The role of the media in a national crisis
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South Africa is facing a national crisis – the most catastrophic since entering democracy. We have a government that has lost touch with its people; a governing party fraught with factionalism; a disparate group of opposition parties; a security cluster paralysed by the recent uprisings; a health-care crisis; an economic group that is shockingly silent; constant service delivery protests, and the list goes on.
In short, we have a leadership crisis.
A candid assessment of the ANC will demonstrate it has become so factionalised that it is incapable of leading. After more than 100 years, the venerable party that led the change to democracy has lost its currency.
As a person, our president is very likeable. But as affable as he is, he has failed to lead. There is no clear vision, no clear plan and absolutely no motivation from him or our leaders to inspire us to succeed as a country-collective in our sustainable prosperity.
Leadership is not about standing in front of a television screen and restating the obvious time and again. Leadership is about being sensitive to the moods and feelings of the populace and the needs of the country. It is about objectively understanding the conditions and what needs to be done. Leadership requires decisive action.
Leadership certainly does not entail working for the popularity vote, as not all decisions, especially the tough ones, will be favoured. However, leadership does not rest on the shoulders of our politicians alone – our media corps also has a role to play in how our country rises or falls at the end of this current crisis.
If the media does not reflect society as it is, then it too fails in its duty. If the media is compliant, takes sides, and does not hold the executive to account, it is complicit in the social and economic catastrophe that follows.
Upon reflection, the media in the main, except for Independent Media, failed to communicate the obvious warning signs of the potential for unrest and conflict in the country, especially in KZN. The majority, especially television, have abdicated their role as objective commentators and observers. The media has failed to report accurately and failed to be fearless in holding those responsible to account.
The media has great power, and with it comes great responsibility and accountability. It has a vital and essential role in nation building, and as an influencer should commit to that and not to inflaming already strained ethnic and racial issues for the sake of eyeballs to column inches.
The state of play – contradiction of economic prosperity
At a macro level, inequality and poverty rank South Africa with the highest Gini coefficient in the world. This has been aggravated by a highly ineffective response to Covid-19 by the state, economic destruction of businesses through a series of lockdowns, looting and unrest initiated by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, but inflamed by underlying frustration and long-term poverty and unemployment. All of which has put into motion a spiral of economic, human, and social destruction.
Buying into this is the media, which propagates the spontaneous reaction of the populace to poverty and unemployment and which has cloaked this frustrated response as an organised insurrection. Who initially suggested this was the case?
On the opposite end of the income scale, the rich have become even richer, with the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) reaching new heights. Companies have transferred more than a trillion rand outside of South Africa through international listings such as Naspers, and fraud such as Steinhoff. Other notable examples of capital emigration include Woolworths, Truworths, and a plethora of property companies that have, or are, diversifying their portfolios beyond South Africa’s borders.
In between is the growing wasteland of the shrinking middle-class tax baseline. What mention, coverage, investigation, and ongoing commentary has our media made of this?
The People are Restless
The more our media suggests and looks at only one side of the equation, the more danger we are in as a nation. Unless we deal with, and report on, the root cause of citizen dissatisfaction, the frightening and horrific spectre of vigilantism will rise to haunt us all.
The current unrest speaks of the deep, underlying frustration of the people, who are left with no other option than to take matters into their own hands as they have been ignored, discounted, and forgotten by the leaders they asked to take up their plight in the first place. No matter the cause, though, vigilantism cannot be encouraged. Nor should it be reported on in heroic terms as it could be taken advantage of by dark forces.
Let us not throw away our liberation dividend. We do not need more force and the curtailing of freedom; we do not need a media which tells only a narrow perspective. We need to develop and “action” a sustainable, people driven, economic and social plan to save lives, businesses, and the country.
The time for talking is past. Now is the time of doing. We need sound political choices, internal peace in the ANC, and workable economic solutions to fast-track black youth into the mainstream economy, professionalising our public service, and monetising our BRICS dividend for the benefit of our country – as a whole.
There is also a requirement for a People’s Summit – a people-driven solution to take us forward and defend our freedoms for generations to come.
But above all, now more than ever, the media has an absolute role to play in developing common sense solutions to our country’s problems and conveying them – with one voice, although there may be many different viewpoints.
The media’s role in this national crisis is to maintain objectivity and resurrect its credibility for conveying truth. An informed nation sets the traction for socio- economic stability and growth – isn’t that what we all want?
* Dr Iqbal Survé is the chairman of Independent Media and the Sekunjalo Group.