The Presidential Years

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“We have to confront the fact that during the last three years, the matter has become perfectly clear that the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as force opposed to the ANC.”

The speaker was neither Blade Nzimande nor Gwede Mantashe. It was Nelson Mandela, at the ANC conference in December 1997. Nzimande was a backbencher in the National Assembly and Mantashe was a councillor in Ekurhuleni.

Almost two decades later, the tug-of-war between the ANC and the media seems far from over. In fact, it’s intensifying.

In the winter of 1997, Mandela had heated exchanges with members of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) at a meeting in his office. This was after he had said in Harare that South Africa’s media was being controlled by whites, and black journalists were nothing but tokens who were told what to write.

Thami Mazwai, the then head of Sanef, chastised Mandela for his comments and the fact that the media landscape was changing to reflect the new South Africa.

Mandela was livid. Gloves were off. He questioned several editors’ integrity. “There is no point in beating about the bush with problems. Whatever measures taken, the truth is that the media is still in the control of whites and, in many cases, conservative whites, who are unable to express the aspirations of the majority. This is not to reflect on their integrity but on their background.”

Mandela’s irritation with the editors was largely informed by what former Cape Times editor Tony Heard described as unsympathetic press towards the liberation movements in the early 1990s. Writing in the Rhodes Journalism Review in December 1991, Heard, who later joined Thabo Mbeki’s government, said: “Major unbanned players in the peace and political process, notably the ANC, cannot rely on media support worth speaking of in the establishment press.”

Heard predicted that such antagonism would put the ANC in government “under pressure to break up an unsympathetic press”.

Yet it’s worth remembering that, two months before he became president in 1994, Mandela was reassuring to the press: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens,” he told the International Press Institute congress in February 1994.

Today, ANC leaders still seem to believe the press is too harsh on the ruling party. They forget one crucial point: the ANC is now in power, has millions behind it and cannot continue playing victim.

This is not to suggest that the party’s concerns about lack of transformation and unfair reporting are not legitimate. Transformation in the media – and society in general – is still an unfinished story that must never be wished away.

But some of the current leaders of the ANC and its alliance, and recently the Democratic Alliance government in the Western Cape, are motivated by their desire to throttle a critical press. Though politicians must never be allowed to use transformation as an opportunity to erode the freedom of the media, the media cannot continue resisting transformation under the pretext of staving off political interference.

When the Mail & Guardian endorsed the ANC in 1994, it cautioned against leaders who would readily be willing to suspend, for expediency’s sake, some of the freedoms and rights attained.

Nzimande is one of them. His delusional rants about the so-called anti-majoritarian media seeking a regime change must be taken seriously. You ignore his sharp tongue at your own peril – for two reasons.

First, his South African Communist Party (SACP) has managed to effect radical policy changes in the ANC government, including nudging it to demand the bogeyman of the media – an appeals tribunal.

Second, as the ruling party’s grip on power slips, the media, the judiciary and other institutions become easy targets.

Funnily enough, Nzimande loves the media. It is thanks to him that the SACP’s exposure is disproportional to its size. Like the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille, he only gets mean when he can’t control journalists. He wants the country and the world to believe that the media is responsible for South Africa’s and the ANC’s problems.

Yet the ANC’s internal documents, penned by fellow communist Mantashe, have repeatedly pointed to weaknesses, dysfunctionalities, incompetencies, mismanagement and factional fights as threats to their power. I urge Nzimande to reread these documents before accusing the media of treason.

In his report to the party’s national leaders last December, Mantashe admitted: “Many people who stay home and not vote are actually ANC sympathisers. But they find reasons not to vote, including that they are unhappy about some of the things that happen in the party.”

Those protesting against poor services, who are humiliated by poverty and failed by leaders, will find it difficult to believe that the media is responsible for their miseries. But Mantashe, like Nzimande, also believes the media is responsible for the party’s woes, accusing media houses for being “part of the offensive” against the ANC.

At least their colleague, ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize, sounded more reassuring when he told Sanef members that the ANC still does believe in a free media as a cornerstone of a thriving democracy. But he still shared his colleagues’ rage towards the media and said that he felt the current regulatory system was not effective.

Like Nzimande, Mkhize conflated the regulatory system with the expectation of favourable coverage of the ANC and its government. But Nzimande just wants the four Cs for the media: control, censorship, classification and a communist interpretation of the world.

He and Mkhize need to separate the legitimate need for an effective regulatory system and his wish to strangle the media. When there were concerns about the weaknesses of our old regulatory system, we listened, reshaped and embraced the co-regulation system that now includes members of the public. It’s effective and functional. Ask editors.

In her book The Rise of the Securocrats, Jane Duncan of the University of Johannesburg attests to the effectiveness of the current co-regulation system: “Since its relaunch in 2007, there is little doubt that the South African press regulator has established itself an independent, effective mediator and adjudicator of complaints. In fact journalists have complained about the press ombud’s office being far more harsher in its expectation of the press than the courts. This reputation for toughness and independent-mindedness can be attributed to the strong leadership shown by the PCSA (Press Council of South Africa) and the ombud’s office. It has much more credibility than the PCC [Parliamentary Committee on Communications].”

Before Nzimande accuses Duncan of being part of the bourgeois, anti-majoritarian, capitalist offensive, she was also critical of the media: “But there are indications of systemic pressures on journalism standards, as newsrooms cut costs to compensate for lost advertising revenue and declining circulation.

“Most of the complaints received by the PCSA’s press ombudsman have been about accuracy, followed by not seeking the views of the subjects of critical reporting, and lack of context and balance. These findings imply that the fact-checking systems in newsrooms need improvement, yet subeditors have been fired in droves,” she wrote.

Instead of hallucinating about media conspiracies, Nzimande should raise similar issues aimed at improving the quality of journalism, in the greater interest of South Africa.

Should he do that, he would find more friends in the media, such as veteran journalist Joe Thloloe, who reminded the media at the Percy Qoboza memorial lecture last year that, whatever we do, we must not miss “the South African story”.

That story is not about Nzimande. It’s about the ordinary South Africans we often ignore, giving them a voice only as violent protesters, criminals, the indigent and victims. Our indifference, lack of concern and shoulder-shrugging attitude towards them will delegitimise our public-interest objectives, and help legitimise those who have failed them.

Moshoeshoe Monare, deputy editor, Mail & Guardian
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