Opinionista Mark Heywood 15 August 2017

Fighting for truth, fighting against lies: civil society, media and public activism

Journalists should not only be investigating the criminal capture of the institutions we need for economic governance, such as the SA Revenue Service and Eskom, but also study what is going on in a plethora of public institutions that are crucial for social and rights governance – for the realisation of constitutional rights to health or education.

On 31 March this year I was one of a group of activists invited into the boardroom of the National Treasury for a meeting with freshly dismissed Finance Minster Pravin Gordhan and his Deputy Mcebisi Jonas. We had gathered on Pretoria’s Church Square at dawn that morning to form the first protest against their dismissal. In that brief meeting the two ex-Ministers, still showing signs of shell shock, called on us to “join the dots” in order to see the full picture of state capture.

Since that fateful morning much dot-joining has been done, thanks in particular to a group of pioneering journalists. The portraits in the rogue’s gallery are clearer and more numerous. Thank you amaBhungane, Scorpio, Daily Maverick. My argument today, however, is that it is time for journalists to engage in a different type of dot-joining, that is to “join the dots” that link state capture with state failure.

Journalists should not only be investigating the criminal capture of the institutions we need for economic governance, such as the SA Revenue Service and Eskom, but also study what is going on in a plethora of public institutions that are crucial for social and rights governance – for the realisation of constitutional rights to health or education.

I argue that journalists should not only see themselves as having a role to play in criminal justice and the defence of democracy but also in social justice and the advance of equality.

Allow me to back-track to try and make my point.

Seven years ago I helped found SECTION27 in order to advance two core constitutional rights in particular: the rights of “everyone to have access to health care services” (section 27) and to a basic education (section 29). We recognised then that the fulfilment of these two rights is necessary if South Africa is to realise the broader constitutional vision of equality and social justice.

We believed it is nigh impossible to be equal or to strive for equality, without a quality basic education.

Since 2010 much of SECTION27’s work has been dedicated to winning justice for individuals and communities whose basic rights are violated by the failure of the Executive and Parliament to take their constitutional duties seriously. But winning a battle over rights for a school or a clinic, however important that may be to a particular community, is not sufficient.

When we formed SECTION27 we also decided that it was necessary to actively pursue systemic change, resulting in improvements that should take away many of the symptoms of the crisis that people confront. We called SECTION27 a “catalyst for social justice” and saw ourselves as always seeking to act in partnership with similar minded organisations and sectors.

One such ally, we thought, should be the media.

Why?

For the vast majority of human beings the idea of equality is magnetic and magical. Capitalist robber-barons and state kleptocrats aside, very few people openly argue against it. As a result, the reality of deepening inequality and social injustice survives often on the plausibility of lies and the sustainability of deception that are told about why and whether it exists. This means that the struggle for social justice is always concurrently a struggle about establishing facts. About truth and lies.

Social justice activists frequently have to extricate truth from lies. Once the truth is excavated we face another struggle to ensure that it is understood by as many people as possible. How widely can we disseminate the truth in order to empower people and generate outrage to bring about change?

I can think of two examples that illustrate this from my own recent experience.

At the beginning of the 2000s much of the Treatment Action Campaign’s work had to focus on getting out the truth about the numbers of people dying of Aids. We knew there were official reports by bodies like the Medical Research Council which pointed to an alarming increase in mortality. President Thabo Mbeki, who famously claimed that he “didn’t know anyone who had died of Aids”, depended on hiding this truth. The fiction of Aids denialism depended on it.

Once the facts were established by TAC, and published in the media, it was easier to campaign for the medicines, ARVs, that would stop the deaths.

Much more recently SECTION27 and the media faced a struggle to get to the truth about the eviction of patients from Life Esidimeni and the numbers of mentally ill people who died and suffered as a result. The truth as to why this happened, how many died and suffered, is still being hidden.

In this quest for the truth the media should be our willing allies. But experience suggests that media companies are not our allies. Instead it is more often individual journalists who seek to make truth-telling their mission. In the context of Aids I think of people like Pat Sidley (then of Business Day), Belinda Beresford (then of the Mail and Guardian) Khopotso Bodibe and Anso Thom of the Independent newspapers and later Health-e News Service.

There was a time when to thunder out truth was the raison d’etre of an independent media. But in recent years most of the mainstream of the media seems disinterested in truth. Finding truth is considered too time consuming (and hence expensive) to establish. Social justice, and the myriad issues that underlie it seem to be regarded as “soft news”, not something needing expertise, investigation, research and importantly perseverance and staying the course.

So, forgive us for feeling that truth sometimes has to be given to the media on a plate, or to fit a populist and sensational agenda, to warrant time and investment.

This is why, at a moment in the history of SA when we are once again suddenly celebrating the power of investigative journalism, I believe an argument needs to be revived about the importance of connecting journalism to social justice. Activists are your allies.

Some of you will tell us that “journalists are not activists”. Others will reference the need to “guard journalistic integrity and independence”.

In the legal profession a small band of lawyers forgo getting rich and opt to do “public interest law”. This compromises neither their independence nor integrity – in fact it enhances it. So, should there not also be a discipline known as “public interest journalism”?

Indeed, it could be argued that the media has a higher order of duty than most other professions because it benefits directly from a constitutional right. Section 16 of the Constitution, the protection of “Freedom of Expression” says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes: Freedom of the press and other media; Freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.”

This explicit protection of “the press and other media” is recognition that journalists has a role in the realisation of social justice. The Constitution recognises that ideas and information are public goods and that those who create or impart them have public duties. If the Constitution protects the media, should the media not protect the Constitution?

Good journalism enhances and aids dignity and abets transformation. Exposes are essential to developing a caring society. Often if a matter is not reported in the media it doesn’t get attention, there is no embarrassment, no accountability. It is for this reason researchers titled their analysis of service delivery protests “The smoke that calls”.

In this respect one reason given for the drying up of social justice journalism is the funding and financial crisis faced by the traditional media. Like NGOs and social justice movements journalists are having to eke out a survival strategy – despite their enormous public value. This is an issue on which we should make common cause!

But unfortunately among most social justice activists there is only a shallow understanding of media. We all seek media attention for our work and issues, but few of us really think about how to harness the power of the media on a consistent and continuing basis.

For example, we only confront mismanagement and corruption at the SABC when it’s in crisis. Thereafter, we go back to sleep forgetting that the SABC is a public broadcaster (ours) that it communicates with over 30-million people a day. We tend only to support media when it supports us and leave media monitoring to those NGOs that work in this silo. We don’t show enough solidarity with journalists under threat, only waking up after the death of Sunna Venter, rather than rallying to stop her intimidation.

So we too have some house-keeping to do if we are going to work together to advance social justice.

In conclusion let me mention some of the things you are not writing about.

As we speak, the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) risks implosion. The NHLS is to health care what Eskom is to electricity. In the field of medical science it is a world leader. But it has been bankrupted by a succession of corrupt leaders and by their political machinations. The NHLS is now owed R7-billion. If it collapses, the public health system collapses.

Or, what about the Medicines Control Council, soon to be renamed the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority? Who is investigating this gateway to clinical trials and medicines regulation so vital to our health and whether it is doing the job required?

Several years ago, after SECTION27 following a lead we picked up from the media, we unearthed the textbooks crisis in Limpopo, the media developed a brief interest in corruption around textbooks. Uncomfortable questions were raised about possible corruption and politically connected companies like EduSolutions.

Then the media went quiet again. It is not rocket science requiring a lot of resources, it is about driving to Limpopo, speaking to learners, teachers, principals and parents. The story is there, on a platter.

The point I am trying to make is that education, health, water, sanitation, and other sectors are equally affected by corruption and capture. Join the dots! They too disburse billions of rands in tenders. But in these sectors of the human economy mismanagement is not just a threat to economy or keeping the lights on but to millions of lives.

Why, for example, is more attention given to Mosebenzi Zwane as Minister of Mineral Resources than as the former Free State MEC who misused his political connections to queue-jump his relative into the Intensive Care Unit at Dihlabeng hospital in Bethlehem, tipping an elderly patient out of bed on the way?

Why is so little attention given to the criminal habits of MEC Benny Malakoane when at the Free State health department?

Here corruption has a causal relationship with deaths and deprivation. Dolus eventualis!

The media has a duty to act in furtherance of the Constitution and the democracy it protects. It should be joining dots to understand the reasons why children in SA are dying of severe acute malnutrition. We should be asking whether the absence of media coverage contributes to the diminished outrage about HIV and TB, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of deaths still occur each year? Why is there no reporting on the near total denial of access to basic education for children with disabilities?

Yes, state capture is outrageous but there’s more than one ugly under-belly – more than one cause for outrage.

Corruption creates a vicious circle of poverty, inequality and instability. This in turns creates a fertile ground for populism driven by the very people who caused the misery in the first place. The media has a role in staunching this. Step up please! DM

Mark Heywood took part in a panel discussion at the Daily Maverick Gathering, 3 August 2017. This piece is drawn from his comments and notes from that discussion.

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