Five years ago, Jacob Zuma had begun his second term as president. The Mail & Guardian newsroom was ready for it. How much worse could it really be? The newsroom was well resourced. The newsdesk could count on twice as many reporters as it does now. More people bought newspapers. And we were flirting with a digital first strategy that we believed would help us negotiate the new direction audiences were taking. But more than cash to cushion bad decisions, or the heart for a fight, we believed we had time — time to stave off the worst from happening, in the annexure to the Union Buildings in Saxonwold, in journalism and, well, in South Africa.
It would be time that would be the greatest thief of that hope.
It was President Cyril Ramaphosa who referred to the previous administration — of which he was a part — as “nine years of waste”. But the latter four years were most damaging to us. Our institutions were gutted, our social fabric torn asunder and, with it, trust in media eroded.
Time is exactly what we never have.
Research released earlier this month by Oxford University’s Reuters Digital Institute showed that despite relatively high news trust scores, 70% of South African respondents struggle to separate fact from fiction online, reportedly one of the highest figures in the international survey.
This is in part a result of the Bell Pottinger-orchestrated campaign to discredit journalists, which flooded social media channels with misinformation. It hasn’t helped that the United States elected a leader who has turned the phrase “fake news” into a weapon with which to bash away at media.
The Gupta bots, as we came to know them, have gone now. Bell Pottinger has been shut down. But in their place is a new breed of Twitter bot that will similarly attack journalists and their publications, sowing doubt about the veracity of what we publish regarding the twists and turns in the SAA boardroom, or in the office of the public protector.
The objective of this noise is to distract us, to sow mistrust and to negate the potential of the news media to force change. And it’s working. Readers are left with doubt.
But we cannot pretend that the news media is blameless. There are significant weaknesses in the way journalists in South Africa work and many of those weaknesses are made all the more profound by the acute financial pressures on news publishers.
The news media is vital. Journalists are a defence against authoritarianism. Information that has been gathered by people trained to detect lies and manipulation is what allows people to exercise their democratic rights.
It is because of the work of journalists that we know about state capture. The Gupta Leaks were, of course, the high-water mark of that journalism. But by then, the Guptas were no strangers to us.
It was particularly as a result of the work of the investigative journalism unit amaBunghane, here at the M&G at that time, that the catalogue of crimes for which the Guptas must still account was already public knowledge. It was also the work of our colleagues at Sunday Times, City Press, News24 and, later, Daily Maverick who continued to poke and prod at what exactly the Guptas and Zumas were up to, that cemented the belief that there was something terribly rotten in the state.
The news media was a counterweight to a criminal enterprise that had captured the state. In many ways it was more effective than the official opposition in Parliament.
After he became president, Ramaphosa would credit the news media for drawing attention to how bad things really were. He contends that he was ignorant.
By Ramaphosa’s reckoning, it was ultimately the work of journalists that successfully uncaptured the state. And this did not happen by accident. It is also the work of journalists that will ensure this does not happen again — whatever the guise of the criminals leeching off the state.
So if your newspapers and news websites are filled with stories about politicians mismanaging the country, destroying parastatals or assisting their friends to capture the state, it is because that is critical, must-have knowledge about what is happening in the country. And it is journalists who are staying up late and working hard to find all this out.
The potential of an entire country has been jeopardised by a political class in cahoots with a rapacious band of criminals. We are a better country for being able to read about it in the newspaper. There are several other places — not least elsewhere in Africa — where those in power are guilty of far worse, but we will never know about it, and nothing will change.
An independent press is an asset of democracy and it must be protected. What we continue to rely on for its protection is citizens who are engaged with the world, who are invested in the idea of a better society and committed to clearing the long, messy road that will get us there.
We can ill afford to wait.