Opinionista Susan Booysen 4 July 2018

Smoke, mirrors and putting ANC money where its mouth is

Is it disingenuous? Or does the ANC make a fair point when it argues for a higher proportion of public broadcaster time, plus a platform alongside other political parties when there is comment to be given on government actions?

The African National Congress came out electoral guns blazing this week, arguing that it deserves 62% of the party political coverage on the public broadcaster, because it is “a 62% party”. Part of its argument is that the media often neglects to ask ANC opinion on government matters when other political parties are requested to comment.

The ANC argues equally that parliamentary rules of speaking time in line with proportion of the electorate represented, based on the previous election, should be the public broadcaster’s guideline for extent of coverage.

The ANC submitted these arguments, among others, to the commission of inquiry into political interference at the public broadcaster.

National Executive Council member Zizi Kodwa, head of the ANC Luthuli House presidency, argued:

The ANC deals with issues of conflation between the party and state… where the ministers are made to be as though they’re the spokesperson of the ANC.”

Closer inspection exposes the arguments’ paper-thin foundations.

The ANC was a 62% party in 2016 and has by all public opinion poll indications been in decline since. If proportionate vote at a previous election is the benchmark, it means that coverage in the present, at that level that pertained four to five years ago, would work to reinforce a previous order of things. It would not reflect necessarily the current day balances of party strength.

Thus, and judged by the prevailing opinion polls – which show that the voting citizenry do not (yet, perhaps they never will) directly convert pro-Ramaphosa sentiment and appreciation for select government clean-up actions into promised ANC votes – 62% is off the mark. It is an appreciative but cynical electorate out there… and more media exposure could very well bring in the required political socialisation and consolidation of changes in the political mood in South Africa.

The ANC is a governing party, but also should be asked for its comment on government actions, is the other ANC argument. It calls for cross-examination.

First, the ANC in the near-decade under former president Jacob Zuma had worked explicitly to fuse itself with government. A motto that helped bring Zuma to power was that the state needed to be subjected to the party. It was in reaction to the approximate alienation that had set in between another former president, Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC, and the way in which Mbeki had used government structures to subjugate or circumvent the ANC.

The ANC under Zuma took the steps to ensure that there would be no doubt as to the supremacy of the party. Government became an ANC instrument, even more than before.

The ANC in the time of Zuma illustrated this direction in the party-government relationship consistently in its protection of Jacob Zuma, throughout the period of capture, corruption and cronyism. The government took its instruction from the Zumaist ANC – and the ANC hardly ever ventured into criticism or condemnation of Zuma in full flight abusing state structures and processes.

In fact, the same phenomenon continues under Cyril Ramaphosa: state institutions, wherever the ANC is in power, are under the thumb of the party. The evidence is writ all over: the ANC does not separate itself from state structures and state operations. It has not offered substantive evidence that as party it would or does take a line that is different from what government says and does – except for the historical actions or the previous ANC order, which are now being critiqued.

The ANC argument also appears as disingenuous because the party in past election campaigns benefited vastly from being treated as separate from the government! This was evident, for example, in Zuma and his executive offering party-political, election campaign-related words and actions in official speeches and government events.

Besides the political words, think about the functions and handouts. Neither the broadcaster nor the media monitoring agencies recorded coverage of the associated speeches as election activities.

Thus, de facto separation in terms of treatment by a public broadcaster has been in place, in all probability continues to be in place – and the ANC is benefiting from it, like all governing parties probably do.

On the less opportunistic front, Kodwa made welcome non-interference noises in condemning (lightly) practices of high-level (and often not very high) politicians using political weight to affect media content.

It will be a real accolade if there is explicit, strong condemnation of, for example, politicians calling journalists and programme producers generally to object against programme content, to insist on opportunities to pose counter content, or persons like paid (from the public purse) ministerial advisers and aides intervening on their ministers’ and their ministers’ party’s behalf. That will be proof of money where the mouth is. DM

Susan Booysen is Director of Research at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) and Visiting Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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