The government’s proposed media crackdown should be seen in the context of its own crisis of legitimacy, Mail and Guardian editor Nic Dawes said on Tuesday.
The issue was not about metropolitan journalists trampling on people’s rights, but of control, he told a panel discussion in Cape Town.
“I think that really the reason we’ve seen the debate ratchet up to this level now is not that the press has suddenly become much worse than it was five years ago or 10 years ago, but that there’s a crisis of hegemony within the governing party,” he said.
“That is to say, it’s no longer in control of itself and its relations with its alliance partners. And also a crisis of legitimacy.”
That crisis was not yet been expressed at the ballot box, but had been clearly shown in the recent public-sector strike.
The fact that the tripartite alliance had been unable to settle the dispute with a wage offer of more than twice inflation represented an extraordinary moment in the life of that arrangement, and of South Africa’s social contract. It had not been an accident that in the debates around the strike, the question of ministerial perks, smart cars and hotel stays had featured regularly, said Dawes.
He said he believed there was deep and profound anxiety about the survival of the arrangement that had served to keep the transition to democracy “more or less on track” for the past 16 years.
“Some of it [the pressure on the media] to be sure is individuals who feel hurt and injured by things that the press has done to expose their misconduct,” he said.
“But the wider question is about democratic legitimacy and the survival of the current arrangement.”
University of the Witwatersrand political analyst Steven Friedman criticised what he said was the “intense middle-class elitism” of South African media.
He said the problem with the media was not a lack of training or resources, but with a group of middle-class people.
“The lives of South Africans who are not middle class do not count in the South African media,” he said.
“Whether they’re print or electronic, whether they’re publicly owned or privately owned is not the point. As long as that is the case, what we are looking at here is not an attempt to preserve the freedoms of the people of South Africa, it’s an attempt to preserve the freedoms of a very narrow group of people.”
He said this did not alter the threat to the media, and the fact that those freedoms ought to be preserved.
It did however challenge South Africans to ask themselves how they and the media saw democracy, and who democracy was actually for.
If democracy was not for the shack dwellers — who were ignored by the media — it was not for anybody.
“If it’s not for a single woman in Limpopo province who gets beaten up by the cops because she’s selling her oranges on the street and they won’t let her, then it’s not for everyone.”
The discussion was organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution. – Sapa