Prozac nation: The bad news and the really bad news

As far as astonishing news years in South Africa go, 2013 seems to be a blockbuster. From the brutal rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysens, the death of SA soldiers in the Central African Republic, the Gupta wedding fiasco and the Vavi sex scandal, South Africans could only look on in shock at the extraordinary events. Add to this the fall of one of South Africa's biggest sporting icons Oscar Pistorius in the dramatic Valentine's Day shooting of his girlfriend, and the anxiety around the hospitalisation of the father of the nation Nelson Mandela, and it becomes obvious that this year has been a depression-inducing continuum of negative news.

But it is not just 2013 AD: the past decade has had a series of extraordinary events that has turned South Africa into a country where just about anything is possible. From the then-deputy president of the country Jacob Zuma being fired, charged with corruption and then rape, to his remarkable comeback as president, the recall of Thabo Mbeki, the rise and fall of Julius Malema, the conviction of former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi for corruption, xenophobic attacks across the nation and the Marikana massacre, the news cycle has lurched from political dramas to extreme violence and tragedy.

While all this has been happening, it has become tougher to live and survive in South Africa. Unemployment rates have risen, inequalities have deepened, the cost of living has rocketed with constant fuel and food price escalation, all with no sign on the horizon of relenting. The country has suffered successive economic ratings downgrades and despite being resilient during the global financial crisis, is now starting to take strain.

The 2012 Development Indicators Report released by government on Tuesday reveals that only half of South Africans believe the state is performing well in the delivery of basic services, the second-lowest recorded level. The rise in negative perception is proportional to the increase in service delivery protests, with the report showing that protest action reached an all-time high last year. The report also found that the public's perceptions about race relations reached a record low of 39% in 2012. This figure was 60% in 2004, 50% in 2010, the year of the Football World Cup, and 44% in 2011. These figures could be an indicator of the unravelling of the nation-building project.

The presidency publishes the Development Indicators Report annually, using data sourced from official statistics and research to track progress in implementing government's policies and programmes.

Government tried to dress up the findings of the report, saying: "It tells us we are on the right track and doing well." 

"The 2012 report is a source of hope and spurs us as South Africans across all sectors and backgrounds to sustain and add to the momentum we have gained, even though economic conditions remain tough," said Minister of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane at the launch of the report. 

Democratic Alliance finance spokesperson Tim Harris has used the figures in the report to draw a comparison between South Africa's economic performance before the Zuma administration took office and now. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the economy decreased to R1.673-billion in 2012 from R100.291-billion in 2008. The number of discouraged work-seekers, those people who have given up any hope of finding a job, has increased by 1.139-million and the country's global competitiveness ranking measured by the Word Economic Forum has slipped five places to 50th between 2009 and 2012. South Africa has dropped 14 places on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index since Zuma assumed office, Harris said.

Psychological impact
How does this compendium of constantly bad news, poor perceptions about the country and negative performance affect the psyche of the nation? Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science, says this leads to what he calls "ongoing psychic emergency", adding to stress and depression levels. However, depending on individual ability to cope and psychological make-up, people react differently, Cooper says.

"Ordinarily people expect those in charge and in positions of leadership to do certain things to provide comfort, hope and protect them against physical or other threats. In our country, we find that those in charge may have the effect of perpetuating negative sentiment. This has the propensity to diminish our ability to have faith and trust in things being managed on our behalf and causes distrust, distance between political organs and personalities and the population," Cooper says.

The violent nature of protest action, xenophobic attacks and the events at Marikana leading up to the massacre of 34 mineworkers is as a result of high levels of economic insecurity and frustrations with the inability to find recourse for grievances, he adds. Instead of political representatives being available to intervene and channel people's grievances, often low-level bureaucrats are dispatched to deal with communities, and this causes further anger and frustration.

"It comes from the inability to meet the compact of the promises made in 1994. What you have in South Africa now is an undeclared rebellion, but you can't really call it that because the dots are not connected. If you get opportunistic groups, for example the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), who can connect the dots, we could head for social and political upheaval.

"With nine months to go to an election, you don't get a sense that there is sound leadership that people will listen to. Many people in high leadership positions have compromised themselves through their behaviour and wealth accumulation," Cooper says.

Adding to the difficulties confronting South Africans daily, the unremitting progression of negative news creates a sense of a lack of wellbeing, according to Cooper. This is everything from the targeting of Zwelinzima Vavi in the alliance factional warfare, the fall from grace of Oscar Pistorius and Nelson Mandela being critically ill in hospital. With regard to the Marikana massacre, Cooper says the killing of so many people by the police has not provoked the kind of public outrage an incident of this nature should.

"When the massacre happened, there was a strange reaction of blaming people for being killed. There wasn't a sense that this happened to us by us," Cooper says. "There were questions like 'What did they expect to happen?' It could be because they are not members of an accepted grouping. This kind of callousness and lack of humanity has been our undoing. If we continue on that road, it will create cleavages that will come to haunt us in time to come."

Cooper said there was further disrespect shown at the first anniversary commemoration of the Marikana massacre, when organisations such as the ANC and National Union of Mineworkers did not attend. "It would be common decency to at least send a statement when there is that kind of loss of life, even if they had certain objections. Death ought to result to some common decency and humanity. This calls into question the ability to show compassion for fellow citizens," Cooper said.

What is the media to do when there is such a cycle of negativity in the country? Hold up a mirror or try and filter out some of the bad? Some editors make a concerted effort to project positive developments and find good news stories to counter the waves of corruption and scandal stories. But this is not always easy to do when the flow of bad news is so extraordinarily strong, that it sweeps all else off the front pages.

Editor of the Sowetan Mpumelelo Mkhabela says the media cannot be permanently negative as it projects a society in decline. For this reason, he says he occasionally puts human-interest stories on his front page and these have a great impact on his audience. Mkhabela uses the example of a story the Sowetan carried in March, which started off as a heart-wrenching tale of a severely disfigured man from Kokstad who suffers from elephantiasis of the face, but ended up with an outpouring of help for the man to undergo surgery. From business magnate Patrice Motsepe to the Netcare Foundation and ordinary readers of the paper, people rallied to help the man as a result of the story.

Mkhabela, who is the chairman of the South African National Editors Forum, says each editor has different considerations and views as to how to project the news. "Colleagues think differently but generally, the collection of all newspapers is a fair reflection of what is happening in society."

Despite conspiracies about the media wanting to dig up dirt because bad news sells, the negative news cycle has more to do with the state of the nation than some despicable media agenda. Most times the bad news weighs as heavily on the people who tell the news as on the people who consume it. And in a news year like 2013, some good news would be a welcome reprieve. If you hear of any, let us know. Otherwise, take two Prozac and keep reading. – Daily Maverick

This article was originally published in the Daily Maverick.

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Ranjeni Munusamy
Ranjeni Munusamy is a South African journalist and associate editor at Tiso Blackstar group.
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