IN the closing scene of George Orwell’s brilliant allegory of political revolution, Animal Farm, the workers eavesdrop on a meeting at which their masters, the pigs, are fraternising with the traditional enemy, human beings. As they look from human to pig, and back again, it dawns on them that they can no longer tell the difference. The revolution, living up to its basic geometry, has come full circle.

The story of Animal Farm is thankfully no blueprint for a liberated South Africa, although it certainly provides a reasonably accurate script for the recent history of Zimbabwe. But one of the book’s major themes is the gradual erosion of hard-won freedoms to the point from which they started. It is certainly possible to illustrate in some key areas of South African national life.

The electronic media provides an example. At the height of apartheid, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was little more than the public relations department of the National Party. One remembers the presentation of news and editorial comment in the 1970s and 1980s with something approaching amazed disbelief. With the advent of democracy broadcasting, particularly on the radio, improved considerably. Yet a decade after liberation we live with an extraordinary phenomenon, a TV news service produced by a public service broadcaster that after half an hour frequently leaves you with the feeling that you actually know less than when you started.

The banal script that is dished up as news and its meaningless accompanying pictures are a throwback to the SABC of old; in short an exercise in government propaganda. The rest of SATV’s offerings, with the honourable exception of ‘Special Assignment’, amount to little more than endless hours of tenth rate American televisual rubbish destined to send viewers into a mental coma. South Africans, so sharply critical these days of American political ambition, are strangely tolerant of its even more dangerous cultural imperialism. But as we know from the apartheid years, mindless entertainment is the handmaiden of rulers with authoritarian tendencies.

There are other areas where little has changed, or change has come full circle depending upon your perspective. Universities in apartheid South Africa were under constant pressure − security legislation, censorship and racial quotas, for instance − designed to inhibit creative thinking that could produce ideas to challenge the political cloud cuckoo land inhabited by much of white South Africa.

Yet ten years after liberation, Peter Vale, Rhodes University Professor of Politics, is able to say that our universities ‘have experienced the most torrid and sustained period of interference’ in their history (Mail & Guardian 1 October 2004). Universities thrive on new ideas, but their development has been seriously compromised by structural change that has no demonstrable source in educational planning or cost-efficiency studies. Higher education is the pawn of political agendas. Vale reckons that ‘serious scholarship’ may take years to re-emerge in some institutions after recent experiences. There are those, of course, who understand the meaning of this only too well. Serious scholarship, as apartheid’s leaders found to their cost, has a dangerous habit of challenging interests that claim a monopoly of debate, patriotism, and the ‘national interest’.

And, of course, there is that hardy South African perennial, racial identity. Historically this is a country obsessed by the negative. For decades under colonial and apartheid rule the majority of South Africans were described as ‘non-Whites’, fated to lead lives bound by discrimination. Now we have ‘non-designated’ groups of people similarly judged, not in terms of their individual worth or inherent character, but of their apparent genetic inheritance and personal accidents of history. Those who support this system claim that it exists to correct historical wrongs. Yet they can give no clue how we shall recognise when this correction has been achieved. They live in the same fraudulent hope as the architects of apartheid who claimed that from discrimination would arise a collection of equal societies.

Orwell lived in the age of the great dictator. This gave way to authoritarian societies driven by faceless, grey bureaucracies of which South Africa was a particularly noteworthy example. We live in a period of history supposedly characterised by free market, liberal democracy, a global village bound together most notably by flows of information. Many of these are of dubious origin and sinister purpose as we know from what we are allowed to gather about the ‘fight against terror’. Governments legitimately put in power by large election victories are no more strangers to information manipulation and propaganda than those lacking democratic credentials.

Recent criticism from the Office of the President has focused on comments on South Africa’s business risk profile and crime (particularly rape) statistics. The tone suggests an intolerance of political debate that brings back bad memories of the apartheid era. Of course, all governments prefer a compliant, deferential, docile and malleable citizenry: it makes governing so much easier. But what is heartening is the fact that the very forces that brought down apartheid and made South Africa into a modern state have not gone away, much as the ANC, with its liking for centralised control of the political process, would like this to be the case.

Apartheid crumbled in the face of new ways of thinking and behaving by masses of South Africans. This culture of questioning and disputing continues to challenge those who wield power and its preservation is essential if we are to avoid the fate of Animal Farm, a turning back of the clock.

This article was first published in The Witness on 26 October 2004 and entitled ‘Orwell in South Africa’