The Social is Political: Media, Protest and Change in Africa

ennerdale

Pic: Groundup

When voting is over, we don’t exist anymore. (…) We have been protesting for the past four years, asking, making the same pleas. Last year, just prior to the elections, both parties (…) came out to address us, and the most rosiest promises were made to us: that there’s going to be development (…) We are asking, what we must we do to benefit in the same way that other communities are benefitting. I am saying that even the president of this country does not know Ennerdale. Drugs is rife here. Our children are dying. You wake up and find a dead body of your son outside and you don’t know why. And when you later come to the knowledge of why your son was killed, you find out that he was killed for a bag of tik (metamphetamines). (….)How long are we supposed to plea? How long are they going to come here and take us for a ride? We don’t love doing what we’re doing (EWN, 2017)

These are the words of a resident of the neighbourhood Ennerdale, in South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng – one of at least six neighbourhoods that were protesting on the same day early this month against what in the first instance is articulated as a frustration with the lack of basic services, housing and employment. But, as is evident from the notes of despair and frustration in her voice, this is also about being seen and heard, about being recognized as a citizen.

The latest spate of protests in Gauteng province were just the latest manifestations of what has become a daily occurrence in South Africa for at least the last decade and a half. Figures vary and are often in dispute (Davis 2015), depending on whether media reports or different types of police incident records are consulted (Runciman, Maruping & Moloto 2016). The tens of thousands of incidents reported over at least the last decade and a half has led to South African being seen as ‘a country defined by its protests’, a ‘protest nation’ (Duncan 2016:1), with protesters labelled ‘insurgent citizens’ (Brown 2015) engaged in a ‘rebellion of the poor’ (Alexander 2010)

Not all of these protests are violent – the majority are orderly with no disruption, injury or damage to property, while others merely disrupt traffic or prevent access to buildings (Runciman et al. 2016). Many of them have however turned violent, and have been met with violent responses from the police, resulting in the deaths of protesters. Among these count the protest where Andries Tatane was killed by police following a community protest in Ficksburg in the Free State province in 2011, and the massacre of 36 miners at Marikana following a labour protest (Wasserman 2015).

For some observers, this is “literally what a revolution looks like” (Poplak 2017), but then again “these were disconnected communities, unlinked to the South Africa we’re told we live in, existing far from the flow of history, and outside the parsimonious loop of the formal economy. They were just another mini-front against which the government must wage war: 30 cops, 200 rounds of rubber bullets, 15 cop cars, a Nyala. Shift change. Repeat” (Poplak 2017).

 

Protesters use disruption of traffic, occupation of buildings and burning barricades to make their voices heard. A community leader participating in one of these protests articulated the frustration with the poor as they struggle to be heard by the authorities, or by the media: ‘We had to close the main road because it’s the only thing that gets the attention of the authorities’ (Haffejee, 2017). Similar strategies are regularly seen to be used elsewhere in Africa, whether during the ‘bread riots’ in Mozambique (BBC 2010), anti-government protests in Guinea (SAPA 2013) or struggles over land in Ethiopia’s Oromia region (Davison 2016). Damage to property, disruptions and highly visible demonstrations are often used by activists as communicative tools to get politicians or the mainstream media to notice them (Pointer, Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman 2016) As the poor are making use of the only means at their disposal to get the ear of those in positions of power, these protests are often inchoate and disconnected compared with the more orchestrated and targeted lobbying campaigns by elites. The result is that the public sphere, which is also served and supported by the mainstream media, has become bifurcated and mirrors the inequality of post-colonial African states and other places in the Global South (Heller 2009:137). This raises the first question with regard to the media’s role in conflicts: If the mainstream media is supposed to be a tool for deepening democracy and development in Africa as it is often claimed to be, why is it necessary for protesters to resort to burning and barricading? But it also raises more general questions about media in Africa: What does this say about the role of the mainstream media in the African public sphere? What are the implications of this relationship between media and protest for theoretical understandings of the media in African democracies? And, not the least, it raises questions for scholars: how do we research the role of media, both mainstream and social media, in African societies? What are the appropriate approaches to these questions, and how do we use them to build theory in media studies?

Not all protests in Africa are led by the poorest of the poor. Student protests like the #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall movements in South Africa and at various universities in Kenya in 2014-15 (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016), the #Zuma Must Fall campaign in South Africa that attracted mostly middle-class whites, the protests by lawyers, teachers and journalists in Anglophone Cameroon (Louw-Vaudran 2017) and the #This Flag movement in Zimbabwe had a large component of their support come from ‘the middle class which had hitherto tended to steer clear of street politics’ (Economist 2016).

Several of these can be typified as ‘hashtag protests’, where ‘hashtag publics’ were constituted around social media memes and catchphrases (Bosch 2016). Facebook and Twitter have been especially central to the student protests (Bosch 2017; Koross & Kosgei 2016). The participants in these protests therefore used media in other ways than those burning tyres in the hope of securing a photograph in a mainstream newspaper. For these ‘hashtag publics’ digital media has provided a way to form activist publics and to organise and mobilise protest action, both on- and offline. Given the inequalities in access to digital media in Africa, the potential for social media platforms to enhance protest action is higher among middle class and affluent publics than among the poor. Social movements aimed at attracting support from international audiences have also shown to be more likely to use the globalizing potential of digital technologies to greater effect (Wasserman 2007). Even without factoring in the inequalities of access, the potential for digital technologies to effect social change is a highly contested issue in media scholarship – a point we will return to later. Nevertheless, digital media have played an important role in many of these protests, especially those involving the youth, as a vehicle for mobilisation, organisation and group identity construction.

Protests of various kinds in Africa have therefore thus to a large extent become mediated events, albeit in different degrees and in different ways. Conflicts that erupt in violence tend to be covered in the mainstream media, while protests involving the youth, the middle class or global networks tend to rely more on digital technologies. The media do however not only provide support for protests by giving them wider exposure or amplifying mobilisation and organisation efforts. The media has also been criticised for impacting negatively on activist movements and limiting the possibilities of social change, by reporting on protests as ‘riot porn’ (Duncan 2016:147). The media’s preference for a ‘fourth estate’ or ‘watchdog’ role that monitors conflict rather than facilitate solutions to it, can also exacerbate tensions and conflicts, especially in transitional contexts where historical social polarisations remain in place. In post-colonial societies, a fierce defence of freedom of the media is often seen as important to avoid lapsing into the authoritarianism of the past. The risk of such an aggressive normative stance is that it can increase political polarization in contexts that are only starting to emerge from violent conflict and strengthen intolerance towards minorities or those that find themselves outside of the group represented by the media (Voltmer & Wasserman 2014:187). The antagonism between the media and government generated by overly aggressive watchdog journalism can also work in favour of authoritarian governments who could turn their supporters against the media, or invoke culturalist or nationalist values to dismiss criticism as un-African, as has happened in several African countries in the post-colonial era.

How then, given the increasingly mediated nature of protests in Africa as well as the contested nature of media coverage and the complex ways in which media are appropriated for mobilisation, should we understand the relationship between media, protest and social change in African societies?

I would like to make four broad points that might serve as guidelines for approaching this question and hopefully provide us with an entry point into more, and broader, questions about the media, society and change in Africa.

Questioning the media-democracy link

  1. Point number one is that the mainstream media coverage of protests prompts us to question the link between media, democracy and participation in African contexts. In many African countries, the mainstream print and broadcast media are either captured by the state or by elites. This means that protests are likely to be presented as threatening to the political or economic status quo. Duncan (2016:147) highlights five patterns of negative coverage of protests:
  • The use of news frames that emphasise criminality or theatrical elements
  • The reliance on official sources to give reports authority but steers the focus away from protesters that challenge that authority
  • Presenting public opinion in a way that marginalises protests as unrepresentative
  • De-legitimising the political validity of protests by portraying them as ‘irrational’ or ‘irrelevant’
  • Demonising protests as a threat to public safety, feeding into a moral panic about protest action

 

Findings from a recent content analysis (Wasserman, Chuma & Bosch forthcoming) of coverage of protests in mainstream South African media (the high-end paper Business Day, the weekly investigative paper Mail and Guardian, the pro-government New Age and the tabloid the Daily Sun) confirm the dominance of this ‘protest paradigm’. Most reports in this sample were action-oriented and focused on the violent nature of conflicts. The voices of protesters were largely absent or muted in this coverage and the language of emotion is usually not recognised as legitimate political expression. Overall, this led newspapers to view the state of democracy in the country as quite low. Tabloid media, with their orientation towards working-class and poor audiences (Wasserman 2010), had the highest number of reports on community protests of all these papers but were also the most negative about the state of democracy. If protests are considered legitimate expressions of democratic dissent, this problematic relationship between the mainstream media and protests prompts us to revisit the direct link between media, democratisation and civic participation that we often find in discourses about deliberative democracy in post-colonial African contexts.

 

The social is political, and contested

Perhaps because of the compromised nature of mainstream media reporting on protests, or because of the optimism attached to the advent of new technologies, much hope has been put in the possibility of digital media platforms, especially social media, to support social activism. For some, the relative ease of communication, accessibility, speed and reach of digital media, especially delivered via mobile phones, enables activists to mobilise supporters, spread information about their cause cheaply to a wide, potentially global audience and produce alternative news discourses. Not everyone shares this optimism however, and this brings us to the second point: The social is political, and contested.

Debates between cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, or techno-utopians and techno-dystopians (Christensen 2011: 156) have become a feature of media studies in recent years. Those who celebrate the potential of social media to mobilize support for activism often take their cue from the Arab Spring protests. These have popularly been referred to as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ (Christensen 2011). Campaigns such as #BringbackourGirls, #Kony2012 and #FeesmustFall have provided further support to optimistic accounts of the hashtag as a central rallying point of global activism. As mentioned above, hashtags on Twitter, Facebook pages or Whatsapp groups can provide protesters with the means to mobilise, organise and construct group identities, also transnationally and among diasporic networks. Social media have also made it possible to enlist the participation of citizens in campaigns and in the co-production of alternative news discourses. The mobile phone has proved an invaluable tool in this regard. User-generated videos are spread not only online but also reach mainstream media agendas, as has been the case for instance in the 2013 murder of the Mozambican immigrant Mido Macia at the hands of South African police, that was shot on a mobile phone and sent to the tabloid Daily Sun. From there, it went viral and was picked up by mainstream media, leading to protests against the police and eventually to the conviction of eight police officers. Mobilisation via mobile phones does not have to be hi-tech either – sometimes a simple text message like the one sent to Maputo residents in the Mozambican ‘bread riots’ in 2010 simply read “enjoy the great day of the strike” and encourage recipients to “protest the increase in energy, water, mini-bus taxi and bread prices” (Jacobs & Duarte 2010).

Most recently, social media sites have played an important role in the South African student protests in 2015 and 2016. Twitter was the most used social media platform during the Fees Must Fall protests (much more than Facebook) and afforded young people an opportunity to participate in political discussions from which they otherwise often feel excluded (Bosch 2016). Twitter also allowed the protests to evolve into a wider ‘social drama’ that extended beyond the immediate group of users, and helped to set mainstream news agendas (Bosch 2016). The mainstream news often had to play catch-up with social media, as they were out of touch with the student movement and had to rely on Twitter to follow the action. The result was that online news reports often consisted of little more than a series of screengrabs from Twitter. Several hashtags were coined, such as #FeesMustFall, #PatriarchyMustFall, #UCTshutdown, #Asinamali (we don’t have money in Xhosa and Zulu) and served as mobilising tools and identity markers of an imagined community (Bosch 2016), to the extent that the University of Cape Town even anthropomorphised the hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall by including them as respondents in an interdict obtained against protesting students in 2015.

The potential of social media to support protest in such a way that it leads to meaningful social change has however also been called into question by techno-pessimists. These critics point to the weak ties that prevent sustainable organisation-bulding and low-risk participation that has little impact or may wither in the face of pressure. ‘Slacktivism’ by means of online clicks on a screen is seen as a poor substitute for real activism in the streets (Morozov 2009). Digital technologies can also be used by the opponents of social change, by employing them for surveillance, disinformation and repression (Christensen 2011:155). Facebook’s Free Basics campaign in Africa, which has been rejected in India, has been criticized for handing control over African’s social media use to a corporate entity. Moreover, it provides a tool for African governments partnering with Facebook to strengthen control and surveillance over online dissidents. Several African countries, like Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa have in recent years shown that they are willing and capable of shutting down the Internet or blocking mobile signals to stifle unfavorable content (Nyabola 2016). Social media can, and are, often also used as a retrogressive tool to spread hate speech and racism or to oppose movements for change, as has also been particularly evident in South Africa where racist tweets have created several high-profile controversies in recent years. In African contexts specifically, the severe inequalities in access to digital and online media is often pointed out as a factor that should dampen enthusiasm over the revolutionary potential of social media, even though levels of access to the Internet via mobile phones keep improving at a phenomenal pace (see Willems & Mano 2017:1).

It would be a mistake, however, to perpetuate techno-optimism and techno-pessimism as two sides of a binary. Instead, the question is how online and offline action are both related to broader social and political dynamics, how the affordances of social media measure up against structural and historical determinants and, especially how social media becomes integrated in the daily lived experiences of Africans. This brings me to my third point.

Social media amplify rather than determine

Instead of debating whether social media do or do not facilitate protests, or whether tweets are or are not less powerful than toyi-toying, we should rather direct our focus to the society within which these protests and the concomitant media use are taking place. In other words, we should avoid a media-centric approach and rather adopt a social-centric approach. Social media amplify existing political forces and facilitate or amplify them rather than determine an outcome. Social media are also deeply embedded in power relations and social dynamics which may differ considerably not only between different political contexts on the continent, but also between different political actors, social movements and media users. One way in which social media may amplify existing power relations relates to the point already mentioned about access – unequal gender relations and income disparities may be mirrored by the differential levels of access and use of social media, both in terms of who gets to tweet, text and post as well as who gets to read and respond to those messages.

Instead of seeing social media as being inserted into African societies with the potential of determining social and political outcomes they should rather be seen as being embedded in those societies.

This embeddeness of social media in political and social histories means that these platforms are appropriated, adopted and adapted within cultural contexts where other forms of political expression pre-exist. For instance, social media may be used alongside a repertoire of communication methods which may include door-to-door visits, telephone calls, loudhailing or distribution of leaflets, or in combination with other informal, small-scale communications methods that have been referred to as ‘nanomedia’ (Pajnik and Downing, 2008). In African contests, these may include singing, marching, dancing (toyi-toying), displaying of placards, graffiti and conspicuous wearing of T-shirts and caps that provide additional symbolic resources for activists to draw on. Given the mainstream media’s frequent marginalisation of protests as discussed above, these informal, often highly visual expressions and performances are then in turn used to influence or impact on mainstream media agendas by attracting the attention of journalists (Dawson 2012; Bosch, Chuma & Wasserman forthcoming)

How social media are used in relation to other forms of nanomedia would depend on various factors, including the resources available, the intended audience and the kind of issue at stake. Depending on their agenda and constituencies, social movements may therefore decide to prioritise different kinds of communication, and combine traditional forms of communication with social media in different ways (Wasserman 2007). What is needed therefore is an understanding of the use of social media in protests, and the impact thereof on social change, that avoids technological determinism. Rather, the amplification of social histories and power relations through social media has to be understood from the vantage point of their users, adopting a perspective informed by the specific textures of their everyday lives. This brings me to my final point.

The challenges for research

An understanding of the relationship between media and protests in Africa that takes its point of departure in the everyday lives of media users and that sees social media as embedded in specifics of local contexts, raises several challenges for researchers.

  • In the first instance, research into media and protests in Africa has to avoid treating Africa as a monolith. To reiterate the point made right at the start, research should allow for differences within and across African movements, societies and countries even as it recognises the importance of comparative work across African contexts and between Africa and other parts of the Global South.
  • Focusing on Africa as the context of study should avoid repetition of the familiar approaches to African media studies that treat Africa as an exception or a case study to illustrate theories developed in the Global North, but allow for theory-building from the ground up. Nor should Africa be seen as an isolated area for study, but as a ‘set of vantage points onto the wider world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:5) which could shed light on other protest practices and mediations globally.
  • The dominant macro-analyses of social media in Africa, for instance connection rates, usage figures and costing, should be complemented by a much wider and deeper engagement with the social and cultural dimensions of adoption, appropriation and amplification taking place through social media in local contexts. The relationship between social media and mainstream media in terms of how protests are mediated needs careful exploration against the background of local power dynamics. The challenge here is not to succumb to the simplistic binaries of techno-utopianism vs techno-dystopianism, or -optimism vs -pessimism, which invariable pit limitations against affordances, but to see the mediation of protests as multi-facetted social phenomena that require sensitivity to context and complexity.
  • Instead of fetishizing technology in terms of its ‘impact’, or dismissing it as irrelevant compared to more established, direct forms of action, we need approaches to social media as forms of technology-in-relation, that is, technology as always already embedded in the everyday lives of people, and where technology mediates between actual people in actually existing historical and political realities. While on the one hand this assumes an understanding of African societies as not only defined by conflict, protest and violence, but also as ‘a place where people live their lives, critically engage with media and increasingly use digital media to participate in a virtual world’ (Willems & Mano 2017:7).
  • Most of all, understanding the link between media, protest and social change in Africa poses the challenge to researchers to suspend their assumptions about the relationship between media, politics and society, especially when these assumptions have either been based on theories developed in the Global North or based on overarching structural factors alone, and to engage in critical listening. A listening approach to media studies (Wasserman 2013) entails spending time immersed in specific localities, actively seeking out lesser-heard voices and hearing people rather than merely protesters, media users or even as citizens. The concept of listening is one that has already been developed in the areas of politics and citizenship (Bickford 1996) and applied to studies of the media in multicultural societies (Dreher 2009). In an earlier article (Ward & Wasserman 2015) we argued that the Internet can be used to facilitate an ethics of listening across global borders. The central point of such an approach is that the media is used in the first instance not as a platform to express voice, but a space for receptivity and openness to other voices, heard across the divides of difference. This would apply within nations and regions where ethnic or class differences often harden into opposing positions in the media. But this approach can also guide researchers in a global context to suspend their assumptions and certainties that are grounded on realities in the North, to listen and try and understand how media in African settings might require different theoretizations. Moreover, knowledge produced in this way in the South may then again also inform and illuminate practices and theories in the North, in a true dialectical fashion

Such an openness and receptivity is a challenge that, if taken up properly, will yield rich and nuanced understandings of the relationship between media, protest and social change in Africa and further afield.

(Keynote address: ICA Preconference, African Media in a Digital Age. Stanford University, May 2017)

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In the Twitter trenches

Image result for sean spicer memes

 

Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries select a word that they think attracted the most interest during that particular year. Last year, that word was ‘post-truth’: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’”.

This was something quite different to the parody news shows like Jon Stewart’s Daily Shows or our own ZANews that had been around for a while and actually helped audiences understand news better because they highlighted contradictions or absurdities without pretending to be the real thing.

A few months later: January 2017. Barely has the new leader of the Free World unpacked his extra-strong hairspray in the White House bathroom, or his press secretary Sean Spicer meets the press for the first time and elaborates on the post-truth theme, inflating the size of the audience at Donald Trump’s inauguration and making a series of incorrect claims about the day’s events.

After he was caught out, his colleague Kellyanne Conway defended him by saying he wasn’t telling lies, but – and here she coined what very well might be a contender for this year’s Oxford Dictionaries word of the year – he was merely presenting ‘alternative facts’.

It might not be a surprise that this disrespect for facts comes from an administration of a president whose election campaign was mired in allegations about the spread of what has become known as ‘fake news’ – news reports that mimic the style and approach of legitimate news reports, but are fabricated and blatantly untrue.

The flood of fake news reports by right-wing outlets in the US undermining Hillary Clinton during the election campaign has been claimed to be supported by a Russian propaganda effort, which also included the hacking of Clinton’s emails and releasing them in order to make her vulnerable to her detractors. Trump himself availed himself of the term when he dismissed news network CNN’s allegations that Russia had a compromising dossier on him as ‘FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!’

This is what a post-truth era looks like – a news landscape where it is increasingly difficult to discern truth from lie, and where social media have become the battlefield for propaganda warfare.

This situation is not limited to the United States. Earlier this week, it was claimed in court papers that the ANC ran a covert ‘War Room’ ahead of last year’s municipal elections. This allegedly included printing fake election posters to discredit the EFF (which is a breach of electoral laws) and creating a network of social media ‘influencers’ to push certain topics on Twitter and Facebook, and a news site The New South African to promote an ANC narrative. It is now alleged that the ANC never even paid the PR consultant for work delivered on this campaign, although the party denies all of it.

If social media is the theatre of this new propaganda war, Twitter is where the deepest trenches are dug. Hundreds of fake Twitter accounts have been created to discredit critics of the Guptas and their relationship with Jacob Zuma as being under the control of ‘white monopoly capital’. Fake tweets, photoshopped pictures and posters, malicious gossip and rumour are the weapons deployed in this dirty fight.

Then there is news planted in supposedly reputable news outlets by those driving a similar political agenda. The story of  a bogus ‘rogue unit’ that supposedly existed at SARS was fed to the Sunday Times who swallowed it hook, line and sinker and did the newspaper’s reputation a lot of damage.

This is of course not the first time in our history that a propaganda war was fought in the media. Imagine if Eschel Rhoodie had access to Twitter – what fun the Nats would have had.

The contemporary news ecology is a place where mainstream news outlets do not have the monopoly on breaking news anymore. Some of the most incisive analysis can often be found online on independent platforms or individual blogs, and social media have caused ‘filter bubbles’ where users can surround themselves by others who share and confirm their views and entrench pre-existing beliefs.

In this environment, a much greater burden for sifting the wheat from the chaff has been placed on audiences – or, as American media scholar Jay Rosen has called them, the ‘people formerly known as the audience’.

Because everyone with a Facebook account or Twitter handle are now not only receivers, but co-creaters of information who can post, share and pass on information. All media users have an ethical responsibility to ensure they are media literate and can critically assess the information they receive, and think before they share or retweet.

The rise of fake news may have a positive outcome for mainstream news outlets to whom audiences may start returning after they have deserted them for more individually-tailored online sites. But other factors, like the distance between elite news platforms and the majority of people, especially in a highly unequal country such as South Africa, is likely to mean that while people may trust the veracity of news in mainstream sites, they may not feel that it resonates with their daily lived experience.

Our research has shown that especially young people struggle to see the relevance of the news they find in mainstream outlets for their daily struggles. Consider the way in which community protests are often covered in mainstream media: as traffic disruptions that inconvenience suburban commuters, with very little attempt by journalists to listen to protesters and find out what their grievances are about. Individual journalists with street-cred or a sensitive ear to the ground may be those that in the end remain with their reputations most intact.

In other words, for reputable media outlets and journalists – whether they belong to big commercial operators or act as freelance journalists providing comment and analysis online – to counter the deluge of fake news and regain the trust of cynical audiences, it would not be enough just to provide verifiable, accurate facts, although this would be the obvious place to start. Facts are not the same as truth.

The truth is facts placed in proper context, facts used to create meaning, information that resonates with people’s experiences and makes a difference in their everyday lives. This requires listening, grassroots networks, analytical skills and a depth of understanding that goes beyond fact-checking. For the latter, fact-checking, there is always Google. The former is what used to be known as real journalism.

  • This article was first published on News24

Inheritances of our fathers

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There’s History, with a capital ‘H’ – the one you find written up, memorized and recited as facts, dates, inaugurations, wars, victims and statistics. And then there is the one in small caps – the history that gets under your skin: when great political systems are embodied in the tiny details of everyday life; when policies made in the soft cushions of parliaments have a devastating impact on your daily lived experience; when great power struggles are mimicked in the blood and guts of the most intimate of relationships.

Three recent books about South African history display the latter version: Marianne Thamm’s autobiography Hitler, Verwoerd, Mandela and Me: A Memoir of SortsBill Nasson’s  History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016 and Wilhelm J. Verwoerd’s edited collection of tributes to his father, Verwoerd: Só onthou ons hom (“Verwoerd: This is how we remember him”). In all three these books we see History echoed in the personal histories of people, their relationships, and their life choices.

The title of Marianne Thamm’s autobiography already places her next to three great historical figures of the twentieth century. The shadow of Adolph Hitler falls across her childhood, Hendrik Verwoerd’s ghost stalks her adolescence and adulthood, and then, finally, Nelson Mandela’s legacy brings her the hope she needs to keep going in this bleak, bewildering, beloved country.

Throughout Thamm’s life she has been wrestling with the legacy that she inherited. Until shortly before the death of her father, Georg, Thamm struggles to make peace with his Nazi past and his apparent inability to adapt to a changing South Africa. Initially the constant repetition of her daughterly rebukes becomes somewhat jarring, as if the reader is brought in to observe a personal therapy session. In the former Nazi Jugend member, Thamm sees a manifestation of the intolerance, racial supremacy and ethnocentrism that diagonally oppose the values she has pursued as journalist and activist. But gradually the reader comes to realize that this relationship between child and father also serves as a larger metaphor for the continuing struggles of a younger generation of white South Africans to come to terms with their political and cultural inheritance – the historical guilt, or at least collective responsibility, they carry with them.

Thamm’s ability to tell a story is what made her a respected and popular journalist. The anecdotes of her adolescence in the suburbs, the fumbling discovery of her sexuality, and her hesitant first steps into motherhood are told with compassion, insight and self-deprecating humor, and are bound to resonate with many readers who have had similar experiences. But it is her ability to contextualize these personal experiences within the racist, homophobic, and paranoid South African society that imbues them with a much broader resonance.

A similar ability to make links between seemingly everyday events and the bigger historical maelstrom one finds in Bill Nasson, even though his is a more academic register than Thamm’s. Nasson, a historian who has taught at the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, is a historian to the bone – someone who constantly experiences the present through the prism of the past, for whom the smallest of daily experiences are projected onto the large canvas of history. His anthology is an enjoyable assortment of scholarly articles, book reviews and personal recollections. His own teenage years are drawn upon to take stock of the ideals of non-racialism, while the Leitmotiv of resistance to oppression is woven through chapters on historical figures, such as Abraham Esau, a Coloured blacksmith from Calvinia who died cruelly at the hand of marauding Boers during the South African War, and in the drawing of historical comparisons such as the one between the 1916 resistance in Northern Ireland and the Boer rebellion. Culture and politics are close companions throughout, and even braaiing and cricket form part of the passing parade. Nasson also reflects on the discipline of historical writing itself, and laments the inability of many historians to make history come alive in accessible language. This is not a limitation Nasson himself suffers from.

A stark contrast to the relationship between Thamm and her father emerges in the anthology (in Afrikaans) about Hendrik Verwoerd, edited by his son (who, in his foreword, takes issue with the “clichéd accusations of Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism and more”). The book, an updated version of a commemorative collection from 2001, has now been republished with additional contributions to mark the 115th anniversary of his birth and the 50th of his death. The anthology does not attempt to provide any critical perspective, serving rather as a hagiography aimed at painting a picture of a strict, but humane “Doctor,” who could provide rational grounds for his policies of racial discrimination. You have to pinch yourself to realize that you’re actually reading this rose-tinted remembrance of Verwoerd in the year 2016, without so much as a hint of irony.

Whether anecdotes of Verwoerd as a patriarch – who chastises his son because his friend showed up at the official residence in shorts, or who gives his grandson a spoonful of sharp mustard in order to end his insistence to play with the condiments on the table – succeeds in bringing to life a kinder persona than the one associated in the history books with the design of Apartheid, is for the reader to decide. But what does feel like a historical slap in the face is the thinly veiled attempt at ameliorating Verwoerd’s legacy through a reflection on his intelligence and upright personality, as if to suggest that history judged him unfairly. After all, “Doctor didn’t easily make a mistake” (p. 283).

Tell that to Thamm’s adopted daughters, for whom racism, skeptical looks and uncomfortable questions have been part of their experiences growing up. It is in those casual comments at the nursery school, those stares at the supermarket, and in the unchecked callousness of friends that one once again hears the echoes of great historical narratives resound through the small dramas of the everyday. In his son’s eyes, Verwoerd might have been a good father and a family man, but that doesn’t make the smallest of dents in his political and social legacy. No amount of banal tales of how he interacted with his family, colleagues or friends can undo the indisputable historical fact that he was the architect of an evil system of which the tentacles can still be felt today in every aspect of our public and private lives. There is a line by the Afrikaans poet D.J. Opperman that, roughly translated, goes: “always remember, around your actions borders an eternity.”

History, as told by these three authors, reminds us that the past is not something that can or should be left behind. Rather, as History echoes in the histories of our daily lives – in the supermarket, at the pre-school, on the cricket pitch, beside the fire at a braai – we are morally obliged to keep reflecting on them. Didn’t a verse in the old Nationalist anthem Die Stem ask for the inheritances of our fathers to remain inheritances to our children?

Be careful, as they say, what you pray for.

This post appeared in Africa is a Country as a translation of an earlier book review in Rapport 

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?

 

The media are often seen as having the potential to contribute to social progress on a number of levels. These contributions can be linked to several of the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs). The role that the media can play in deepening democracy, for instance, is often held up as an important justification for allowing the media freedom to criticise politicians and officials. The media are therefore seen as an important democratic institution that can contribute to SDG 16: the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

The idea that the media can act as the ‘fourth estate’ in society by acting as a watchdog over corruption and abuse of power is one that is entrenched in journalistic norms and in the popular imagination. The amount of space and airtime that has been given to the money spent on President Zuma’s Nkandla homestead is a good example of this type of journalistic work. According to this view, such reporting can assist democratic societies in reaching particular targets of SDG 16, such as ‘Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms’, and ‘Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels’.

Despite the media’s claims to making these contributions to the deepening of democracy and the development of society, there is often disagreement about how well this ideal is translated into practice. Furthermore, there is much controversy around exactly what these roles should entail in the first place. For instance: what should the relationship be, exactly, between the media and government? Should a different role be expected of media in transitional democracies than we expect in established ones? How well do the South African media perform these roles? How should these contributions be measured?

Do citizens trust the media to hold government to account? Do citizens feel that the media represents their interests? These are some of the questions that academic research in media studies seeks to answer, through both theoretical explorations and empirical work.

Media studies research can help to assess how well the media in a country such as South Africa are performing these roles. Critics of the media often point out that they are too elitist or commercially minded, and therefore fail to ‘Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decisionmaking at all levels’, as described in one of the SDG 16 targets. The fieldwork conducted by a group of researchers (Professor Herman Wasserman, Dr Tanja Bosch and Dr Wallace Chuma, as well as several student research assistants) in the Centre for Film and Media Studies (CFMS) on an European Union-funded project called Media, Conflict and Democratisation (MeCoDEM) has shown, for instance, that the media does not pay enough attention to community protests aimed at giving communities greater say in policymaking. Poor communities often feel excluded from news agendas and have expressed frustration at not being listened to by journalists.

MeCoDEM involves research projects in four different countries, all transitioning from authoritarian rule to more democratic government – South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Serbia – and the role of media and ICTs accompanying these transitions. Findings suggest that in all four countries, citizenship conflicts tend to be portrayed through a judicial or rights-focused lens, rather than with focus on social and cultural factors. The South African branch of the study reveals systemic problems underpinning news agendas and coverage.

Are our media holding our institutions accountable?

Case studies covered by researchers from CFMS included media coverage of the ubiquitous community protests in South Africa, xenophobic attacks and conflicts erupting in parliament around the state of the nation address. The investigation into community protests included content analysis of major publications, and interviews with journalists and with community activists. Anger over unemployment, housing, water and sanitation, electricity, corruption and crime have all been listed as reasons for the rising number of protests, which started in the early 2000s. However, they are about more than just a struggle for basic public services; they are also an attempt by the poor to be heard and included in democratic discourse and policymaking.

The study found that even in the media coverage of these protests, the voices of the protesters often remain unheard. Coverage of protests is often reduced to reports on traffic disruptions, and some communities report that photographers are often sent to document the protest without being accompanied by journalists to conduct interviews. Activists also told researchers that they only get media attention when they go to extremes. According to protesters, media first ask if ‘anything is burning’ in order to decide whether it would be worth sending a journalist to report.

This study reveals that while a free media has gone a long way towards ensuring democratic accountability in South Africa, there is room for improvement. Activists interviewed for the study said they believe the media could play a bigger role in boosting democracy, by highlighting the issues poor communities face before they spill over into violent conflicts. A focus on community could shine a spotlight on the most marginalised and vulnerable citizens, and help focus government attention where it is needed most, in order to achieve the SDG of creating a just, peaceful and inclusive society.

This article first appeared in the University of Cape Town research report 2015-2016. Feature image of Tahrir Square in Cairo by Jonathan Rashad, Flickr. Second image by Ramy Raoof, Flickr

 

Reporting on ‘Africa’

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It is still not uncommon to hear South Africans say that they’re going on a business trip or holiday “in Africa” – as if their own country lies on another continent. We could blame this attitude on our history. During Apartheid, South Africa was politically and socially isolated from the rest of the continent (South African Airways flights weren’t even allowed to land in any other African countries). But a certain mindset also developed as a result of the Apartheid ideology of exceptionalism – the notion that because  South Africa was “different” from other African countries, the same human rights of equality do not apply here. South Africans became good at navelgazing, and bad at seeing much further beyond than their northern borders. This means that South Africans can often more easily point out Barcelona than Bamako on a map.

The inverse of this knowledge gap can often be seen when traveling on the rest of the continent. Just look at the signs with Afrikaans surnames in the arrivals hall in Nairobi, or chat to your fellow tourists at breakfast in Zanzibar about the Super 14 rugby game, which you’d probably be able to watch in the hotel bar that afternoon on DStv, the satellite channel that stomped its footprint over large parts of Africa. The chances are good that your host knows more about South African history and politics than you know about theirs.

The media doesn’t exactly help. Compared to news beamed to us from Washington D.C. or London, we see very little coverage of other African countries in our newspapers, news sites and broadcast channels. The global impact of the political and economic power of the Untied States and Europe means that the minute details of Brexit or the Trump-vs-Clinton spectacle is beamed to our screens, but that you have to look hard to find nuanced information behind the headlines about, say, the Zambian election, political conflict in Burundi or renewed violence in South Sudan. This, while analyses show that the image of Africa has greatly improved in the past few years in international media. TheEconomist, that portrayed Africa as the “The Hopeless Continent” on that dreadful cover page of theirs in 2000, changed its tune to “Africa Rising” in 2011, a slogan that was consumed by Time Magazine a year later. However, critics point to the fact that this new-found optimism also sometimes reveals paternalistic stereotypes, or is based on a specific neoliberal ideal of Africa as an untapped market. But one simply has to follow sites like this one to see that fashion, music and sport in Africa gives journalists much more to report on than money and guns.

It is against this backdrop that two recent books about Africa, written by South African journalists, are welcome. Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak’s Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, and  Liesl Louw-Vaudran’s South Africa: Superpower or Neocolonialist illustrate a fast-changing political and economic landscape on the continent. Bloom and Poplak’s reference point is the increasing influence of China in Africa, and the xenophobic reactions meted out against Chinese immigrants. A particular incident from 2011 in the settlement of Ganyesa, in the North West province of South Africa, is used as a leitmotiv to illustrate the violence that immigrants regularly meet with in this country. Four Chinese immigrants were burned to death in their shop – and the book insinuates that this was not an accident, that the shop-owners were murdered by local citizens. The case remains unresolved, thus Bloom and Poplak travelled to Ganyesa to speak to locals in an attempt to learn more about the situation. The truth remains out of reach, and as they broaden their discussion of how bigger geopolitical shifts are mirrored in the everyday details in African cities and towns, they return time and again to the fire in Ganyesa.  As they travel through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Central African Republic, their discoveries of new developments on political, economic and social terrain are punctuated by the threat of violence – old conflicts, prejudices and tensions mix with new ones and the result is not only intoxicating, but also often unhealthy.

Continental Shift is an entertaining and stimulating recounting of the authors’ experience of traveling thousands of kilometers and wading through academic books, historical documents, policy documents and news articles. It covers a broad range of topics – construction in Namibia, the building of a dam in Botswana, mining in Zimbabwe, Nollywood in Nigeria, food security in Ethiopia, realpolitik in South Sudan and conflict in Central African Republic. Continental Shift’s biggest achievement is its lively, and sometimes even humorous tone. It’s a heady mix of memoir, ethnography, analysis, travel writing and at times comes close to a type of political poetry. The accessibility and lucidity of this ambitious project is largely thanks to the distinctive style of writing – fans of Poplak’s political journalism in the Daily Maverick will be familiar with his destructive sense of irony. But this is also a gripping tale because of its reliance on first-hand experiences and field work, several conversations and interviews, and sharp observations on the ground.

The presentation and style is one of the big differences between Bloom and Poplak’s book, and that of Louw-Vaudran. Despite the fact that Louw-Vaudran is also an experienced journalist – she is  a former Africa editor at Media24 – her script follows a more conventional style of reporting. Her material is partly drawn from her own interviews with political leaders, but she also relies quite heavily on second-hand sources. She is less likely to communicate her own point of view or observations than summarize those of her interviewees. As a result the book is an easy read, but one that lacks a distinctive voice. The transition from reporting to long form journalism is not as easy as it might seem.

Louw-Vaudran’s point of reference is the role that South Africa plays on the continent. She questions whether South Africa, as the largest economy on the continent and a country that set the political tone, especially under the leadership of Mandela and Mbeki, can also be seen as a neocolonial power on the African continent. Is South Africa a leader or a bully? Louw-Vaudran uses several significant news events across the past 20-odd years to investigate this question. The South African liberation struggle and the ANC’s years of exile in Lusaka provides the historical starting point, while the moral bankruptcy of the Zuma’s government ends the book on a pessimistic tone about the future of South Africa, and whether it can be trusted again as leader and example for other African nations. Between these historical extremes, Louw-Vaudran aims to highlight among other things Mbeki’s attempts to revitalize the Pan-African ideal, South Africa’s role in the African Union, as well as the country’s sometimes disastrous military interventions – for example the 13 South African soldiers that died in 2013 in Bangui in a conflict with Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. Louw-Vaudran creates quite a negative image of lost opportunities by the South African government to collaborate more strongly with South African businesses across the continent, and remarks on the damage that xenophobic attacks in South Africa have done to the country’s image on the continent.

Journalism on and about the continent tends to veer between the extremes of neglect or stereotype on the one end, and touristic exoticism on the other. These two books manage, each in their own way, to steer a path between these extremes. The Africa they show us isn’t always “rising,” nor is it always pretty, but it is fascinating.  And much more difficult to sum up than brief headlines can ever hope to do.

*A previous version of this review appeared in the Afrikaans Media24 publication Rapport. The above translation appeared on the website Africa is a Country.

Image of Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, by author.

Marikana and faith in democracy-to-come

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The Marikana massacre in 2012 has widely been seen as a low point for post-apartheid
democracy. The clash at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana between miners and police is seen by many as a failure of democratic debate and political communication in the country.
Although the consequences were tragic, the expression of anger and frustration
by the striking mineworkers could also be seen as an act of faith in a ‘democracy-
to-come’ where the gap between formal rights of citizens and the everyday
experience of the poor and marginalised was articulated. In this article  I critique
the media’s response to the massacre. In my view the media’s coverage of the massacre was rooted in a normative model of rational deliberation and a monitorial approach to the media’s democratic role. The media attempts to play the role of ‘watchdog’ over power but does not engage enough with the voices of the poor and the marginalised. My article argues that the media privileged the perspectives of those in authority rather than those who experience the democratic deficit in their everyday lives. The article draws
on theories of ‘emotion talk,’ ‘listening’ and ‘acts of citizenship’ to suggest an
alternative role for the media in the post-apartheid democracy, where the media would seek out the voices of those that remain on the margins of society, and take seriously the expression of anger and emotion by citizens who feel that they do not have formal platforms to demand bigger dividends from democracy.

Social media politics and #Feesmustfall

Image: Citizen

The protests in South Africa against rising costs of university education made headlines in media around the world. But it was on the terrain of social media that it became clear that not only was something changing in the political activism of young South Africans, but also in the way they produce and consume media. The increasing importance of social media for South African politics was illustrated very clearly.

My friend Sean Jacobs and I wrote this piece for the Washington Post on the day that mainstream media became old media in South Africa.