Friday, 16 September 2011

How to Lose the Fight: Part I

A casual survey of news and analysis over the past year makes it clear that a fight is currently raging whose outcomes will determine the trajectory of South African society for decades hence. The majority of citizens are, as is usually the case, watching from the sidelines - if they are watching at all. Many factions are so riven with internal battles that it is hard to discern who is fighting for what. This is of course compounded by the self-serving desire of many participants to hide their true intentions, whether these be of a pecuniary or political nature (or both). There is a lot to say about these battles, but I want to focus here on one thing: a particular type of approach which I believe is broadly well-intentioned in terms of its stated objectives, but which is, naively, in fact doing more to ensure that those objectives will never be met.

Behind this approach is a notion that government and the ruling party can be forced or coerced into doing ‘the right thing’. That force or coercion is exerted in three main ways: through critical media coverage and analysis; through legal action and judicial rulings; and through invoking the spectre of international condemnation. The point I want to make is simple: these methods will not only fail, but - if other things remain as they are - they will ensure the medium- to long-term failure of South African society on the very dimensions these actions are concerned with.

This claim may seem exaggerated, but I make it with some confidence. I can do so because since I came to hold this view almost a decade ago, the process has been taking place before our eyes. Initially, I was deeply critical of those involved in such actions. I continue to believe that many are misguided and motivated by certain prejudices and personal or political interests. However, an increasing proportion of this group – albeit still a minority- are fighting brave rear-guard battles for no reason other than their principled belief in the primacy of certain basic principles of good governance and justice. They are people who, based on their principles and competence, should be within the state machinery rather than outside it. (Why such people have found themselves out in the cold is an issue for a related, but separate, piece).

Nevertheless, the core claim will be sans caveats: The battle cannot be won solely from outside of government and the ruling party. It cannot. Nothing about the history and present state of South African society suggests this is remotely possible.

In the two parts to this piece I will outline – using the examples of the media and the judiciary – the rationale behind my rather bald claims. I will also discuss some reasons why the individuals involved in these actions are either unable or unwilling to recognise the limitations and consequences of what they are doing. Unfortunately, I have no easy solutions, but i’ll mention a few ideas on how – as individuals with principled concerns about the country’s trajectory – we might proceed.

Part I: The Media

Back in 2003 I had an (heavily edited) op-ed published in the Sunday Times in which I expressed concern that the obsession of the media with almost uniformly negative coverage of government would result in the latter institution hitting back; the analogy I made was with a donkey being constantly beaten. This seems now, if may say so, a little prescient. Its reception, however, served to illustrate the points I made rather well. I was subsequently invited onto a 702 talk show to debate the issue, and I declined this as I was reliably informed that I was not likely to get a decent hearing. On that show, Max du Preez – our self-styled ‘pale native’ and recent compiler of ‘thought leader’ opinions – declared the suggestion that the media had a responsibility to report on positive aspects of government as “the biggest load of crap I have heard in a long time” (I paraphrase slightly). After his fall-out with the SABC, his hostility should perhaps have been unsurprising. The problem is that it represents all-too-common a view in that profession.

However, I suspect the majority of our population are of the view that the news media, as a social institution, exists to report balanced information. Those who take du Preez’s stance tend to also bemoan government advertising and ‘propaganda’, without ever addressing the question of where the public is supposed to get objective information on good things done by government. Nevertheless, du Preez’s attitude serves as an excellent illustration of a deeply embedded stance within the South African private media; the media is there to keep government in line. Furthermore, it is not a watchdog of the highly trained sort, but of the badly-socialised pitbull variety that bites anyone and anything coming across the threshold.

Looking back to the time of the Sarafina II ‘scandal’ – which now appears distinctly quaint – we can see that the progressive media quickly returned to its pre-1994, conflictual approach to government (the era in which, to his credit of course, du Preez cut his teeth). It goes without saying that the conservative media was obviously never going to be positive about a ‘black government’. The consequence has been steadily-increasing, unmitigated hostility. The relationship between media and government post-1994 is deserving of at least one book-length analysis, which to my knowledge does not yet exist, but the only other thing I should mention is the further damage to the relationship done by Thabo Mbeki’s stance on AIDS. (This is an issue that I will revisit in Part 2 in relation to the judiciary). The Mail and Guardian, in particular, became incoherently critical under its then-editor Howard Barrell, who appeared to seek out anyone criticising Mbeki on any dimension while refusing to publish even letters in his support.

To add to that there was of course the unfortunate case of the South African Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in theSouth African media. But of course everyone has forgotten about that now. How the media played the man and not the ball, or, in this case, the woman: Claudia Braude, researcher at the Media Monitoring Project, who was subject to so much vitriol I believe she left the country for a period of time. It is also interesting, given the presumptuousness I draw attention to in my previous post, to look at Zapiro’s reaction. Braude made some mistakes to be sure, but vilification was not the right reaction and was, in any case, completely hysterical. Reading the final report - see for instance pages 11 to 18 - gives one a fairly clear picture of what took place. In fact, it is just an incredibly valuable document, regardless of whether you agree with all its content. In the end, the Commission concluded that "South African media can be characterised as racist institutions", although this is a more subtle statement than it might appear. Needless to say, this conclusion and most (perhaps all) of the recommendations accompanying it were rejected outright by virtually all private media bodies. Many of those who rejected the findings have, nevertheless, had no qualms about subsequently questioning the integrity of anyone who rejects the SAHRC’s findings on other matters with which our self-anointed protectors concur.

So not only has the private media been unbalanced in its approach to government and the ruling party, it has also been singularly uninterested in reflecting on its own weaknesses or accepting the validity of any criticism.    
By focusing the media, both in the nature of its coverage, its investigative reporting and the tone of editorials and opinion pieces, on individual government failures, an impression has been created within government and the ruling party of unfair treatment. This is an impression not only limited to those targeted, but many rank-and-file supporters of the ANC. It should be no surprise that within that organisation there has been such widespread support for the Media Tribunal and all manner of restrictions and limitations on reporters. There is a sense that journalists and editors have overhyped stories too many times. So we have found ourselves in a perverse situation where genuinely corrupt individuals have been able to win favour through critical media coverage, and the best politicians and civil servants have a media presence inversely proportional to their good deeds.

Contrast this state of affairs, and Max du Preez’s attitude with, for instance, the approach of the New York Times and Washington Post to American administrations. Each effectively takes turns being ‘embedded’ with administrations; the Post with Republican governments and the Times with Democrat ones. Now, I happen to be of the view that this has had a fairly devastating effect on democratic accountability in the US, but the main point is that no major American publication comes close to even publishing the brutally critical views regularly carried in the South African media. In addition, they regularly provide coverage of supposedly positive achievements of government. One feels that in the unlikely event a cartoonist like Zapiro existed in the US, he would not need to be sued by a standing president (as is happening now): he would simply be dismissed. Is it a coincidence that the two highly-regarded publications mentioned above have no serious political cartoonists? The same could be said for many other countries.

(Relatedly, it bears mentioning that South Africa’s new ‘Secrecy Bill’, which has rightly generated substantial controversy, does not appear more fearsome than the ‘Patriot Act’ -  passed under George W. Bush but, significantly, not repealed by Barack Obama.)

All of this serves to rubbish the suggestion that the South African government is much less tolerant of media criticism than many governments in ‘mature democracies’. Most of those governments have succeeded – some time ago - in co-opting the media in one way or another, but for various reasons the ANC is not in a position to do this at present. Instead it is forced to use more blunt instruments: exerting political control over the public broadcaster, creating a crony-supported private newspaper and pushing through the Secrecy Bill. There is no reason to measure ourselves by the low standards of the mature democracies of course, but it is important to have a level-headed view of what kinds of relationships between media organisations and governments have been sustainable elsewhere. Du Preez-style bludgeoning does not appear to have existed for any significant period elsewhere. Somehow a healthier balance needs to be struck than a politically corrupted public broadcaster and a set of regularly rabid private organisations.


The interim SAHRC report on racism in the South African media:

The final SAHRC report:
There’s a fairly good piece on the SAHRC saga from a fairly objective viewpoint here:


  1. Sean, I think that the Italian media might be one comparator for South Africa. Both from the right and from the left, the print media strongly criticise the government and the members of government. The Italian government is corrupt in ways that the US government is not (or does not appear to be - I think that the corporate capture works differently in the US). But, the Italian government seems corrupt in ways that the South African government and private sector seem also to be corrupt. The television networks in Italy are either controlled by the government (and thus Berlusconi) or are owned by Berlusconi, which makes SA's television media 'freer' than Italy's. I'm not sure if it's a "good thing" that the SA Media appear more like the Italian than the US's. Obviously, I comment on the Italian print media because I read them more than I do media in other languages. I am sure we could get relevant comments from people who read German, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

    I think that what differentiates SA most obviously is that we have less experience of a free press than many Northern hemisphere countries. What we require then, is a comparator system that is institutionally and historically more similar to SA (something which I think many South Africans hesitate to do, maybe because it's scary or because it means we won't be compared to countries people know more about).

    Anyway, I enjoyed your commentary.

  2. Hi Simon, thanks for the comment (and apologies for a belated reply). I think you make a valid point about considering non-Anglophone countries. But i'm not 100% sure what you're getting at. As things stand at this moment I don't think Italy is a good comparator because if Jacob Zuma owned a media house or two his friends would not be starting New Age, and the ANC might feel less inclined to try and crack down on the media.

    I think my point is that in the absence of a media house, or particular publication, aligning itself consistently with the ANC (as, say, the New York Times does with the Democrats) it is not surprising that the ANC feels its 'voice' is not represented. That feeling implies a contest with the current system, as I think is illustrated by the proposed media laws and founding of New Age.