South Africa

ANALYSIS

Unstoppable forces are giving more power to SA people

Unstoppable forces are giving more power to SA people

It’s very easy to treat the media and citizens with disdain when you have more than two-thirds of the vote and solid support within your own rank-and-file. It’s much harder when your voting share is below 60% and declining.

As a difficult year comes to an end, with no apparent end in sight to our problems both political and electrical, it’s easy to simply write off 2019. To consign it to the dustbin and say, “Be gone with you”. However, 2019 has confirmed the existence of a very powerful and positive dynamic in South Africa that has taken hold and cannot be easily stopped. It has shown that our democracy and freedoms have become more entrenched than ever before. And that citizens, and their institutions, are becoming more powerful, while politicians are becoming weaker.

In the early 1990s, it was common to claim that “democracy is coming” or that “freedom has arrived”. It was as though we went to sleep on 26 April 1994 in a repressive society and woke up in a free one.

Of course, it’s not like that at all. Real democracy and the freedoms that come with it take time to filter down. With the vote, the rights should come almost automatically, but those very same rights need time to be recognised, instilled and, above all, entrenched. Workers did not automatically receive protection from being fired in 1994, that came later with the Labour Relations Act; gay people could not marry in 1994, they can now, and so on.

However, the last few years and particularly the period after the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017 demonstrate how this process has started to speed up.

A good example of this is how politicians treat the media.

There was a time, just 12 years ago in 2007, when people were genuinely and correctly afraid that the ANC was trying to create a system of pre-publication regulation for newspapers. Then came the Protection of State Information Bill that was designed to stop certain information from being published. At the time, getting an interview with a minister or even an MEC was difficult. They could avoid you at no political cost to themselves.

Then, it appeared that if you controlled the SABC you controlled the outcome of elections.

This has changed dramatically.

Now the publication of a picture or a video on Twitter can cause a ministerial reaction in a matter of minutes. Ministers appear to want to hog the media, to almost dominate the airwaves and the Twitterverse during the discussion of a burning issue.

There are multiple reasons for this newly found devotion.

In the past, if a politician in government did not speak, there was no one else to fill the space. Now there is a profusion of experts, commentators, academics and ordinary people who will fill that void. So, people in the government will often agree to be interviewed in difficult situations rather than cede the space to one of their critics.

In the early 2000s, there was only the DA of Tony Leon and one or two other parties who could do this. This has changed entirely.

Higher Education and Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande recently spoke movingly at a memorial for 702’s Xolani Gwala, who left us too soon, and when the country still needed him. Nzimande made the point that not too long ago if you were living in South Africa and wanted to air your views on a radio station, you had to send a postcard. You would wait a few weeks and hope that someone read it on air. Now, almost anyone can phone in and make their point immediately – in many cases, directly to a politician during a live broadcast.

At the same time, there are many more media outlets. There are more radio stations, more television stations, and more quality internet publications that did not exist 12 years ago.

There is more space to fill, and these outlets cannot be easily shut down.

This has made it impossible to control the media. The rise of the internet means that to control the flow of information would require a “Great Firewall of China” approach, which is very expensive and, considering a chronic lack of skills at every level of the government, almost impossible to implement.

Social media has played an important role in this. It has forced politicians to respond to burning issues.

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi will jump to respond to a problem because he knows how important education issues are to voters. Lesufi may have a certain gift for dealing with the media (although, it’s not that hard: just talk, admit to problems, promise to do better…) but he may also be so keen for interviews because of the situation in Gauteng. The ANC retained the province by less than a whisker in May.

One of the main reasons that citizens have more power than ever before is because of the ANC’s weakness. It’s very easy to treat the media and citizens with disdain when you have more than two-thirds of the vote and solid support within your own rank-and-file. It’s much harder when your voting share is below 60% and declining.

There are other reasons.

Political power has moved from the centre to the provinces and big cities. People like Herman Mashaba have become national figures because of their role in urban politics. To win an ANC election you have to secure the backing of provinces, and individual regions (such as eThekwini) can be important.

This makes it much harder for any one person or group to control the debate, or even just to govern effectively.

These trends seem unstoppable. It would require an immense political force to control the centre and recoup some of the political power that has moved to the edges, and to the provinces and cities. Politicians have to be seen as accessible, and are obligated to give answers to difficult questions.

This week, some lamented the weakness of the answers given by President Cyril Ramaphosa about load shedding. But at least he took the questions. Former president Thabo Mbeki probably would not have deigned to even be questioned in the first place.

It’s unlikely that any South African president will ever again have the power that Mbeki had. This is good for citizens, because it means that their power has increased. This specific genie will not be easily commanded back into the bottle. DM

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