SA media in the post-Mandela era

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By: Dr Iqbal Survé

This week in the media, and in many of our hearts, minds and homes, we have remembered the day that Nelson Mandela, the father of the new South African nation, became a free man after nearly 27 years of imprisonment. Thirty years on from this historic day, while much has changed, an awful lot has not.

A key element to shaping the narrative in those times (before, during, and now post) and how we respond to the happenings in the country is the media – the same element that has not undergone radical change to embrace the new democratic era.

Still by and large controlled by the same pro-apartheid conglomerates, South Africa’s mainstream media landscape is highly unusual in a post-revolution epoch, in as much as the incoming and current ruling party has not garnered a specific “media voice/outlet” where it can shape its own messaging. This is both admirable and possibly detrimental to the long-term survival of democracy in South Africa.

Admirable because the ANC upholds the country’s Constitution for a free, fair and diverse media sector. Detrimental because in the absence of a clear strong and dedicated voice for the masses – who missed out on being adequately represented in the pre-democratic era – the void has the potential to be filled by opposing forces.

The door is also wide open for social media to seize the attention of a news-hungry populace. But social media can only convey short bytes of information, leaving much open to interpretation. Before we know it, the messages become garbled. That’s how wars are started.

It is no secret that the “traditional” media do not reflect kindly upon the ANC, or indeed its breakaway party the EFF under former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Nor do they have much time for trade unions, black consciousness groupings or other progressive political voices. Here, the storyline is highly emotive, often highly subjective and inflammatory.

The space to consider different ideological considerations in mainstream media is therefore somewhat limited. If this continues, it will have the long-term effect of polarising South Africa and halting any future economic sustainability.

The power to move SA forward lies in the hands of the country’s story-tellers and it is time for the truth to set us all free to benefit the whole.

But what is truth? The truth is a combination of views/perspectives from those on the ground and what really happened. They are rarely the same. Telling only one side of a story is not truth. Nor will it ever be.

In the three decades since that day Nelson Mandela left Victor Verster Prison to begin a life on the “outside”, there has been an incremental rise in the number of wealthy persons and organisations (local and international), that have sponsored/invested/funded press outlets which cater predominately to the minority, and a specific agenda. This is under the guise of supporting a “free” press.

I am not saying it is wrong to have individuals or funders inject funds into media – it is after all an economically challenged segment the world over. I do, however, believe that media in South Africa has to strike a balance to shape the necessary equalised perspective.

When the majority continue to be under-represented and under-served, kept in the dark about things that matter to them, then we are on a hiding to nowhere. It is one-sided.

This one-sided approach is demonstrated by a morass of anti-progressive Fourth Estate propaganda machines operating in this country, apparently bent on preventing true freedom of speech.

Media outlets such as Daily Maverick, funded by the Oppenheimers and other well-placed businessmen and families; so-called media investigative units like amaBhungane, are funded primarily by overseas backers who themselves have certain political interests.

These “donors” have specific agendas, as far as South Africa goes, and are apparently hostile to all progressive post-liberation political parties.

Lest you be tempted to say that the progressive forces should find other outlets for their views, consider that try as they might to find a space for their voices to be heard, there is a concerted effort to stop them and to undermine the legitimacy of our liberation.

Truth be told, the ANC, with its ongoing in-fighting and inner-party factionalism, has not done itself any favours in positively representing a progressive voice of late.

The EFF, the second-largest progressive party in Parliament, has also been characterised as a group of rabble-rousers who are corrupt and who do not speak for the majority of South Africans. Again, honestly, there is something in this, but it is not the whole truth.

Each of these parties that between them represent the overwhelming majority of South Africans are a minefield of opportunity for most media houses to continue to divide and conquer, and continue widening the gap between what the media and their masters want, and what the people need (and fought for) – democratic and economic autonomy.

While this piece is not about blowing the horn for Independent Media, I will say that Independent Media plays such a vital role in South Africa’s progression. Many attempts have been made to silence or subvert this organisation.

Thankfully, though, it remains strong in its conviction of a balanced and fair space to give everyone an opportunity to air their particular views. This stance can be seen in the broad cross section of reporting and the diversity of contributors across the group.

Here is the lesson: there is an old African saying that goes along the lines of: “If the lion doesn’t tell the story, the hunter will.”

Today in Japan, for example, when they commemorate the devastating dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people remember the occasion but do not remember who dropped the bombs.

In fact, 50% of Japanese people currently believe the bombs were dropped by Russians, not the Americans. That’s how propaganda works.

Ten years from now, if we do not tell all sides of the story, we stand in the very real position of having our people believe that it was in fact Mandela that brought about apartheid and not liberated us from it.

That is the consequence of propaganda and that is the consequence when progressive forces do not have a say in the mainstream media.

To be fair in love and in war, and to ensure a future for all, media need to tell all sides of the story and to honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela’s very long walk to media freedom.

*Dr Iqbal Survé is chairman of Sekunjalo and Independent Media.