The media in South Africa has been too critical of this government to appease its white owners, writes MLUNGISI MTSHALI
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, credited for being a driving force for the Progressive Era, was known as a man who constantly called for moderation, not extremism.
Roosevelt dubbed the journalists and activists of the day who were intent on exposing the corruption in society as “muckrakers”. He felt that they did a tremendous amount of good, but needed to mitigate their constant pessimism and alarmist tone. He worried that the sensationalism with which these exposes were often presented would make citizens overly cynical and too prone to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Roosevelt felt that such media behaviour was fraught with untold damage to the country as a whole. ‘There is nothing more distressing to every good patriot, to every good American, than the hard, scoffing spirit which treats the allegation of dishonesty in a public man as a cause for laughter’.
In South Africa today, the muckrakers have taken over the Republic. As with the Roosevelt era, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The media activism in South Africa has done a lot of good in exposing the bad happening in the halls of power. The problem, however, is that over the last 23 years, this media zealotry has led the media not being reined in by any journalistic prescripts of working only with evidence-based work, but have always been ready to create their own suspicions and then build hysteria without any sense of authoritative information. This had led to the rise of media henchmen sent across to cut the rising power of the state apparatus.
For example, in February 2008, The Guardian Newspaper, analysing Thabo Mbeki’s Presidency, said, his story is a ‘Shakespearean tale of power struggles, paranoia, betrayals, secrets, lies and, above all, hubris’.
This conclusion was not based on any particular fact but on loose rhetoric that had been bought and sold and repeated loosely until it found resonance among the broader media strata and public.
In an SABC interview on 11 November 2017, with a panel of analysts and journalists on the SASSA debacle, which was predominantly a mockery of the Minister of Social Development on her perceived vested interests and corruption with regard to CPS as an ongoing service provider for the distribution of grants. One bold interviewer asked, but who has any evidence that Bathabile Dlamini is in fact having a greasy and financially beneficial relationship with CPS. Then there was silence. The whole panel went on an incoherent drive as if they have never thought they would have to be asked to actually produce this evidence that has allowed many to run with this narrative of a corrupt Bathabile who is hell bent on keeping CPS as a service provider because it financially benefits her.
The problem in South Africa is that whilst the country is 23 years old, the media itself is as old as the evils that preceded the new nation. Like most institutions that have survived and at times even thrived during our colonial and apartheid past, the media has also struggled to define its place and role in a new nation.
In his remarkable OR Tambo tribute early in the month, President Mbeki said, ‘To emphasise how dangerous these inevitable outcomes are, I can well imagine how much those are now rejoicing who were the diehards who belonged to the apartheid system and who never fully accepted that ours should become a non-racial democracy’.
Mbeki knows this because during his two terms as President of the Republic, the whole politico-media complex had built itself as a monument hell bent on using whatever shifting and factless information to challenge black power that they had seen metastasizing in front of their eyes sending shivers down their spine.
The black power of the Mbeki era, culminating with the taking over of the Western Cape by the ANC and a two third majority nationally sent some publications to speak of white exodus because of fear against such amount of power. The amount of media and non-governmental institutions that were formed to challenge the Mbeki Presidency had not been seen in 450 years of both colonialism and Apartheid.
After the 2004 elections The Economist spoke of a ‘Superficial picture of integration and progress, real as much of it is, which was not all rosy. White emigration figures, it said, though hard to pin down, because most of those departing do not say that they are going for good, was likely to be around 250 000-plus who had left since 1994, many of them young and talented. There was an increasing number of whites, especially those with children, who were edgier about pledging themselves to the country’s long-term future, the publication said.
The late Helen Suzman, the white liberal hope, had gone over the edge accusing Thabo Mbeki in every media she could get a hearing of ‘airbrushing the role of white liberals out of the country’s history”. The liberal machinery needed to fight back this black power. And they did.
On a long term and larger scale, colonial and post-colonial media has, including analysts, academics, writers and authors, driven by media owners and funders, suddenly appropriating itself morality and sainthood by going over the edge selling exaggerated sins of those so colonised. Of course, the tools to do that, all still at the hands of the coloniser, enable the colonizer to shape this new narrative.
Our post-colonial media, in their struggle to define their role in the new South Africa seem to have finally settled on the fears of their owners about an ANC too powerful to bring peace of mind to whites. The white owners would then choose which editors to employ (usually compliant and complacent), which articles to put out and for the publication, and just which books to put out.
The sins the that media has committed against the ANC government in the name of independence deserve their own piece. In a 2015 News24 article by Tebello Mokoena, he laments this logic of media independence which seems to suggest that criticism of the ANC or an anti-ANC posture is a sign of independence. Anyone who is not vocal enough in that department is not.
The problem with the South African media is that it seeks to sustain a false narrative about the objectivity or neutrality of the media, even though everyone else knows that it does not exist. The press is as neutral, objective or independent as the interests of those who own it, Tebello says.
This means the public is at the messy of media barons parading their views as public views or of public interest. In the Zuma era, the media has succeeded in making most citizens overly cynical and many have indeed thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Mtshali is a social activist and politics commentator