South Africa's misguided ban on a black newspaper

The decision by the South African government to ban the daily Post Transvaal and the Sunday Post is being met with understandable indignation not only from press groups throughout the world but from white political leaders within South Africa itself. The papers -- which have the largest circulation among blacks in that country -- were published by the white-owned Argus Company and distributed mainly in the Soweto annex of Johannesburg.

The closure is the second such action by the government in the past three years. The perplexing question is why the government decided to move against the papers at this time, given its eagerness in recent weeks to foster a better international image. Despite this week's ban on the Post, for example, the government has just returned the passport of black Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches. The bishop is an outspoken critic of apartheid.

South Africa's Newspaper Press Union expressed the concerns of most world press bodies in condemning the ban when it said that "in a state which values democratic principles, the closure of a newspaper would be justified only as a matter of extreme urgency to protect the security of the state and its people." Most Western press groups would question whether there is ever any justification for banning a newspaper. Whatever the deeper motivations of the South African government, it can hardly be said that South Africa's security has been enhanced.

In fact just the opposite is likely to occur. Many blacks inclined to seek reconciliation between white and black South Africans may now be further alienated. At the least, some readers of the essentially moderate Post are expected to turn to more extremist underground publications.

Will any successor paper to the Post be "toned down" in editorial content to ensure its own longevity? Does this latest ban portend any further hardening on the part of the government, especially of the relatively new justice minister? What is certain is that the decision to slam the door shut on the Post papers badly serves South Africa and the goal of bringing about racial harmony.

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