Over the past couple of months, many editors, journalists and analysts have been surprised, indeed taken aback by the effectiveness of the ANC's march towards what would effectively be criminalising the free media. Here's how they're doing it.
For many years now we’ve grown accustomed to just about anything touched by the ANC-dominated government wilting and dying. Government departments are in chaos, many of them without functioning directors general, with parastatals faring even worse. And yet it appears that the ANC just had a moment of shining clarity in its latest war against its über-enemy, the media. They are actually doing it well, very well.
Unity is a crucial element in doing anything of importance in an organisation as diverse as the ANC. Riven by divisions and run through with meetings dominated by “robust discussion”, the ANC was always at its best when mobilising against the common enemy. And this time, it’s facing one enemy that all its factions can heartily unite against – the media. The desire and, quite frankly, the need, to stop freedom of the media in this country runs so strongly, that it even managed to split previously unbreakable ties between SA’s communists and Cosatu, which is so far resisting calls to muzzle the media.
In its anti-media march, the ANC felt, or knew, that it would never be able to convince anyone else except its own ranks, that its moves were nothing other than extreme ways of protecting its own turf and extinguishing what it sees as its own enemy. And that’s exactly where its campaign’s brilliance lies.
In every campaign, and especially in one as tough as this is shaping up to be, it is important to understand what needs to be achieved. This time (and at this point, we need to clarify that we do not know if it was a conscious decision or a lucky fluke) the focus is, quite rightly, being put on convincing ANC members and voters that the party is right.
When you position your goal in that way, it is not about building the best argument anymore, but rather about building an entire eco-system in which all things ANC are good, and all things media are bad. It allows for statements that appear mind-bogglingly crazy and easily debunked by anyone with a triple-digit IQ and 30 seconds on Google. Because it is not about truth or lies. It is about the right; the ANC’s right to set the rules in South Africa, and that is that.
The way the ANC officials update their thoughts and statements daily also smacks of the recipe taken from the US Republican party’s handbook. It is an incredibly effective system of talking points that the GOPers developed, in which the notes are distributed daily to all the talking heads and spokespeople for the party. As a result, each and every newspaper, TV and radio station quotes the people singing from the same song sheet, amplifying the message of the day. And, more than anything, statements that are repeated all the time make people remember them. (We are reluctant to give the ANC that much credit though; it is possible that the mechanism of repeating the message could be just plain parroting, but the result is the same: Every time the position of the day is repeated, one more morsel is added to its audience’s resolve.)
And the ANC leaders know their own audience. They know how to talk to them, they know what buttons to push to get the “down with media!” reaction. For Blade Nzimande it was even easier to convince his party members that the media is the root of all evils. Never in history has there been a communist party ruling a one-party state in which any kind of free media was allowed.
Here are the best examples of the campaign, its nature and its efficiency.
Use Lenin’s old saying: Many times repeated a lie becomes the truth. Use it liberally.
When Blade Nzimande says the media is the greatest threat to South African democracy, it is obvious that the statement has nothing to do with reality. Quite the opposite, actually. No true democratic state can exist without a thriving free media, which has been proven all over the world. On one side, the good doctor probably genuinely believes that the USSR, China, Cuba, Libya, North Korea and, God bless them, the German Democratic Republic, were or are true genuine democracies. But to the rest of the world they are not. And yet, the same “media threatening our democracy” statements are repeated by so many officials that many people in South Africa will now readily repeat it as an absolute truth, regardless of its non-existing connection with truth. Lenin would have been proud of his little helper.
Use half-truths, reverse logical processes, but make sure your target market never bothers thinking about the whole truth:
Nzimande uses his favorite example (you could use ‘whipping boy’), former Cape Argus reporter Ashley Smith, who was bribed by Ebrahim Rasool, as solid proof that every South African journalist has sold out.
The logic will say that the rules are always made by observing many events, measuring the elements of many experiments and then, after careful comparison, drawing a proper conclusion that would successfully predict the way other elements will behave. In the case of Argus journalist Ashley Smith’s bribing scandal, the good doctor Blade turns that principle upside down, using a sample of one to presume how thousands would behave.
The same logic is being used every time someone in the SA media makes a mistake, making it a good and properly scientific reason to deal with the entire media community. That logic has been enhanced somewhat of late by using, hold on to your hats, a mere possibility that someone’s dignity could be hurt, as a good reason to stop free media from ever coming into position that might make it possible.
But that’s not the doctor’s only fallacy, of course. In an extraordinary somersault of logic, he avoids the principle he just established and fails to conclude that, if Ibrahim Rasool bribes a journalist, then every ANC official bribes journalists.
Of course, Julius Malema considerably added to the “robust media debate” by claiming that the media put his and his family’s lives in danger during the days immediately after Eugene Terre-Blanche’s death by claiming that him singing “kill the boer” song encouraged the murderers. Of course, he conveniently forgot to say that he did sing the incendiary song, many times, to start the race debate and make the media forget about his tenderprenurial woes at that moment. And by saying a half-truth, Malema knows that his target market forgot any inconvenient truths and would believe everything he said, no matter how remote its connection was to reality.
All these examples owe their effectiveness to the existence of this crucial ANC’s eco-system: it is a double-standard system which makes it impossible for the “Greatest Liberation Movement” to ever be wrong. In that system, it becomes entirely logical that Rasool was only an aberration that was harshly dealt with by being sent to Washington DC, while the entire media needs to be punished because of the one. Malema is also the victim of the horrible media monsters. Because the ANC can’t be wrong.
Media is THE most powerful group in the country and, because of this, it must be dealt with by the representatives elected by the people.
Statements like this would mostly produce a chuckle were it not that such nonsense at such dangerous moments have immense power. A party that controls almost 66% of Parliament, federal government with all parastatals, eight out of nine provinces, institutions of democracy, a party that has infiltrated big and small business nationwide, that directly controls the state broadcaster, is somehow a weakling here. Somehow, the media, that does not control a cent of the budgets, nor issues any licenses or concessions, BEE processes, appointments of officials or actually anything else, is now the big bad wolf out to get the ANC’s poor little sheep. And yet this picture, as preposterous as it is, is currently taking hold among ordinary ANC members and their voters. Because they WANT to believe it.
But still, all of the examples listed so far can be seen as one side fighting a smart battle, not much different from a usual US election duel. The members of the ANC these days routinely call talk shows to debate and leave long comments on websites and that could be a sign that they are becoming serious about taking their views to the public. (A cynic could also point that they are using the media network in order to destroy it.)
But the way the following issues are framed by the ANC are where things become downright dangerous and will probably haunt this country for a long time to come. The first one is:
Free media is somehow against black culture and only serving white liberals.
Racial profiling has been a deeply worrying element of the SA’s political scene of late. Its champions, the Youth League under Malema’s leadership, are not strangers to using the most crass racism in their press statements and speeches. We now find more and more voices adding to statements that it is not in African culture to criticise elders and that the party in power is, by default, an elder. Also by default, is that only white people support the media that can do whatever they want and that fighting against freedom of media in our society is somehow part of the black DNA. The ANC will probably be relatively successful in pushing this dangerous point that will turn to bite this country many times in the future.
Together with the racially divisive tactics, is the equally dangerous framing of the creation of false choices. Here’s the one used the most:
What is more important, for the poor to get water or to have free media?
The structure is always the same: on one side is something really important and close to hearts of many, and on the other side is the free media. It is, of course, a complete nonsense that these are mutually exclusive and the village is far more likely to get the water if the media reports on government’s delays or shoddy delivery. But the emotional power of the left hand side of the choice will blind many an inexperienced person into believing the free media should die right now in order for granny to get water. It is a truly dangerous, criminal way of conducting the propaganda war.
The ANC’s war against the media is a truly fascinating subject and one day will be a basis of the great study of a society desperately trying to push a self-destruct button. By choosing not to really talk to the media or anyone else supporting the freedom of expression in the country, and only to their own people, the ANC has chosen an effective path that will strengthen its lines for the time being and may even finally bring them the obedient media they so crave. But the reversal of the late 20th century’s gains of freedom of expression will bring long-term misery to South Africa. Unfortunately, there’s only one way for them to find that out.
By Branko Brkic
Photo of burning newspaper courtesy of Piero Annoni Etnophotos.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas