Can it be that Jacob Zuma — unlike many millions of other South Africans — never watches SABC TV news bulletins, or that he never listens to the many radio stations broadcasting in all South Africa’s official languages every day to more than 26-million South Africans? Has he ever heard of and does he sometimes read some of the country’s largest circulating newspapers, the Sowetan (with almost 1,5-million daily readers) or City Press (more than two million weekly readers), the Sunday Sun (almost two million weekly readers), or the Sunday World (more than one million readers)?
It does not seem so — unless he thinks all these media outlets are so mediocre and uninteresting that they do not form part of “the South African mass media” at all. How else can one explain his online newsletter this week in which he approvingly quotes from the launch edition of ANC Today, in which it was stated:
“We are faced with the virtually unique situation that, among the democracies, the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in South African politics, represented by the ANC, has no representation whatsoever in the mass media. We therefore have to contend with the situation that what masquerades as ‘public opinion’, as reflected in the bulk of our media, is in fact minority opinion informed by the historic social and political position occupied by this minority.”
What all these media outlets mentioned above have in common is that they are extremely sympathetic to the ANC. As far as the SABC — by far the most powerful media outlet with the widest reach in South Africa — is concerned, it is in fact a complete lapdog for the ruling party, singing its praises and treading extremely carefully around anything that could put it in a bad light. With a few notable exceptions like The After Eight Debate on SAFM, the various SABC news programmes can seem like little more than ANC policy pronouncements as interpreted by Snuki Zikalala (PhD Bulgaria).
To say that the bulk of the media in South Africa are hostile to the ANC is so obviously far-fetched and so far off the mark that it is difficult to understand how the president of the ANC (or is it his media adviser, Ranjeni Munusamy?) could have made this statement and still be expected to be taken seriously on the issue. As the previous writer of the ANC Today weekly letter would have said, it appears to be an “objective falsehood”.
It seems as if the president of the ANC made a very embarrassing Freudian slip by talking about the “mass media” as if constituted only by those newspapers (the Sunday Times, Star, Citizen) that in the past targeted white readers or broadly supported the ANC project, but now sometimes expose wrongdoing by members of the ANC (like the Mail & Guardian does from time to time). These are the newspapers that sometimes “act like opposition parties” and vigorously criticise the ANC, and sometimes expose the depressing corruption and nepotism that seem to have become endemic among some ANC leaders.
These newspapers are read by a tiny fraction of the South African population (while most South Africans get their information from SABC radio or television broadcasts run by the pro-ANC — or is it a pro-Mbeki? — clique) and only have influence because they are read by those with money and access to power. They just as much represent the mass media as the PAC represents the interests of the masses of our people.
The ANC president is, of course, correct to observe that the mass media are a main battleground of ideas and “a product of the various political, social, economic and cultural forces that exist within a society”. This is why the ANC has such an advantage come election time — it has most of the mass media, including the mightiest media organisation, the SABC, firmly in its corner.
Even so, as Tony Blair and George Bush and many other politicians operating in more or less democratic systems have realised, the way to deal with critical media is to try to win them over to your side by wooing them and putting your best foot forward — the same way Zuma has been wooing the international business community. It is rather counter-productive to call them names because — like the Sunday Times — they will get upset with you and try to “get” you at every possible opportunity.
Blair won his first election by wooing the virulently right-wing newspapers owned by Rupert Murdock and had the mass daily the Sun in his corner when he defeated John Major at the polls. The problem with this strategy is, of course, that you need to act in a way that impresses the media. You need to talk to them and charm them (as haughty President Mbeki decidedly did not do) and you need to make sure you do not act in an arrogant, nepotistic or corrupt fashion.
If, say, your party elects as its president someone who has taken more than a million rand from a convicted fraudster and then did several favours for him (as was confirmed by the highest court in the land), you will find it hard-pressed to get the independent media on your side. If your party elects to its national working committee (NWC) someone who is still on parole for defrauding Parliament in an arms-deal scandal, you will also find it difficult to win over the independent media. And if you try to deny the bleeding obvious (”the ANC is not divided”, “there is no corruption in the arms deal”, “the president did not know about Jackie Selebi’s links with organised crime”), you are going to lose the sympathy of the independent media.
What the president of the ANC seems to be saying is therefore something different, namely that there are too many independent newspapers with influence among the chattering classes. These newspapers are far too quick to dig up stories of corruption and mismanagement among ANC leaders and must be shut up. This is not an argument about the “battle of ideas” and how to win it, but an argument about how to silence those pesky journalists who dare to ask difficult questions and who dare criticise the party that is the self-styled vanguard of the so-called national democratic revolution.
The basic sound idea — that the media are powerful and that the ANC as the major political force in South Africa must engage them — is being used as a Trojan horse to try to silence any independent media. This view is essentially anti-democratic because it is based on the notion that the party — as the leader of the national democratic revolution — always knows best and that any criticism of it cannot but be illegitimate because it emanates from the “opposition” press.
But for the time being it will not work. The independent media might be relatively small, but they are vibrant and protected by our Constitution and by the courts. His Master’s Voice can continue to tell us the good news and to ignore any criticism of the majority party, but other voices will keep the flame of democracy burning. And in the short term there is nothing Zuma or Tony Yengeni or anyone else on the NWC can do about it.
That is the wonder of living in a democracy. Hallelujah!