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Untransformed media a protector of minority interests

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Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters – A protester holds a placard demanding justice for apartheid-era atrocities outside the state memorial service for former South African president FW de Klerk in Cape Town, South Africa, December 12, 2021.

By Professor Sipho Seepe

Contrary to popular opinion, the unseemly spat between South Africa’s media houses, News24 and the Independent Newspaper Group, is to be welcomed. On the surface, this may appear as a battle of contending narratives. That is a small part.

At the heart of this indecorous squabble lie vested interests. In a country that is still coming to terms with its racial past, these squabbles soon become proxies for forces that seek to maintain the status quo and those that seek to change it. In this regard, South Africa’s mainstream media has had a field day in fooling the public. It has mastered the art of manufacturing false narratives.

Claims of objectivity, independence and serving the public good are often bundled together as camouflage. But as Abraham Lincoln famously observed, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Heroes and villains are created all the time. And heroes are not spared the inglorious treatment the minute they go off script.

Ramaphoria was crafted to shape the public imagination. At the time, President Cyril Ramaphosa could do no wrong. It didn’t take long before the country was forced to settle for Ramageddon. The trumpeters have since changed tune. This should not diminish the media’s role in a democracy. Outside vested interests, media does not exist. What is problematic is the usual pretence that seeks to camouflage vested interests that seek to impose a single narrative.

The selection and sequencing of what counts as news is largely driven by vested interests. What is left out may be of greater importance than what gets reported. Invariably, perspectives and voices that go against vested interests are silenced. As they say, if you do not read the news, you are uninformed. When you do, reconcile yourself to the possibility that you are being misinformed. What about the notion that the media exists to serve the public good, and is simply a bearer of truth? This is possibly a small part of the scheme of things.

No less a figure than Nelson Mandela commented on this. Delivering his political report before stepping down as the president of the ANC, Mandela remarked that “even a cursory study of the positions adopted by the mainly white parties in the national legislature during the last three years, the National Party, the Democratic Party and the Freedom Front will show that they and the media which represents the same social base, have been most vigorous in their opposition whenever legislative and executive measures have been introduced seeking the end the racial disparities which continue to characterise our society.”

In case he was misunderstood, Mandela went further, remarking that “the matter has become clear that the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as force opposed to the ANC … and that the majority has no choice but to rely for information and communication on a media representing the privileged minority.”

A frustrated Mandela argued: “The media uses the democratic order, brought about by the enormous sacrifices of our people, as an instrument to protect the legacy of racism, graphically described by its patterns of ownership, editorial control, value system and advertiser influence.”

Arguably, Mandela should have known better. It is what the ANC signed for at the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa). Minority parties ensured that their vested interests were guaranteed in perpetuity in areas they could control. This included control of the media through ownership, the judiciary, big business, the academia and so-called elements of civil society through the control of funding.

ANC veteran and former minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi weighed in on this subject. In his article, ANC’s Fatal Concessions, Ramatlhodi argues that the party naively agreed to vest substantive power in the judiciary, Chapter 9 institutions and civil society movements.

This constitutional arrangement, Ramatlhodi argues, created a situation in which “the black majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society. The old order has built a fortified front line in the mentioned forums. Given massive resources deriving from ownership of the economy, forces against change can finance their programmes and projects aimed at defending the status quo. As a result, formal political rights conferred on blacks can be exercised only within the parameters of the old apartheid economic relations.”

While there may have been some colour changes, the dynamic that Mandela so aptly describes remains. What both Mandela and Ramatlhodi could not foresee is how readily the ANC would be captured and end up being an aggressive defender of the same vested interests they railed against. Ramatlhodi is not alone.

Concerning the legal sector, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane SC has been upfront in stating it is “a fact of life that law will tend to be dominated by a dominant class in that society”.

“Look at people who are defending the Constitution. Tell me who they are, and what class are they? Is the Constitution being defended by the multitudes of our people in New Brighton, KwaMashu, Folweni, iGiyani? No, it’s being defended by people who in some way are defending the stability that we have of the status quo.

Whether they are black or white, it’s people who are defending or legitimising inequality inadvertently or consciously, but that’s the effect.” Sikhakhane correctly contends: “The legal order that we need to have in a country that emerges from colonialism is a legal order that is the antithesis … of example … of what you coming out from … I think the problem with the lawyers and journalists and judges and politicians (is that they) have very little capacity for self-reflection”.

Sikhakhane reserves the most scathing remark for so-called civil society. He argues that these are nothing but “poster boys of whiteness parading as constitutionalists, but they defend the Constitution because they know that this Constitution defends the privileges, the ill-gotten wealth that is transported from their apartheid order into the new one and must be kept like that, for you and me, for black people to remain happy in poverty and landlessness, and we create a legal order that hardly tackles that”.

Sikhakhane’s observation on so-called civil society was not lost on Mandela. Signing from political activism, Mandela warned: “We ended up with the situation in which certain elements, which were assumed to be part of our movement, set themselves up as critics of the same movement, precisely at the moment when we would have to confront the challenge of the fundamental transformation of our country … This has also created the possibility for some of these NGOs to act as instruments of foreign governments and institutions that fund them to promote the interests of these external forces.”

Our assessment of the media, the judiciary, the untransformed academia and the so-called non-governmental sector must factor in the hidden vested interests. Whose interests they serve should always be top of mind.

Seepe is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Institutional Support at the University of Zululand.