Ripping good reasons for an independent media

Posted on July 13, 2012


South Africa is being ripped off — and ripped apart — by gangsters, thieves and sophisticated corporate robbers. And within the boundaries of this nation-state, greed and self-interest are triumphing, leaving in their wake an horrific mess of xenophobic violence, joblessness and destitution.

This is a widespread view across the labour movement. And it is not without substantial evidence. Tender fraud, corruption and other contributions to the high crime rate are the overt signs; equally, if not more, destructive is the massive outflow of capital all too often accumulated through the suffering and misery of thousands of workers and their families.

There are, of course, also examples of selfless devotion and generosity, of successful solidarity in the face of sometimes terrible odds. But these are fraught times and, at all levels, the metaphoric rape and pillage continues as the world staggers from one acknowledged economic crisis to the next.

Take, at a basic level, the case of Salim, a refugee from Somalia, who set up shop in a local township. Working collectively with his family and friends and living frugally in the back of the shop, he built up a good business supplying his neighbours with the small amounts of sugar, flour or meal and other basics they needed, but could not get from other traders. Salim was “burned out” last week when a rampaging mob demolished his store and “liberated” his sparse stock.

Township gossip — for which there is some evidence — maintains that it was gangsters, perhaps in the pay of local shop owners, who encouraged and financed this latest wave of xenophobia. But the tragedy of Salim was at least publicised and became known beyond the mud and squalor where he had made his new home. This was a role the media played, bringing to public attention a barbarous outrage.

This column can also bring to public attention the case of Lungisile, a child of the Eastern Cape who trekked to Cape Town ten years ago. He worked in a small, collective, enterprise handling gardening and maintenance work and he died last week, a victim of the desperation bred by the circumstances in which he found himself.

He died alone in a hospital, sought for by family, friends and fellow workers. He had become a “John Doe”, one of the several unidentified bodies in a local mortuary. He had staggered into the hospital in his work clothes, with no documentation and unable to identify himself. There he collapsed and never recovered; it took days before his family and friends were able to track down his body.

This is a scenario all too familiar for many poor families as they seek through hospitals, clinics, police stations and mortuaries for news of missing members. Although he had been booked off sick from work, Lungisile insisted he was well enough to return to the job he was handling on his own. When reported to the owner of the premises where he as working that he felt very ill, he was sent away. “I told him to go to hospital,” the owner said. She didn’t know which hospital or even if he had reached one.

Lungisile’s friends and family feel sure that he was not afraid of death, but that he was afraid of dying because his extended family depended on him as its sole breadwinner. So he felt he had to keep working. Such is the desperation that drives many workers to an early grave.

Lungisile’s story and that of Salim and his compatriots who were attacked this week highlight, on a personal level, some of the ills within society, as do the tales of corruption, nepotism and violence. All are published in our relatively free and unfettered media.

Also published is evidence of selfless devotion and solidarity, of the desire of the majority for better life. And public debates continue to rage about how it might be possible to make the transformative promise of the Bill of Rights a reality.

This role of the media to publish, without fear or favour, the good, the bad and the ugly has the overall support of the labour movement, for all the often vociferous criticism from individual unions — and despite the generally piecemeal treatment of news. The main concern expressed relates to the very high concentration of media ownership, a debate that again came to the fore this week.

Confirmation that the Independent News & Media (INMSA) was for sale, saw the Media Workers’ Association (Mwasa) come into the open about their proposal for a “workers’ trust” to either take over or have a substantial interest in the 14 titles in the group. Mwasa general secretary Tuwani Gumani points out that the South African operations have long financed the heavily indebted parent INM company, based in Ireland.

According to Gumani — and apparently borne out by INM annual reports — profits generated by South Africa were some R4 billion against an initial investment of perhaps R750 million. “And those profits have largely come at the cost of jobs,” Gumani says, pointing out that when INM began its takeover there were 5 400 employees. Although the number of titles in the group had increased, this figure was now between 1 500 and 1 700.

Mwasa has now drawn up a charter that the union would like to see accepted to guarantee the independence of the INMSA newspapers. The union — and the labour movement generally — are concerned, not only about a concentration of ownership, but about the fact that a major newspaper chain in South Africa remains wholly foreign owned. Minority shareholders were bought out in 1997 and the company was delisted from the Johannesburg Securities Exchange.

In a view shared throughout the labour movement, Cosatu’s Patrick Craven notes: “We support a free and independent media and we should seize any opportunity for wider ownership.” As the unions see it, an independent media provides the only antidote to propaganda serving narrow political and corporate agendas.

And this is especially so in times of economic stress and growing social unrest.