manipulate our compassion and our anger and make many of us feel there is nothing we can do. Take the “war on terror”. This is an entirely bogus idea that actually means a war of terror. Its aim is to convince people in the rich world that we all must live in an enduring state of fear: that Muslim fanatics are threatening our civilisation.

In fact, the opposite is true. The threat to our societies comes not from Al Qaeda but from the terrorism of powerful states. Ask the people of Iraq, who in five years ago have seen the physical and social destruction of their country. President Bush calls this “nation-building”. Ask the people of Afghanistan, who have been bombed back into the arms of the Taliban - this is known in the West as a “good war”. Or the people of Gaza, who are denied water, food, medicines and hope by the forces of so-called civilisation. The list is long and the arithmetic simple. The greatest number of victims of this war of terror are not Westerners, but Muslims: from Iraq to Palestine, to the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria and beyond.

We are constantly told that September 11th 2001 was a day that changed the world and - according to John McCain - justifies a 100-year war against America’s perceived enemies. And yet, while the world mourned the deaths of 3000 innocent Americans, the UN routinely reported that the mortality rate of children dead from the effects of extreme poverty had not changed. The figure for September 11th 2001 was more than 36,000 children. That is the figure every day. It has not changed. It is not news.

The difference between the two tragedies is that the people who died in the Twin Towers in New York were worthy victims, and the thousands of children who die every day are unworthy victims. That is how many of us are programmed to perceive the world. Or so the programmers hope. In the information age, these children are expendable. In South Africa, they are the children of the evicted and dispossessed, children carrying water home from a contaminated dam. They are not the children in the gated estates with names like Tuscany. They are not covered by the theories of GEAR or NEPAD or any of the other acronyms of power given respectability by journalism and scholarship.

It seems to me vital that young people today equip themselves with an understanding of how this often subliminal propaganda works in modern societies – liberal societies: societies with proud constitutions and freedom of speech, like South Africa. For it says that freedom from poverty - the essence of true democracy - is a freedom too far.

In South Africa, new graduates have, it seems to me, both a special obligation and an advantage. The advantage they have is that the past is still vividly present. Only last month, the National Institute for Occupational Health revealed that in the last six years deadly silicosis had almost doubled among South Africa’s gold miners. There are huge profits in this industry. Many of the miners are abandoned and die in their 40s – their families too poor to afford a burial.

Why is there still no proper prevention and compensation? And although Desmond Tutu pleaded with them, not one company boss in any of the apartheid-propping industries ever sought an amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were that confident that for things to change on the surface, things would remain the same.

For young graduates these days, there is a temptation to set themselves apart from the conditions I have described and from the world some have come from. As members of a new privileged elite, they have an obligation, I believe, to forge the vital link with the genius of everyday life and the resourcefulness and resilience of ordinary people. This will allow them, in whatever way you choose, to finish the job begun by Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko and the brave woman in the photograph. In a nutshell, it means standing by one's compatriots in order to bring true freedom to South Africa.

Those who led the struggle against racial apartheid often said no. They dissented. They caused trouble. They took risks. They put people first. And they were the best that people can be. Above all, they had a social and political imagination that unaccountable power always fears. And they had courage. It is this imagination and courage that opens up real debate with real information and allows ordinary people to reclaim their confidence to demand their human and democratic rights.

Oscar Wilde wrote: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue”. I read the other day that the South African police calculated that the number of protests across the country had doubled in just two years to more than 10,000 every year. That may be the highest rate of dissent in the world. That's something to be proud of - just as the Freedom Charter remains something to be proud of. Let me remind you how it begins: “We, the people of South Africa, declare that our country belongs to everyone...”. And that, as Nelson Mandela once said, was the “unbreakable promise”. Isn't it time the promise was kept?

This is edited version of an address in March 2008 by John Pilger to graduating students at Rhodes University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature.

Click here to read the citation that accompanied the honorary doctorate. Visit

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 04/21/2008 - 09:23




The Kliptown Concerned Residents (KCR) hosted a People’s Inspection in Kliptown on the 06th February 2008 to explore the living conditions of the community. Government officials failed to attend the meeting claiming that they were never notified about the inspection. It is clear that the situation in Kliptown is taken for granted by the government officials hence there is no urgency in resolving the matter. This situation is depositing anger on daily basis to the residents and pots are boiling.

The blame for the death of a Kliptown resident (from cholera) because of contaminated water can be fully placed on the ANC government and its neo-liberal development in the area where markets have been opened in Kliptown for tourists but the poor have been forgotten. It is premature for Johannesburg Water (JW) to declare that the water in the area is safe for drinking yet no meaningful studies haven’t been conducted.

Millions were spent to develop the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication without consultation with the residents but the Greater Kliptown Development Forum (GKDF) was aware of the development. KCR has stated on numerous occasions that the community is still using a bucket system and there are insufficient community taps in the area and yet our demands and protests were seen as the work of a third force who have a political agenda against the government.

But now that people are dying in the area, there is a huge public outcry when the daily conditions are ignored by the elected representatives. The KCR has declared Kliptown as a danger zone for people to reside in and a speedy intervention is needed by the government. Kliptown is a tourist destination and that seems to have become the priority of the government.

KCR calls for an immediate public consultation meeting with the relevant department in resolving the human crisis in Kliptown. Temperatures are boiling in the community and the situation will be out of control soon if the situation is ignored.

For further information please call Sipho Jantjies @ 073 8961 353 or Sello Tladi @ 083 8591 654 or Silumko Radebe @ 011 333 8334 or 072 1737 268


Coalition Against Water Privatization

Press statement-18 April 2008


Cholera claims a woman's life in Kliptown

The Coalition plans pickets of Johannesburg Water's festival next week


Johannesburg, Soweto- The Coalition Against Water Privatization (CAWP) together with Kliptown Concern Residents (KCR) visited the family that lost its mother because of cholera. One of two confirmed cases of cholera in Kliptown, Kelebogile Malefane's death has seen the Gauteng Department of Health spring into an awareness campaign in Kliptown to try contain the outbreak. While it is a shock to everyone in the community to lose one of its members, it should not be a surprise while the government's neglect of pleas for emergency intervention to combat the social and environmental crisis makes it fully responsible for her death.

All over Kliptown there are posters and field workers from different local clinics in Soweto warning people about the threat of cholera infection. Residents live in fear as they wonder who is next. In a mass meeting called by the ward councillor, Mandla Mtshali, the community's directed its anger at the government for its failure to deliver on its promises.

The ward councillor together with nurses advised people to wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating and on best practices in the preparation of food to avoid contamination. These lectures on personal hygiene only raised tensions as the residents lambasted the African National Congress (ANC) ward councillor for failing to deliver. Realizing that things might not go well in the meeting, one of the nurses stood up and told residents not to fear anymore. The woman told the meeting that a few communal taps were checked as well as the bucket toilets and none evidenced cholera. The only bacterial threat found, she said, was E-coli which can 'only' lead to diarrhoea and stomach cramps.

Despite all efforts undertaken by the poor residents of Kliptown to get its attention, the City continues to turn a blind eye. So many marches, people's inspections and invitations sent to Amos Masondo to come and witness the living conditions have gone by unanswered that it's no use counting. The lesson is clear that quiet restraint wins no concessions from those in power and more direct action is needed. The CAWP is calling on the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Department of Health and Johannesburg Water to immediately act on the crisis in Kliptown. Without water and sanitation more people will continue to fall ill in this community.

Johannesburg Water holds a festival

Johannesburg Water is holding a weeklong festival next week at Elkah Cricket Stadium, Rockville Soweto. The Coalition Against Water Privatisation will be staging pickets at the festival on the 21st, 24th and 26th of April. All pickets will start at 09H00.

For more information please contact the Coalition Against Water Privatisation:
Patra Sindane (Organizer) @ 073 052 7005 0R 078 064 3897

Anti Privatisation Forum
123 Pritchard Street (cnr Mooi)
6th floor Vogas House, Johannesburg
Tel: (011) 333-8334 Fax: (011) 333-8365


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 04/21/2008 - 09:32


Delft-Symphony Pavement dwellers building a new world - one child at a time

Greetings from the pavement of Delft-Symphony:

Over the past month, the Delft-Symphony Pavement Dwellers and their elected Anti-Eviction Campaign leadership have been working hand-in-hand to improve the lives of residents. While it may be an exaggeration to assume (as was reported recently in the Cape Argus) that we live here on the pavement in harmony all the time, there does exist a strong sense of camaraderie among residents and a common vision of the type of world we are fighting for.

What are we fighting for? We are fighting for housing; not only for ourselves but for everyone living in South Africa. We recognize that South Africa is a financially rich country that now has 3 billionaires according to the Forbes list and countless millionaires. This is a country that can easily afford to build decent housing for all and fulfil its constitutional mandate. We believe that the government is violating the constitution and our human rights by refusing to spend more than 2% of its budget on housing.

Still, we are not only fighting for houses, we are also fighting for ownership of the housing process. If it is true that 'the people shall govern', then how can we sit by and allow a few elitist government officials and their haughty friends in Thubelisha Homes define the process for us? Yet the government believes that we are stupid; that we cannot think for ourselves; that we cannot design our own communities or construct our own houses. We denounce this arrogance and snobbery by Lindiwe Sisulu and her friends. But, we are not just fighting for houses and for ownership of the housing process; even more significantly, we are fighting for a better world for ourselves, our children and for every single person living in South Africa.

The privatisation and corporatisation of our country is building a new Apartheid that ghettoises the poor in new suburban townships where bread and electricity prices shoot through the roof and where a multi-billion Rand train project in Gauteng is creating a transportation system accessible only to tourists and the wealthy. And so, while fighting for our right to housing, we, the Pavement Dwellers of Delft-Symphony, begin (slowly and without government support) to create this new world that we are fighting for. And we begin, first and foremost, with our children.

We have recently set up a community crèche on the pavement. With the eventual arrival of a container, we expect the crèche to become a defining fixture of our community. But this is only one of the projects we have created for our children. For the past few weeks, we have been running a unique 'pavement camp' for kids on school holiday. This has included our soccer and netball clinics, collecting the kids for discussions on life and life-skills, and preparing for the upcoming Symphony Way Fashion Show. Everything has been run by the community and coordinated by the new Delft-Symphony Children's Committee.

This is proof, once again, that we are not stupid; that we can think; that we can design our own communities, construct our own houses, and build a new world for our children. And we will do so without being commanded by the so-called experts in government who do not understand the human consequences of forced removals and the povertization of the population caused by persistent anti-poor economic policies.

For comment, please call
076-186-1408 or

The pavement in the desert on the other side of Cape Town International Airport,
The Delft-Symphony Anti-Eviction Campaign

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 04/24/2008 - 10:41


Videos: John Pilger on Apartheid, Local and Global

April 23rd, 2008 by Sharlene

Image removed.Image removed.Image removed.Journalist John Pilger attended the 2008 Time of the Writer, where he gave a Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture in association with the Centre for Civil Society during the festival’s closing session, which was simply entitled “An Evening with John Pilger”.

The entire session was recorded and is streamed at Here, we bring you three good-quality clips from the talk:

In the first clip, Pilger reminisces about his stint as a journalist in South Africa in the 1960s, describing a “struggle photograph” he keeps over his desk in the UK.

In the second, Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee challenges Pilger’s assertion that “apartheid did not die” (using his own reportage from the 60s); and in the third, writer and Centre for Civil Society Director Patrick Bond poses a question that leads to a discussion of US power and global apartheid:


Video: Clip from John Pilger’s opening remarks


Video: Ferial Haffajee challenges John Pilger


Video: Patrick Bond and John Pilger on US power