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We are a nation no longer easily outraged

When Mokotedi Mpshe “plagiarised” a dusty and overturned foreign judgement to justify dropping the embarrassing charges against the ANC president on the eve of the 2009 elections, most of society simply shrugged and got on with their lives. Some media and opposition parties made noise for a day or two, but there was really little or no outrage, even though this act was a daylight pointing of the middle finger to all of society by an elite that was determined to retain power at all costs. The electorate went on to vote the ANC into power with an overwhelming majority — implicitly endorsing its programme and approach to governing the country. As we speak, only the DA is in court trying its best to reverse these outrageous decisions.

For all in society — churches, universities and civil society at large — these matters are seemingly off the table and life goes on. In fact, the religious sector outdid itself by forming a new prayer club for the president and his new administration instead of sharpening its role as a conscience of a society that desperately needs it. The list of issues that in other normal democracies would outrage the electorate grows: whether be it the blatant overlooking of a deputy chief justice who dared criticise the ANC or the appointment of a blatantly unsuitable cadre for the national prosecution authority or the daylight theft of public funds by 2 000 civil servants — all these things that expose the underbelly of our political present have not generated enough outrage in our society to cajole the ruling elite of today to change their ways and begin to take the electorate a tad more seriously.

In many African countries such a disappearance of outrage has resulted in a virtual introduction of a police state where the rule of law is subjugated in broad daylight and has become normal. Idi Amin, Mobutu Seseko and Robert Mugabe come to mind. But then again, even in those countries when the whiff of freedom was still in the air, it was considered treasonous to point out the obvious: that yesteryears’ liberators can outdo their erstwhile oppressors in becoming their people’s new demagogues. So the ignoring of obvious signs like we saw in Uganda in the Seventies or in Zimbabwe in the Eighties, when the coffin was lowered on all that was free press, is more like ignoring an itch that becomes a sore, and a sore that becomes a sceptic wound of corruption, bribery and fraud, all perpetuated through the suppression of the media and then the judiciary, the two estates that are designed to expose and punish excesses of those in power. It is important to state these alarmist things for posterity because maybe when we are not around anymore people will read these passages — when our country’s beautiful and well-renowned Constitution is in ruins and no longer worth the paper it is written on — and learn.

So when the ANC passed a resolution as far back as 2007 in that infamous conference — the attention was more on the fall of the emperor than on what was lurking in the pages of the resolutions: the start of a perilous journey to control the media. I do not think that all that is in that resolution is bad news. I believe that the best intervention the ruling party can make in the paradigm shift of the media is to fund media diversity. This requires the billions that are found in development finance institutions that it controls. I am not talking about the crumbs that are allocated to the MDDA to develop some inconsequential community radio or newspaper that is never going to utter a murmur against even the corrupt local town council. I am talking about funding people who would want to own the likes of Media 24 and Avusa and those who will vie for some of the foreign-owned titles so that they can help them transform somehow and strengthen their ability to practice dynamic journalism that would report with accuracy yet fearlessness — that would strengthen our democracy and aid transparency yet be fair to their subjects.

There is therefore no shortcut through a media tribunal that will ensure that the media becomes a lot more interested in the nation-building project (the stated reason for the intervention in media affairs) or a lot less interested in the scandals that are always the scent of many politicians (the real reason for the renewed harassment of the press through ill-conceived regulation). The failure of analysis of what needs fixing in the natural contest between the fourth estate and governments the world over once again did not generate much of an outrage. There was indifference all around. Now no one is annoyed by the fact that Jessie Duarte seemingly deceived the public into believing that the ANC wanted to revise their position on the matter. Ahead of the general elections at a panel discussion of political parties convened by Media 24, Duarte mumbled something along these lines on the media tribunal: “It is not the time and the place — it is merely a proposal to be revisited at the policy conference — it is better if we strengthen self-regulation.” This was a welcome relief to many a media observers. This week she was contradicted by Julius Malema — the media tribunal is a done deal — we want to know how far the government is implementing it”. No outrage at all in the offing.

It is important therefore to understand that when we eventually go the way of Idi Amin’s Uganda — where journalists were maimed, jailed and assassinated for writing what they perceived was the truth about our society — it will be owed largely to the blunting and disappearance of the nation’s collective sense of outrage. Nothing seems to prick that collective conscience anymore — artists kill children in drag-racing and become heroes, ministers threaten to sue people who point out the corruption slip that is showing. Occasionally we are disgusted by some youngsters urinating in the food of workers … but where are the marches of religious leaders against the debasing human trafficking? Where are the once-reverting papers of different opinions from our academics? In this atmosphere of the absence of outrage, a preposterous proposal to hold the hand that writes the truth has been in writing for over three years and no one was adequately outraged. Hence at least two Cabinet ministers have written shamelessly these past two weeks to justify what would undo years of press freedom. I am waiting frantically to observe a sense of outrage at what is about to chance — and even the so called Auckland Park declaration by editors falls short.