The spat between Premier Helen Zille and The New Age newspaper about the partial bankrolling of the paper by parastatals like Telkom and Eskom and the partial bankrolling of the DA by a company associated with the owners of The New Age is great fun to watch. It’s a bit like watching WWE SmackDown on television. You know the contestants are performing their allotted roles, but you cannot avert your eyes from the gaudy performances on the screen. Pity they are not addressing the most pressing problems related to the subversive influence of public and private funds on our political process.
We all know that money buys elections. The recent US Presidential election cost a staggering 2.5 billion dollars. If Barack Obama had not raised over 1 billion dollars for his re-election campaign, he would never have been re-elected president of the United States.
One of the most important reasons why the ANC will remain electorally dominant for some time to come, is that it can raise hundreds of millions of Rand to pay for its lavish election campaigns. With the help of its Chancellor House front company and large donations by big business (who donate money to the ANC with the expectation that it would receive large tenders or policy favours in return) the ANC has become a money-spinning machine. The DA will also continue to improve its electoral performance (killing smaller parties in the process) as its access to patronage and power in the Western Cape and various cities and towns increasingly attracts big business donors who are eager to gain tenders or policy favours from the DA-led government or avoid harsh criticism by the DA spin machine.
Yet, both the ANC and the DA refuse to reveal who their funders are. In principle, both parties claim to support openness and transparency. But because it is in their immediate interest, they are not prepared practice what they preach. There is no way in which we can know to what extent funders influence the policies and governance practices of these parties. Did the police decide to break up the Marikana strike because of the influence of Lonmin and other mining companies who, for all we know, might have donated large sums of money to the ANC? Did it decide to end its discussions of mine nationalisation because it was going to lose an important source of funding?
And can the muted response of the DA to the police massacre at Marikana be attributed to their need to keep potential mining companies sweet, to ensure future donations to the party or to reward them for past donations?
We will probably never know.
But money also sways elections in another important way. Money influences the range of news and opinion voters are exposed to. That is why it is problematic that government departments and parastatals seem to keep The New Age afloat, despite the fact that this does not make any business sense. The governing party is trying to use its power and influence as governing party to try and buy good publicity through The New Age. This seems like a bad investment, as no one knows whether anybody is actually reading the newspaper. I tried to read it, but was put off by its novel strategy of publishing only the most boring and uncontroversial copy haphazardly thrown on to the page, seemingly without the assistance of a layout artist.
Public funds are also used to subsidise the SABC, which is by far the most important source of news and opinion for South Africans. And as the SABC is ANC aligned, it seldom reports on (or carry opinions about) things that would threaten the hegemonic political consensus on which the ANC’s political success partly depends.
This is not to say that the private media is truly “independent”. The private media mostly make their profits (if any) by selling advertising to businesses (steeped in the ideology of the free market). The news reports and opinions in the media might be critical of individual companies, but will seldom threaten the hegemonic interests of big business. Moreover, the private media must target the audience whom advertisers would like to sell their products to. These middle class consumers of mainstream media are often steeped in a “safe consensus”, holding self-serving “common sense” opinions about the desirable economic system and about a range of other policy issues (without always knowing that they do).
This allows private media outlets wanting to make a profit to provide a narrow spectrum of “diverse opinion” that cleaves narrowly to the middle ground. Reporting and complaining about ANC corruption is safe because many of the high-end consumers of news want to know about this. But how often would the media point out that the logic of the free market condemns millions of South Africans to hunger and poverty? The mainstream media will also seldom report extensively on the lives of people living in rural areas, while often depicting the poor and marginalised as dangerous, irrational, violent, welfare scroungers or as pitiful but powerless victims in need of our patronising sympathy and our handouts.
With some notable exceptions (City Press at its best, the Daily Maverick on the Marikana massacre), the media serves the ANC-DA consensus uncritically, providing the illusion of a robust exchange of opinions and ideas, while ignoring ideas and opinions (and failing to report stuff that many real people experience every day) that threatens the elite consensus about what ought to be important and how South Africa should be governed.
Underlying much of the reporting and opinion published in newspapers and broadcast on television is an assumption that important political contestation only happens within and between political parties. Social movements and grassroots organisations are largely ignored. The political elites almost never engage with the leadership of such movements and the media seldom report on grassroots mobilisation by communities – until so called “service delivery protests” flare up and violence engulf places like Ficksburg or Sasolburg. Often, such reporting is saturated with fear.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with Business Day pushing its free market agenda or not publishing a double spread interview with striking mineworkers. Neither is there anything wrong with The New Age pushing an anti-DA agenda. The problem is that these disagreements all occur within a narrow ideological band. There is little diversity of opinion in the media in South Africa. Really, if we are presented with a world in which we only have two options: the DA or the ANC, then we have not really been presented with much of a choice at all.
If, as the Constitutional Court argued, freedom of expression is important for a democracy, partly because the robust exchange of ideas and opinions lead us to the truth (or at least our version of the “truth”), and allow us to become active citizens free to make real choices about who we are, how to live our lives and who to vote for, then the corrosive influence of money that produces a narrow band of facts and opinions in both the public and private media in South Africa does not serve the aims of free expression, nor of deliberative democracy.
Yes, it might serve the interests of the two major political parties (albeit unevenly), and it might serve the interests of the elites and of the business community – but that is only a small section of the 50 million people who are not effectively empowered to become active citizens.
No wonder that, on paper at least, the policy differences between the DA and the ANC are often related to style more than to substance. Both parties have adopted the National Development Plan as its policy Bible. Both believe that the state should play some role in addressing the unfair and unsustainable effects of past discrimination and exclusion. Both cosy up to big business – although for internal political reasons the ANC has to be nice to organised labour while the DA can bash the unions without alienating its donors. DM
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