Media Transformation conference Opening Address by SACP General Secretary Blade Nzimande, 2 October 2015
Welcome to all of you to this conference on media transformation in South Africa.
The idea of this conference emerged after an extensive review within the battle of ideas sub-committee of the SACP Central Committee. The review was further engaged and enriched by the Party’s Central Committee and 3rd Special National Congress held in July.
Our review found that despite some advances, in many areas of media activity our country has moved backwards since the democratic breakthrough of 1994.
Capitalist media exists first and foremost to make money for its shareholders and in the ultimate analysis to reproduce the dominant capitalist ideology – under whose abode the working class is exploited. Under conditions of private monopoly and a lack of adequate mechanisms of accountability, unfair practices and inequality in terms of diversity of perspective and economic benefits worsen for the rest of society to the benefit of the monopoly.
We have therefore embarked on a programme of action to contribute to overcoming the challenges standing in the way of creating a media sector all South Africans need and deserve.
We have included media transformation as one of the two key focus areas of the SACP’s Red October Campaign 2015-2016, which formally launches on Sunday.
And we resolved to convene a summit, this conference:
- a gathering that would take matters beyond making a purely theoretical statement of an ideal media sector…
- a gathering that would commit itself to undertaking the processes and concrete actions we need in order to achieve a diverse and dynamic media.
Before setting out what we hope to achieve today, I must acknowledge the contribution of those people and organisations who have made this conference possible.
I want to personally and on behalf of the SACP acknowledge the work of all those who have contributed to this conference…
Firstly there are media activists and Central Committee members, especially those who are part of the sub-committee on the battle of ideas, and the Party functionaries and officials in the SACP headquarters and in the media and policy units.
But we also want to acknowledge the contribution and support of the non-communist activists who serve on the conference convening committee. The participation and contribution to this conference, in the trenches alongside the SACP, demonstrates the vital necessity of a broad front of South African democrats interested in pursuing the noble goal of media transformation with and for workers and the poor.
I must also acknowledge, without exception, the support the conference received from role players and interested stakeholders in the media industry. And, I must emphasise, they did so knowing they would be the subject of our debates. But none asked for any special treatment or to influence what is said here today and in the outcomes of the conference!
Finally, on behalf of the SACP, I thank all of you who have made the time to attend today.
Let us, for a second, look at the SABC. It stands today as a stark example of what happens when we leave the media in the hands of those only interested in personal self-accumulation, including obscene increase in salaries for incompetent and unqualified individuals.
In your document pack, you’ll find a position paper from the SACP setting out its positions on the issues we believe must be addressed to achieve media transformation in South Africa.
It is not a long document, and I ask that you to take the time to read it, over and above listening to important messages from the various speakers at this Conference. That document, appearing at this conference in the form of our publication Bua Komanisi, is being released to the media and the broader South African public later today, in our weekly Umsebenzi Online newsletter as a special edition.
You will also find in your document pack a copy of the Media Charter, approved by the ANC NEC in 1992 and included in the Alliance elections manifesto "Ready to Govern" in 1994. We can only forget about this important Charter at the peril of all those genuinely interested in media that should serve the interest of the workers and poor of our country.
The SACP position paper and the Media Charter both recognise that at the heart of any debate on media must be about content and messaging that is in line with the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of our people.
It is of secondary importance that the words and pictures may be read and looked at on paper, on a cell phone or on a television set.
Our paper and the Charter thus give pride of place to content …
Both see the information media as playing a vital role in developing and sustaining democracy and equality.
The Media Charter defines a democratic South Africa as one “based on a free flow of information and a culture of open debate”.
It says, and I quote:
“At the core of democracy lies the recognition of the right of all citizens to take part in society’s decision-making process. This requires that individuals are armed with the necessary information and have access to the contesting options they require to make informed choices. An ignorant society cannot be democratic.”
The means of arming South Africans with the necessary information and contesting opinions is, next to education, the media – in all its forms and manifestations.
Of course, a multitude of factors influence how well the media is able to arm South Africans with the information and understanding they need as citizens.
Our position paper tackles several of these. I will touch on only a few.
Our review found an alarming similarity of approach across South Africa’s media towards what constitutes “news” … towards what is self-evidently “normal” and “right” … and to what does and should interest South African audiences.
More alarmingly, it found that this similarity focused – to the exclusion of virtually all other events and developments – on the immediate and parochial preoccupations and prejudices of South Africa’s middle and affluent classes.
It may be useful to give an example – and one not drawn from our review, but from the conclusions of an analyst not known as a friend of the SACP or an admirer of the Tripartite Alliance.
His example is this:
“A group of property owners are denied what is rightfully theirs by an authority figure backed by the government. They approach lawyers and, years later, the Constitutional Court rules that they are entitled to their property. Researchers point out that there are many more people like them and that the court’s ruling is an important turn in the fight between them and the authorities. Hardly anyone has noticed …
“Instead, debate has been fixated on a bizarre frenzy triggered by an education department decision to recognise Mandarin as a subject in our schools (like any other language besides English, no one will be forced to learn it and the decision will not affect the lives of 99.9% of the population); this has not prevented the kind of reaction usually reserved for major scandals.”
The reason that hardly anyone noticed, he concluded, was that the property was not located in one of our city suburbs, but in rural North West. And the group of property owners is called the “Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela Communal Property Association”.
They won a battle in the Constitutional Court that is vital to the material well-being and even physical survival of millions of South Africans.
How many of the journalists and media workers present here today are aware of that landmark decision, crucial to the future of millions of our rural compatriots?
And how many are familiar with the Mandarin-in-our-schools frenzy – despite the reality that the availability of mandarin will never even affect more than a handful of South Africans?
To avoid being accused of plagiarism and to be consistent in one of my criticisms of the media, I will identify my source. The victory of the Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela Communal Property Association and the simultaneous media hysteria over Mandarin was brought to my attention by Steven Friedman (on his Facebook Page on 1 September) in his piece: “Constitutional Court ruling fails to catch imagination of commentators”.
I could have given the obsessive coverage of the Oscar Pistorius case that made it virtually impossible for weeks on end to listen to the radio, watch TV or read a newspaper. But Friedman’s piece offers a microcosm of virtually everything wrong with our media;
- The unquestioning, middle-class sameness of both how our media covers news and what it identifies as “significant”.
- An equally unquestioning acceptance of the commercial imperative driven by profit maximisation as the primary motive for owning and operating media in South Africa.
- Flowing from this is a chronic under-resourcing – and massive reduction in human resources in particular – that characterises our media. This has triggered in a steady abandonment of commitments to truth accuracy and a responsibility to inform, enlighten and educate audiences.
The SACP Position Paper identifies and addresses several of the root causes of these symptoms.
The first of these is the startling extent to which South Africa’s media is concentrated in so few hands. Defined broadly, we have the most concentrated media ownership in the world.
Narrow down the definition to “media content”, and we do a little better: we are just the third worst in the world.
What is particularly horrifying is that 21 years into democracy, the organisation that has the most influence about what our media reports and how it reports is a company formed by the people who established the Broederbond, as a propaganda vehicle for racial supremacy and capitalist domination.
It is still, today, able to secure political influence in a manner that appears to be corrupting our democratic project and derail public interest policy implementation.
We therefore ask this conference to agree a programme of action to end, forever, the monopoly influence in our media.
We also ask that the conference:
Debate and develop concrete proposals on the construction of a diverse media, adding new voices. These voices must be able to reflect the perspectives of those South Africans for whom the addition of Mandarin to the school curriculum means nothing, but care greatly about the lives, defeats and victories of the vast, poor and the working class, majority of South Africans.
On this it is useful to consider the words of the Media Charter:
“The ANC asserts that mere declarations of media freedoms on their own are not enough. These freedoms must be underpinned by an equitable distribution of media resources, development programmes and a deliberate effort to engender a culture of open debate. This requires policies of affirmative action to redress the inequalities in our society.”
The forms of “affirmative action” the Media Charter proposed would see public funds deployed to ensure a diversity of perspectives and a massive increase in accessibility – through language, cost and so on.
Under the heading Accountability we have proposed a carrot-and-stick approach to upgrade the accuracy, reliability and credibility of our media. Before tackling this thorny subject, let me demand some accountability of slightly different sort.
Let me ask some questions of our worker comrades in the trade union movement especially those with investments in the media… but also of the elected leaders within our broader political movement who have deployed themselves into business.
How is that, with a decisive shareholding in the media, annual dividends from those specific media organisations unashamedly continue to target an elite?
There is, of course, a case to be made for media targeting the affluent middle-class. But it would be reasonable to assume workers would channel at least some of its profit back into media produced specifically to meet the needs and tastes of the communities in which they live and to reflect on their plight in the production conditions in which they work.
And, while English- and Afrikaans-language media serving middle class interests continue to lose audiences, where are South Africa’s other African language newspapers?
Zulu-speakers have, unusually, three different titles to choose from (all growing and dynamic) and have demonstrated a clear appetite for more.
Our black press barons (often from within the ranks of our own movement) have done almost nothing if anything at all to meet this desperate and urgent need. Why not?
On the subject of accountability and regulation to ensure optimal media accuracy, truth and reliability, I have only this to say:
We, South African Communists, are unapologetic in our insistence on content regulation with teeth – regulation backed by statute but rigorously independent, as demanded by the Media Charter. As our position paper states, by independent we mean independent of both the government and of the subject of regulation, the media industry.
Self-regulation – despite some crucial decisions by the current self-regulatory system – has been proven globally as inadequate and ineffective.
To quote a former Competition Commission: “Self-regulation is to regulation what self-interest is to interest”.
The SACP position paper addresses many more issues. Time prevents me from addressing them all. But I will finish with a final reference to what should be a source of pride but is instead, one of growing shame and embarrassment: our public broadcaster.
It has, indisputably, been hijacked by a tiny cabal of self-promoting individuals, abusing political access to materially advance themselves, at the expense of the SABC itself, and of the millions of people it should serve.
And the sources of some of the most problematic challenges facing the public broadcaster emanate from a partnership with Naspers, the Broederbond offshoot that stands astride our media like a colossus.
As I address you, the Competition Tribunal is considering whether the partnership between this cabal in the SABC and Naspers gives Naspers such a degree of control over the SABC that it can be legally described as “a merger”.
These things paint a depressing picture. We have the responsibility and the opportunity today to do something about it – to seize the spear and re-launch the struggle to achieve in South Africa the diverse, dynamic and vibrant media our people deserve.
I wish you success in your deliberations.
Issued by Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo, National Spokesperson, SACP, 2 October 2015