Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Strange Reporting from the Economist.

Compared to most news publications the Economist is brilliant. But brilliant in the mass media is like being the most honest man in Congress, someone always qualifies but it isn't necessarily much of an honor. Recently the publication was put under a new editor, who is supposed to be a conservative—and since then, in my opinion the publication has taken a nosedive, at least in regards to its prior commitment to freedom.

But, that aside, it is the current series on South Africa that I want to mention. I just found that it makes remarks that simply are not true, or highly inaccurate. Perhaps it is small potatoes in the realm of journalism, but given its disappointing diversion away from its historical liberalism, these small errors become particularly irksome.

I have just started reading the series but already found two such matters in one article. Take for instance the publication's claim—individual authors are not identified so the blame must be placed collectively—that there is very little public transportation and most blacks are carless.

While most blacks don't own cars the claim that there is very little public transportation is simply false. Let us first start with a history of mass transport in South Africa. Prior to deregulation transit, like so much of the rest of life, was controlled by the omnipotent apartheid state. Transportation was offered but only in furtherance of racial policies. Government control of transit was used to channel black workers according to racial policies. The reality was that black commuters, during the struggle against apartheid, boycotted official government transport. What state transport there was, buses and trains, were intentionally boycotted as tools of oppression. When the state controls everything eventually it is run by people who use the "everything" as a means of stripping people of rights.

The "black taxi" industry exploded in response to the boycotts. Hundreds of thousands of illegal taxis flooded the country. By this time the apartheid governments had pretty much lost control of the country and illegal business exploded, not just the taxi industry but casinos, porn shops, and grey—that is racially mixed—areas.

The reality is that these taxis are everywhere—not just in the urban areas. Intricate webs of overlapping taxis crisscross the country. Josephine, who worked for me three days a week, came from deep in the Free State, hours away. Yet she fairly regularly travelled home to visit family, mainly her grandchildren. From her home in Gautang she would take a couple of taxis to the terminal for the long-distance taxis. There she would usually take one taxi to the Free State and then another two taxis to the village where her grandchildren lived. These taxis are black-owned and black-operated and relatively inexpensive.

There are some real problems with the industry, mainly because the government does nothing, or next to nothing to protect honest taxi drivers from violent ones and thus crime is out of control. Despite such real problems it is simply false to say that there little mass transit for black commuters. In reality, South African blacks have more access to mass transit than most Americans, though Americans have less need for such things.

The second comment I found odd was a comment made about the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, one that is fundamentally classically liberal, I might add. The magazine mentioned that the party still gets a relatively small percentage of the vote and says this is because many black voters simply can't vote for their former oppressors. This is so out of kilter with the facts that I have to wonder how ignorant the writer was.

The Democratic Alliance is the party of anti-apartheid activists. It is the one party that consistently stood up to the National Party in parliament and for years, its lone member of parliament was the heroic Helen Suzman. Suzman constant opposition to apartheid put her life at risk, and her regular visits to activists imprisoned by the State is credited with keeping many of them alive.

The anonymous writer mentions that the head of the DA is white. She is, and the mayor of Cape Town, but being white is not synonymous with being pro-apartheid. If anything the Far Right accused the DA, in its various forms over the years, as race traitors that refused to stand up for a "white South Africa."

The Communist Party, on the other hand, was a major proponent of apartheid when it was first introduced. Yet the African National Congress literally hands over one-third of all seats in parliament to the Communist Party. When apartheid was imposed it was the creation of the Communist-led Labour Party and the National Party, a socialist white supremacist party. Where is the National Party? It folded up camp and basically joined the African National Congress, the majority party.

The absurdity of the remark thus becomes clear. Instead of the DA being one of the oppressors of black South Africans it was a leading opponent to apartheid and fought it, often a great personal risk to those who were members. And two parties that were intimately involved with black oppression, the Communist Party (especially in its early days) and the National Party (throughout its history) were major architects of the racialist policies that created the very oppression that the Economist mentions. The magazine has the facts completely backwards.

Photo: Taxi rank in Soweto, South Africa.