An ANC devoid of ideas is at war with the media
If you want insight into the state of the ANC, read their media and communications policy document from last weekend’s conference.
Ignore that it is a scrappy document that nobody bothered to edit before they put into the special edition of their online journal, Umrabulo, and you can skip over the occasional incoherent paragraph. From what is left you will find that this is an organisation disconnected from reality, short on new ideas, but still strong on vacant revolutionary rhetoric.
Here’s an inspiring sample: “Ownership of the media assets remain the most powerful strategy adopted in South Africa and protected by the Constitution, and provided for in various pieces of legislations. The idea of ownership of assets is not only driven by market interest, but also hegemony and influencing the agenda in the battle of idea, what gets broadcast.” (sic, sic, sic)
The document is headed, as it has been for many years, “The Battle of Ideas”, positioning the ANC as an organization involved in a perpetual ideological war against enemies in the media. The media, it seems, is not a place to share and swop and debate ideas and information, not a tool to promote your own information, or to hear what people outside of Luthuli House are saying, but a front in the war against the ANC’s omnipresent and omnipowerful enemies. This “must be fought like a real war”, they say, with the purpose of “attaining political hegemony”. You might think that 28 years in power indicates you have achieved some form of dominance in the political arena, but this is the same phraseology carried through from the ANC’s earliest documents when they arrived back from exile to face a critical and often unfriendly media.
Nor does the ANC recognize much differentiation in the media, using the lazy approach of grouping everyone together without acknowledging that there is a range of very different outlets doing different kinds of work with very different standards.
You might gain hope if the enemy they were arming themselves for was corruption, lack of implementation or state ineptitude. No, the three enemies are “the South African counter revolution”, “neo-liberal forces”, and “world imperialism”. It is not clear if these forces are internal to the ANC, or outside enemies, though I suspect they are all over, like ghosts in the night.
Interestingly, what is not in the document is the longstanding complaint that the print media is untransformed. There is only one paragraph that talks of the need to review and complete the transformation charter, and I had to struggle to remember this long-buried document.
While you and I might worry about rebuilding the SABC’s financial health and political independence, the mess-ups in the transition to digital broadcasting which threaten to leave many without television coverage and the dysfunctionality of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), these do not appear to be major concerns for the ANC. We might hope that the ANC addresses the extent to which the State Security Agency messed with – and severely undermined – journalists during the Zuma presidency. We could wish that the ruling party would deal with the reports of journalists facing worrying levels of threat and harassment, online and in the field, often from the police.
The rest of the world might be debating how to deal with the dominance and power of the social media giants and their impact on local media and journalism. But no, there is just a passing call for print and digital media and the Government Communication and Information Service (not government itself) to “implement measures that protect [these] sectors”.
The SABC, the ANC argues, should be a pure public broadcaster with no commercial interest. It should be funded both from the fiscus and from a household levy, a confused mish-mash of wishful thinking.
The ANC proposal to deal with the sad state of community media is to licence fewer stations, as they argue that the sector cannot sustain the competition between stations.
You have to remind yourself that this was a body that came to power with a carefully considered package of policies and proposals on the media which laid the ground for rich and important debate about the shortfalls of the sector. No longer.
Equally dismal was the questioning by journalists at the post-conference briefing, which also showed little grasp of the major issues facing the sector.
*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Executive Director of the Campaign for Free Expression.