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ANC on Freedom of the Press: How do we score?

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

One of the ANC’s constitutional and resolution commitments is the championing of the Freedom of the Press.

Last year I attended an ANC press conference in Parliament as part of keeping my provincial hand on the pulse. Afterwards I was a little bothered by how lacklustre the press conference had been and I decided to pull aside a few of my journalist friends for a brief conversation.

You guys are too soft on the ANC,” I said, to puzzled stares from journalists who have got used to different kinds of accusations. “Of the 15 questions asked here, only one really pushed the ANC,” I charged.

Media is not a platform for politicians to rant, and when they do, call them up on the rants. Your inability to ask the hard questions is the reason why every Tom, Dick and Harry is calling for press conferences these days,” I continued. “You have as a result lowered the journalistic standards.”

It is here that I seem to hit the nail on the head, and my journalist friends began to mumble and give me that uneasy smile. I sensed though that they felt I was telling the truth.

But I was on a roll and felt I needed to hit my point home a few times. “Look at Julius Malema,” I continued. “He calls press conferences and rants about everything under the sun; you almost get confused as to what his press conferences are about. It should not take the courts to question Malema’s rants on, say, land grabs, while the media was there when he made those statements and simply laughed like they were in a comedy show.”

Ask the questions, ask the hard questions, push the politicians until those who mock the political landscape are ejected. Yes, the last BBC journalist to call Malema up on his rants, questioning how a men who lives on a R16-million house in Sunning-hill could claim to be the voice of the poor, was harassed, kicked out, called demeaning names and risked never being invited again to ANCYL conferences. But the ANC had its constitution and its values to protect and Malema trampled on too many of those; he effectively ejected himself out of the ANC family.

One of the ANC’s constitutional and resolution commitments is the championing of the Freedom of the Press. The question of whether media is independent or unbiased is as old as democracy itself. The question of whether media owners and their hand-picked editors are not being used by their political friends or their own ideological leanings to push certain narratives will forever be present with us. The role of media in a democracy is an everlasting debate.

None of these concerns however has ever been good enough to question that core democratic principle, Freedom of the Press. Over the last few years some ANC leaders have grown very frustrated with some media houses, accusing them of regime change agendas and anti-ANC posture, and wanting a black government to fail.

I can state categorically that these accusations do not represent the ANC constitution, resolutions or commitments; they do not represent our values, but are simply expressions of frustration by individuals who may, rightly or wrongly, feel a sense of unfair reporting by media houses on ANC matters.

Here are the facts about the ANC. We believe that media enriches democracy and that media stands as a great enabler for the project of democracy. We believe that Freedom of the Press is sacrosanct and as long as it is protected, along with journalists and editors, there will always be hope for democracy. We believe that no media should ever coddle government, because no body owns government; we are all privileged to be chosen by the people to serve.

If the media sees any wrongdoing by government or by the ANC let them speak out. If the media sees hypocrisy, inconsistency or utter dishonesty on the part of the ANC or government let them shout louder. As Amilcar Cabral said, “Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories. Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” If government is not providing services to the people that are paid for by their own taxes, without any good reason, government must be exposed.

More important, however, is that as the ANC we need to accept the reality that neoliberalism and laissez-faire ideologies are presented everywhere else, at universities, in corporate South Africa, in social gatherings, in entertainment and global culture; neoliberalism and laissez-faire are presented as the divine ideologies, the commonsense ones if not the natural ones, and the National Democratic Revolution or Democratic Developmental State or even socialism only exist within ANC and its alliance partners.

If therefore the media comes across as neoliberal and even promotes neo-liberalism and promotes those ANC leaders who seem to have neoliberal leanings it is irrational to then accuse the media of having a neoliberal agenda when the rest of the country espouses neoliberal values.

Neoliberalism in South Africa however represents something completely different to its United States or European counterpart. Not only has it curiously only been white but it represented what is viewed as “soft apartheid”. South African neo-liberals participated in apartheid and would occasionally argue for the less cruel treatment of blacks, but neoliberal leaders like Helen Suzman would be the first to argue that South African blacks were not developed enough to qualify for the universal franchise of one man one vote. South African neo-liberals therefore have always hypocritically sought black sympathy in order to legitimise white dominance. It’s not unreasonable to think that the Helen Suzman Foundation and others continue this work.

Even progressive neo-liberals like Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert (a man I grew to like) historically saw black people as terrorists in their own land, at least until Slabbert led other neoliberals to meet Mbeki and other ANC leaders in Dakar in the late ‘80s. Even when Slabbert later became a Stellenbosch University Chancellor, blacks in that university could still not count on him to make Stellenbosch less “black hostile”. So when Maimane can go around saying he is proudly neo-liberal I hope he is fully aware of what South African neo-liberals have historically represented.

This is why South Africa has always endorsed the ANC’s aspirational NDR by putting them in power elections after elections despite an overwhelming neoliberal world. NDR is superior because it does not only make moral sense but economic sense too. But like all ideologies, they need a colossus like a Mao Zedong, or a Lenin, to uproot the old thinking and take over a nation and NDR, since the passing of OR Tambo, a Towering maestro who could go to the cauldron of neo-liberalism, places like Georgetown University and sell the NDR and win hearts. Since then the NDR has lacked a global champion. I would argue however that recent global leaders like Obama, who have championed the importance of communities over individualism, that rising together is better than “you are on your own”, accused of socialism at some point, have come close to representing some of these values we share.

So if the media, private sector, and society at large is to espouse the NDR values, ANC leaders must set the highest possible example of leadership, in order for people to want to be us. In order for people to want to also champion NDR.

If the press today does not espouse NDR values, it is our fault and this in itself is not a reason for the ANC to not always champion Freedom of the Press. ANC must always be that one source of protection that journalists and editors can count on for protection.

As the ANC, we believe that media enriches democracy and we believe that to be an incontrovertible truth that has remained true since the dawn of democracy. DM


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