THROUGHOUT South Africa's long decades of darkness, individual journalists both black and white have often demonstrated remarkable courage in withstanding the forces of oppression. Some have paid for this defiance with their lives.
But now, with the end of apartheid in sight, South Africa's press is about to embark on a new and uncharted role.
The great newspaper monopolies controlled by whites are on the defensive as blacks demand access to ownership and influence. The state-controlled radio and television system, long the instrument of the governing National Party, is similarly due for an overhaul, which will mean more balance in programming.
There will be sweeping changes in the structure and operating methods of the press as blacks assume political control and Nelson Mandela, their leader, probably becomes South Africa's first black president.
An international media conference in South Africa to consider such prospects recently came to the conclusion that the "mass media" may be the "only instruments available for reconstruction, reconciliation and development."
This may be an overly sweeping claim, but there can be no doubt that journalists are going to play a key role, not only in the transition to democratic rule in South Africa, but in the aftermath that may be even more critical.
In the run-up to the election, journalists must bring dispassion to a country long roiled by passion. They must hew to the path of objectivity, amid tangled thickets of recrimination. Throughout the coming South African election campaign, there may be violence and attempts to sabotage the process. There are the challenges of tribalism and factionalism. There may be attempts to subvert the press, to hoodwink it, to use it, to bend it to advocacy reporting, to make it the pawn of particular politicians or lobbyists.
Yet, somehow, the journalists of South Africa must try to present the issues, analyze the platforms, and assess the potential of the candidates, with the kind of responsibility that sometimes eludes even the press in countries with longtime democratic traditions.
With the election over, even larger problems loom.
For the journalist, freedom does not always bring independence. Journalists in Russia and Eastern Europe have learned this bitter lesson. The old regimes that controlled what newspapers could publish and television stations could air have sometimes been replaced with regimes almost as autocratic. Sometimes the apparently liberated journalist is, in fact, the prisoner of a political party or a trade union. Sometimes the journalist's publication has been bought by a flamboyant new publisher. Sometimes the journalist finds himself working for a paper that appeals to the lowest common denominator in reader interests.
Black journalists in South Africa, who have clearly been at a disadvantage in marshaling resources to own their own news organizations, are discussing subsidies. It would be a tragedy if such subsidies hobbled their independence. If there are to be subsidies, government subsidies are the least desirable.
Despite the lure of political reporting, South Africa after its transition will need a lot of clear-headed economic reporting. Whites, as the London Economist put it recently, enjoy living standards ranking with those of Hungary and some of the better-off Latin American countries; black living standards equate with those of Zimbabwe and Botswana. Whatever redistribution there may be of resources, blacks, as the Economist puts it, "will stay poor until South Africa finds a way to expand its economy."
How does the journalist in South Africa make a constructive contribution to this economic development without becoming the pawn of a political party or government that seeks to impose political direction over what he or she writes? How does the journalist confront reality without losing integrity?
As South Africa enters an exhilarating but immensely delicate chapter in its history, its journalists will need to muster all the courage they have displayed in combating apartheid in the past.