The eminent American scholar-activist Noam Chomsky published a celebrated critique in 1988 of the media in the United States. The book, entitled Manufacturing Consent, exposes the incestuous relationship between big business and the supposedly ‘free press’ in the US. The gist of Chomsky’s critique is that a capitalist-friendly national consensus projected in the media is not only fostered through direct manipulation, or editorial interference, or dependence upon advertising. The ‘consensus’ is also manufactured insidiously, even unconsciously, in the very rituals of the mainstream media, through what counts as news and what does not, through how issues are framed, through what questions are asked, and through what is filtered out.
What Chomsky did not perhaps sufficiently explore was how the manufacture of the appearance of consent depended also on the manufacture, when the occasion required, of the appearance of dissent. In other words, when it becomes impossible to silence those questioning the cosy assumptions of a manufactured consent, then it becomes necessary to marginalise them as ‘dissenters’.
This variety of manufactured dissent was admirably illustrated by The Times, three-times over in fact, in a front-page strap-heading, in an article, and in a related editorial.
On the front page is a photo of comrade Trevor Manuel with an ANC scarf and a clenched fist. The headline caption reads: “AMANDLA! Reds Strike out at NDP – p.4”. That opens the door to page 4 and a story by George Matlala headlined: “SACP: Manuel and his plan must go”. All of this excitement has been stirred up, of course, by the public release of the SACP’s discussion document on the National Development Plan (“Let’s not monumentalise the NDP”). The headline to Matlala’s story is deliberately misleading. The SACP discussion document does not call for the dismissal of comrade Trevor, nor does it say that the plan must simply go. We argue that the NDP is an uneven document that requires constructive if critical engagement.
What the SACP is proposing (as somewhere in the body of Matlala’s story an attentive reader might notice) is that, with a new administration in 2014, the present part-time National Planning Commission should be thanked for its work, and a more organic, state planning commission established. The current part-time commission comprises 26 commissioners from diverse backgrounds — academics, business-people, NGO activists—many of them eminent researchers, but all (with the exception of the chairperson, cde Trevor) lacking organic links into the diverse planning processes and responsibilities within government. The commission had an impossible task — to develop, in 18 months, a 20-year national plan that would be both a consensus-building broad vision and a fit-for-implementation plan. In the end it came up with an uneven 484-page “vision-plan” —have The Times editorial staff, now loyally jumping to attention before the NDP, actually read it?
The proposal that the SACP is putting forward around the establishment of a more organic state planning capacity comes, in part, from cde Trevor himself. In a recent interview in the Daily Maverick (which we quote in the SACP NDP discussion document) he makes it clear that he would have preferred a planning commission that was more like the Indian State Planning Commission, a more organic state commission involving half-a-dozen cabinet ministers, rather than a part-time, relatively external body. This would, he adds, have made the connection between the “plan” and a necessarily state-led implementation process more apparent.
So much for the misleading and personalised (“Manuel must go”) headline to Matlala’s story. The second paragraph of the story tells us “the SACP has blasted the 30-year plan, which labour federation Cosatu has also derided” (meaning that we have also derided it). Framings and therefore beginnings (as Chomsky would say) are everything in news stories like this — particularly in a tabloid like The Times which boasts that it is “The Fast, Smart Read”. In short, it is aimed at those with limited attention spans.
In the very last paragraphs of Matlala’s story a more balanced version of what the SACP is actually saying begins to emerge. It concedes that the SACP “did…find some positive proposals” in the NDP, and we were critical of those who were calling for a total rejection of the NDP. This belated gesture towards ‘balanced’ reporting is of course too little and far too late. A very different impression has already been locked into place by the story’s headline and opening paragraphs.
One of those suffering from an attention deficit is The Times’ very own editorialist who clearly didn’t make it to Matlala’s eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth paragraphs. Matlala’s story is followed by a page 14 editorial — “Will Zuma make a stand for SA’s development plan?” Here we are told that “The plan that Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa painstakingly crafted with other eminent South Africans now hangs in the balance and might not see the light of day.”
This is patent nonsense. The NDP long ago saw the light of day, all 484 pages of it, some 18-months back. The game The Times is playing (and it is not alone) is to cynically use the NDP, not as a basis to build, in democratic discussion, a shared 20-year South African vision — but the very opposite. It wants to use the NDP as a wedge-driver to pit one ANC minister against another, to pit the ANC against its allies. To do this it has to manufacture a false consensus, suggesting that the cabinet and the ANC’s endorsement of the NDP as a BROAD vision and a basis for ENGAGEMENT is the same thing as rubber-stamping every single proposal in its 484 pages!
The Times wants us to believe that everything uttered by the national planning commission is gospel truth, now accepted by the ANC and cabinet as marching orders. If that were the case then what are we to make of the National Planning Commission’s rejection two weeks ago of cabinet’s Integrated Resource Plan 2010 nuclear-build plans, and cabinet’s subsequent reaffirmation this week of exactly its original position?
The Times editorial is seeking to goad President Zuma into a showdown with the ANC’s alliance partners. On May Day, speaking to a worker audience, President Zuma quite correctly said that the NDP is not carved in stone (it is NOT a monument!). Fortunately we are living in a constitutional democracy. As the SACP we are committed to a constructive but critical engagement with the broad vision and the specific proposals in the NDP. We also believe that there are institutional lessons to be learned from the planning commission experience. Across the alliance and, indeed, within government we must refuse to be manipulated by the wedge-drivers, the manufacturers of imposed consents, who seek to present us with a false either/or choice – rubber-stamp 484 pages of the NDP (which they themselves have not read), or simply reject it totally. Let’s decline to be herded either into a manufactured consent or, equally, into a manufactured dissent.
Jeremy Cronin is first deputy secretary general of the SA Communist Party and deputy minister of public works.
This story was first published in the SACP’s newsletter, Umsebenzi Online. It is republished here with the permission of the author.