Some journalists believe that President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration speech signalled a thaw in his relationship with the media. But actions speak louder than words: look who he appointed as his communications minister.
Of all the surprising cabinet appointments — and there are many — that of former defence force chief Siphiwe Nyanda as minister of communications is the most puzzling. Not only has Nyanda no obvious qualifications for the job, he has an active dislike of the media. He has been one of the most vocal media conspiracy theorists among Zuma’s closest supporters.
In an article in January 2006, when Zuma was facing a charge of rape and the corruption and fraud charges were still hanging over him, Nyanda accused the media of pursuing a vendetta against the president-to-be. Likening media reports of Zuma’s legal troubles to “name calling and scare-mongering”, he argued that the media were part of a giant complot of “forces opposed to Zuma’s ascendancy to high office”, and concluded, somewhat ominously: “With media like this, South Africans should not only be afraid — they should be very afraid. They should fight to reassert their rights to balanced, unbiased news reporting.”
Two years later, after the NPA dropped charges against Zuma, Nyanda again accused the media of “connivance” in “a grand scheme to persecute a citizen and violate his rights”; part of a “grand strategy” to undo the ANC president. (Nyanda himself, it must be noted, was a target of unfavourable media attention some years ago, when it emerged that, while still chief of the defence force, he had allegedly bought a car at a discount from a company which successfully tendered for a chunk of South Africa’s arms deal and again after he had left the defence force and went into business with a shady — to say the least — operator in the defence industry. Whether this is part of the conspiracy he doesn’t say.)
In his new position, Nyanda won’t actually have that much to do with the news media. He has a role in the appointment of a new SABC board, but the power to appoint and fire board members lies with Parliament. He oversees Icasa, but the communications authority is independent from ministerial interference. He will be the political head of the Government Communication and Information System. Arguably his most important job will be to oversee the liberalisation of South Africa’s telecommunications authority. He has no legal authority to exercise control over the news media.
But he will set the tone for the relationship between the media and the government, and if his past utterances are anything to go by, we should not expect a new era of glasnost. While the ANC has shelved its Polokwane proposal for a statutory media tribunal, the kind of thinking that led to it in the first place is still prevalent among some of those who believe Zuma was persecuted. It is the kind of thinking, as media commentator Anton Harber has noted, that “does not discriminate between acceptable criticism, discussion and debate, and the actions of the country’s enemies (whoever they are). It lumps everyone together in a lazy, sloppy and potentially dangerous way. The party’s critics are at one with the country’s enemies”.
You could argue that Nyanda simply got his just rewards for his steadfast support of Zuma and there is nothing intrinsically wrong about appointing your closest allies to the cabinet. That is how politics work. I suspect Nyanda didn’t get Defence — for which he is imminently suited due to his military background — because he has too many business ties with the defence industry. So it may be that Zuma slotted him into the communications portfolio simply because it was available. But it just seems to me that by appointing Nyanda as communications minister, Zuma is saying something different to his ringing endorsement of press freedom in his inauguration speech.
Nyanda may prove me wrong; I hope he does. After all, it was his boss — the victim of the “media conspiracy” — who said on Saturday: “We must defend the freedom of the media, as we seek to promote within it a greater diversity of voices and perspectives.”
(A version of this post also ran on my personal blog.)