Is South Africa's media failing democracy? – Rand Daily Mail, 4 May 2016

The media doesn't have to endorse anybody but the media is singularly the most crucial source of information running up to an election. But we're not getting it.

By Sara Gon 

This article doesn’t deal with how well or how badly the opposition parties are running their election campaigns. There is no doubt that much more can be done much better.
This is the start of a conversation about the role the media does or does not play in affecting the decisions of voters.

On Tuesday 20 April 2016 Sam Mkokeli, Business Day’s Associate Editor wrote a piece, DA on the back foot in Port Elizabeth in which he expressed pity for Athol Trollip, the DA’s mayoral candidate in Port Elizabeth.

Mkokeli watched in awe as the ANC ran rings around Trollip in Port Elizabeth last week with “typically thuggish stunts”: municipal officials blocked the DA’s application for a march, ANC mayor Danny Jordaan’s runners paraded two councillors who had defected from the DA, and, knowing that the DA was marching to the Gelvandale stadium, the ANC rushed ahead to ‘book’ it so the DA could not use it.

Mkokeli described it as petty, but effective. All the DA could do, other than carry placards around the city in groups of three of four, was to unveil a billboard with the words: "Danny Jordaan, proudly brought to you by Jacob Zuma.” Mkokeli failed to mention that the city council unlawfully pulled the poster down. What Mkokeli implies is that to be effective you have to behave like a pig.

The DA’s problems in the city, according to Mkokeli, are emblematic of a bigger problem in the opposition ranks. “It is an indictment that, with all the ANC’s problems, they are not able to make meaningful inroads — a sign of a credibility deficit on the part of the DA and others.” He concedes that a combination of factors are responsible. First the ANC brand is still strong, despite disgust over Zuma.

Also the DA continues to fail to capture the imagination of many people who cannot bring themselves to support any party besides the one that freed them from apartheid bondage.

Mkokeli says Trollip is old school; that If you want to replace the ANC, you need more “jazz and steam” and “with more diverse skills” and candidates that represent the future. I have no brief for Trollip but maybe to be in as difficult a position as executive mayor you need experience over youth? And to what extent are your private interests relevant?

Mkokeli points out Trollip speaks isiXhosa, which is both an advantage and a problem. He says that nothing could be more patronising to an enlightened mind than the belief that a politician is acceptable to black voters simply because he speaks their language. Clearly, whites are damned if they speak and indigenous language and damned if they don’t.

Then on Wednesday 20 April 2016 Business Day columnist, Zama Ndlovu, said in Opposition parties not offering inspiring alternatives to the youth that after attending two different events hosted with the objective of bringing young people closer to their representatives, she was struck by the absence of a conversation about political or party alternatives.

In KwaDukuza concern, comment or praise was around their experiences in their own communities, investments that had been made in the communities that did not attend to pressing needs, insufficient consideration of youth voices in implementation, and the use of outside service providers for local projects. "Zuma", "Nkandla" or "pay back the money" were not mentioned, not once.

Also glaringly missing were discussions about political alternatives.

Two weeks later at a meeting with youth in Cape Town’s Woodstock, most of the discussion was on issues of youth livelihoods: "radical economic transformation”; the mechanics of taking back the land; the selling or not selling of Eskom; the importance of hiring black students who are educated by government into government.

Again, nothing on Nkandla, Zuma or political alternatives.

Ndlovu reminds us that the hegemony of the ANC is strong and unrelenting because when standing in front of voters, ANC representatives don’t let them forget this.

Despite the scandals that have plagued the governing party for the past few years, it is sadly unsurprising that the majority of eligible voters are still debating their political options within an ANC context. They are happy with the ANC and they will vote, they are unhappy with the ANC, but they will still vote (for the ANC), or they are deeply unhappy and will not be voting at all.

A large proportion of voters see the ANC’s official opposition as no position. If the defining feature of democracy is choice in electing officials, our democracy is not out of the woods just yet.

“The opposition’s inability to capture the imagination of voters and speak to their concerns is deeply worrying for the prospects of democracy. Not because people should not vote for the ANC, but because people don’t seem to feel that doing otherwise is a real choice.

Fancy above-the-line campaigns with well-executed brand strategies do not political alternatives make. Shouting at the ANC benches in your two minutes of allocated time in

Parliament does not make you a political alternative. Across the board, opposition leaders need to step up and step out of their comfort zones. They need to recognise that their inadequacies pose as much risk of failure to our democracy as those of the incumbent.”

None of this is entirely wrong by any means. But it is important for commentators like Mkokeli and Ndlovu and their colleagues in the media (all types) to consider how the media communicate the choices.

How do they propose that opposition parties get their policy messages to disillusioned or new voters? Why are they so sarcastic about what is done in parliament against the odds of a morally bankrupt sacrosanct behemoth like the ANC? Did Ndlovu explain to the youth that the ANC did not and could not have liberated South Africa by itself? What is the media doing to explode that myth?

The DA generally has policies on most subjects: the Economic Freedom Fighters does not. It has slogans from an archaic, Eurocentric, spectacularly unsuccessful ideology that is underpinned by violence or threats of it. But maybe because the leaders are mostly youngish, wear idiotic but bright berets and make rousing but racist speeches at rallies, the media think young voters don’t need to know what a bad choice they would be?

If the parties are no good at disseminating their policies, does the media ever go to them and get their policies out of them? Does the media ever quiz them about what they offer? If opposition parties put out press releases about their policies, does the relevant media ever print them or speak to them?

The media doesn’t have to endorse anybody but the media is singularly the most crucial source of information running up to an election. But we’re not getting it.

Oscar Wilde said: “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Gon is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty.

Read the article on the Rand Daily Mail here

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