It was a jovial president who addressed party loyalists in Sophiatown (previously Triomf) in the west of Johannesburg late last week. He had come to Sophiatown to salute former ANC president Alfred Bitini Xuma, and was on the verge of jetting off to G20 Summit in Mexico after a gruelling week that included firing and hiring police chiefs, a Cabinet reshuffle, riding the Metrorail and giving his detractors a serious admonishing.
A smallish crowd fidgeted, chatted among themselves and intermittently listened to the president talk as he turned his focus to the media: “Another project that we must own, and own seriously, is the media,” Zuma said to a shy round of applause and a couple of laughs.
“As long as we don’t own the media, we are going to be complaining every day that they are against us etc. At the moment, all what we do is to buy shares – that is not owning. Buy shares, and they say don’t talk, don’t talk… you are the owner.”
Zuma had a smile on his face and appeared relaxed despite stumbling in his delivery somewhat, before he told those present an anecdote: “I am told, and I don’t know if it is true, that when black people started buying newspapers they changed the practice and the editors declared independence from the owners,” Zuma said.
“They (the media) are very independent out there, you can’t tell them what to do. They can even paint you black being an owner. So who owns the media really? In any case, I am just saying that is part of the problem,” Zuma added before declaring that economic freedom was still a dream in South Africa. “We are not yet economically free…because those who are economically free, they do whatever they want,” the president said.
If you’ve been reading the ANC’s policy documents on “The Second Transition” or listening to what the ruling party has been saying about the media lately, Zuma’s comments won’t come as any surprise. If you haven’t, downloaded the ANC discussion document on your tablet.
In short, the first transition was all about the ANC bringing freedom and democracy to South Africa, and the second transition will be about Zuma Inc.m, bringing social and economic freedom.
South Africa’s print media is far from transformed or economically free (in ANC terms). An apparent unwillingness to change coupled with the fact that investigative newspapers have stories of ANC largesse continually gracing their front pages, have put print media in the crosshair of the ruling party’s firing line.
The ANC’s communications policy discussion document (subtitled “Building an inclusive society through information and communication technology”) states that the print media plays a huge role in informing the public discourse and that media diversity is critical to nation building.
The document cites damning statistics from the Media Development and Diversity Agency and Print Media of South Africa, which show average black ownership in local “mainstream” print media sits at 14% and female participation in board and management levels is only 4.44%.
“The print sector is still dominated by four big players, namely Naspers, Avusa, Caxton and the foreign owned Independent Group. These companies also dominate the entire value chain of the market especially printing, distribution and advertising. This integration and the very market structure is perhaps the biggest barrier to market entry and potentially shows possible anti-competitive behaviour,” the document reads.
The ANC thinking is that, despite denial, the print media was a pillar of apartheid and that “whatever progressive media fought for the democratisation of society was initiated and linked to (the) mass democratic movement led by the ANC.”
The ruling party maintains that “apartheid patterns and behaviour that treat South Africans in an unequal and discriminatory manner sometimes manifests in some of the conduct of the print media in the content, coverage, distribution, management and opinions”.
The discussion document says this must be challenged and moots the introduction of an economic empowerment charter to promote Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment in the media sector. It suggests that this empowerment charter addresses the issue of print media not being available in a diversity of languages, and recommends that anti-competitive behaviour in the industry be investigated by the Competition Commission.
What’s being broadcast loud and clear from Zuma and those that support him in government is that they’re fed up with a print sector that’s inconveniently telling the public all about the party. As the ANC Women’s League stated after fractious NEC meetings earlier this week, it is the print media’s “fault” that the negative portrayal of the ANC in the media is resulting in “a negative image of a great, noble organisation that has contributed immensely to the political, social and well-being of the country”.
The ANC has been a party that has sought to fight succession races behind the closed doors of Luthuli House, but bitter divisions in the party and the strengthening of investigative teams at the likes of Naspers, Avusa and Mail & Guardian has meant that this attrition is being played out in news headlines.
There’s nothing wrong with calls for transformation: diversity is sadly lacking in the print media sector and is something the industry has been aware of for decades. But the real question is whether ANC-styled transformation will change the media so that it is adequately democratised to mirror the complex multiplicity that is South Africa.
Rhodes University’s Jane Duncan argues eloquently against this in her thesis called “The Print Media Transformation Dilemma” in which she says a score-card approach that equates transformation with de-racialisation can “lead to the flawed assumption that when black people replace white people, sustainable transformative changes to media practices will automatically follow”.
The questions that Duncan says we should all be asking the ANC and those in government is what is understood by the concept of “transformation”. Zuma’s sentiments on media ownership and the ruling party’s recent attempts to control the press through boycotts and bullying reveal a more ominous intent on what transformation should be about.
The final game in these kinds of scenarios sees the ANC becoming an Orwellian Big Brother that transmutes news into sanitised propaganda that seeks to recreate the truth while a hawkish military quells insurrections to a lived reality. Here transformation really means the political elite’s control of the media.
Possibly the best insight comes from academics Gibson Mashilo Boloka and Ron Krabill, who talk about transformation as a template for the imposition of ideology. “Each commentator comes to the issue with his or her own, often unspoken, idea about exactly what transformation would or should look like,” they write in their paper “Calling the glass half full”.
“For the record, then, we define the successful transformation of South African media as being achieved when it reflects, in its ownership, staffing, and product, the society within which it operates, not only in terms of race, but also socio-economic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, region, language, etc. This is only possible if access is opened – again in ownership, staffing, and product – not only to the emerging black elite, but also to grassroots communities of all colours,” Boloka and Krabill contest.
It is a telling point. A Zuma-esque transformation of the media would just serve to buoy the power elite that has become the regime that Polokwane made. At worst, the result would simply be more of the SABC in print and online, but privatised and owned by barons aligned to the power bloc. At best Zuma’s transformation would realise a more racially diverse media landscape – a change of faces but not much more.
How would that kind of transformation create a media that would serve those who currently don’t have access to independent news and analysis by virtue of their economic circumstance?
Zuma’s transformation may produce just the right sounds, smoke and mirrors, but in places like Diepsloot or Khayelitsha people will still be saying the only way to access the news is to commit robbery, murder or get involved with mob justice. Making Orwellian vision a reality will never be able to make things better for them. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma (Jordi Matas)
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