The Fifth Column

From the hordes that read this column, there has been a growing clamour for a serious posting.

In part this call comes from a sad bunch who see fit to add their illiterate comments to the bottom of these pieces — whenever they fall prey to an online incarnation — and demonstrate a desperate inability to grasp the niceties of satire. In a genuflection to seriousness, I will attempt a considered assessment that has very little to do with higher education and a lot to do with this interactive media.

It’s generally accepted that there are four estates: clergy, nobility, commoners and the press. I would argue that the clergy (as an erstwhile ruling body) has been superseded by the judiciary. As for nobility, it has been replaced in this country at least by government. So there you have a neat depiction of the tensions within South Africa. The government, against or for the judiciary. The media, scolding or supporting both the government and the judiciary depending on the issue. The commoners are demoralised but going about their business, or incensed and burning tyres in the streets in the search for service delivery.

There is, however, a fifth estate. Media researcher Stephen Cooper argues that bloggers constitute that estate and it poses a threat to the placid workings of the others. Cooper’s understanding is that the fifth estate is the third estate’s usurpation of the fourth. In English this means that for the first time the neat order is threatened, not by the bickering between the four estates but by the intervention of the fifth: commoners with power — a power granted by the chaotic ubiquity of access to the internet.

As pointed out above, any idiot or genius with access to web interactivity can assume a position that is no longer only contradictory — thesis/antithesis — but contrary to the dominant ideology. That is the operating principle behind the Mail & Guardian Online’s own Thought Leader blog, which is a way of producing extra content that is journalistically solid (because moderated) at little or no cost.

Be that as it may, the fifth estate is a grouping that is slowly growing both in readership and respectability. This is not the Talk Radio 702/Cape Talk daft vox populi but rather commentators who are measured and yet do not subscribe to dualist ideologies. The Fifth Column, as I like to call them, essentially are uttering opinions that do not subscribe to the dominant black/white (please excuse the implicit racial reference) discourse but offer shades, not so much grey as psychedelic. And because it has immediate exposure, it’s not so much “one man one vote”, but “one man five quotes”.

In essence, what we have is the timely resurrection of anarchy. Not anarchy understood as a free-for-all, but anarchy seen as a sober governance model that looks after communities without docile reference to a national order. In light of this, who cares about splinter parties running for the next election? What we already have are groups of people banding together to protect their own interests. As the state goes about its purging exercise, it is no wonder that smaller groupings look to themselves for order and purpose. And what if there were the possibility of the large-scale roll-out of this phenomenon?

It’s estimated that there are just more than five million people in South Africa with access to the internet. This does not reflect the number who actually own a PC but those who have access for the purposes of work. Of this number more than 800 000 (academics and students) or 16% are in our universities and many of those have 24/7 right of use. As a grouping, higher education is one of the largest players on South Africa’s internet. Moreover, as the North-West University racists on Facebook have shown, it only takes a small group to generate a big stir.

I would never be so naive as to think that this 16% would ever constitute a unified voice, but imagine if this constituency started debates on core issues within higher education? At this time of political indecision, education is up for grabs — from the higher education ministry, “unmerging” Vista University and reopening of the closed-down teacher training colleges to the building of new institutions.

And while the leaders of the universities are silent, imagine if the 16% started to put forward ideas, via blogs and other online fora, for the strengthening of the sector or poverty reduction or social justice. Higher education already controls the medium — imagine if it starts working on a message?

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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