Braai the beloved country

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I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘National Braai Day’, and the accompanying media bombardment of feel-good messages, advertisements for meat and beer and chat shows where braai recipes are exchanged.  We are told that to braai on the public holiday Heritage Day (24 September in South Africa) as this will ‘strengthen South Africa as a nation’. (And to those Afrikaners who phoned in to the radio station this morning to say the day has nothing to do with politics: you might do well to remember that you only have today off because the Zulu’s wanted to commemorate Shaka)

Let me state it upfront: I have nothing against braaiing. I love to braai. Some of my best friends are braaiers. When I lived in the UK, the mere idea of meat grilled over a proper fire (not those tin foil boxes you used to burn pork sausages into submission on rainy summer days) used to make me physically homesick. But the idea of Braai Day makes me feel ill at ease for the same reason that those beer ads with multiracial buddies drinking Castle on top of a skyscraper in New York to the tune of Toto’s ‘I miss the rain down in Africa’ left me uncomfortable. Because it makes us believe we have already arrived in fantasyland. Sure, the purpose of parties, like those around braai fires, is to make us forget reality for a while (that’s probably why they are so popular).  But to elevate a party to national heritage status is problematic because it could get us stuck in the gap between the ideal and the reality, and even make us feel quite comfortable there, munching away at our boerewors and braaibroodjies.

People will probably call me cynical and a spoilsport. After all, Braai Day has a champion in the morally unassailable Desmond Tutu.  This year, Jan Braai lit a fire under the sea and changed the names of towns to become ‘braai relevant’. There is even a national braai day anthem, for crying in a potjie. I would feel more comfortable with a statement of intent – such as, today, let’s organize a braai with someone who speaks a different language than us – rather than the ubiquitous feel-good messages (a lot of them corporate-sponsored of course) about how braaiing is supposed to be the one thing that unites us. The usual line is that some people call it braai, others call it Shisa Nyama, others call it barbecue, but – hey, Shosoloza! –  it’s the one thing we certainly have in common.  This might be true in a trivial sense, but to say that this activity unites us, is more or less the same as saying that just because we all drive on the N1 we are all going to the same address. And even if braaiing was something we all did have in common, isn’t it quite a depressing thought that it might be the only thing? And is that now a heritage worth a national campaign? Not our resistance to colonialism and apartheid, not our allegiance to the land, not even that our continent is the cradle of humankind – but the dripping of fat in a fire?

But, for a moment today I thought I should suspend my criticism and succumb to fuzzy feelings of rainbow nationalism. My son came home from school with a coloured-in South African flag adorned with slogans such as ‘Being South African means treating everyone equally’. Yes, I thought, human rights is something worth braaiing about. I enjoyed having the afternoon off to watch him run around the athletics track. Across the street, a group of students (all of them white from what I could see) were noisily having a braai. Listening to music, laughing and drinking. It sounded jolly, and I joked with a friend that perhaps I should walk over and ask for a piece of wors in exchange for an extension on their essay due date. But as we walked back to the car after the athletics practice, a bunch of young black kids suddenly came speeding past us. It took me a second or three to realize what was happening. The penny dropped when I saw, behind the group of running kids, the security guard and a student in hot pursuit. ‘Come back here, you &@#%!’ the student, shouted. He was shirtless, clearly a bit drunk, and very angry. It looked like one of the kids might have stolen something from him, probably his cellphone.  In a moment of supreme irony, the screaming student addressed the fleeing kids in Xhosa: ‘Yiza! Yiza, you &$%@!’ As a middle-class citizen of this poverty-stricken town I know the irritation of having stuff stolen repeatedly. But I am also familiar with the sight of kids begging on street corners, people rummaging through my rubbish, and the desperation of unemployment. Today the vivid juxtaposition of revelry and desperation, excess and hunger, braaiing students and loitering children just became too much for me. And my heart sank when I realized that when – not if – the kids get caught, their crime will probably only breed more violence.

I don’t see anything wrong with lighting a fire and having a good time. But let’s not allow the smoke to get in our eyes. Let’s not forget that we’re still a nation of people who can afford a chop –and-dop, and those who can’t. Perhaps braaiing is after all the perfect activity to remind us that inequality is the first heritage we need to overcome.

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The media as a vehicle for China’s soft power

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The developing world will shape the future, led by China – but this will still take some time and will be a complicated process.  This is the opinion of Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He spoke at the international conference “Communicating Soft Power: Contrasting Perspectives from India and China” held at Westminster University in London on 9 and 10 September.  The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

Jacques questioned the usefulness of the concept of ‘soft power’, as it doesn’t explain how soft power is related to hard power like economic clout or military might. He however pointed out that the fact that China has taken 600 million people out of poverty is already a strong message to the rest of the world and raises prospects for other continents like Africa to emulate. However, China remains on the whole a poor country and is also largely unfamiliar to a world that has been shaped by British and American culture for the last 200 years. Because of the history of colonization and global hegemony exercised from the West – for instance through Hollywood film – the world is more familiar with Western culture, and knowledge of China is still ‘extraordinarily slim’ Jacques said. ‘The way we try and understand China is always through a Western prism, but we cannot make sense of China in that way. China comes through a different history of civilization. It has a civilizational history, not a nation-state background like most Western states.’

Dawood Azami from the BBC World Service in  London agreed that world power is shifting from one set of actors to another set of actors. In this shift, we will see a ‘battle of narratives’ being played out, as different stories are being told of the shifts in geopolitical power. The media’s role will be instrumental in these power contests. Azami pointed out that globally, access to new media technologies has increased in recent decades. This means that audiences can access information more easily, and big powers are already engaged in an information war. Azami cited Hilary Clinton, USA Secretary of State, who referred to the television channels Russia Today and CCTV when warning that the US should guard against ‘losing the information war’. The rise of Chinese media (including newspapers) is taking place at a time when Western media is shrinking. The challenge however for Chinese media is to establish credibility internationally and reach its intended audiences.  The BBC’s global credibility, according to Azami, is based on the fact that the channel can ‘bite the hand that feeds it’ – in other words, the BBC can freely criticize the government that funds it. This is not the case with CCTV, and therefore the channel lacks the same credibility among global audiences and the ability to use the media for ‘soft power’.

Agnes Chung-yan Tse from the  University of Hong Kong also pointed to challenges that China still has to face in order to make its ‘Charm Offensive’ appealing to global audiences. According to her, China has thus far not been successful in downplaying its ‘China Threat’ image, despite its efforts to exert influence globally via its media like China Daily, CCTV, Xinhua and other channels. To improve its global image, China should combat corruption in the homeland, ensure food safety and build safe housing structures,  so that can they get receive more positive reporting in West that would lead to greater ‘soft power’ for China. According to Tse, China should also respect socio-economic rights in developing countries and maintain a policy of non-interference if it wants its soft power initiatives to succeed.

The editor of the website Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton gave a historical perspective on how China used propaganda films in the past to spread its message, but said that these films were unappealing and only appealed to audience who were already committed to the cause. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao put the issue of soft power on the agenda in 2006, China needed acceptance in the world for economic reasons. The 2008 Olympics were a ‘gift to soft power that went horribly wrong’, Hilton said.  Tibet revolted, there were food contamination scandal, algae blooms in the sailing venue and air pollution that made the headlines in Western media for negative reasons. The Chinese government then concluded that they needed to set up its own global media network and expanding print publications like China Daily to counter the perceived negative bias about the country in Western media. According to Hilton, China has had a limited return on its investment thus far – soft power does not work through top-down schemes that are likely to be interpreted by foreigners as propaganda. She says that the involvement of Chinese civil society  in public diplomacy efforts is too limited. The Internet also contributed to the Chinese government losing control of the media agenda at home. Chinese have via social media become creators of content rather than passive receivers of content. Unlike the diversity of perspectives from India, which makes its soft power successful, the Chinese political system prevents this diversity to emerge in online discussions, Hilton said. Instead a ‘rectification campaign’ to counter rumor mongering on internet has been launched. According to Hilton, calls for the Chinese government to form an ‘internet army’ to counter false or unfavourable content online, are appealing to an old-fashioned terminology and outdated methodology that won’t be successful in excercising soft power. global audiences associate names like the artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with Chinese creativity – however these associations reflect badly on Chinese state. In order for China to successfully exert soft power through media globally,  it therefore needs to open up and display greater transparency in order for global audiences to buy into its exercise of soft power through the media.

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability

 

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The 17th Highway Africa conference came to and end earlier this week. This is the biggest annual gathering of journalists, academics and civil society representatives on the African continent, and is hosted by the Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies. The theme for this year’s conference was ‘Speaking truth to power? Media, politics and accountability’. This theme had two dimensions: firstly, it sought to interrogate the claim by media to serve as a ‘watchdog’ on behalf of society. How well are they doing that job? Do they manage to keep governments accountable to their citizenry? And do they also keep big corporate interests accountable to their societies?

The second dimension of the theme pertained to media ethics. How accountable are the African media to the publics they claim to serve? Are they regulated well enough? Are they transparent?

These questions made for lively debate over the conference days. Below is my welcome address to delegates, in which I tried to explain why we chose this theme:

Over the past number of years, the Highway Africa conference has posed some provocative and very timely questions that have been debated by journalists, academics, members of civil society and other stakeholders from around the world.

In 2011 we considered questions of media development and sustainability. Last year we debated the view that ‘Africa is Rising’.

 

The theme of the conference this year is  Speaking truth to power? Media, Politics & Accountability. This theme is again highly topical, and relates to burning issues in the media sphere both internationally and closer to home.

 

I would like to introduce this theme by starting at a place that often inspires deep thought; a place that you will have the opportunity to visit during the course of today and tomorrow.

This place is the bathroom of the African Media Matrix building, home of the School of Journalism and Media Studies up on the hill, where the afternoon sessions will be held.

Responding to the call of nature there is likely to take longer than you had planned.

The reason for this delay would be that you will find yourself distracted by the many interesting quotes relating to journalism and the media adorning the tiles on the walls. It’s like graffiti, just cleverer.

 

One of these quotes is from the famous CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She says:

“Trust and credibility are the commodities we trade in”.

 

I’m sure you would agree that trust and credibility are at the centre of the relationship between media and society. If media lose their ability to speak to people in a language they understand, about experiences they recognise and through stories that they believe to be true, media loses the reason for its existence.

 

Unfortunately we have seen in recent years how easily that trust and credibility can be betrayed. The Leveson inquiry in the UK showed us how the media can prey on the very public they claim to serve. The phone hacking scandal there violated the rights not only of celebrities, but of ordinary people like the murdered teenager Millie Dowler and her family. 

 

This saga reminds us of another quote against the AMM bathroom wall, the well-known one by the poet Humbert Wolfe:

 

‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to’.

 

Here at home in South Africa we have also witnessed intense debates about media accountability. In an environment where we are experiencing increased intolerance to the media’s criticism of the powerful, including threats to establish a Media Tribunal and to sign into law the Protection of State Information Bill, it is all the more important that the media guards its credibility vigilantly, and be an unscrupulous custodian of the public trust.

 

After all, the media can only claim the moral right to keep the powerful to account when it also turns that critical gaze upon itself.

 

This is why in recent years the review of the South African Press Council and the work of the Press Freedom Commission, as well as that of the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team – as yet uncompleted – has been so important.

 

If the media then claims that is ‘Speaking Truth to Power’, let us remember that the media, as a central component of a globalized information society, itself holds cultural and economic power . Let us therefore also scrutinise the media’s own powerful interests and find ways in which that power can be exercised responsibly.

 

If the media claims to be working in the ‘public interest’, we need to understand the notion of the ‘public interest’ in the widest possible terms, so that the media remains accountable not only to its readers and viewers, not only to a section of society, but also learns to listen to those who remain on the margins of the public sphere.

 

The youth, for instance, is one such group. In a recent study conducted by researchers in our School, about which you can hear more in a workshop tomorrow, we found that South African young people may trust the media, but find little in its content that resonates with their everyday lives.

 

The poor is another group in society that the media often speaks about, but seldom speaks – and listens – to. In a workshop this afternoon, one marking the centenary of the infamous South African Land Act, you will no doubt be reminded that the legacy of dispossession still scars our country and our continent. It may be instructive to remember that this Land Act was vigorously opposed at the time by a journalist, Sol Plaatje, after which our Institute for Media Leadership here at Rhodes is named.

 

The question of accountability therefore includes the question of how journalists today are defending the rights of the poor and working to counter the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. But, even more importantly, not only how the media speaks truth to power, but also how it listens to the powerless.

 

A final quote from the bathroom wall sums up this imperative to listen. It is by our former president, Nelson Mandela:

 

“Freedom of expression is not a monopoly of the press: it is a right of us all.”