The media alongside the state is one of the most important institutions in society. The media act as a watchdog and are an important counterbalance to the state.
The media holds up a mirror to society. As South Africa (SA) approaches its 20th anniversary as a democracy and as we officially enter the post Mandela era, every important institution in this country is open to review and scrutiny. How has the media embraced its roll in post-apartheid SA?
Fazila Farouk of SACSIS speaks to media expert, Prof. Jane Duncan, about the media’s coverage of Mandela’s legacy, the media as a true reflection of South African society and media transformation.
Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. She also has a regular column at SACSIS.
Transcript of Interview
FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.
The media alongside our state is one of the most important institutions in any society. The media act as a watchdog and an important counterbalance to the state as well as holding up a mirror to society.
As South Africa approaches its 20th anniversary as a democracy and as we sadly but officially enter a post Mandela era, every important institution in this country is up for review and scrutiny. It’s an important time for us to reflect on what we have achieved and not achieved as a country together and to consider what the future holds in store for us.
How has the media embraced its roll in post-apartheid South Africa?
Helping us to make sense of this question is Professor Jane Duncan. Jane is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. She also has a regular column here at SACSIS.
Welcome to SACSIS Jane.
JANE DUNCAN: Thank you very much Fazila.
FAZILA FAROUK: Jane we’re going to spend time talking more generally about how the media has embraced its role in post apartheid South Africa, but what I wanted to talk to you about this morning particularly as its just been days since we lost President Mandela — I’d like you to reflect a little bit for us this morning on your thoughts on how the media has covered President Mandela’s death.
JANE DUNCAN: I think obviously there’s been a huge outpouring of sympathy for the family, which I think, is exceedingly important at this stage. And I think also as a country as well, we need time to pause and reflect on what it means to actually start to function in a post Mandela era. So I think that there’s been a lot of media reflection up to this point focusing on those issues, but a lot of the media reporting I think has really been focusing on the legacy of the – of the individual and often in a way I think that is not exactly a balanced reflection of the true legacy of the Mandela era.
And the legacy I think of the Mandela era is quite mixed.
The man was a giant in terms of the courage and perseverance that he showed in the struggle against apartheid. But I think he also presided over a transitional period and over the first post-apartheid administration that I think sowed the seeds of what is quite a mixed troubling post-apartheid picture that we have at the moment.
We have a country that is still highly unequal, one of the most unequal countries in the world. There’ve been many successes over this period. The rolling out of the social grants, for instance, has been a major success. But structural unemployment still continues to bedevil the country.
And I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the transition that took place in the country that Nelson Mandela presided over, took place at a time when the balances of forces globally, I think, didn’t favour liberation movements. And as a result of that we saw many liberation movements been driven into negotiation settlements in many parts of the world that weren’t necessarily entirely advantageous to progressive forces.
I think that there are a number of historians who’ve documented very ably the contradictions of the negotiated settlement that we went through, such as Sampie Terrablanche for instance, who has documented how there was a parallel series of negotiations with the economic powers in the country — parallel to the political negotiations that led to a series of economic compromises that I think continue to shape the kind of political economy that we’ve got in the country at the moment.
So I think this is also part of Mandela’s legacy as well. And perhaps in time we’ll come to be able to develop media spaces that will enable to…allow us to reflect. I think in a more considered fashion about where we are as a country at the moment. But certainly, I don’t see sufficient reflection, really critical reflection, about where we are at the moment and the contribution both good and bad of Nelson Mandela and the Mandela administration towards that.
FAZILA FAROUK: Let’s get to the specifics of the media in general in South Africa. About 10 weeks ago, the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task (PDMTT) team released a report charging that the media industry in South Africa is failing to transform itself. One of the critiques of the report was that while newsrooms are becoming more integrated, the boardrooms in the media still remain pale and male. Can you comment specifically on this particular issue with respect to the media and what it means for how the media reflects our society – but also talk more generally about media transformation in South Africa.
JANE DUNCAN: Well my understanding of media transformation is that we can say that the media is sufficiently transformed when it accurately represents the society in which it operates. Not only in terms of its product but also in terms of ownership and staffing and audience as well. I think once we have transformation on all those levels we can start to talk about a meaningful transformation in the media.
Now I think of what the PDMTT report did show up was that transformation has been uneven. But also what I think is quite problematic about the PDMTT report is that it tended to equate transformation with racial transformation.
Now racial transformation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the kind of more thoroughgoing transformation that I just mentioned earlier. I think it’s important because if demographically the media is out of step with broader society then I think inevitably it’s going to create a situation where people are going to look askance at the media. It creates a space for people to point at the media and to say that because the media is insufficiently represented it doesn’t understand the society in which it operates. It possibly is operating according to certain minority agendas because of that.
So I think it can serve to delegitimize the media if it’s insufficiently representative demographically of society and that’s not only in relation to newsrooms but also is relation to boardrooms as well. I think that the optics are important when it comes boardroom transformation. If we have a fairly well transformed newsroom, but the management decisions are being taken by predominantly white boards then inevitably it’s going to create problems for the credibility — for the legitimacy of that media organisation.
FAZILA FAROUK: Let’s talk a little bit about media ownership and its implications for editorial content. Just this weekend we heard that Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has been removed from her post by her newspaper’s groups controlling shareholder Sekunjalo after she published an article alleging that a Sekunjalo subsidiary had fraudulently acquired a government contract. Reports say that Dasnois was informed by Sekunjalo consortium executive chairperson Iqbal Survé of her removal on Friday. Can you comment on this specific case and the issue of ownership and editorial content more generally in relation to the media? And I mean when you answer this question, I don’t think the issue of the SABC is off the table as well in terms of who controls our public broadcaster — so if you would engage with that as well.
JANE DUNCAN: Well I think specifically in relation to the Cape Times case, we obviously don’t know what precipitated the removal of Alide Dasnois. It looks suspicious though. You know it’s difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that there was management interference in relation to a number of articles that were, I think, extremely critical of Sekunjalo, but we obviously can’t state that conclusively yet.
I would hope that if Sekunjalo had issues with the Cape Times’ reporting on the alleged corruption in the tender then I think that it would have been appropriate for Sekunjalo to take the matter to the press Ombudsman and to lay a complaint there. But to start getting heavy handed and to send lawyers – a lawyers letter to the editorial staff and to remove the editor in these very dubious, I think, conditions — I think certainly does create the impression that there’s been undue management pressure on editorial.
But I think that there was always a danger when it came to a transformation of the press because I think it’s become fairly evident that the press on a number of levels is insufficiently transformed.
Newsrooms are certainly very transformed, but when it comes to management structures and ownership there’s insufficient transformation that’s taken place on those levels. And I think that the press really has been damned — would have been damned if it didn’t transform, but it potentially could be damned if it did transform.
And what I mean by that is if it didn’t transform then inevitably that would be used in order to continue to delegitimize the press and I think that the ANC has done that very successfully. They’ve pointed fingers at the press and said that because of the lack of transformation in the press, therefore they are pursuing an anti ANC agenda, they’re out of touch with the majority opinion, and they are very market fundamentalist and neoliberal in their outlook.
So, those kinds of arguments would continue to be made about the press.
But if they didn’t transform then I think inevitably their credibility would have been damaged. But if they did transform, the possibility was always there that empowerment groups that were linked to the ruling party or even a faction of the ruling party could take control of chunks of the press and I think this is why many people I think have been concerned about the Sekunjalo buy over of Independent Newspapers.
It is undeniable that the company needed to come home and that a local owner needed to buy the newspaper group, but the manner in which the group has been bought out, the lack of transparency when the initial sale took place and now this particular incident I think sounds even louder alarm bells about the nature of the owner that Independent Newspapers has at the moment and the extent to which that owner is actually independent of the current ruling elite of the day.
Also having said that I think we need to look at what’s happening in our media system more broadly because it seems like that there are larger and larger chunks of the media system that are becoming aligned to the ruling elite and the ruling faction of the ruling party. And one has to just think about the SABC in order to see the extent to which political control has actually manifested itself in the media system.
The three top management officials of the SABC, the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer and the chief executive officer are all political appointments and that should worry us particularly because the chief executive officer is also the editor in chief of the SABC. Also recently, the chief operating officer has been put in charge of news and current affairs at the SABC. So what that means is that there is a direct line drawn between the Minister of Communications on the one hand and the editorial content of the SABC on the other, and that obviously lends itself to greater political control of the SABC. The fact that we’ve seen a drift towards a more positive news, a quota even, a 70% positive news.
FAZILA FAROUK: The so-called sunshine news.
JANE DUNCAN: The so-called Sunshine news…I think is all an indication of the fact that there is a drift within our media system towards greater, either direct or indirect, government control. And that should concern us because given the kind of society that we are the moment and the huge challenges that we face given the growing social contradictions in the country that are giving rise to I think protests in many parts of the country. Given what happened in Marikana, for instance, last year I think it’s becoming increasingly evident that social contradictions are growing. And because of that I think the temptation is there for government to curtail what are increasingly loud and critical voices including in the media.
So this drift towards greater state control I think should really worry us.
But also I think the media system is caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock being greater state control and the hard place being greater corporate control of the media. We still have a highly consolidated media system. We can see it particularly in the press where one large group dominates the press – Media24 followed by four smaller groups. And I think that’ unhealthy because I think it does reduce, inevitably, the diversity of voices in society.
And I think what we do have in the country is the nature of the media transformation that has taken place has given rise to a highly unequal media system. The kind of social inequalities that we see in broader society I think reproduce themselves in and through the media. And we can also see those inequalities structuring how the post apartheid media system has come into being.
You could almost characterise it as being like a funnel where the higher up the funnel you go, the greater plurality of media there is and the more people in upper income groups have access to this greater plurality of media. I think upper income groups are very well served by plurality of media — not necessarily by diversity of media, but the further down the funnel we go I think the less poor and working class media focus media there is and, as a result, I think the less voice there is of poor and working class and unemployed people in the media.
And I think that that is an unsatisfactory situation for us to be in 20 years into a democracy. I think it inevitably leads to a society where we are really unable to see ourselves in all complexity and with all our problems.
I think it leads to an uneven public sphere, an elite public sphere, in fact, where your ability to have voice in the public sphere is determined largely by money and wealth. And I think inevitably we’re not going to be able to address head on our most pressing problems as a society if we’re unable to see ourselves accurately. And because of that we are unable to have the kind of hard conversations that we need to have to resolve our most pressing problems.
FAZILA FAROUK: Jane Duncan, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.
JANE DUNCAN: It’s a pleasure. Thank you Fazila.
FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. If you’re looking for more social justice analysis, you can get that at our website.
IMAGE: Nelson Mandela Museum, Qunu