Opinionista Sikonathi Mantshantsha 28 January 2020

To everyone I offended with my journalism — you earned it — I wish I could have done a lot more!

Now that my service to the craft of journalism has come to an end — for now, and in this form — I regret not stepping on more toes than I actually did. Over the past 15 years of dedicating my life to the Fourth Estate, there were always more stories to tell, so much to do, and so little time. 

There were always so many fraudsters to nail, crooks to expose, incompetents to help nudge out of positions they didn’t deserve. My favourites are those in the public service, be they civil servants or political office bearers.

I see it as my duty, and that of every journalist and every citizen to hold them to account, so as to assist them to deliver on the promise of a better life for all of us. To do what I could to help get the state working again was the mission of my journalism. And to seek the truth from facts. That’s how Daily Maverick has been defending the truth since its birth more than 10 years ago.

The reason is simple. Journalists are the eyes and ears of society. It is their mission to hold a mirror to society and to get us to talk about the most uncomfortable aspects of our collective national life. 

If you get things working properly in the state and its institutions, such as the clinics, hospitals, police stations and schools, you can get to serve the poorest of society. If these institutions of the people are staffed by appropriately qualified personnel, who are passionate about the careers they have chosen, then they could look properly after the resources of the state. And the state would be able properly to look after the most vulnerable of society. As Nelson Mandela put it:

“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

The other main duty of the state — after keeping the citizens safe from any violent invasion — by both foreign elements and internal criminals, is to deliver the services the rest of society needs to get on with the business of producing goods and services for the market. And to make as much profit as possible from such endeavours. For it is only from the profits that the state can sustainably levy the taxes to pay for the services needed by the indigent. 

So we need the state to create an environment that would attract as many business people to come to invest in this country as possible. And for those investors to produce the best goods and services for the whole world. Only that way can they make as much money as they possibly can, and bring their profits back into the country. Thus the government can earn more tax revenue. 

Let’s repeat this: It is only from profit that entities pay taxes!  And it is from taxes that the state can pay for its expenditure for the benefit of citizens. After all this time, one would think nobody still needs to be convinced of this simple fact.

But what does all of this have to do with journalism and upsetting the powerful? Everything. 

It is in telling the powerful, and their armies of supporters, the truth they do not want to hear that we as citizens may get our power back. It is in fearlessly and unapologetically pointing out the lack of drugs in hospitals, the absence of trains at the station, the lack of service at the police station, the rude nurse or absent teacher that we may yet win back our country. That is our patriotic duty and our burden to bear for the next generations.

If we win the power back from the politicians and those constipated suits in the civil service, we may just have a chance to build the kind of country we desire to live in.  

Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, put it this way when he was asked by Forbes Africa magazine if he did not think he should have held back a bit when dealing with the CEOs of that country’s commercial banks, whom he fired months into his job:

“No, I never did. On the contrary—I sometimes thought I didn’t step on enough toes. I think that part of my responsibility as a Nigerian is to ask what are the things wrong in our society that need to be changed and what can I do in my position to change it.”

Of course, as mere newsmen, and not being as powerful as the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, all we could do was to embarrass the government, the institutions and the voters with irrefutable evidence of malfeasance — be that at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, Eskom, Transnet or South African Airways, fair game all of them. That’s the job of journalists. And we owe the nation a duty to pursue and expose corruption and incompetence wherever we find it. Unapologetically so.

Hell! There are still a lot more incompetents, thieves and fraudsters masquerading as public servants. 

There are many more crooks in the private sector. But the first duty of journalists and the media, in my humble opinion, is to tirelessly pursue those entrusted with power in the state and its institutions. It is doing so on behalf of the indigent, who have no means to undertake the task themselves. Neither do they have any alternative for the services robbed from them by the corrupt. 

That is not at all to say we should look the other way round when confronted with corruption in the private sector. We have an equal burden to unearth corruption everywhere. But we must acknowledge that, in an environment where profits are ever-shrinking in media, the first priority should be to dedicate resources to monitoring official corruption. 

That is because shareholders and other investors in the private sector have the mechanisms and the resources to look after themselves, including voting crooks off boards and firing incompetent management teams. At any rate, for every corrupt state official, there’s their counterpart in the private sector. 

So if there are any out there, who feel injured by my writings over the past 15 years of journalism, I have news for you: I wish I could have stepped on more toes than I actually did. 

But, I make bold in saying the struggle continues, as my colleagues at Daily Maverick, and across the media landscape, have never had any doubt about the need to pursue their mission and sole reason for existence: to defend the truth! BM

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