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S. Africa Hides Cameras Behind a Rock

<i> Lawrence Weschler, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of "The Passionof Poland " (Pantheon). </i>

South Africa was rent by some of its worst violence in a decade last week--several dozen people were massacred by police in separate incidents around the country during a single day--and yet these incidents barely disturbed the tenor of public discourse here in the United States, indeed barely appeared at all. The various evening news telecasts mentioned them in passing and quickly moved on.

Something strange has happened with regard to the news out of South Africa--something strange has been happening with regard to the news, period, here in the United States. There are many ways of getting at this transformation. One might be found in an account of an incident that occurred long ago and far away from either South Africa or the United States.

In his remarkable chronicle, “Memory of Fire: Genesis,” Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano recounts a true story, from the year 1565, about two Peruvian Indians slaving away on an inland hacienda who were one day ordered by the plantation’s foreman to transport 10 succulent melons into Lima “for the pleasure and delectation” of the plantation’s owner, Don Antonio Solar.

The Indians had never before seen such melons (this particular variety was previously unknown in the New World, having arrived as seeds along with the Conquistadores), and they were of course intensely curious about how the strange fruit might taste. The foreman knew this and wanted to disabuse them of any fantasies in this regard. After loading five melons onto each of their backs, he handed them a letter for Don Antonio and warned them, “If you eat any of the melons, this letter will tell about it.”

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The Indians set out on their trek, but just a few miles from Lima they sat down to rest by a ravine. They were tired and hungry and above all curious; they were dying to taste the mysterious melons (“One melon,” they tempted each other, “just one”), but they remembered the letter and, as one of them warned, “The letter will sing.

“They look at the letter and hate it,” Galeano concludes his story. “They look around for a prison for it. They hide it behind a rock where it can’t see anything, and devour a melon in quick bites, sweet juicy pulp, delicious beyond imagining. Then they eat another to even the sacks. Then they pick up the letter, tuck it in their clothing, throw the sacks over their shoulders, and continue on their way.”

It’s a luminous true-life parable, a piece of writing about the miracle of writing. By embodying a pre-literary sense of the very concept of literacy, Galeano’s story recovers for us the sheer wonder of that literacy. Reading it, we read ourselves reading. And yet we are reading it at a curious juncture in the history of reading--for, as has often been suggested, nowadays we are increasingly living in a post -literate world.

Thus, in South Africa today, we are confronted with a modern parable, as strange and uncanny as the first. An extraordinary social revolution is under way there. Hundreds of thousands of blacks are rising up to overthrow the horrendous system of apartheid that has been enslaving them for generations. Day after day they rally and march and are massacred and rally anew at funerals for the victims of the massacres.

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At first the story occupied the forefront of our consciousness. Every evening images beamed back from South Africa led the television news. Then one day the white South African government hit on a curious strategy: Ban the cameras. Hide them behind a rock so that they can’t see anything and therefore won’t be able to divulge their witness.

It was a magic notion, a cunning bit of sorcery, based on a bleak estimation of the world’s capacity for attention--or, at any rate, of America’s. It was as if to say that if people were denied images of oppression, they would grow to ignore that oppression, and presently to forget all about it. In a world of literacy, in which people still valued reports that they read, such a strategy would have been as preposterously ineffectual as the Indians’ ploy of hiding the letter.

But this is not 1565, the dawning of the age of literacy--this is 1986, what may be the twilight of that age. And astonishingly, though the events transpiring in South Africa today are every bit as dramatic and compelling as they were before the banning of the cameras a year ago robbed us of our daily exposure to the imagery of oppression, we no longer seem capable of holding the situation there in mind.


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