The power of media… or lack of it

  • JewishLitFestival2
Mainstream newspapers are “almost uniquely awful” in South Africa today, with opinion passing for story, rumour passing for fact, and an absence of fact-checkers. So said author Steven Boykey Sidley at a session titled “Journalists as agents of political change” at the Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town last weekend.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Jun 21, 2018

Sidley was in conversation with journalists John Matisonn, Richard Poplak, and Mandy Wiener.

Matisonn insisted that there was some “fantastic” investigative journalism, exemplified by Daily Maverick, amaBhungane, the Sunday Times, and Mail & Guardian. He also believed there was world-class opinion writing. He agreed, however, that general news stories were “appalling” and lacking in “quality control”.

On the perception that journalists had brought about regime change in the country, Poplak was unconvinced. “Did the Gupta Leaks bring down the Zuma regime? My interpretation was that they didn’t. [ANC Deputy President David] ‘DD’ Mabuza brought it down.

“The Gupta Leaks were massively transformative for this country. I would love to think we shake the world all the time, but we have to be realistic,” he said.

“A lot of us have relaxed now that [President] Cyril [Ramaphosa] is in charge, and that is enormously dangerous,” he warned. “Lots and lots of bad things” were happening. Ramaphosa was accumulating “more and more” executive authority and a super-presidency would be left to someone like Mabuza.

“The mainstream press have done a terrible job of criticising Ramaphosa. It is our job,” he stressed.

Matisonn viewed journalists as links in a chain which started with whistle-blowers. “Then journalists do a great job. Once they’ve done it, NGOs and opposition politicians take it to court. The judiciary has come through fabulously in South Africa.”

Wiener believes that it is idealistic to think that journalists are agents of change. “A lot of the time journalists do it for ego, not because we want to change the world.”

The late journalist Mandy Rossouw’s “sniffing out” of the Nkandla story had led to several attempts to bring about votes of no confidence in [former President] Jacob Zuma, and had greatly influenced public perception, she said. Matisonn agreed that breaking big stories did not change things overnight but, as in the case of the Broederbond exposures, they did have an effect on events in the long run.

As for the next year’s national election, Matisonn predicted that the ANC would win by “a big margin”, while the DA had “shot themselves in the feet, and the EFF had reached its ceiling”.

Wiener felt the country was optimistic about Ramaphosa because he was “the complete foil” to Zuma. “He’s always been the great white hope because he represents ‘the good black’.”

All three expressed optimism about the country’s future. “I’m very positive,” said Wiener. “My whole family lives overseas, and I’ve chosen to stay here. We’re not doing worse than anywhere else. There’s not enough good news that comes out,” she said.

Matisonn cautioned that one should not understate the events of last year. “The country was hopefully salvaged in the nick of time – it could have gone the other way. I think you’re going to see great improvements. South Africa was saved by a combination of civil society, the judiciary, and the Constitution.

“You’re seeing a steady clean up. To think Ramaphosa could have done a huge amount more in the time is not realistic.”


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