/ 7 September 2012

The media and the ANC’s paranoid gaze

Glenda Daniels's Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in South Africa.
Glenda Daniels's Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in South Africa.

"We are aware that every Thursday night a group of journalists … decide what stories they will go into. This is very clear when we do our analysis. What we see is a pack approach with a story that breaks in the Saturday Star, then is repeated in Business Day with a slightly different angle and then in the Citizen with a … slightly new perspective."

So said Jesse Duarte, one of the people in the ANC most hostile to the media, in 2008. These words highlight her "gaze" – inaccurate and fantasmic – on journalists and how she perceived the profession to operate.

As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Sublime Object of Ideology, the "gaze" is part of the "social fantasy", "a point at which the very frame [of my view] is already inscribed in the 'content' of the picture viewed".

Duarte was reflecting the ANC's view of the media. At the ANC policy conference in Polokwane in 2007, it was resolved to investigate the possibility of a media appeals tribunal, the ostensible reasons for which were a lack of transformation and diversity in the media and that the existing self-regulatory mechanism was inadequate to curb the "excesses" of the media and its shabby journalism. I believe there was more to this than meets the eye.

In psychoanalysis, individuals are always split subjects. There is a split between what they consciously know and do and what they unconsciously know and do. Fantasy is unconscious, as in "for they know not what they do", but Zizek suggests a more conscious position: "They know but they are doing it anyway."

Fantasy structures what we call reality. It is the means whereby the psyche fixes its relation to enjoyment, as Sarah Kay puts it – on the achievement of its desires. The subject is already caught by a secret that is supposed to be in "the other" and this is fantasy: Duarte is caught in her fantasy of the media as "the big other" intent on plotting against the ANC.

Escape from reality
In this way, ideology and fantasy work together. Fantasy is the support that gives consistency to what we call reality. It is not an illusion or an escape from reality. So, for Duarte, the media really is conspiring to undermine the ANC. She is creating a social fantasy of the media and, in so doing, reaffirming the ANC's construction of the media as the antagonistic other. This is legitimised by the ANC's fantasy of a media conspiracy, which, as Zizek points out, is a delusion that there is always something out there pulling the strings – a conspiracy theory that can account for all sorts of things.

In an interview in 2010, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu referred to the media as hysterical: "You media are just hysterical. Why can't you just listen to what we are saying?" But listen to what he said about the proposed media tribunal: "If you have to go to prison let it be. If you have to pay millions for defamation, let it be. If journalists have to be fired because they don't contribute to the South Africa we want, let it be." For the ANC there is clearly a conscious fantasy that South Africa should take the form of its own vision – a conscious fantasy that the whole of "the people" supports the party and therefore the whole of the media should support it as well.

Around the same time, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe declared on Bizcommunity.com: "The media is driven by a dark conspiracy to discredit the national democratic revolution." And Blade Nzimande, South African Communist Party secretary general and minister of higher education, said he "would like to see a media tribunal used to stop the corruption in the media". Mthembu condemned what he called "gutter, soulless and disrespectful journalism".

I argue that Mantashe, Nzimande and Mthembu showed significant hysteria. The split between demand and desire, Zizek writes, is what defines the hysterical. The ANC, the ANC Youth League and the SACP called the protests against the proposed tribunal "hysterical", but this is probably a projection of the ANC's own hysteria about what was being uncovered in the media. Confronted with its own shortcomings, as reflected in the media, the ANC has projected its own failures on to the media. In a classical displacement process, the media becomes the cause of society's malaise.

This is an edited excerpt from Glenda Daniels's book Fight for Democracy: The ANC and the Media in South Africa, published this week by Wits University Press