Opinionista Yonela Diko 6 March 2017

A divided ANC or a divisive media? 23 years of media in the Democratic RSA

The privileged in South Africa, predominantly white, go out of their way to use the dominant instruments of propaganda, which, by definition, are at the disposal of the privileged, to paint an ugly picture of an ANC in decline, an ANC at war with itself.

At the height of the antagonism and hostility between the media and the ANC in 2007, particularly its president, the Trinidadian writer and intellectual, Ronald Suresh Roberts, stepped in with a book offensive, aptly entitled Fit to Govern, the native intelligence of Thabo Mbeki.

In the book, Roberts argued that the ideologically loaded notion of native “fitness”, previously taken as obvious by the anti-apartheid forces, had become a consensual agenda.

The inability of the media, some business leaders, elements of civil society, leaders of the union movement and opposition political parties to free themselves from the “settler consciousness” in post-1994 South Africa, Roberts wrote, had swung wildly between romanticising and demonising the native.

Roberts went to town with various editorial positions of the then leaders of media houses, who still cast a long shadow even today. This includes then Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya (who he called a “colonial creature”), then Business Day writers Karima Brown and Vukani Mde and editor Peter Bruce, political commentator Xolela Mangcu, journalism professor Anton Harber, former Progressive Party MP Helen Suzman (a “South African illiberal”), author and journalist William Mervin Gumede and Wits academic Achille Mbembe.

Ten years later, after the so-called divisive Mbeki, has the media’s tone finally changed?

In this article I will seek to argue, as others already have, that the privileged in this country, predominantly white, go out of their way to use the dominant instruments of propaganda, which, by definition, are at the disposal of the privileged, to paint an ugly picture of an ANC in decline, an ANC at war with itself. I will base my argument not as a way to counter the prevailing narrative of the day, but I will look into the last 23 years in its entirety, to see whether the tone of the media has ever changed, given that they seek to tell us of the glory days of the past (Mandela and Mbeki presidency) and how far up we have fallen.

I will argue that post-1994, the privileged sector, accustomed to setting the national agenda, continue in the effort to set the national agenda, using their mighty tools of propaganda, regardless of what the majority of our citizens might desire.

On February 9, 2008, the Guardian, analysing Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, said Mbeki’s story is a “Shakespearean tale of power struggles, paranoia, betrayals, secrets, lies and, above all, hubris”. On a different day, the same Guardian would say, “Aids, Zimbabwe and an economic policy that lost South Africa half a million jobs are the three shadows that have haunted Mbeki’s presidency and cost him support he could ill afford to lose.”

Relying on the much publicised William Mervin Gumede’s book The battle for the Soul of the ANC, the same Guardian recounts a story of how Mandela was “heckled and jeered by Mbeki supporters” at an ANC national executive committee meeting when he voiced his concerns over his successor’s policies on HIV/Aids.

Gumede has of course never been an ANC NEC member so it’s curious how he would have come to this information.

For months before, Gumede writes, Mbeki refused to take phone calls from Mandela, or to meet him to discuss the spiralling crisis of confidence in his government, brought on largely by Mbeki’s bizarre denial of the facts about the disease which had killed nearly 2-million South Africans, and left tens of thousands of children orphaned. Gumede recounts many of these stories of a divided ANC with Mbeki as the sole divider, placing them in the context of a president who governed with all the authoritarianism and secrecy of the ANC’s tough years in exile that had been his formation.

In the wake of Andrew Feinstein’s short book, the Mail & Guardian tells how Mbeki personally penned a response to Guardian journalist Chris McGreal, questioning his reporting of the Feinstein saga, a response that puzzled the Mail & Guardian, not because of its content, but because Mbeki was a head of state and the paper felt Mbeki should have had better things to do than to respond to their attacks. Effectively they were saying, we were just joking, we did not think you were going to take us seriously, since you are a busy man and all.

With this article I seek to articulate just how our media has done its best to discredit and oppose the ANC, thus helping to ensure our weakening as the leader of society, and the defeat of the progressive vision we represent. It is now, as it was then, the newspapers in South Africa have done everything they could to encourage the public to reject the ANC and the progressive outlook we represent.

This should be understood in the context that the media is a vitally important source of information and opinion for large sections of our people, but is also part of the old establishment, which includes members of the Democratic Alliance.

On Monday August 13, 2017, Robert Brand refers to a report in the Guardian by Chris McGreal stating that South Africa has “blamed Britain for the deepening crisis in Zimbabwe by accusing the UK of leading a campaign to ‘strangle’ the beleaguered African state’s economy”. McGreal attributes this to “a South African document circulating among diplomats ahead of (the SADC) summit”. The document, McGreal reports, is “a draft of the report South African president [Mbeki] is expected to present at the meeting”. There is no indication that McGreal attempted to contact the South African government or presidency to verify that the report was in fact a draft of Mbeki’s report to the SADC, or to obtain comment.

The following day, South Africa’s Business Day publishes a follow-up report by its diplomatic editor, John Kaninda, stating that Mbeki had been criticised by a political analyst for blaming Britain for Zimbabwe’s crisis. It quotes extensively from the “report”, but attributes this information to the Guardian. This is the first mention of the “leaked report” in a South African newspaper.

On Wednesday, the Guardian publishes an opinion piece by Simon Tisdall, referring to “Mbeki’s attempt to blame Britain for Zimbabwe’s problems”. Tisdall attributes his information to “leaks to the South African media”.

Robert Brand concludes that “Mbeki has a problem. Because what this episode tells us is that respected foreign correspondents such as McGreal are willing to believe almost anything about our president. If someone said tomorrow Mbeki has blamed green Martians for South Africa’s maize shortage, they’d believe it. And for that, Mbeki has only himself to blame. His high-handed, aloof and often arrogant treatment of the media over the years is coming back to haunt him”.

It is such incidences that led Brand to assert that South African media is immature and has contempt for black people and black intellectuals in particular. “We too often hear only the battle noises, we don’t hear the underlying happy parts,” he said.

As Frank Meintjies said, the question the book put to commentators was and still is worth reflecting on: are we sometimes too sloppy, shallow and superficial in our analysis of events as the media?

Roberts and President Mbeki suggested that we should all be reading, talking and engaging much more at this level (at the level where the clash between different world views is unmasked), and in this way become aware of underlying thinking frameworks that inform party positions and media editorials. Through such engagement we will better understand the mental frameworks that inform the often heated political disputation in South Africa, underlie the implacable rivalry between influential voices in the media as well as between various other forces. This would help us make sense of the massive communication gaps in South African political debates.

Roberts said the much talked about Mbeki “enigma” had been generated by “an old and largely unreconstructed media oligarchy bereft of electoral influence” with an inability to contextualise Mbeki’s transformation agenda beyond embedded stereotypes about the “native”.

What has changed since that M&G article in 1996 headlined: “Is Thabo Mbeki fit to rule”?

On October 29, 2012 President Zuma said media and commentators are eager to focus on “perceived battles” in the ANC ahead of its elective conference in Mangaung, instead of the party’s policies. We must emphasise that this conference (the 53rd) is no different from 52 others that took place before.

Zuma was effectively saying that at some point the media narrative has to change. They have been singing the “divided ANC song for too long” and the ANC keeps proving them wrong and getting stronger. But the media has never been interested in a stronger and growing ANC.

Three months ago the Herald ran an article with the headline, “ANC split widens in battle to axe Zuma”. Two months ago Business Day ran a headline, “The ANC’s battle lines have been drawn as Zuma hobbles on”. Justice Malala on the same day writes, “Will a Zuma exit signal a beginning of a new country?”

It’s the same headlines as 2007, just with different figures. New boss same as old boss narrative. It begs a question.

Why is the narrative about the ANC not changing term after term? Is it because ANC leaders are the same power-hungry and divisive figures or is it because our media personalities and owners have not changed? Is it because the goal is still the same?

When Zuma spoke of the importance of media freedom in the country in 2015, reassuring media that the ANC will continue to protect media freedom and the right of journalists to speak without fear or favour, the FW De Klerk foundation asked, what is Zuma up to?

The question we must ask is: WHAT is the media up to? DM