I feel justified to respond to Stephen Grootes’ article in Daily Maverick on October 3 for two reasons: He mentions (or rather takes a swipe at) The New Age, and I assume he wants to start a serious debate about the media in South Africa.
In the struggle against apartheid a phrase was coined: “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. It pitted the nonracial sport codes against the national rugby, soccer, cricket and other codes which considered the colour of your skin as a criterion for selection.
By 1992 most of our codes had normalised, well before the advent of democracy and a “normal” society in 1994. Of all our institutions, only the Press has failed to fully undergo this metamorphosis.
The Press played a crucial role in the dismantling of apartheid. International journalists helped to encourage world leaders to change their policies towards South Africa and take action. Within South Africa, opposition newspapers, the alternative press and a few other media promoted a message of freedom.
In 1969, the ANC’s Freedom Radio came on the air with a very clear message: “This government of slavery, this government of oppression, this apartheid monster must be removed from power and crushed by the people!”;
Before 1994, the English Press took a stand for what it believed in and was a positive tool for change. It’s perhaps ironic then that the South African media industry which was a loud mouthpiece for change has itself changed very little post-1994.
Today, the Press needs to perform a different role. The media is a vital part of any healthy democracy. It needs to be an arena for debate and reflect a variety of divergent opinions. Around the world, it is not unusual for newspapers to align themselves with an ideology or with a political party without losing their independence or critical watchdog role.
In South Africa, while the Press has been crucial in holding our leaders to account, news lacks balance. In their columns there has been a relentless attack on the national government and a persistent narrative that the ruling party is corrupt to the core.
It is fair to say that The New Age, out of about almost 30 daily and weekly newspapers, is the only newspaper in South Africa that is broadly supportive of the ANC government. This is surprising when more than 62% of the population voted for the ANC at the last general election. Grootes, in his analysis of media trends, doesn’t find this strange and disproportionate?
It is also surprising that South Africa’s Press regularly ignores the most important issue facing our country: a truly shocking and unacceptable racial wealth divide.
The 2012 census demonstrated that despite large gains in average earnings for black households during the previous 10 years, a significant racial income divide persists. Average black household income was just R60,613 (US$6,987 at 2012 exchange rates), just a sixth of average white household income.
Such a pervasive wealth divide breeds resentment and spells trouble for South Africa’s future stability. The fact that black South Africans remain excluded from contributing in a real and meaningful way to the economy is the biggest issue facing South Africa today. So why are the Press so quiet on this issue?
In the 22 years since political apartheid ended, only a few white families continue to own most of South Africa’s wealth. In fact, the two richest people in South Africa have the same wealth as 50% of the population. When you look at the ownership of South Africa’s biggest media houses, it becomes very clear to see why the Press might have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and ensuring black South Africans remain excluded, not included, in the economy.
The Times Media Group, Media24 and Caxton, three of the bigger media houses in South Africa, are all majority owned or run by white capital.
The ownership of South Africa’s biggest media houses ensures that the South African people are only getting one side of the story. The lack of balance in public discourse in the Press in this country is of great concern.
Very few news outlets are prepared to print views that even vaguely challenge the business establishment. The political and economic debate that plays out in the Press is one-sided and one-dimensional. To be clear, this is not meant to be an advertorial for The New Age, and neither is it seeking to absolve our government and the executive branch from the daily scrutiny and accountability it deserves.
But think about it: unemployment is a horrific 26.7% and nearer 40% for blacks. A huge potential asset, youth, remains unused. This creates a dangerously thin tax base, blunting the fiscal tools available. Jobs for the masses aren’t being created and South Africa faces the very real risk of slipping into recession. Our system clearly isn’t working.
But do you hear anybody in the mainstream Press seriously question the business establishment? Or even mention the phrase “economic apartheid”? Or discuss the fact that 22 years on, economic apartheid remains? Very rarely.
Grootes is correct about the difficulties of discerning the truth in the news fog.
Surely, one solution is for South Africa’s Press to be open to listening to divergent opinions and views?
It must also highlight failings and the country’s extreme racial wealth divide. Instead of pushing a single narrative largely favourable of big business and capital, it must highlight inequality, the plight of the poor, and call on the government to tackle this issue head-on, enabling South Africa’s millions of black disadvantaged citizens to contribute and build better lives for themselves.
Alternatively, our Press will become irrelevant. DM