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Media must boldly become the voice of the people again

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA Archive) – Percy Qoboza, then editor of The World and Weekend World. Both newspapers were banned on October 19, 1977, alongside 18 Black Consciousness organisations. Media in South Africa today is caught in socio-political dichotomies which have smothered bread-and-butter issues, says the writer.

By Dr Thami Mazwai

October 19, 1977, remains the media’s credibility barometer and its anniversary on Wednesday asks for a reflection on the present.

While our media is among the leaders in the developing world, more so when it confronts corruption and poor governance, it must still come to the party to address South Africa’s deeper challenges. On October 19, 1977, I was in Soweto as I was each morning during those turbulent times with states of emergency and press restrictions.

My job was to criss-cross the usual hot spots. I was shocked to find out that journalists Aggrey Klaaste, Willie Bokala, Gabu Tugwana and others had been detained. Dr Nthato Motlana and his entire “Soweto Committee of 10” members and Fanyana Mazibuko and his teachers’ action committee were also carted to jail. Later on, my news editor, Joe Latakgomo, told me we no longer had our newspaper, The World.

Security police had raided the newspaper and taken its outspoken editor, Percy Qoboza, with them. Three newspapers were closed and 17 organisations banned. At the height of the unrest in the 1980s, journalists were being harassed, banned, arrested, detained and jailed.

However, this failed to kill their spirit and new titles emerged such as New Nation, Voice, Transvaal Post, The Indicator, Grassroots and later the Sowetan, The New African, South, Vrye Weekblad and the Weekly Mail.

Journalists with these titles flew the flag of professional integrity and commitment higher. Society was just proud of its journalists.We had reached those inner sensitivities of people where they trusted their media.

Names like Percy Qoboza, Joe Thloloe, Zwelakhe Sisulu and Thenjiwe Mtintso were freely mentioned, while in newsrooms Quraysh Patel, Aneez Salie, Charles Nqakula, Anton Harber, Allister Sparks, Maud Motanyane, Vas Soni and many others were equally committed.

The apartheid government hated but respected us. All it could do was unleash its venom, but newspaper owners and communities stood solidly behind their journalists. This, at the time, was the “coming to the party” that the media today has yet to achieve.

Hence, October 19 this year portrays a less similar situation but still a serious one. Newspaper titles are not only divided on major issues but some are associated with specific factions in political parties – not political parties but factions. In the 1970s the media was also divided.

However, the divisions reflected the political issues of the day. In the media today, divisions even see editors from a specific media house are not members of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), whose mission to restore credibility to the media is a national exigency.

A divided media will not protect press freedom and the right of society to credible information, let alone respond to the socio-economic perceptions of the day. It is evident that few of our country’s institutions, which include the media, prepared themselves for the future in terms of what societal changes would entail.

In 1977 there was a clear “them” and “us”, the oppressor and the oppressed – although not necessarily solely in terms of black and white – the distinction was there for all to see.

Graphic: Wade Geduldt / African News Agency (ANA) – On the 19th of October 1977, eight organisations and three newspapers aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Bantu Biko were banned. The attempt to gag the media and muzzle government critics was deemed the Black Wednesday.

Come 1994, South Africa became a more complex society unaware that we were moving into an era that renowned social scientists Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Achilles Mbembe, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon and our own Xolela Mangcu, to name just a few, warned about lingering colonialism – in our case apartheid – that would beset society and impact on it in different ways and in instances reverse transformation.

Although South Africa’s democratic government has implemented far-reaching changes, the past lingers on. Worse still, our inner realms still reflect two South Africas and we do not have that oneness which, despite material differences, is a people welded together through thick and thin.

This oneness overcomes wars, calamities and great odds. The media not only contributes to the creation of that oneness but is also a creator of it.

The democratic government may have tackled poverty head-on with the result that close to 13 million South Africans can put something on the table thanks to social grants. However, the levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality remain and are deeply ensconced in the townships, informal settlements and villages.

They express themselves in racial terms and, to make matters worse, have contributed to the breakdown of the social fabric. Substance abuse, human trafficking and prostitution are now the order of the day.

The media is caught in socio-political dichotomies which have smothered bread-and-butter issues. While it has fought corruption and the abuse of power with admiration, it has slackened when it comes to the real fight.

This is the suffering of the powerless, the poor lady and the child without parents at the informal settlement. It has instead hearkened to and preached the high and lofty talk of responsible budget management regardless of the starving millions on the ground.

Thus, when government must address the fact that two million South Africans, black and white, go to bed hungry every night, it is forced by selective opinion driven by the media to put emotions aside and look at the kitty.

The media has become the custodian of the economics of neo-liberalism instead of the economics of poverty and homelessness. This speaks of a situation in which the media has failed to let communities see poverty and hunger as enemies of society.

No government can alone eradicate such levels of PUI (poverty, unemployment and inequality), but with society, it can. Hence, when the media becomes the conscience of the nation, communities spring into action.

These ultimately overcome the miseries of poverty, substance abuse and the abuse of women and children in their midst; and the media, their conscience, is at the centre. The challenge that faces the media, and for its own credibility, is to take a deep look at itself and ask itself if it is relevant to the deeper challenges the country faces.

Slogans such as “without fear or favour” have become hollow. The media must reach those inner sensitivities of society so that people swear by it and it is their social conscience.

Mazwai is one of the journalists of the turbulent 1970s and ’80.