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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 http://www.johnpilger.com