The biggest news in South Africa last week was not the continuing political violence or a new black protest against apartheid but an epidemic of equine influenza that has virtually halted horse racing during the Christmas holidays.
Every day the newspapers published long front-page articles as the virus swept one stable after another, as veterinarians puzzled over the disease and discussed its treatment, as the government debated whether to import a foreign vaccine, as provincial officials worried about the revenue they were losing from taxes on betting.
South Africa's deepening political crisis, described by many of the government's supporters and most of its opponents as certain to shape the future of the country, did not disappear from the newspapers, but press coverage was frequently reduced to a few short stories and perhaps an editorial.
"Censorship has reduced us to talking about the collapse of the Christmas racing season rather than the fate of the nation," Mary Burton, national president of Black Sash, a civil rights group, said the other day, decrying the impact of new government regulations that sharply curtail the reporting of civil unrest and "subversive statements."
"From the South African press today, we would seem more concerned about the health of our horses than about the several hundred children who have been detained without charge, and most likely will be held in prison over Christmas. . . .
"This, quite clearly, was the government's intent--to shift public attention away from the crisis toward something else, anything else, so that its actions would not be scrutinized and we would be lulled into a false sense that things are quiet. . . . Every day, momentous events occur, but all the public knows is what the authorities choose to disclose."
The full impact of the government's new press restrictions, introduced on Dec. 11 under the six-month-old national state of emergency, is just beginning to be felt, and opposition political groups are finding that they as much as the news media are targets of the crackdown.
A newsletter of the white opposition Progressive Federal Party was the first publication formally banned by government censors, who gave no reason for their decision. The newsletter would have carried detailed reports by party workers on political violence in Natal province. The party's national leadership has now resolved to challenge the regulations in court and to ignore them as it continues its regular political activities.
Three Johannesburg newspapers, meanwhile, were served with police orders prohibiting them from publishing news or advertisements about anti-apartheid protests over Christmas. Initially, statements by 13 groups, among them the South African Council of Churches, the United Democratic Front--the country's largest anti-apartheid group--and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, were banned. But on Saturday, the orders were extended to protest news of any nature concerning the protests.
One court appeal against the orders has been rejected, but another is to be heard today, and still others are planned.
Nine members of the End Conscription Campaign were arrested by security police and apparently will be charged under the new regulations with making "subversive statements." The regulations make it a crime to "discredit or undermine" the country's system of compulsory military service for white men.
After two weeks in detention, the nine, all white, were released on $70 bail each pending formal arraignment next month. If convicted, they could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years.
In Cape Town and in the Witwatersrand region east of Johannesburg, police have banned all protests organized by the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Council of Churches and a number of other groups demanding an end to emergency rule, freedom for political prisoners and withdrawal of troops from black townships.
Art Festival Banned
Activities supporting the United Democratic Front's "Christmas Against the Emergency" campaign were also prohibited. In Cape Town, an arts festival on the theme "Toward a People's Culture" was banned by the police as subversive.
The press is reporting "only a fraction, maybe 10% at most, of what we know that's happening," a staff member of the Sowetan, a black-edited newspaper, said in Johannesburg. "The rest of the stuff, and some of it is very major, we can't get permission to publish or don't even attempt to write. . . . There's a war in our (black) townships today, and we are forced to pretend that it is just a jolly nice picnic out there."
Even the skeletal daily "situation reports" from the government's Bureau for Information have made it clear that political violence, in which more than 2,300 people have died in the past two years, has perhaps abated but not stopped.
During the past week, the bureau has reported that several blacks were burned to death, apparently as a result of black political in-fighting, that policemen and soldiers were attacked with rifles and grenades while on patrol in three black townships around Johannesburg, that a white police officer's home was firebombed in East London, as was that of a local Indian official near Johannesburg, and that suspected guerrillas from the outlawed African National Congress were arrested while attempting to smuggle a large quantity of arms and ammunition into the country from Swaziland.
Only Official Version
The government's new restrictions prevent reporters, local and foreign, from saying much more. News people are prohibited from covering at first-hand any unrest and many anti-government political gatherings. They may report only the official version of any violence and police and army actions taken to deal with it.
Journalists are forbidden to report on a wide range of nonviolent protests, including consumer boycotts, school boycotts, rent strikes and any civil disobedience. They may not report on "illegal alternative structures" such as street committees and "people's courts" that black activists have established during the past 18 months in a bold challenge to the government.
And they may not report any statements the government regards as "subversive," a broadly defined term that includes criticism of the government's handling of the national crisis.
The regulations prohibit newspapers from using white space or otherwise indicating, as they have done in the past, that their reports have been effectively censored.
"This newspaper may have been censored," the country's largest daily, the Star in Johannesburg, says in a strip across the front page each day. "We are not permitted to say where, how or to what extent."
(Note: This article was written to comply with the regulations, which continue to permit political reporting and comment within limits. The regulations make reporters themselves responsible for judging whether a report falls under the category of censorable material and, if so, to submit it to the government for approval.)
47 Items Prohibited
Government censors at the Interdepartmental Press Liaison Center in Pretoria said that in their first five days of operation, they prohibited the publication of 47 items and cleared 15. They said that 40 additional items "fell outside the ambit of the regulations" and thus could legally be published, although they advised editors to exercise "caution" on some.
"The political crisis, to say the least, has deepened," the Johannesburg newspaper Business Day said after the restrictions had been in force a week. "And in terms of the new emergency regulations which throttle the freedom of information, the least is all we can say."
The press restrictions, unprecedented in South Africa, were justified by President Pieter W. Botha as a necessary part of the government's efforts to combat a Communist-led revolution and prevent a terrorist campaign against whites as the start of a general black uprising.
The government's Bureau for Information on Sunday used half-page newspaper advertisements to defend the new regulations, which include censorship of news on civil unrest and statements critical of the government's measures to deal with it, as being essential to the restoration of peace and stability here.
"The kind of struggle in which South Africa currently finds itself is primarily a struggle of perceptions, not of conventional arms," the bureau said. "The target is the 'hearts and minds' of the population. The media, as the main generator of perceptions, clearly plays a key role in this process. . . . It is not so much the facts that create a psychological climate as the manner in which they are selected and presented."
The bureau strongly denied criticism of the new regulations as "the end of press freedom," "the death of democracy" and the "start of an Orwellian era" in South Africa.
"The media's allegations that the new regulations have made South Africa a 'totalitarian state' and have finally extinguished press freedom have been belied by the virulence of the media's own criticism of these measures," the bureau said.
"The current struggle in South Africa is not between whites and blacks or between the government and the opposition, but between moderates and radicals. It is between those who advocate negotiation and evolutionary change and those who advocate violence and revolutionary change; it is between those who are working for a plural society with a free economy in which everyone would have a say and those who are working for a single-party state with a socialist economy in which no one but the party elite would have a say.
"The media would do well to decide which side they are on," the bureau concluded. "In so doing, they should bear in mind that were the radicals ever to win, freedom of the press would be the first victim. It would disappear totally and permanently."
The Afrikaans-language press, which supports the ruling National Party, largely accepts the government's argument. Die Burger in Cape Town described the regulations as "a temporary diminution of press freedom, but one that in the long run will ensure the survival of a free press."
To Murphy Morobe, chief spokesman for the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 700 anti-apartheid groups that the government identified as a target of the current crackdown, the press restrictions are part of a larger plan to erect "a wall of silence" between the whites and the country's black majority and then to crush the front and other organizations campaigning for majority rule.
"In the midst of terror and war, white people will be kept ignorant by a government that wants to cauterize their conscience," Morobe said in Johannesburg. "At the same time, the government hopes to silence the real voice of opposition in the white community through detentions and restrictions. In this way, the desired war psychosis will be created amongst the white population under the guise of 'defense against the revolutionary onslaught.' The final slide into total dictatorship thus becomes justified in terms of 'defense of democracy,' a concept completely alien to those who are using it."
Among blacks, Morobe continued, the press restrictions will have the effect of "keeping the oppressed communities in the dark about what is going on in other parts of the country . . . (and) in this way isolate, demoralize and fragment the struggle of our people."
The measures also drew criticism from the government's white parliamentary opposition, which felt that it, too, was affected, and from a cross-section of businessmen, lawyers, educators and churchmen who believe the regulations will stifle the free debate they see as necessary to settle the country's future.
The Progressive Federal Party, the largest opposition party in Parliament, expressed concern that its activities would be severely circumscribed by the regulations, particularly if Botha calls elections for March or April. It resolved to challenge the restrictions in and out of court.
Party spokesmen "should deal with all aspects of PFP policy and say whatever needs to be said on matters affecting the well-being of the country," Ken Andrew, chairman of the party's national executive committee, said after a meeting of party leaders.
"The PFP will not become part of a cover-up operation. The emergency regulations are not only unjust and undemocratic, but they are also dangerous because an uninformed public can be lulled into a false sense of security until it is too late."
Peter Soal, another Progressive Federal member of Parliament, said that with "less and less known about what is really going on in the country, the danger is growing daily that whatever we discuss, that we debate and we in Parliament decide, in fact, will prove irrelevant to the country's needs. . . . Without knowledge of the facts, how can we even attempt to resolve the country's problems?"
Parliament Session Due
The Progressive Federals plan to use the coming session of Parliament, which opens late next month, to fight the regulations and also to "open up debate and get information out," since statements made in Parliament are not subject to the regulations.
Ferdie Hartzenberg, a Conservative Party member of Parliament, said that the Nationalists clearly want the advantage the regulations will give them in the anticipated elections.
"If criticism that could and would have to be made is suppressed (during the election campaign), then it will be a rape of democracy, and the government can expect even more problems," Hartzenberg said.
Similar, though more limited, complaints are coming from businessmen worried about the impact of the regulations on the country's recession-hit economy.
Tony Norton, the chief executive officer of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, said the government's press restrictions, including censorship of such stories as consumer boycotts and strikes by black workers, will make it difficult for investors to make considered decisions. Two of the country's financial magazines have warned that the restrictions will lead to increased "insider trading."