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Look Up! There’s a political asteroid heading our way

South Africa


Look Up! There’s a political asteroid heading our way

Deputy President David Mabuza. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Gallo Images / Business Day / Freddy Mavunda) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Getty Images / Bloomberg / Waldo Swiegers) | ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg / Getty Images) | Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alon Skuy) | ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile)

There is an extinction-event asteroid hurtling towards South Africa’s democracy and we’re far from paying enough attention to it.

It took coming within an inch of World War 3 to pry our national focus from the build-up to the most important political event of 2022. Albeit temporarily. 

With the 55th elective conference of the ANC set to take place in December, and one of the factions having fired opening salvos as early as January, it won’t be long before we see South Africa’s political war games reignited.

While we can debate that the conference boils down to two candidates (President Cyril Ramaphosa vs whoever gets the nod from the RET faction) and we can deliberate further on the likelihood of a RET win (it’s almost certainly higher than you think), let’s for a moment indulge in a bit of scenario planning for the state of media in a RET-controlled state. 

Unlike political analysts and businesspeople, whose scenario planning might result in worrisome spreadsheets and a higher cost of capital, the real-world impact of such an outcome for freedom of speech, and functioning democracy with it, will simply be catastrophic. 

The lives and livelihoods of media practitioners are in the crosshairs of the RET faction should they come to power. Analysts can afford to be optimistic yet possibly wrong. We, what’s left of the news media, don’t have that luxury.

Putin’s Playbook

There is enough evidence that moves from Putin’s Playbook will probably be employed and that like all sequels, State Capture Two will be far worse than the original, when the media was still not seen as a fair wartime target. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, with one signature, killed another bird with the same stone – he effectively wiped out the remnants of any independent news coverage in Russia. 

In a country where the maximum penalty for murder is 20 years’ incarceration, the Kremlin has made the punishment for publishing “false” information about the Ukraine invasion a 15-year prison sentence. Alongside blocking some social media platforms and international news websites, Putin also punished those protesting against the war with prison time followed by conscription into the Russian army. With these threats hanging over their heads, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists matter-of-factly called it the “death of Russian media”.

Putin can now control the narrative inside the heavily walled prison that is the Russian information sphere, pushing propaganda about the war at will through Kremlin-controlled TV, radio and internet. 

Russian outlets, many of which started broadcasting and publishing before and through the Cold War, have shut down. International news organisations have responded by evacuating their correspondents, and some braver organisations have begun publishing reports without bylines and location information to protect their people on the ground. The BBC started doing its broadcasts on shortwave frequencies that can be accessed in faraway places.

These extreme measures by Putin should reinforce why independent journalism is so important in any society, no matter how dysfunctional. However bad things are, they are always much worse without the light that intelligent, independent, investigative journalism brings to the world. 

By now you should understand why we, the media in South Africa, are worried. We see the signs from the previous ANC administration’s attempts to reignite censorship, and of fans of Putin studying his extermination of the free media for local implementation, should the December voting count in their favour.  

Putin’s Playbook is best considered by positing the question: “What is a deeply corrupt leader willing to do in order to hang on to power and keep all the money that’s been stolen?” 

The answer, as we have so sadly seen, is: “Whatever it takes.” 

One expects the same from a faction with similar motives finding itself in the same situation.

Worrying signs

South Africa’s official response to the invasion and war in Ukraine has been, at the very least, schizophrenic. Abstaining from the UN General Assembly vote and failing to condemn the clear acts of unprovoked war has put us in the global minority. 

Does Russia have dirt on South Africa’s ruling elite – what else could incentivise such moves? It is, in the end, inconsequential. What we do know is that Russian influence in our politics and over our politicians will spill over into how the ANC’s RET faction deals with the pesky free media problem. Throw the never truly dead Russian nuclear deal into the mix, and the desire to neutralise independent and investigative media only increases. The unfinished job from 2017 will kick into overdrive. 

Consider the Films and Publications Amendment Act 11 of 2019, which came into effect on 1 March. This piece of legislation was proposed in the Zuma years and requires all online video content to be rated in the way movies and games carry an age rating. 

News publishers and social media platforms are now required to submit every video for classification or apply for a self-classification licence that could cost up to R2-million. The only way to describe this is “complete lunacy”. 

What media can expect in a RET world

It is impossible for the Film and Publication Board to actually rate all digital videos, but the law could be used in a more nefarious way. Assuming some video content was unrated and critical of the RET leadership, the law can be used to penalise and threaten publishers and to prevent the distribution of future online videos. 

This law and other more directly targeted efforts like the so-called Secrecy Bill, or worse, will quickly find their way back onto the presidential table. The extra legal pressure will be on. 

The law will be weaponised to bog us down, soaking up bandwidth, funds and the emotional energy to deliver on our mission. Strategic lawsuits against public participation is a phenomenon already on the rise around the globe and spurious legal charges are already commonplace in our offices. Confronted by looted funds and the resources of the state, defending legal actions will become a full-time effort by practitioners already crumbling under the strain of “normal” operations. 

Media machines like the SABC under full state control and the Gupta-reincarnation Survé Media will peddle RET lines ad nauseam. Social media could be shut down ahead of elections, or armies of trolls employed by state resources to harass, threaten and push deliberately false disinformation campaigns. And if general elections are not boding well for the incumbent ruling faction of the ANC, many will want not to get bothered with having them.

If we are lucky the weapons and ammunition will remain legal in nature. But there are worrying trends worldwide that this won’t be the case.

Whistle-blowers and independent media played a huge role in derailing Jacob Zuma’s plans at the ANC’s December 2017 elective conference. As the drums of accountability inch closer for the State Capture looters and prison sentences become a real consideration, we have seen the devastating rise in assassination attempts and successful hits on whistle-blowers. 

With home invasions of journalists – something we’ve already encountered here at Daily Maverick – and the rising physical threats to journalists and whistle-blowers, we must prepare ourselves for the unthinkable. In Mexico, 35 journalists were murdered in the last decade, five of them just in 2022. 

Desperate people are capable of despicable acts. We underestimate them at our peril. 

Like Putin, his disciples will do anything to keep their day of reckoning from happening. 

Facing these kinds of pressures, we should expect even more people to leave journalism for good and fewer whistle-blowers to come forward. For a sector that already lost half of its workforce by 2018, this would be the death knell event, just as is now happening in Russia. 

What can we do?

The first thing we should do is not simply buy into the narrative that the President is a walk-in for victory at the elective conference. We should be concerned that not enough people are concerned about a RET win. 

The presidency was secured by just 179 votes out of 4,701 at the previous elective conference, and with so much on the line, it would be silly to bring rose-tinted reasoning to a gunfight. Many delegates are personally worse off under President Ramaphosa. The party has even struggled to pay salaries and discontent is palpable in many quarters. The final voting is hard to predict when one faction successfully argues that the clock should be stopped at Zuma time. 

We must look up! There is an extinction-event asteroid hurtling towards South Africa’s democracy. 

Shoring up our independent media sector, supporting whistle-blowers and civil society are investments in our collective future. Business and society do not operate in a vacuum – the destruction of these fundamental elements affects the existence of every South African. Everything we do now to support these sectors will be needed for the longest time, regardless of who wins in December. 

We will continue with the mandate we accepted of exposing corrupt forces and dangerous developments, but we can’t do it in a vacuum. South Africa’s young democracy needs everyone, from civil society to business leaders, to step up the pressure on demanding accountability and action from Ramaphosa. 

Stop hoping that every assurance that South Africa’s anti-corruption drive will continue after December is true and start asking: “What if it doesn’t happen?” And then take action to assist those frontline efforts. 

We urgently need to improve the environment in which the independent news media operates through policy reform and incentives to support this crucial element of society. We must better protect and financially support the whistle-blowers who risk so much for social justice. 

We need everyone to find in their hearts all the love they have for South Africa and make sure our 28 years of democracy are not a blip on an autocratic radar. 

The knives do not simply get packed away in some self-cleansing redemption cupboard, even after a loss. Corrupt forces and people will persist in trying to wrest back the control they enjoyed during State Capture as long as orange overalls and personal bankruptcy are possible outcomes. 

That truly independent media will continue to be targeted goes without saying. To clarify: a RET loss at the ANC’s elective conference would not produce a morning after with birds chirping on a beautiful day in a perfect world. The only award South Africa will get is to stay on and fight for another day – and who knows on how many fronts.

And yet, that chance to continue fighting itself is worth fighting for.   

Our dark side of 2022 predictions might come across as alarmist to many. For those of us who work so close to the machinations of power, the impact of breakdowns inside the cog itself is felt quickly and brutally. 

If an undemocratic wave engulfs the ANC in December, we can kiss independent media goodbye. And with it, the remnants of our struggling democracy. DM


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All Comments 28

  • More than ever the old familiar saying about good people standing by and doing nothing applies – then surely evil will win. But I personally would like some active strategies that we ordinary, good people could follow. Would a boycott of specific businesses work in the way that the ANC achieved towards the end of the Apartheid Government?

    • That presupposes an ethical leadership such as Madiba personally provided . Can you imagine anyone in the current ANC with those kind of qualities ? The few who did have, have either passed on or ‘stepped aside’ (for fear of also being tainted with the stench) without being asked to do so !

  • Excellent article which scared the h… out of me. What can I, as a private citizen, do? I vote for what I hope will be a strong opposition party…I sign petitions, donate where possible…is there any point? Am I wasting my time?

    • Dee:

      The ANC has only 1.4m members (out of call it 40m adults in SA), across about 4000 branches and these branches determine a lot at elective conference. Maybe DM can do a piece on how branches decide delegates and how delegates vote? It can be that you and few hundred friends can capture ANC branches and control the narrative.

      You might even get a free t-shirt for your troubles. If you are too good at this you could be a December delegate!

      It would be even better if decent ANC supporters took the trouble to take back their branch and our democracy instead of mumbling into their coffee mug about how bad the ANC became.

  • An interesting thought, but ultimately no recommendation that the average DM reader (who undoubtedly doesn’t support the ANC) can do, except sit back, watch and see what happens.

    If the RET were to take over the ANC, I expect Zuma Must Fall style protests, as people know what lies down the RET path. And an RET win would only guarantee the downfall of the ANC in 2024, assuming they don’t use the time until elections to completely try and destroy the country. If that happens I expect a similar response to what happened during the July riots. Communities and private businesses will fill in the gap created by the utterly corrupt and collapsed state, and under such a govt I can only imagine a tax revolt will finally take place.

    • The real problem is, unlike CR, the RET faction is not scared to act decisively.
      They have no morals or conscience so they just do what they want. It will take them less than 4 years for everything to be back just like it was in they height of state capture. They will fire all of CR appointees overnight.
      They will also not loose the 2024 election because they will rig it (also out of Putin’s playbook).
      If the RET faction wins this conference, I’m afraid that SA is done for and it is time to implement exit strategies.

    • Rowan
      that’s the thing about an independent press — they DO NOT issue recommendations and/or tell you what to do … you need to think, man, think!! It’s up to every one of us to THINK about what we can do and act accordingly!
      As in eg. talking to others, asking “who are you voting for”, “why are you voting for them” and then maybe, just maybe getting into a conversation about what SA needs!

  • The ANC has shown its true colours over Ukraine. Actually just a bunch of old style totalitarian commies who are now finding that the clothes of democracy are an uncomfortable fit. At their heart and soul, they never signed up for democracy and it values.
    This extinction event for democracy analogy is very helpful to clear the mind but we who see it have incredible advocacy and action to do for it to lead to the right outcome at the ballot box in 2024

    • The article also scared the hell out of me.
      But regarding Ramaphosa’s awful position on Ukraine. Perhaps he has taken that stance so that the RET faction would not have yet another stick to beat him with. Wishful thinking by me?

  • I would like to second Helen Lachenicht’s comment and question. I for one feel completely powerless to influence anything in this country, and I suspect that many feel as I do. One’s vote feels hopelessly inadequate.

    • So James here is what can be done. Firstly from we the ‘converted’-spread the word as far and wide as you are able these truths-the economy would collapse the day the RET are in charge-this guaranteed; Would you like to see even more of our money sent to the Guptas??; Zimbabwe was/is run by their own RET-that is why millions of their(mainly Black) people left; Would you consider Jacob Zuma,Carl Niehaus and of their ilk the right people to run this country; Don’t blame Cyril Ramaphosa for where we are-he inherited a poison chalice and had a huge mountain to climb-he needs to be re-elected to continue his mission; Remind people of how many RET types delight in taking selfies of themselves surrounded by piles of cash, hugely expensive cars, massive Credit Card bills for one night Parties- look and make the connection-all this whilst millions are unemployed!
      Then from CR-he needs to do his bit to avoid an RET disaster-he knows what must be done and he should know that he would have the support of the bulk of Black and non-black South Africans.
      Hold the line!!

    • James have you tried talking to others in your circle — and I’m not referring to dinner guests or drinking mates (should you do that), but rather your domestic worker, gardener etc.etc. and asking them “who did you vote for” and “why did you vote for them” and “do you think that worked” or something similar … engage with the people around you, understand what they think and why and then try to make them aware of the errors of their thinking

  • The RET scenario you are depicting here is a distinct possibility. SA as a society is completely out of balance since we, civil society and private sector were apathetic bystanders. We allowed the political steamrolling without real opposition.
    What is not emphasiced enough, and that includes the DM, that change is possible. Working with the parts of the public sector that are still functioning with a united and engaged private sector and civil society will allow pushing SA out of the morass it is stuck in. DM could become the platform and catalyst for such an initiative as proposed to you directly on a couple of occasions.
    Readers comments to this article are indications that the desire to participaate is here.
    Lets URGENTLY start the conversation.

  • At the moment, the press, our Fourth Estate, is the best defence we have against the waves of unreason sweeping about at the moment. Parliament reflects the shambles that is the ANC; the Judiciary is good only in parts (Hlophe still rules in WC); the SAP are at best, ineffective. Dear DM journos, please hang in there. You are absolute heroes.

  • Regarding the concluding statement…it should be noted that it is ‘democracy’ itself , that makes it possible for an ‘undemocratic’ (for which I would substitute self preservation or personal interest) wave to engulf the ANC. Which will be followed by authoritarianism (just look at India) and fascism . The assumption that a ‘discerning’ or savvy electorate would be able to make the ‘right’ choices or distinguish between rhetoric and commitment, is idealistic at best.

  • What can we do if RET take back government? A tax revolt is a good start.

    What can we do to avoid RET taking back government? We could all join an ANC branch and capture the voting for elective conference. It would be money very well spent. It would take a lot less than a million or so persons joining to take control of the ANC…

  • Gals, Guys, this is serious — anyone that does not stand up and support the free media in SA needs to do so! But then, I’m probably preaching to the choir here ….

  • So, is it not time for the media to strengthen the parties in the centre? The media has nitpicked the DA almost to death and are now afraid of the anc power?

    Start to support the DA and any other liberal democratic parties if there are any. If there is time.

  • Some ideas:

    Daily Maverick 168 is an excellent initiative, and needs to be expanded to other SA languages, and less technical style. South Africans all over the country need to read this stuff, and realise the potential threats.
    Donate to opposition parties, to strengthen competition.
    Join ANC, attend branch meetings if you can, to get the votes at national level.
    Use radio to spread the word, many people listen to it, and the ANC mainly controls SABC TV.

  • It is essential for civil society to really stand up and strongly support media freedom, the Constitition, and the judiciary, and all of the key elements of the Constitional order that are now being subject to attack. Mobilisation to combat corruption and maladministration is also critical. People are very angry, but their anger is mainly directed in service delivery protests, which are just ignored. If people could be organised and directed effectively through civil society, perhaps there could be some very important and positive results.

    Also, opposition parties really need to strongly organise and mobilise, so that voters really see that there are credible alternatives to the current governing party. There are many people who are very unhappy with the ANC, but do not see themselves represented well by other opposition parties.

    Highlighting the importance for everyone to be active citizens who demand good governance and will not tolerate corruption and maladministration also would be essential.

    It is certainly the case that the time for action is now!

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