Media workers, citizens & freedom

Posted on July 8, 2017


Intolerance, bigotry and political cretinism have already contributed to the death of a journalist in South Africa. Suna Venter, one of the brave “SABC 8” who made a stand for media freedom, was shot at, kidnapped, assaulted and had her car vandalised. A heart condition, exacerbated by tension, killed her.

And, in the same week that she was buried, a tiny group of of politically illiterate thugs calling themselves Black First, Land First (BLF) levelled threats at other journalists. In the process, they put the country onto a slippery slope toward the destruction of media independence and freedom of expression.

We have already hovered on the brink of that slope for years, what with “brown envelope” payments by politicians to journalists for favourable reports and the abuse of media outlets by propagandists promoting fake images of self proclaimed “business leaders”.

There has also been the case of several editors, perhaps bribed, fearing for their jobs or otherwise intimidated, who allowed the columns of their publications to be abused for personal or political vendettas. And there is a wealth of information, ferreted out by journalists, about “state capture” and the involvement of the Gupta family.

But it was the death of Suna Venter, the attempted intimidation of editor Peter Bruce and threats levelled at other journalists by the politically illiterate thugs of BLF that took us a step closer to the edge of that slope. The BLF and their ilk have probably found encouragement in statements emanating from within an increasingly beleaguered ANC.

By effectively labelling any protest against the government as part of an “imperialist” conspiracy to bring about “regime change”, the ANC, at its policy conference this week, has promoted paranoia; the same paranoia that led to often horrendous abuses in exile.

Especially in the 1980s, blindly loyalist thugs, almost certainly accompanied by infiltrators working for the apartheid state, arrested, abused, tortured and executed members who dared to challenge the policies of the leaders. What was demanded by the leadership then — and is demanded now — was unquestioning unity and discipline.

But such unity was — and is — unprincipled. And the discipline called for amounts merely to toeing whatever is the line laid down by the leadership.

In the parliamentary democracy of today, it is no longer possible to carry out such abuses with relative impunity and to sweep knowledge of them, along with the graves of the executed, into oblivion. But it is still possible to call for unity as a priority and to demand that any who dare question this be subject to severe sanction for failing to toe the line.

This approach is mirrored in the fragments that have broken from the ANC, whether it be the Economic Freedom Fighters or the more intellectually cretinous BLF. In order not to be outflanked, the ANC now often seems to compete in terms of paranoia and distortions of constitutional principles.

To give them their due, Zwelinizima Vavi and the leadership of the recently established SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) this week identified and condemned the approach taken in the diagnostic report to the ANC policy conference. It is a case, they say, of “a shameful return to paranoia and witch-hunts that seek to delegitimize genuine grievances and struggles of the mass of the people “.

“It is the same attitude that led to the abuses in exile,” Vavi said this week. By blaming “external forces” the ANC leadership attempts to deflect anger from its own corruption and ineptitude.

According to Vavi and Saftu, this is “exactly the same kind of demagogy” as used by the former regime that portrayed the ANC as a “puppet of foreign, communist powers”. Whereas the ANC — in principle if not always in practice — supported the idea of a democratic, egalitarian society.

This was made clear in 1992 by Nelson Mandela when, in a widely distributed interview with me promoting the idea of reconstruction and development, he noted that, given the GDP of South Africa “we can afford to feed, house, clothe and provide health care for all our citizens”.

That was the promise of the ANC. It was a promise broken and is, basically, the reason for the anger, unrest and instability that is now blamed on “Western powers” and (no longer “white”) monopoly capital. Capital always tends toward monopoly and, as the labour movement will admit, is a problem.

But how does the average citizen find out about the machinations of capital, the bribery and corruption within and outside the political sphere? Journalism is the answer: honest reporting of facts as they appear, as truthfully and completely as possible.

This is the role of those frontline media workers, the reporters whose task it is to be the eyes and ears of the pubic at large and whose constant quest is to seek after that elusive concept, truth. Some fall by the wayside, sucked in by bribery or threats, whether by families such as the Guptas, by editors, proprietors or others with vested interests. Others move seamlessly into the role of paid praise singers, but most work at trying to bring unvarnished facts to the forefront. It is they who are most under threat.

And when journalists are under threat, the wellbeing of everyone is threatened as the country slides toward authoritarianism.