The media lost sight of the important issues in this election
The elections have come and gone and, although final results are unlikely to be available at the time this column initially appears online, the broad outline should be clear.
It’s all over bar the shouting. And that will consist of largely predictable spin by the parties, who will all claim success in one form or another, and of extensive analysis by the punditocracy. A great deal of space in the media will be taken up by attempts to explain why the ANC has romped home yet again, and to unpack the performance of opposition parties.
If there is a drop in ANC support, as is widely expected, the size of that drop will be subjected to minute scrutiny, as well as where it went: the new kid on the block, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance or to the smaller parties.
This expectation of ANC decline has been a central theme of the campaign, fuelled by the reality of service delivery protests, corruption scandals, opposition hype, the rise of the EFF, middle-class disaffection and other factors.
It is also at the heart of the claim that this is the most significant election since 1994. There is a sense that political change is in the air, even if it remains slow.
Nevertheless, the election has not felt like a historic moment. The campaign has been a little lacklustre. Union politics and their impact on campaigning have been more complex and interesting than the election itself.
Significant stories have been few: the failed marriage between the DA and AgangSA, jobs and Nkandla as campaign themes, the reception of ANC leaders in Bekkersdal and other disaffected communities, the attempt to force out Independent Election Commission head Pansy Tlakula. These have been among the more prominent stories to surface in election coverage that has, in general, been underwhelming.
As usual, reportage has been dominated by claims and promises made by party leaders on the stump. Media Monitoring Africa has again highlighted that just over half of the reports it monitored dealt with politics and campaigning.
The two issues that received most coverage were corruption, specifically involving Nkandla and the IEC’s own leasing scandal. But issues such as gender, the environment, labour, housing and others – what the MMA calls a citizens’ agenda – received too little attention.
To be fair, part of the contribution journalism makes to the election process is to ensure that citizens have access to what the parties are saying. But it should not end there. There is a duty to go further, to interrogate manifestos, promises and records, to provide a textured account of the atmosphere in various places and to give voice to voters.
There have been attempts to do this, such as ANN7’s systematic project to broadcast from all corners of the country and the Mail & Guardian’s provincial profiles. As worthy as these were, they were not always well executed. Reporting from the Northern Cape, for instance, is not by definition interesting – it needs also to present a story worth telling.
A theme I did not see sufficiently explored was the way government departments, and even the South African National Defence Force, were deployed to back the ANC’s election campaign. They spent their marketing budgets on telling their good stories at the time of the election campaign.
The media story of the election was undoubtedly the SABC’s hamfisted attempt to block opposition party advertisements. A DA ad had Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane talking to himself in the mirror, saying uncomplimentary things about the ANC and accusing the police of “killing our people”.
It was aired, then blocked by the SABC, then allowed again and finally ordered to be amended by the Independent Broadcasting Authority of South Africa after the police complained.
It is unfortunate if state institutions like the police become part of the political contest. They should be neutral – but then they must behave accordingly. About the time that the row about the DA ad was blowing up, a policeman forcibly erased a reporter’s pictures of a police car being used to transport ANC T-shirts.
It is just as unfortunate that the SABC allowed itself to get sucked into party politics. It needs to behave as a public broadcaster, fighting off political attempts to press it into partisan service.
Perhaps the underlying significance of this election is that it has demonstrated again that the line between state and party remains blurry. The quality of our democracy depends not just on this week’s vote but also on the ongoing willingness of citizens and media to insist that this line be sharply drawn.
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