Ray Joseph: South Africans voice anger at country’s media environment

South African-based Right2Know Campaign is hosting a series of conferences to explore how the country’s media environment can be improved. Read the report: Media Transformation & the Right to Communicate

The media does not care about us, they never report things relevant to us and papers are only interested if there is bad news about us, the elderly, gap-toothed man says.

The digital revolution is also passing his community by, he adds. His deeply lined face and brow offer testimony to his day-to-day battle to eke out a life in the “temporary relocation area” of Blikkiesdorp, where many of Cape Town’s disenfranchised have washed up.

“Internet is expensive and doesn’t work well there, and there’s nothing in the papers that talks to us and about our struggle and lives. It’s like we don’t exist.”

The man is an “ordinary citizen” who took part in last weekend’s Cape Town leg of a countrywide series of Media Transformation and Right to Communicate summits organised by the Right2Know Campaign.

“As inequality deepens and social cohesion falters, South Africa needs a media that can offer expression to the full range of voices and facilitate the substantive and complex debates about the social and economic future of the country,” says Mark Weinberg, national coordinator of R2K.

Issues on the agenda include the need for a free and diverse press, the concentration of ownership of South Africa’s media in the hands of four dominant players and the ongoing political interference in the affairs of the SABC, as the ANC tightens its control of the state broadcaster. Participants also voiced concerns at the slow pace of South Africa’s transition to digital terrestrial TV, which will free up bandwidth for high-speed internet and new independent radio and TV stations.

During one session, a community journalist from one of Cape Town’s poorest townships angrily berated the big media houses and called on his “comrades” to march on their offices to “force” them to fund smaller, struggling independent media. Around the room, I noted many others nodding in agreement.

The anger at a perceived lack of transformation in the country’s media is fueled by the fact that the print media is still largely dominated by a handful of powerful companies, even though the landscape has shifted since the birth of a new, democratic South Africa in 1994. The anger was not only aimed at big media houses which stand accused of using predatory pricing tactics to force smaller, less well-resourced outlets out of business.

Participants also had their sights firmly set on government and its failure to support independent community print and radio. Often the main source of income for some small media is paid-for government advertorial, another participant pointed out. The result is that recipients of this revenue are reluctant to rock the boat and report critical stories about government for fear of losing this vital income.

The summits come against the backdrop of a new push by the government to introduce a Media Appeals Tribunal amidst ongoing reporting by South African media on corruption and the squandering of taxpayer money as the economy contracts, raising fears of recession.

William Bird, the head of Media Monitoring Africa says the Media Appeals Tribunal “is bad because, aside from the potential limitations to freedom of expression, it simply won’t address the core concerns over the quality of news content, diversity, transformation and what some perceive as overly negative coverage”.

As a journalist, I was often taken aback during the course of the summit at the depth of anger and isolation felt by ordinary people, especially those from poor communities who felt the media serves the rich and that they are denied a voice.

Nevertheless, I left the summit feeling hopeful. The passion of the man from Blikkiesdorp and others like him and their determination to take the fight to big media and government help remind me that while South Africa may have problems, our democracy remains strong and robust.

This column was posted on 26 November 2015 at indexoncensorship.org

Oliver Tambo: “We have never ever doubted that apartheid will crumble some day”

Oliver Tambo (Image: Rob C. Croes / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons)

Oliver Tambo (Image: Rob C. Croes / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons)

In May 1986 Oliver Tambo, then president of the African National Congress, was interviewed by former Index on Censorship magazine editor Andrew Graham-Yooll in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The following are extracts from the conversation.

Are you planning for a time after apartheid?

Oliver Tambo: That should not pose a problem. We do not find it necessary as yet to have people assigned to specific roles in the new South Africa. I don’t think we should have any problem deciding who should do what. For the moment the priority is to concentrate on ending the system. We say we want a government that derives its mandate from the people of South Africa as a whole, a majority government. If we had to pick a cabinet we would do that without any difficulty.

We have never ever doubted that apartheid will crumble some day. Now, we are able to say some day soon. We have never had any doubt about this. We know that we will be in Pretoria soon – if we choose Pretoria to be the seat of government. But it is so notorious as the seat of apartheid that the people who will be in power (not necessarily Oliver Tambo) might want to go elsewhere. But there will be a government of the people in South Africa and we will all get there some day soon. We have never doubted this. Some day soon, is how we look at it. ‘Soon’ can be stretched. We labour under no illusions that apartheid will not fall without heavy sacrifices possibly even after a protracted and vicious confrontation. We are prepared for that but at the end of the day we know apartheid must end.

Is there a real possibility of a peaceful transition to majority government?

One hopes it will not be too violent, but we must be prepared for the reality.

Pressures have got to be external and serious up to the point where we are able to say apartheid has been destroyed and a new South Africa is emerging. But if we should withhold pressure, even withdraw it, then apartheid continues. It is only since 1985 that international pressure has begun to measure up to the demands of the situation, encouraged significantly by the rising pressures from within the country. These two have resulted in a new thinking on the part of those who are administering the apartheid system.

You have compared 19th century colonialism and racism and 20th century imperialism and apartheid.

The point was that at the heart of apartheid was racism. Apartheid is the strongest concentration of racist concepts put into action. But that did not start with apartheid, it was there before. It found expression in colonial practice. In fact, one can say that in South Africa racism started with the first settlers. It was with the Dutch before 1805. Well. I should not say the first because it was a later development.

When Dutch settlers got there they found indigenous people. There was no racism at that point, they were just different people. Subsequently, laws were introduced which enforced separation. Then the British came. Their most racist act was the constitution, which incorporates racist clauses. From there racism developed roots. Racists were encouraged and in the end they had a racist government in power. But they were built on the constitution adopted by a British government and so you have this monster of apartheid.

But the point is that what we see today has been there before. Perhaps the true process of reversal can only start in South Africa where it has reached its worst. If you can succeed in uprooting this thing in South Africa, I think that the fate will be to eliminate racist practices everywhere. Especially if we do succeed, as we are hoping, in creating a new relationship between people, learning from the horrors of the apartheid system. Just as we hoped that people who worked against Nazism would not want to entertain anything like it again. Those who have experienced the worst excesses of racism should want to get away from that totally. They should have a completely non-racial system of a kind which should be attractive internationally.

If only people could live together, innocent of colour, skin colour, of racial difference… South Africa therefore may well be the starting point of this end to racism which has been with us in the world for centuries.

How do you see the predicament of South Africa’s neighbours?

It is a predicament. They have been put in that situation by history. They found themselves in that position before independence. There was nothing wrong with that. South Africa was the heart of their economies and they were linked to South Africa. If you did not have the apartheid system, or if the transition to democratic rule in southern Africa had taken place at the same time as it did in these other territories we would have had no problem at all. But they became politically independent first and are therefore quite naturally opposed to the colonial system in South Africa. They were themselves involved in colonial struggles. They have achieved their objective of winning political power at least, we have not. So they support us.

But there is more to it than that. The apartheid system is inhuman to its victims and makes fools of them. So the neighbouring states want to see it ended. They do what they can, they recognise the reality of the situation. They do care, they cannot fight. They can only defend themselves if they are attacked. But even then it would not take too long before they were overwhelmed. They cannot impose sanctions because of their tremendous dependence on South Africa. But they do the next best thing, that is to organise themselves into a collective, SADCC, which seeks to reduce that dependence. That is the next best thing. They are neighbours, so they are liable to be harassed and destabilised. The South Africans can impose sanctions against them, they impose sanctions against Mozambique, they have imposed sanctions against Lesotho and they can invade and raid Botswana.

When we call for sanctions we have to make an exception, it is understood. We make an exception with regard to the countries that border South Africa, because their economies are dependent on trade with South Africa. So they are not called upon to impose these sanctions. They know that if sanctions were imposed they would be the worst affected, and they say that is the sacrifice they have to make. Of course, we all hope that the opponents of apartheid who enforce sanctions would want to minimise the adverse effect on these countries. In other words, we want them to be given assistance to enable them to survive the effect of sanctions.

This article was originally published in Index on Censorship magazine in 1986.

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South Africa’s Secrecy Bill: A threat to press freedom or an awakening?

South Africa’s parliament is in its final stages of reviewing a bill that, if passed, could have severe implications for press freedom in the country and the African continent. The Protection of State Information Bill (also known as the Secrecy Bill) could result in the imprisonment of journalists and whistleblowers who possess, publish or leak state secrets for up to 25 years.


South Africa: 100 years after the founding of the ANC, dissenters take to Twitter

The 8th of January 1912 saw the founding of the ANC, by key  South African intellectuals, including author Sol Plaatje, poet John Dube, and editors Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Langalibalele,  in a small  Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein.

All four were writers, and one of the key tenets of the ANC was intellectual and creative freedom, as well as economic, political and social equality. The ANC is well known for its strong links with the unions, the miners, and with the Umkhonto We Siswe (MK, the armed wing).

What is less known is the firm commitment to promoting education, night classes and intellectual development: Walter Sisulu, Oliver Thambo, Hugh Lewin and Nelson Mandela all studied and/or ran informal classes for other prisoners  whilst imprisoned. Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and members of the Africa Resistance Movement also coordinated education township night classes through the struggle years. Peter Magubane (a photographer at Drum) and the Drum Magazine played a vital role in both exploring the everyday elements of apartheid, and vividly quashing the lies and misinformation of the apartheid regime.

Back the ‘80s and ‘90s, demonstrations were de rigeur. Even until the mid noughties strikes and actual demonstrations, with real people and real placards, were everyday occurences, particularly in Johannesburg.  Free speech was visible, tangible.

Tweeting is changing this it seems. This week has seen the flourishing of all sorts of celebrations in South Africa commemorating the ANC’s birth, but also a remarkable burgeoning of criticism about the ANC, and where it’s going. Tweeting, which is significantly more common in South Africa than the rest of the Southern and Eastern region, is the new demonstration.

Relationships between South African media, and the ANC have becoming increasingly strained since the Information Act was passed late last year. The act seeks to curtail investigative journalism, and is viewed by many commentators as a major blight against what was originally an incredibly pioneering and free constitution. The South African twittersphere is ablaze with critical and sardonic comment on issues from the refusal of press passes to the local media, to clampdowns on reports critical of ANC leadership.

On Sunday (8 January)  several journalists criticized President Jacob Zuma’s speech at a local stadium in Mangaung. “The story of Mangaung so far today. Two themes. How slowly Zuma is delivering his speech and how quickly people are leaving. Sigh,” tweeted Channel 403 news anchor Iman Rappetti.  Reporting on Zuma’s speech, journalist Mandy Rossouw tweeted that “A faction in the crowd tries their best to distract Zuma, police sent in to stop them.” Zuma supporter Mthimkulu Mashiya responded, “JZ speech shaping up to be a powerful & inspirational one, must u concentrate on a few disruptive elements? C’mon now.”

Earlier, City Press Multimedia Editor Qhakaza Mthembu complained about the official decision to deny journalists access to the Wesleyan church where Zuma lit a symbolic torch. “Why would you invite the media if you gonna push us away and close church doors, I’m here to film the candle not the friggin doors,” she angrily tweeted. Mthembu then expressed her surprise at seeing an ANC spokesman lounging in the media pavilion, eliciting a sarcastic comment by @drphobophob: “Oh is Floyd Shivambu chilling in the media pavilion? I was pretty sure he hated our kind…1st rule of war=know your enemy.”

Zuma supporters were quick to retort: “All the reports I’ve seen, by both local and international media, about #ANC100 point out how the ANC has let itself go in recent years,” complained  @Mabine_Seabe. “Y is the media focusing on what ANC is not doing, instead of celebrating with them,” asked @morudilebo. “What’s so hard for Media houses just to congratulate #ANC100 and stop talking about discontents of past 17 years?” said @mokhathi.

It wasn’t just the media who were critical of the ANC.  “The #ANC pops champagne yet majority of South Africans struggle to access clean water. “tweeted @bekezeep. “At #ANC100 look out for all the dictators with murky Zuma…” tweeted @hebbiedodds. “LEADERS typically arrive in the latest range rover while the masses are ferried in belching buses,” tweeted @Ms_eazy. “Celebrating 100 years of what? Have we achieved the true victories set out in the Freedom Charter?” tweeted @SuGaRusHB. “Gotta wonder what #anc100 concert really cost us? How many houses schools or hospitals could we have built? How many kids could we have fed?” tweeted @TracyLeePurto. “Anc was started by theologians yet today its criminals that run it,” tweeted @MaqPaulM.

In a microcosm of the national debate, Zuma supporters confronted a twitterer called Hlomla Dandala for mocking the president. “Mangaung: Where tenderprenuers meet pantyprenuers,” read one of his tweets, a witty reference to corruption and sex scandals entangling several ANC leaders. Defending himself, Dandala tweeted to a handful of Zuma supporters: “In all democracies, presidents r criticised, ridiculed & mocked. That’s democracy.”

Even the National Director of Public Prosecution Menzi Simelane, couldn’t resist getting involved. Tweeting in his personal capacity, he said, “Good thing about real freedom is about making fun of your President, an elder, and a Statesman, without worrying about repercussions!” However, as the Committee for the Protection of Journalists points out, given pending criminal complaints by Zuma’s spokesman against two journalists, as well as other potential media prosecutions, repercussions against investigative reporting can be expected.