The Big Picture in South Africa: How Does Our Media Paint It?

By Fazila Farouk · 8 May 2009

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Picture: JK5854
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Is the media from Mars and are social justice activists from Venus? If this question were put to me a year ago when the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) was launched, I probably would have answered, "yes" without hesitation.

However, having spent a year trying to purposefully influence a social justice agenda in the media, the answer to that question has become less clear-cut. 

Consider the following titles: "Markets Follow Money and Nothing Else" and "The Economy of Greed is Hurting Us." Apparent in these titles is an obvious distaste for neoliberal economics. One might expect to find such titles in left-leaning journals. Actually, they appeared on the opinion pages of mainstream newspapers in South Africa. The articles that accompanied these titles originated from SACSIS. Progressive critiques from other sources, of course, also find their way onto the pages of South Africa's newspapers. 

Media coverage is diversifying. There is an increasing, if somewhat restricted, number of articles with a progressive bent in our leading newspapers. This shift, however, is not necessarily due to a natural progression in the evolution of news and commentary. It is heralded by global events of calamitous proportions. The Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina had much to do with transforming 'climate change' from a greenie sideshow to a mainstream concern. 

Not unrelated to climate change, the "Triple F" (food, fuel and finance) crisis made its appearance in the first half of 2008 and was followed by the mind-blowing global financial crisis in the latter half of 2008.

These events affect everybody and this has made it difficult for people from all walks of life to ignore the fact that there's something wrong with the way that our world works and many are clamouring for answers to the dilemmas of the day.

South Africans, in particular, are looking to the media to provide answers.

A 2009 Markinor survey reveals that the media is the most trusted democratic institution in South Africa, coming in ahead, even, of the constitutional court. Many an editor may protest that this is an unfair responsibility to foist on mere reporters of day-to-day events, but the days when today's newspaper becomes tomorrow's fish and chips wrapper, are long gone. 

The media have become a dominant force in society, enabled in large part by the information age and its technologies, which have multiplied the availability of platforms for the media to ensconce its presence and perspective in the public's mind. Redefining its fourth estate function, today's media operates as more than just society's watchdog; today's media has become the agenda setter.

It goes without saying then that what the media has to say, the values it holds true, as well as the people and institutions it allows to hold sway, are all very significant for the messages that are being spread in our society, as well as the 'big picture' that is being painted for the public. This 'big picture' is strongly influenced by how the media frames the issues of the day. It is important because this 'framing' contextualises people's understanding of the world. 

Frames are the mega-stories that people carry around in their heads. "A woman’s place is in the kitchen," is an example of a frame. Thankfully, fewer people are walking around with this frame in their heads today. We can credit the work of the feminist movement for being at the forefront of this change, but it has also come about, in no small part, because the post-1960's media started valuing women differently in their writing.

In the aftermath of our recent elections and as the effects of the global recession are being felt in South Africa, the national mood is one of anxiety. It's been predicted that 200,000 South Africans will lose their jobs this year. There is a sense that we, as a country, are on the cusp of change, but there is uncertainty about what this change means.

There's a lot of talk about change in our media. New president, new cabinet, new policies, new leadership, stronger opposition, new world order – the rhetoric of change is rampant and yes, the financial crisis has opened up the space for alternative perspectives. However, our media's big picture has not changed. The framing of the critical issues remains unaffected. 

Our media have not identified any catalysts that could spark our change from a racially divided and unequal society to a united and prosperous country for all. Since the dawn of our democracy, our media have used the same frames to problematise the challenges facing our country.

 "Government is incompetent and corrupt" is the dominant frame that our mainstream media uses to contextualise South Africa’s problems. This is the starting point for all our national concerns. The conservative press are worse: "the natives in power are greedy and lazy," screams their subliminal message.

The business and financial media unashamedly protect their turf. "The free market economy is essential to a free society," is the frame they consistently prop up, as they brandish that great tenet of neoliberalism, which, to paraphrase American civil rights activist Elizabeth Martinez, is to eliminate the concept of "the public good" and replace it with "individual responsibility." Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves -- then blaming them, if they fail, as "lazy."

The Business Day blatantly reinforced this frame when it published an article penned by John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "Dependency on the Rise, Whatever They Claim," it was titled.

It was a disgusting little piece.

Kane-Berman argued that the entrenchment of socio-economic rights in the constitution was risky and undesirable. "The rights-based approach to development might be politically correct, but it is misguided," he exhorted. "It … risks misleading people into believing they can use the courts to extract from the state things that in truth are the result of work and enterprise," he concluded.

Kane-Berman is off message. Messages like his are dangerous and irresponsible. They repudiate the historical antecedents that have brought our country to this juncture of racial division and economic inequality. 

There is no equality of opportunity in South Africa. This is a mirage that only exists in liberal utopia.

On the one hand, we have a small advantaged class that steadfastly protects the wealth it acquired through the privileges conferred to it by inhumane apartheid laws. 

On the other hand, we have a disadvantaged majority, who, as a result of those same inhumane apartheid laws have been systematically stripped of their capacity to compete on an "equal footing" in the vision invoked by the liberal perspective.

The narrative of "individual enterprise" and "equal opportunity" is inappropriate in unequal societies.

More importantly, inequality is not an unavoidable condition of society, as we are led to believe. "The poor will always be with us," is a frame that must be obliterated. 

When contextualising the challenges facing our country, we need to look beyond just government's shortcomings. I am not, for a moment, suggesting that our government is without its problems. On the contrary, when I watched the motley crew being sworn into parliament yesterday, I was overcome by anxiety.

What I am suggesting is that government is not the only problem affecting this country's progress. Other factors do too and need to be taken into consideration. 

It's time for our media to reframe the debate and paint a new 'big picture' -- one where an equal society is invoked. It's time to talk about "economic justice," not "economic growth." It's time to talk about "human development" not "foreign investment." It's time to talk about "redistribution" not "reform."

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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7 May

Lead By Example

One more person joins the blame-the-media queue.

If you paid some attention, you would notice that there has been some questioning of the current system with the financial media. Is it enough? No, ofcourse not. Its barely scratching the surface.

But one could just as easily 'blame' the left for wasting the opportunity presented by the financial crisis. The left could have presented alternatives to the current economic system - whether through the media or otherwise.

Moreover, how can one claim victory in headlines such as "Markets Follow Money and Nothing Else." The left really has to make more of an effort to understand the current financial system that they so easily condemn before they can hope to present an alternative.

Everyone has really had enough of the ideological rhetoric. As a 'civil society information service' what you should really be doing is pointing the media (and society in general) to actual examples within the NGO sector where people are doing things differently.

Let's lead by example.

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