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The paranoid Mr Zuma

Daniel Gross, financial columnist for online magazine Slate, bumped into Jacob Zuma at Davos this week and nominated him as “the world leader with the most aggressive bodyguards“. It seems that Mr Zuma’s paranoia is not limited to the remote possibility of being molested in the Swiss Alps. He also believes the media in his own country are out to get him.

In his inaugural Letter from the President (of the ANC, that is), Mr Zuma outlines his concerns. Mainly, they have to do with his perception that the media ignore him and his friends. “The voice of the ANC must be heard,” he entitles his missive.

You can’t summarily dismiss Mr Zuma’s views about what he calls the “mainstream media” and especially the influence of commercialisation and concentration of ownership on editorial content and decisions.

Much of what he writes could have been drawn directly from the academic literature of the 1970s and 1980s (and probably was). I share his concerns about the effect of commercial pressures on our media (especially the national broadcaster). But Mr Zuma is guilty of over-generalisation.

When he speaks of “a general trend within most mainstream media institutions to adopt positions, cloaked as sober and impartial observation, that are antagonistic to the democratic movement and its agenda for fundamental social, political and economic transformation”, does he include in his assessment the SABC, by far the largest media organisation in the country with the widest reach?

Does Ukhozi FM, which has more than six million mostly poor and rural listeners, really oppose the ANC’s “agenda for fundamental social, political and economic transformation”? Is the most popular television channel, SABC 1, watched daily by tens of millions of black South Africans, truly “antagonistic to the democratic movement”?

And what about mass-circulation newspapers such the Sowetan and the Sun? Could they really be accused of actively opposing economic and social change? Mr Zuma fails to take into account the diversity of media voices in South Africa, and hears only those he doesn’t agree with.

Another question: If the ownership of newspapers were in different hands — and I refer specifically to print media, because the broadcast media are already overwhelmingly in public hands — would that really change the content of those media?

Research has shown that media bias is most often the result not of individual biases and values, but of professional and organisational routines and practices. When one of the largest newspaper chains, Johnnic Communications, became black-owned, with a black chairperson and CEO, their newspapers didn’t change significantly (in fact, it is ironic that the newspaper that seems to most antagonise Mr Zuma, the Sunday Times, is in the Johncom — now Avusha — stable).

If Mr Zuma is truly concerned about the effect of commercialism on the media, then he should ensure that the government increases its subsidy of the SABC, which would enable the national broadcaster to concentrate on its public-service mandate rather than on competing for advertising against commercial channels. However, such an increase in subsidy should go hand-in-hand with stronger measures to ensure the independence of the national broadcaster from party-political interests. That may be too much to hope for. At present, the problem is not that the ANC’s voice is not heard — but that we’re hearing too much of it.

Mr Zuma promises that the ANC will over the next five years develop its own media platforms, “making use of available technology to articulate its positions and perspectives directly to the people”.

How exactly is the ANC going to achieve this? It is already using the internet to get its views across, as Mr Zuma did with his newsletter. Granted, not too many of the ANC’s followers have access to the internet, but the newsletter gets picked up and widely disseminated by mainstream media.

I’m not sure what else the ANC could do to “articulate its positions and perspectives directly to the people”, short of starting its own radio station — but political control of radio stations is prohibited in terms of communications legislation. Perhaps a newspaper? Fine, but that is a very costly exercise, unless run as a commercial operation, in which case it would be subject to exactly the same commercial pressures as the mainstream media.