Commentariat: Rent-a-quote or valuable insight?
Discourse in the political sphere in South Africa often resembles the Christmas turduckens currently available in supermarkets. Like the chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey, it is an abomination when monopolised by the demagogues.
But there are also different layers of skin and flesh to peel away and, sometimes, the odd juicy morsel of insight and thoughtfulness advanced by politicians and political commentators.
The latter have been popping up with increasing frequency in a young democracy attempting to understand and analyse itself, used either by journalists in print, television, radio and new media seeking commentary and analysis, or through the commentators’ own blogs, radio shows and columns.
Whereas some political commentators appear to state the obvious and hackneyed, others are noted for bringing fresh insight to issues with which the nation grapples—to the point that they sometimes end up being the only authoritative, “independent” voices being quoted in the mainstream media. Witness constitutional law academic Pierre de Vos’s seeming overexposure whenever journalists require insight, or a sound bite, on a court judgment or a constitutional matter.
The Mail & Guardian went hunting for the Big Six of the “commentariat” to get a taste of their stuffing.
A hardened journalist, Brown appears regularly on e.tv, is South Africa editor for the online Southern African Report and has a column in Destiny magazine. She also does freelance work for publications such as City Press.
Brown said she was “not a commentator or a political scientist, even though I studied political science [at the University of the Western Cape], but a journalist who brings analysis and commentary to the readers”.
Having been active in the United Democratic Front in the 1980s through her participation in the Cape Youth Congress and in the underground structures of the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), Brown believes her “familiarity and intimate understanding of the ANC and the tripartite alliance” is her forte.
Her activist background, coupled with having covered current affairs and politics since she started working as a journalist in 1996, stands her in good stead to “understand the evolution of the ANC from within and comment on it from that angle—with nuance”, said Brown.
It has also meant impeccable contacts: “There are peers who I served with in [anti-apartheid] structures with whom I have built bonds and relationships that have allowed insight that I wouldn’t normally have had.”
This was best demonstrated during the build-up to the ANC’s 2007 national elective conference in Polokwane when Brown was one of the few political journalists-pundits to state that Jacob Zuma “was a force to be reckoned with” as he faced off against his rival and incumbent, Thabo Mbeki—a battle Zuma won.
Such was Brown’s apparent “embeddedness” at times that her reporting and commentary appeared to be coming directly from the Zuma faction.
“I have discussions with politicians all the time. They influence my thinking and I sometimes influence their thinking, but the degree is hard to quantify,” said Brown, who rated Steven Friedman, Eusebius McKaiser, Aubrey Matshiqi and the likes of Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens as some of her favourite commentators.
On her influence as part of the commentariat, Brown said: “I don’t think I have any influence on politics, but politicians do watch the media and are hung up on what the media is saying.” She said she brought a “leftist” perspective to the discourse. On her favourite quote, she said: “I don’t think in sound bites, even though I’m often asked to produce them.”
Pierre de Vos
De Vos has a blog, www.constitutionallyspeaking.co.za, and is a bit like Boney M at Christmas when the mainstream media reports on judicial and constitutional matters—every-bloody-where: quoted on SABC radio and television, e.tv, in the M&G, Sowetan, Sunday Times, The Times and Business Day.
The Claude Leon Foundation chair in constitutional governance at the University of Cape Town, De Vos said his academic background (he is a doctor of law, teaches constitutional law and governance and publishes regularly in academic journals) qualified him to comment on social and legal issues “mostly from a constitutional law perspective”.
De Vos did not respond to questions about how his personal life had influenced his political perspective.
He said the reasons for using political-legal commentators included “a genuine need to provide readers with better insight and analysis of often complex legal and political developments, something that journalists do not always have the specified knowledge about”.
Others included a “lack of time, resources, work ethic and training of journalists, which make them fall back on analysts that can easily be phoned and then quoted” and when journalists “wish to get their own point of view across but — cannot comment themselves—they then call the selected analyst for confirmation of their political or other view of a news event”.
Analysts were “sometimes” asked by journalists to comment on issues that are “so politicised and polarised that it seems ‘safer’ to get an analyst to give comment than to stick one’s neck out oneself”. He rated Friedman, Adam Habib, Shadrack Gutto and Matshiqi as South Africa’s foremost commentators.
De Vos said commentators could be “very influential as they can help to shape the terms of a debate or an issue”. But he drew the distinction between those who were “truly independent” and who “surprise” with “new insights or the line of argument”, and those who “merely act as a bullhorn for conventional wisdom among the chattering classes” or “the views of the economically or politically dominant group”.
He said his strong point was that he was “an equal-opportunities critic” and not hesitant to opine “whether it would upset Helen Zille, Jacob Zuma or judges of the Constitutional Court”. A deficiency was not having as “much insight into the dynamics of social movements, people living in rural areas and the lives of grassroots activists as I wished”.
De Vos described himself as a “progressive, pro-transformation constitutionalist”. On his favourite De Vos quote, he appeared to be mortified before venturing: “A culture of secrecy is like the bad stench created by cat pee—it is very difficult to get rid of.”
Considered one of the smartest commentators around, Friedman does get asked all sorts of questions by rent-a-quote journalists: “When Julius Malema was admitted to hospital [prior to his recent ANC disciplinary hearing] I had a newspaper call and ask me whether he was really sick or not,” he said. Friedman is a doctor, but not of medicine.
A political scientist and director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, Friedman specialises in democratic theory and has researched and written extensively on social inequality and how grassroots voices can strengthen democracy. He is a columnist for Business Day and the New Age and appears on e.tv as an analyst.
He acknowledged the growing “cult of the commentator” and bemoaned the perception that, “because one has studied political science, it makes one some sort of prophet or fortune-teller”.
Friedman considers himself a “committed democrat—and I don’t think that is mainstream, but quite radical, actually — I believe in social equality and vigorous democracy and that a civilisation is judged by how it treats its weakest.”
Friedman recently completed the manuscript for a new book, Power in Action: Democracy, Collective Action and Social Justice. He believes academics are well positioned to comment about areas in which they have conducted research because their findings “can enrich public debate”.
“There are very few people lucky enough to read books for a living. This reading—in democratic theory, in my case—allows me to put South Africa’s democratic development within the world context and this helps enrich the debate and create a deeper and more participatory democracy,” he said.
“I don’t think commentators have an influence on politics or politicians. I think we do have an impact on public opinion by osmosis, not people going ‘My God, this chap is clever, I have to believe him’.”
Friedman rated McKaiser, Matshiqi and the “underused” Richard Pithouse, an academic at Rhodes University, as some of his favourite commentators and said “a lot of my colleagues are not living up to their potential”.
He said there was “no such thing as an objective commentator, but it is important to be independent — we are not there to confirm people in power and their prejudices”.
He believes there is an “elite-centred debate” in the country and that the media does have a preoccupation with mainstream politics to the detriment of grassroots politics and struggles. And they report on these spaces from a distance. Likewise is the tendency for commentators to sometimes “reinforce each others’ perspectives”.
Using an example, he said he was “thrilled” that, following Malema’s suspension from the ANC, television cameras went into townships and captured locals celebrating the announcement, debunking the popular perception that Malema represented the country’s poor.
“There was a time when it appeared only myself and Pithouse were questioning Malema’s supposed grassroots popularity and it felt that we were so out of the mainstream that people were not taking us seriously. And then, lo and behold, he was suspended and people were celebrating in the streets.”
Friedman said about his favourite quote: “I don’t like any of my own quotes. I’m not into professional narcissism.” He did single out a recent Business Day column on the Protection of State Information Bill, in which he had suggested that the poor would suffer much more from the legislation than newspapers with legal budgets, as one of his recent pieces that had pleased him.
Habib is the deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and advancement at the University of Johannesburg and serves on several boards, including University World News (Africa) and the Harold Wolpe Trust. He is a member of the advisory council of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
When not appearing as a commentator on both local and international television or radio, he writes, choosing his publications “very selectively, depending on which audience I want to reach”. Consequently, he has been published in newspapers ranging from Beeld to Business Day and the Sunday Times.
When something “major happens” Habib gets “about 20 calls a day” whereas a “quiet week means three, five, maybe 10 calls”.
Habib is asked to comment on democracy and development as well as on issues in education, especially in the tertiary sector. He said his favourite commentators included Friedman, Matshiqi and Idasa’s Judith February and that the influence of commentators was overstated.
On being part of the top tier of South Africa’s commentariat, Habib said: “I do research and reflect on issues as part of my academic work. Because I want to change the world, I put these into the public domain.
“My role is to deliberate on a conundrum of a particular issue, think it through and come up with an answer. That answer is not for people to accept, but to think about. Our role is to make the debate more complex and nuanced.”
Habib, who described himself as having a “social-democratic inclination”, does not believe in objective commentary but said independence was vital: “I come from the perspective of someone committed to civic rights and achieving historical redress. I am constantly figuring out ways to do that [in a way] that releases the potential that emerges between the two.”
He said this perspective was influenced as much by his academic research as by his anti-apartheid activism as a youth in Pietermaritzburg, as well as being a father who wanted to create a better world for his two children. In terms of his favourite quote, Habib eventually forwarded an opinion piece he had written titled “Lessons for the King of Polokwane”.
Rather oddly for a commentator, the M&G was unable to contact Matshiqi, despite several phone calls and emailing questions to him.
A columnist for Business Day, Matshiqi is highly regarded by both fellow commentators and political role players for his insight into the ANC, succession issues in the party and broader national politics.
He was previously involved in the ANC, its armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, and the SACP.
Matshiqi is a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, an independent think-tank whose funders include the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, the Donald Gordon Foundation and the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.
He has previously served as the head of former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa’s strategy unit and as media liaison officer for former Gauteng education MEC Mary Metcalfe.
McKaiser appears in print, in the M&G‘s comment and analysis pages, and on Talk Radio 702 and Cape Talk 567. He is also a regular guest on Sakina Kamwendo’s debate show on Metro FM. About online media he said: “I have developed a decent reputation for initiating public debate on Facebook, in particular, and often get quoted in the print media based on these online discussions.”
An associate at the University of the Witwatersrand philosophy department’s Centre of Ethics, he is asked to comment on “ethical or principled issues, because of my background in moral philosophy”. Other areas include constitutional law and race and identity, because of previous academic studies. “More recently I have developed a particular interest in opposition politics, so I engage and get engaged on the Democratic Alliance quite closely.”
McKaiser said his academic background was “supplemented with ferocious reading and learning from lawyer friends who are at the top in their profession”.
“But it is a market: my qualifications are irrelevant, ultimately, unless readers and the public think them credible and compelling.”
Regarding the proliferation of political pundits, McKaiser was critical of “lazy” journalism, through which “commentators become a short cut to finishing an assignment quickly with a sound bite”. “Journalists are also sometimes dishonest: they often choose commentators who affirm their own convictions—an exercise in confirmation bias.”
On the commentariat’s influence, McKaiser said: “I don’t know if we have real influence. We’re no different to artists—they enrich our lives, but only a liberal arts rant would tease out deep and meaningful impact. Maybe I underestimate our impact? Ask the public!
“I don’t think I influence public opinion. I know some politicians, however, care what I think (but don’t admit it publicly). I don’t think I have influence on South African politics.”
What others say about them
Patrick Craven, Cosatu spokesperson:
On the union federation’s relationship with commentators: “We have a good relationship with some of them, not so much as commentators but in their roles as activists and thinkers.”
Peta Krost, editor of The Media magazine
On the emergence of commentators: “With the widespread cost-cutting and subsequent juniorisation of newsrooms, it’s very difficult for young journalists to give an informed opinion on matters so experts are sought out.”
Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand
On rent-a-quote from commentators: “Journalists often abuse expert commentators, using them as a substitute—rather than a complement—to actual reporting. Experts have a valuable role to play when they can add insight, context, explanation or clarity to shoe-leather reporting. But with space to fill and pressure of time and resources—particularly on 24/7 live radio and TV—they are sometimes overused as a kind of fast-food journalism.”
Vadim Schreiner, managing director of research institute Media Tenor
On the influence of the commentariat: “There is no empirical evidence available in South Africa, so it is difficult to establish a cause correlation between what commentators say and resultant public thought processes and their opinions on issues.”
Sbu Zikode, president of the shack-dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo
On commentators and the grassroots: “Commentators like Adam Habib and Steven Friedman are vital to poor people and our struggles. When they raise questions, it very often speaks directly to grassroots demands. Their approach is not so abstract so as to alienate a certain class in society — More commentators do need to engage more often with the poor, though, otherwise they will continue assuming what Abahlali want, what shack-dwellers want.”
Helen Zille, DA leader
On commentators and their importance to the Democratic Alliance: “We listen to independent political commentators when they make cogent points, and we are not afraid of introspection. We take political commentators who have an obvious political agenda far less seriously.”
Despite several phone calls, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and suspended ANC Youth League spokesperson Floyd Shivambu did not respond to attempts to get comment for this story.