South Africa

Elections 2014 vs. Pistorius Trial: The X-factor

By Ranjeni Munusamy 5 March 2014

There are nine weeks to go before South Africa’s fifth democratic elections, and hype should be mounting as the campaign season is now in full swing. Leaders of all political parties are fanning out across the country trying to whip up support and ignite excitement about the elections. But as of this week, the country’s attention is firmly on Court GD at the North Gauteng High Court, where the epic murder trial of paralympian Oscar Pistorius is underway. What does this mean for the elections and how does the trial impact on the political dynamics in the country? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma’s election campaign roadshow in the North West province featured 10 minutes into the main SABC television bulletin at 7pm on Tuesday night. It is unusual that the SABC would relegate coverage of the president’s activities so late into the bulletin but even the devoted public broadcaster cannot resist the allure and drama of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The first 10 minutes of the bulletin was taken up with various stories on the second day of the sensational trial, leaving only about six minutes to other main news items of the day.

The Pistorius trial is redefining how every news outlet in the country presents news and current affairs, in response to the inordinate amount of public interest. Every possible communication platform and new technology is being used to maximise the output of information to feed the public hunger. Local media houses also have to keep up with the unprecedented foreign media interest in the trial.

This is all proving to be cutting edge and tremendously thrilling for the media industry as viewership, listenership and readership peaks. For the first time, the South African public can access visuals, audio and information on the trial, as it happens, through various sources. When court is not in session, there are analyses and discussions of the proceedings. This means the trial is holding people’s attention day and night, essentially dominating what people think and talk about.

There is, however, the small matter of national elections happening in a few months, which will determine the leadership of South Africa for the next five years. This election is proving to be the most highly contested in post-democratic South Africa, with the highest number of political parties participating, and for the first time, the ANC’s dominance is being tested.

Now that most parties have released their election manifestos, which contained no big surprises – apart from the elaborate promises of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – public interest in the poll seems to have waned. When the manifestos were released, there was debate and engagement on some issues but this is difficult to sustain. Of course there is excitement in communities whenever the high-fliers sweep through on the election trail, but this is fleeting.

While the entry of new political parties has fired up the 2014 election, people are aware that no big upsets are expected out of the poll and generally much will go unchanged. It is therefore not surprising that the Pistorius trial, with all its blockbuster features and striking characters, is proving to be more riveting than politicians bellowing on the stump.

President of the International Union of Psychological Science Dr Saths Cooper says the trial is a diversion from the “sheer mediocrity” of South African politics at present. He believes the way the public is responding to the trial shows that it is a welcome relief of the mundane issues and rhetoric that constitutes the national discourse.

But with so much attention focused on the trial, this means the electorate is less interrogatory of their prospective representatives and also less concerned about controversies which have previously occupied the public mind. The upgrades at the president’s Nkandla residence have temporarily fallen off the radar – and yet this is not altogether due to the Pistorius trial.

The numerous delays in the release of the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s investigation report has resulted in attention on the issue fading. Madonsela has already been accused by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe of deliberately delaying the report to influence the election campaign. She must be growing progressively more anxious at not being able to release the report, and if she does manage to publicise it before the elections, she will no doubt be accused of having a political agenda.

The release of the Nkandla report is perhaps the only thing that will be able to switch attention away from the Pistorius trial.

Cooper says there is, however, a fatigue factor to consider with the public growing weary with the innumerable scandals relating to abuse of power and wastage of taxpayers money. He says the mix of tragedy and sensation of the trial has captured the imagination of the world and it is therefore able to overshadow everything else that ordinarily consumes the public mind.

With the trial set down for three weeks, it remains to be seen whether public interest will keep summiting or whether the tedium of courtroom jargon and repetition of evidence will result in people switching on and off. There will be high moments in the trial which will probably keep the nation gripped. Pistorius is expected to testify in his own defence and this is likely to draw massive audiences for as long as he is on the witness stand. The closing arguments will see legal titans Gerrie Nel and Barry Roux face off against each other to sum up their respective cases, and this will also be followed fanatically.

While the trial has largely permeated all sections of society, it is people in the higher LSMs who have the most access to and interest in it. The live footage of the trial is only available on DSTV and not on free-to-air channels, which means that poor and working class people cannot see it. Many radio stations are, however, airing live audio or highlights of the trial.

The trial will peak at the same time as the election campaign swings into high gear, which means political parties will have to take extraordinary measures to hold the voters’ attention. They will have to assess whether their constituencies are receptive to their messaging. It is likely that the ANC and Democratic Alliance would be most affected by the trial, as large sections of their support bases will be held captive by the rolling coverage. The EFF is likely to be least affected as their target constituency of the poor, unemployed and working class has the least access to the live coverage.

Both the prosecution and defence are committed to completing the trial as soon as possible, and if all goes according to schedule, the case will wrap up within a month. This will leave political parties with the month of April to win back public attention and seduce voters will big events and massive advertising campaigns. On 27 April, the country will commemorate the 20th anniversary of democracy. This milestone event will give South Africans the opportunity to assess the state of the nation. Political parties will no doubt use the event to amplify their election campaigns.

It is not known how long Judge Thokozile Masipa will take to consider the case but it is unlikely that judgment would be delivered before the election. The judgment is likely to break audience records with all major international news channels set to broadcast it wall-to-wall.

Currently, though, South Africa remains enraptured by the trial, living vicariously through the characters involved. In nine weeks, however, the drama and spectacle of the various versions of what happened on the night of 13 February 2013, which led to the death of Reeva Steenkamp, will be receding into memory. Twenty-five million registered voters will have to deal with the hard reality of deciding the future of 51.19 million South Africans.

But for now, it’s the tragedy of two young South Africans’ lives – one in the dock and the other dead – which keeps us consumed. DM

Photo: Oscar Pistorius, President Jacob Zuma (Reuters photos)

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