Our political coverage focusses mainly on the minutiae of ANC internal politics – and this means we often miss the real stories.
Political reporters seem to be hired for their contacts and sources in the ruling party, and their knowledge of the arcane workings of the party structures. Most follow the internal elections like a horse race: Candidate A has pulled ahead as we enter the last straight, but Candidate B is coming up on the inside, Candidate C has gone lame and is out of the race, but Candidate D could still surprise us with a late surge …
The worst of this kind of coverage comes when reporters favour a particular faction and their candidate, allowing themselves to be conduits for leaks about their opponents. Sometimes we have even seen factional affiliations – and a reporter’s coverage – shift mid-race without explanation, leaving us bewildered. So we saw the same reporters punting Thabo Mbeki, until one day they were punting Jacob Zuma and then suddenly the money was on Cyril Ramaphosa.
Even it is not factional, this kind of coverage lends itself to manipulation by anonymous source. Those who tell the reporters who might be pulling ahead and who is falling behind usually have to do it socco voce, so much of this kind of reporting is speculative, laden with the warning signs of unverifiable information like “claims”, “it is believed”, “well-placed sources” and “some say”.
I am not suggesting that the internal wranglings of the dominant political party are irrelevant and should not be covered, only that this is just surface coverage and a distraction from the substantial issues and debates that get lost in the fog of political infighting.
The focus on intra-ANC politicking perpetuates the myth that change will come from the ANC as long as the right person wins the next power struggle. This is a very narrow perspective. Long after many young people have given up on the ANC and its capability to deal with this country’s economic and social crisis, reporters continue to keep their attention focused on these wranglings. This misdirection feeds into exactly what this week’s dominant ANC faction wants us to believe: that all and only hope is vested in Ramaphosa winning re-election.
It means the stories which can often tell you the most about our politics are sometimes neglected. We are living through the end of the “Rainbow Nation” time of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, entering an new era which is dominated by questioning whether our constitution and open democracy can deal with the immense problems of poverty and inequality, and the instability it portends. Just this week KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala suggested that we need to return to a parliamentary democracy and scrap the constitution as an impediment to transformation. This follows Minister Lindiwe Sisulu decrying the constitution and the judiciary that protects it, blaming them for her own lack of delivery.
But how much reporting do you see that gives you real insight into these issues, not from the lofty heights of the stock exchange or Luthuli House but from the point of view of those who are taking to the streets to protest, or turning to crime, or hunting down foreigners? What do we know about how the more than 50% of the population who live in poverty survive from day to day?
I am reminded of the 1980s, when the mainstream media remained focused on the politics of the white parliament and the intra-National Party fights between the “verligtes” and the “verkramptes”, even as insurrection spread across the country. It was that tunnel vision which rendered much of the commercial media politically irrelevant and which gave rise to a vibrant alternative media. Papers like New Nation and The Weekly Mail were borne out of the conviction that the future was being shaped on the factory floors and township streets – what was loosely called “extra-parliamentary politics” – rather than what the ruling party wanted us to stay focused on: them and their shenanigans.
Then they used censorship to try and stop coverage of unrest and security force action. They banned newspapers, arrested, detained or prosecuted those who covered these events, so that commercial media were nervous of doing it.
This time around we are doing it voluntarily. As we are seeing again the real likelilhood of ongoing instability, violent protest, economic stagnation and we even had a whiff of insurrection in July last year, we remain focused on the endless ANC horserace.
*Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits U.