22 March 1958: Barbara Castle, Father Hooper and justice in South Africa

From our correspondence.

22 March 1958

Sir, - Among the many letters I have received arising out of my recent articles on South Africa there is one from Father Hooper, which I feel I must share with your readers. Father Hooper is the Anglican priest and missionary at Zeerust, in the North-West Transvaal, near the borders of Bechuanaland. I have already described in a New Statesman article the fearless way in which he has identified himself with the resistance of the local African people to the government’s attempt to impose passes on the women. Now he writes:

Things are very dire here: much more so than at the time of your visit. In reply to your request for news I shall outline one or two salient matters:

1. On the Friday of the week after you were here (24 January) four people were shot dead and several wounded in Gopane, 35 miles from Zeerust. The wounded who could run did so; some have not been seen since. Those who could not run were taken into custody and kept under guard in the Zeerust hospital. The official version is that the police were attacked. The unofficial version differs from the official version – diametrically. Among the four dead were a youngster and the village simpleton. At the time of the shooting the police are said to have been assaulting an old man – his youngest son ran, and bystanders and this son were shot. None of the bodies fell nearer than 75 yards from the scene of police action. Quite a civilising mission, really. Sten guns; and a lot of pieces of person on the grass. We had been expecting this for months.

2. Three to five thousand refugees have left the area for Bechuanaland – figures are uncertain. They are being well looked after there. I was told in Lobatsi that they are scattered from the border to the Kalahari, and from Mafeking to Serowe. A similar number have left for Johannesburg, many passing through this rectory. One woman had a miscarriage here at the rectory.

3. Police and pro-government chief action continue to be less than benign. A large number of illegal fines have been levied, and the people are in a terrible condition – their cattle having been seized in most instances. As a direct result of police action we face a major famine – no ploughing, or no weeding of crops means that this year this district is going to produce almost nothing. This will doubtless be represented as a visitation from the White Man’s God. For this reason, and because now we can no longer afford legal defence (in one instance 80 people are facing a charge of murder for the death of one man) we desperately need money. Can you help?

4. Banishment of local people to Natal has begun.

5. Last Friday the government (i.e., Vermoerd) made it illegal for anybody to enter these reserves without a permit from the Native Commissioner – penalty three years or £300. This means (a) refugees cannot return if they wish to; (b) nobody has access to observe what is going on behind our local iron curtain; (c) exempted people such as myself can be banned from entering – I have no received notice of such banning – yet; (d) husbands from the towns can no longer visit their wives or children. Further any statement, verbal or written, which is “likely to subvert the authority of the state, chief or headman”, carries a penalty of £300 or three years. Most of the people are of course ignorant of this proclamation.

6. Our own position is more or less impossible. When I go to visit church members in the reserves, police vans (riot cars) accompany me. Nobody wants to see his priest in such company.

7. In spite of all this, three villages have again refused to take reference books for their women. I don’t know what it is about these people, but they are both courageous and stubborn. They say: “The elephant is now stamping us into the ground”. And then they get up and defy the elephant all over again. In the end the elephant will have to depart or tire, and then we may expect all hell to break loose. Guns just can’t subdue the spirit; or not for long.

Father Hooper has risked a great deal to make these evils known. In this he is typical of many brave spirits in South Africa. In return we owe them our support – moral, political and – above all in the immediate future – financial.

Barbara Castle
House of Commons

Barbara Castle in 1974. Photo: Getty Images.

Letters, articles and notes from the New Statesman's centenary archive.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496