Meet the Mayor

The government has announced March 1 as the date for municipal elections. These elections, since you asked, are important because that is when you get to vote for a person who should deal with issues in your neighbourhood.

Properly structured, this tier of government should result in the election of people you can get to see and speak to directly about pressing issues. You should be able to meet your ward councillor every month, and the mayor at least once every quarter.

But hey, we have the media, which can facilitate interaction with your councillor and bring him/her closer to you. Problem is, except for the affluent suburbs and areas served by the freesheets published by Caxton, Independent and Media24, most wards have no newspapers dedicated to them. They have to depend on the mainstream newspapers, which are focused on the big political fights in Pretoria and Cape Town, or on the tabloids and their tantalising tales of the bizarre.

Except for the 100 or so community radio stations, you either have to depend on the SABC or the privately owned commercial stations, which provide an aerial view of the issues or serenade you with music 24/7 and will not discuss your perennial lack of street lighting, schools or clinics. They will only cover your neighbourhood if something extraordinary happens – otherwise called a newsworthy event. Like the president or the premier or a cabinet minister (or indeed all three in a convoy of big black cars) paying you a short visit. Or, Lord forbid, a disaster striking – an outbreak of typhoid or a flood or a fire. Or you and your neighbours getting very angry about poor services – otherwise known as “lack of service delivery” – and burning tyres and battling the police a la 1980s anti-apartheid resistance struggles.

As for television, you have to make do with four free-to-air channels, the three SABC channels and, which like the radio stations give you an aerial view of issues and forget that you live in local communities and not in some abstract place called South Africa. And like the radio stations, will not report your issues unless something extraordinarily newsworthy happens.

So where does that leave you when it comes to the media reporting on local issues and the candidates for local council elections? Almost nowhere. Almost, that is, because there is such a thing as the regulator Icasa’s special events licence. And an election is a special event because it is the practical expression of democracy, when we get to choose those who make the decisions that affect our lives.

I read with interest that Soweto TV had been given a special events licence to broadcast the run up to World Aids Day on 1 December 2005. If such a licence can be given for that important day, it also means licences can be given for the period until 1 March this year.

So why not give all those aspirants waiting for community radio licences a special events licence for the period leading up to municipal elections day? What this could do is create a whole new vibrant media system focused on communities and their issues. The introduction of this layer of local media would invigorate local politics and add a new dynamic to aid voters. Critical to the role of such media would be their ability to present candidates to voters, and voters to candidates, through live debates and vox pops.

If this works, after the election Icasa should be asked to streamline the licensing process and make permanent the dense network of local media. By keeping local councillors on their toes, it would help to ensure there are no more lapses in service delivery, and may even bring about an end to violent protests.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media Studies at Wits University

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