An incomplete freedom: The state of the media ten years into democracy

Ferial Haffajee (Editor: Mail & Guardian)

paper presented at the Harold Wolpe Lecture Series

University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 27 May 2004



I've rather enjoyed telling my mum (and everybody else who will listen) that I am to deliver the Harold Wolpe lecture tonight. It's got rather a nice tone to it - quite erudite, I thought, not one I know in my cut and thrust world of deadlines, chasing scoops, editing pages – all that is the business of putting newspapers to bed.

But as the date's grown closer, I've gotten a little bit nervous at this "lecture" business. It's quite forbidding, actually, so I'd prefer to consider it a chat.

Thank-you to the Centre for Civil Society for inviting me - your think-tank has quickly earned itself a place as a true THINK tank. Many don't deserve the title.

Would that I could stand here with the 10 year media dream delivered and speak to you of an institution wholly transformed. Of an institution rooted where you are - in the community, reflecting your daily struggles. One that understood unemployment as more than just an economic slogan - that investigated its causes and its fall-out. Of an institution that held to account those in power and empowered those that were not.

Would that I could stand here and tell you about thousand flowers blooming. About a public broadcaster that we all felt we owned - here you could go and learn the community broadcasting skills that would enable you to take your struggles out, out beyond the confines of a few streets, a couple of extensions. Would that I could, or you could, show me examples of street newspapers stuck up on corners that you could savour over a morning break coffee.

But I can't tell you such a story ten years into our freedom. Like all of the country, nothing has turned out quite as planned. Freedom rarely turns out so - and the truth is good for the media as much as it is for your lives.

But neither do I come to talk with you and beat my chest to tell a tale of woe and of hopelessness. It is instead my understanding of a journey to an incomplete freedom that I hope to share.

Let's start by declaring that it is a better world and that goes for ten years of media freedom too.

I began my working life as a journalist just as apartheid breathed its last and the state tightened its grip before loosening it. I remember poring over the state of emergency regulations to work out what could be said and what not; what could be reported to keep my young newspaper [then the Weekly Mail where I worked as a cadet] just above the parapet of a constrained legality while trying to sate a deep thirst for truth and perspective.

It was hell, as was trying to get any information from surly and recalcitrant authorities who make Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad feel like a paragon of open communication.

The Mail & Guardian some thirteen years ago was only a little more cash-strapped than it is today. So it ran on the steam of us young trainees who were sent every day to cover marches in what were then the hot-spots. We were regularly chased and “moered” (hit with sjamboks) with the marchers - the authorities had no sense of the role and rights of a free press.

It is a different world today. There is nothing we can't write and little media regulation to speak of. Whether we write all we can write is a matter for later, but media freedom I would argue is well and truly entrenched.

There is more information than any of us know what to do with and a degree of transparency that we've not yet managed to exploit properly. That said, we need to avoid getting comfortable in freedom and plump with the assumption that it will always be there.

There is much still to be fought for. Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act provides that journalists can be subpoenaed to give information to the police to assist in prosecution - it has a chilling effect on media freedom.

As have the criminal defamation laws. In my first week as editor, I received a law-suit from the ANC suing reporters Sam Sole and Stefaans Brummer, myself and the company for four million rand. I can tell you, it has a very chilling effect on me, but luckily the newspaper's ballsier than its editor.

In the subsequent months, I've learnt to roll with the millions. Law-suits are now up to R 23-million, the stakes raised by a corrupt [former] provincial minister who has sued for R18-million. He got caught when a local businessman who happened to win a multimillion rand tender from his department transferred money into his bank account, gave him a house and car.

Such suits can cripple a small newspaper and my feeling is that politicians are becoming litigious precisely as a way of trying to erode our freedom.

Two weeks ago, the M&G was in court defending itself by a case brought by the former housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele. If the claim was not for R2.5-million, I might giggle at how inane the suit is. Every year the newspaper publishes a report-card of the Cabinet. One year, it failed the good minister ordering her to take a ride on the gravy train because there was a whole saga about her friend getting a huge housing contract without literally, laying hands on a brick or going on a building site.

At issue is this: how far can we as the media go in our criticism of those in power. The minister argued that we cannot go very far - that her right to dignity trumps our right to freedom of expression. With South Africa's history, the right to dignity is fundamental - but so, I would argue, is the inculcation of a culture of robust criticism. I hope we win, otherwise I'm worried everyone's going to get A's on the report-card. And the watch-dog would have lost its teeth.

But the biggest threat to our freedom comes from within - it is not a popular thing to say, but an unpalatable truth we often ignore. Consider this: of all the complaints made to the Press Ombudsman, over seventy percent are simple acts of inaccuracy.

We get the basics wrong all the time.

The media's credibility lies only in its adherence to the code of ethics and accuracy is number one. We are failing and flailing about. Last year was our annus horribilis - several instances of plagiarism, of what the Sunday Times columnist David Bullard called “word burglary”, surfaced.

The Hefer Commission was founded on the foibles of journalists who forgot their ethics - the off the record briefing stays off the record. We act independently, not as the lap-dogs of some faction in power.

What are the roots of such failings? Individual responsibility is of course one. But there are other problems that are institutional.

The past 10 years has also witnessed an unprecedented under-resourcing and under-investment in journalism. Ownership at the major groups changed hands just as advertising revenues began to decline. The bean-counters took over - there are exceptions as there always are - but the bottom line became paramount.

Synergies were the order of the day as individual titles were robbed of their individuality, their journalists compacted into content provider newsrooms that serve an entire group. That’s why I could get onto a flight in Johannesburg with a newspaper and get off in Durban to read exactly the same news in your titles.

Most training budgets were cut just as a new generation of journalists hit the newsrooms. What is regarded as news has quickly become closely welded to what is news for the living standard measure (LSM) you are targeting. Every newspaper now identifies itself by the LSM it attracts, shaping a news agenda round the foibles and fancies of its LSM. It's not really working because newspaper circulation is only stable or inching up.

I hope we get some mould-breakers in this era who will say damn the LSM, let's just do journalism that changes the world for if it's not about that, then what it is about?

In a country where the largest circulation newspaper reaches just 3.5-million people, the possibilities of print changing the world are quite, quite limited. In such an atmosphere, it is the broadcasters who are king. With limited time, let's look only at the SABC and see how it has fared.

The verdict can only be "not that great" and while it is a broadcaster far removed from its propagandist era symbolised by former news report Cliff Saunders its road has not been a smooth one.

Every two years since the early Nineties, a new news boss has taken over because the SABC is such contested terrain. It's never been allowed to test its mettle as a proper public broadcaster in a developing country - where are the unionists on its board; and the civil society representatives; I'd like to see, for example, an Ashwin Desai on its board - a maverick who will make it serve its many publics.

But who is on the board? Eddie Funde chairs it – he is little-known in broadcasting, but he does sit on the ruling party’s election committee.

There is Christine Qunta, a demigod of a new bourgeoisie and Cecil Msomi whose company counts the ANC as a client and a man who is not well-known in the slim pickings that is South Africa's journalistic community.

There is a lot of work to do to bolster and make for whom this media freedom we often take for granted. The SABC is, in my opinion, on a sorry path and as the public we must set it straight.

We need to use our freedom and test it - use the open information laws, seek out the whistle-blowers, watch the cancer of corruption. Moreover we need to embed among the poor and to write their lives, not about their lives, but document their lives.

Too often, our accounts of media freedom amount to a head-count - so many blacks, so many women, a blind sub-editor is an equity dream. It has to be more than that in this the second decade of freedom.

May I turn now as I wind up to civil society's relations with the media and tell you a story. As a lefty, somewhat lapsed but certainly in the camp, I hang out with activists.

To my great dismay, I was recently called a "sell-out" because the Mail & Guardian refused to brand as "repression" the detention of Landless Peoples Movement activists. I hate what happened to the activists, but I refuse to play it as one long tale of repression from Abu Ghraib to Protea South.

The label was also used because the newspaper covers the ANC with some attention - and because we carried a cover story titled "How the ANC won the election" a week before the election was won.

As an editor with a penchant for social movements and the intellectuals who support them, I must admit to be tiring quite quickly of rhetoric and of labels, of easy victories and magnified import [of occasion, impact and size of this new left], of predictable arguments and sketchy research that often emanates from the sector.

It is with my heart in my mouth that I stand and say that the accounts I have read of social movements in general and of South African politics in particular from Naomi Klein to Arundhati Roy, from Patrick Bond to Dale McKinley and other radical intellectuals exhibit a sameness that falls short of the rigours that the times demand.

Their various writings come to sound like a set-piece. This is how it goes.

Ten years on, the revolution's been sold down the river. The ANC is a neoliberal shadow of its former self – it has implemented a Thatcherite economic policy and left its comrades out to dry as it has supplicated before a wealthy coterie of elites.

Usually, the research then cuts to a quote from finance minister Trevor Manuel or the former president Nelson Mandela declaring that "Gear is non-negotiable".

No reference is made to Manuel’s subsequent statements that the Growth Employment and Redistribution Strategy (Gear) was a “necessary but not a sufficient” condition for growth and poverty eradication or to the more expansive path the country is now on. This, despite the fact that the old left organised in the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the Peoples Budget have said so numerous times. These are organisations and individuals of the left who know how to claim a victory when they see one – the same is not true among those of the new left.

But back to the narrative. It then usually goes on to an account of how much better things were under apartheid. Just look, say the writers, even Stats SA says so.

They haul out the Stats SA “Earning and Spending” report of 2003 and quote from its findings that South Africans were generally poorer in income terms in 2000 than they were in 1995. That fact is devastating, but it must be matched with other Stats SA research which reveals that the havoc wrought by unemployment and its associated drop in incomes was somewhat assuaged by R53-billion pumped into poor communities in the form of housing, electricity and water. In other words, while asset poverty declined while income poverty increased. To use one without the other is selective research at its most disingenuous. It’s as bad when the Presidency only uses the positive and dismisses the income report, but that’s another story.

The narratives then usually make use of research gleaned from a quick visit to the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee or to Chatsworth (the epicentres of civic social movements) where invariably you will find somebody who says the ANC has made things worse. This is, usually, in response to the very leading question: “are things worse now than they were under apartheid?” The research takes very little account of the impact of globalisation where tariffs have come down and jobs been lost; of the fact that an apartheid era welfare and housing pie had to be cut much thinner in 1994 and so the welfare payments of many poor people did come down.

Inevitable comparisons are made on how much the movements campaigns looks like the anti-apartheid struggle, on the same songs being sung, on the reconnections of electricity and campaign being a latter-day defiance campaign.

The conclusion is usually this: that another revolution is imminent here - just as it is in the United States, in India, in Europe - another world is possible. Viva and Amandla! Trevor Ngwane [the leader of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Campaign] will free us all; Patrick Bond for finance minister and Dennis Brutus will be our arts minister - this time, the people shall govern......for real.

I bought into this narrative for a while because it is so sexy and I penned quite a few articles that followed exactly the same narratives. I do not pen the narrative because it is too easy a way out of our interminable interregnum - because it doesn't require grappling with the difficulties of transition; with the nuts and bolts of local government finance; with the technicalities and policies required extending a water connection and keeping it running.

And it is because I spend hours pouring over the Budget and recognise that public expenditure is actually not the problem anymore. We are beyond the tight Gear belt and now the debate is about a skilled and committed civil service that can deliver; about whether we need the provinces and whether they hinder or help a better life; about the growing social distance between the government and the governed.

If we have learnt anything from the past 10 years it’s probably that struggle as tough and soul-sapping, as brutal and as violent as it was, was probably easier to do than freedom.

To adopt the narrative means to be in perpetual state of struggle, of war, to oppose and not to propose. It makes, frankly, for rather boring reading. This is not to say that community struggle is not necessary - it must always be an integral part of democratic life. Already Ngwane and his comrades have made an impact, forcing Eskom to write off the accumulated electricity debts of poor Gauteng communities. In Durban, the Concerned Citizens Forum is expanding the narrow notions of citizenship and service beyond the managerialist strait-jacket of “the culture of non-payment”, of “cost-containment”. But the debate must be more honest if it is to be even more effective.

For me, Arundhati Roy provided answers to a world gone crazy in 2001 when her algebra of infinite justice added it all up. She became my god of big things, a writer who’s every utterance I would squeeze into the newspaper tossing aside lesser scribes like John Pilger and George Monbiot.

I’m not so sure that she’s got things quite right on South Africa, though. Here’s what Roy wrote about South Africa:

"South Africans say that the only miracle they know of is how quickly the rainbow has been privatised, sectioned off and auctioned to the highest bidders. Within two years of taking office in 1994, the African National Congress genuflected with hardly a caveat to the Market God. In its rush to replace Argentina as neo-liberalism's poster boy, it has instituted a massive programme of privatisation and structural adjustment...."

Really? Ask the market's and the massive flood of privatisation has in fact been a trickle. Yes, a third of Telkom's been listed, but the important ones like Eskom and Transnet are still wholly state-owned.

“Structural adjustment” - sure, that's what Gear was, but I've yet to hear a left economist argue coherently about what we were to do with the inherited debt that the high-living, free-spending Nats bequeathed to us. And don't say, “we should have reneged on it” because most of the debt is owed to my mother and your father - it is pension fund debt.

Another hero is Naomi Klein who made me wear Woolies with her searing indictment of consumer culture and the sweatshops they engender. “No Logo” is a great work but I am less impressed with her impressions of my country.

Here's Klein doing SA. "There's a huge amount of struggle going on in this country. There are movements exploding. They are resisting privatisation of water and electricity, resisting eviction, and demanding land reform. They are reacting against all the broken promises of the ANC.

“This is a security state. It spends three times as much on private security as it does on affordable housing - just to keep the rich from the poor. This level of inequality is dangerous."

Security state? More like melodrama if you ask me. There is a view among social movements and the intelligentsia linked to it that SA has undergone a massive exercise in water and electricity privatisation.

It is plain wrong, yet is repeated over and over again - - as if repeating it often enough will make it true. Only four of 288 municipalities and relatively small ones at that have contracted out the management of water. It may be and probably is four too many, but it is hardly the large scale sell-off touted in the media. As for electricity - none, none, of it has been privatised.

There's another statistic quoted again and again by left intellectuals and it is the David McDonald and John Pape study which found that 10-million people had had their electricity cut off and 10-million more had their water pipes staunched. The study's been withdrawn by the Human Sciences Research Council because its methodology is faulty.

The HSRC's Mark Orkin had this to say: "The HSRC has clarified that the figure is an extrapolation by an independent, external researcher in an HSRC survey of three months duration, and considerably over-estimates the phenomenon. However, the extent and consequences of these disconnections by local authorities remains a serious matter of concern."

Other research shows that 133 000 households had their water disconnected - it's 133 000 too many, but, the gap between 10 million cut-offs and 400 000 (extrapolated at three people per household – the size of household determined in the Census 2001) is enormous.

In the media, we often joke that we don't let the facts get in the way of a good story - and the same goes for the new left it seems. Though Orkin's disclaimer came out in June last year, I've seen McDonald and Pape's figures used again and again and again without qualification or limitation noted.

If indeed it is the case that the research over-states the problem, then the challenges and the lobbies lie elsewhere. It is for bigger local government budgets, for sharper municipal managers with hearts, for policies that bar disconnections, for socio-economic rights cases in the Constitutional Court.

The answers are not as simple or as complex as is often suggested. They are not simply about an anti-privatisation campaign; and not as complex as staging another revolution.

The international anti-globalisation movement has been an exciting development – a response to those who declare that there is no other alternative is their clarion call that another world is possible. But social movements are so keen to make South Africa a node on the global map of anti-globalisation resistance, that often it seems they try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Of course we should be vigilant of national intelligence’s interest in the social movement; of course we should expose the arrest and harsh treatment of activists aligned to the Landless Peoples Movement but is it fair to compare it with Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison where torture was widespread.

Is it really honest to compare the arrest of 87 activists outside the Johannesburg mayor's house with the killing and arrests in Genoa in 2002?

And, finally, to brand Cosatu a "US-style corporatist trade union" as Bond did in a recent paper and as many activists of the new left do, is beyond the pale. If President Mbeki and his lieutenants use of the “ultra-left “label infuriated so many of us, then why is labelling OK when it comes from within the left?

Where is the humility in this? Surely 1.8-million workers who pay their subs every month would recognise a US-style corporatist trade union when they see one? Surely, it is worth finding out why the compradorist ANC still attracts a rump of black working class support. There is some evidence of an apathy setting in, but to disaggregate the figures is to see where it is setting in - among the traditional middle classes, not the very poor.

I was dismayed recently to be called a “sell-out” because I lived long ago enough to know the opportunism, the dangers and the self-concern of true sell-outs, but also because it was as if a preordained left is the only one that counts. All else and you are a sell-out.

The movements are an exciting political form which can be very powerful as the Treatment Action Campaign has shown, but it must also be acknowledged that they are a nascent bloc.

The movements speak a more relevant truth to power than to any formal political parties, but there must also be truth about the disempowered and the processes of disempowerment. There are many truths and many layers of complexity in building something new. There have never been easy answers as there are never easy victories.

* This is an edited version of the Harry Wolpe lecture Ferial Haffajee delivered at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on May 27.