Vuka, South Africa, wake up!

Remember this moment of media tribunals and the misappropriation of mines — it is the hinge around which our future will pivot. That may sound alarmist, but we believe the time for alarms has arrived.

  • Media under fire
  • Democratic transitions are muddled, complicated things, and ours has been no different. All of the actors in South Africa’s joyful, awkward, fraught progress out of apartheid have made predictable errors that have slowed that progress. Responsibility extends not just to the state and governing party but to the private sector, civil society, the media and ordinary citizens.

    These mistakes trouble all of us intensely, not least because our long liberation struggle gave us such a clear idea of the democratic city on a hill that we are trying to reach. The gulf between our present condition and the constitutional vision of equity, plurality and freedom is so deep and painful that we flail out at each other in angry recrimination for our mutual failings.

    By and large, however, we have been making progress. The government has built one of the world’s largest welfare states in a genuine — and genuinely ameliorative — effort to reduce poverty and inequality. There has been substantial, if incomplete, demographic transformation across our society.

    Business, prodded by competition authorities, is gradually giving up its oligarchical ways. Opposition parties still struggle to grow in the shadow of the ANC, but they are learning. Independent courts are forging a rights-based common law, and a noisy, plural set of civil society and media voices contends.

    Progress imperilled
    There have been setbacks and diversions aplenty but the democratic journey, so far, has continued.

    That progress is now imperilled.

    The assault on freedom of information broadly, and media freedom in particular, that is being marshalled by Luthuli House and backed by President Jacob Zuma himself is one clear sign, but not the only one.

    The multinational steel giant ArcelorMittal this week announced what is without doubt the most toxic empowerment deal ever, which is quite an achievement. As we report in this edition, the plan to introduce black ownership at the level of ArcelorMittal’s South African subsidiary amounts at best to a kind of rent-a-crony scheme and at worst to licensed theft.

    The deal does several things for the company. For starters, it solves its mining rights problem at Sishen South by buying off the owners of Imperial Crown Trading (ICT) — the politically connected vehicle that snaffled them under circumstances strongly suggestive of illegality within the department of mineral resources. Effectively, they get the promise of an R800-million payout if the government ratifies the odious fiddle that placed at risk the country’s steel supply and investor confidence.

    Even if that doesn’t happen, ICT’s owners and others score hundreds of millions each in the empowerment scheme. That scheme aims to solve an even more serious problem for the company — the threat of government intervention to drive down the steel price and introduce real competition in the sector.

    Vested interest
    The trade and industry minister, Rob Davies, will now have to face down the impeccably connected Sandile Zungu, the Guptas (those generous benefactors of the Zuma family and the ANC) as well as the president’s son, Duduzane. Zungu made it clear after the deal was announced how this ‘money for jam”, as he put it, would be earned. The consortium, he said, would deliver value through its “vested interest” in keeping the Mittal share price high. In other words, they will work to head off the trade and industry department and the government’s industrial strategy priorities.

    And this grotesquerie is no one-off. Former civil servant Sivi Gounden has closely followed the ICT template in his acquisition of rights on a mine propertyy already owned by Lonmin (a company on whose board he once served) and has been staunchly backed by the mining department most of the way. It may or may not be illegal, but it stinks either way.

    Meanwhile, at the Aurora mine, another Zuma family plaything, reports are emerging of the systematic slaughter of illegal miners.

    This is all nauseating enough in a moral sense. It is also the kind of conduct that destroys economies, decimates employment and isolates countries.

    And it is in this context — as well as the ANC’s internal crisis of discipline — that the Protection of Information Bill and proposals for a media tribunal must be seen. Ask proponents of those moves for international examples of their success, and you won’t get an answer. That is because the examples to hand are Zimbabwe and China.

    This is the fork in the road at which we now find ourselves. On the one hand, incremental and messy but ultimately hopeful progress; on the other, plunder, economic decline and even repression.

    Voting down
    There is nothing inevitable about the choice.

    ArcelorMittal shareholders, including the Public Investment Corporation, can show the private sector the way by voting down the deal. The mineral resources department can throw out its dodgy rights awards and Zuma can rein in his friends and family. The ANC can drop its plans for a media appeals tribunal and open a more productive debate about strengthening the media sector. Or they can plough ahead, dragging the rest of us with them.

    This is not just a question of the profits of mining firms, or of abstract free-speech rights; it goes to the heart of a progressive and democratic reconstruction of South Africa. It is time to make your voice heard through every avenue available — business and civil society organisations, opposition parties and ANC branches, schools and residents’ associations. As the great Desmond Tutu recently admonished in a more cheerful context: South Africa, rise!

    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.

    The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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