How robust are the institutional safeguards that underpin Nelson Mandela’s vision of a strong and independent South African media? By Sue Valentine
In 2002, as South Africa’s Institute for the Advancement of Journalism was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Anton Harber, co-founder and former editor of the Weekly Mail, was in line waiting to meet the guest of honor, the late Nelson Mandela.
As Harber approached, Mandela, then 83, looked puzzled, as if trying to remember Harber’s face from a previous meeting. The editor extended his hand and introduced himself. “Anton Harber, Mr. Mandela,” he said. “Ah, you remember me,” Mandela exclaimed, displaying his broad, trademark grin.
There are countless stories of Mandela’s grace and charm, which he used to good effect during South Africa’s fraught political transition in 1994 and during his single five-year term as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Mandela died on December 5, 2013. A free and vibrant press is one of his many cherished legacies.
Today, almost 20 years on, press freedom in South Africa remains entrenched in the constitution, enjoys the protection of the courts, and is supported by a dynamic civil society as the country prepares for its fifth democratic election in 2014.
Yet, it is precisely the unrelenting media exposure of corruption, poor service delivery, and destabilizing poverty that has needled the African National Congress, the ruling party, ever since apartheid gave way to majority rule.
Even while Mandela was championing press freedom, the challenges of governing a fractious and still polarized society gave him pause. That tension between ideals and the realities of governing has become even more pronounced during the ANC’s continued monopoly on power.
Today under President Jacob Zuma’s administration, political rhetoric critical of the news media has hardened, an instinct for secrecy is on the rise, and Zuma himself, both before taking office and as president, has been quick to threaten newspapers, columnists, and cartoonists with court action. There is legislation under consideration in Parliament that could restrict what is still the freest press in Africa. And, in some quarters, champions of “good news” are emerging, favoring positive stories to counter the litany of news about government failures, corruption and self-serving politicians.
The question is how deep are the roots of democracy planted two decades ago and how robust are the institutional safeguards that underpin the vision Mandela extolled of a strong and independent media?
Among South African citizens there is a “sustained demand for democracy,” according to Afrobarometer, an independent research project that measures social, political, and economic sentiments in African countries. But when it comes to media freedom, the results are more mixed. A healthy majority of 70 percent agreed that the media should continue to investigate corruption, up from only half of the population in 2008. However, the study found that while 60 percent of South Africans believe that the media have a right to publish without government control, this is down from almost 80 percent in 2008. The number of people believing that the government has the right to prevent the media from publishing things that “might harm the society” has doubled, from 16 percent to 33 percent.
“South Africans may not be willing to go out on a limb if control of information is presented to them as a positive thing,” said Paul Graham, an adviser to Afrobarometer. While the Right2Know civil society coalition launched in 2010 has been effective, it is an “elite campaign” Graham said. “There is no doubt that we are poised between Russia and China, and Brazil and India,” referring to South Africa’s membership in the group of emerging economies known as BRICS. “This is not to say we aren’t free. We are much better off than we were, but we could become more autocratic and have our civil liberties more restricted than we expect.”
In the days of apartheid, the ruling National Party used the hateful Internal Security Act of 1982, which was based on 1950s legislation, to crush freedom of expression and association. It banned newspapers, detained journalists, and censored information deemed to “endanger the security of the state or the maintenance of public order.”
Four conglomerates, representing mining companies and business interests, owned all of the mainstream press. While some journalists and editors at these titles opposed apartheid, the owners supported the status quo, either actively or passively. They also controlled their own printing and distribution networks. Broadcasting was entirely state-controlled; the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) held a monopoly of the airwaves and served as a propaganda arm of the government, broadcasting in 11 languages.
In the 1980s, when the white minority still ruled, the “alternative” press, such as the Weekly Mail, New Nation, South, and Vrye Weekblad, took the lead in exposing apartheid’s brutality. Most relied on the support of international donors.
As the country’s first democratic elections approached in 1994, Mandela–in one of his most frequently quoted speeches–told the International Press Institute in Cape Town:
A critical, independent, and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favor. … It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. … The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I canpromise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.
However, Mandela did not always support freedom of the media. In 1996, his criticism, especially of black journalists and editors he viewed as disloyal, set off alarm bells among press freedom advocates. In June 1997, Mandela met members of the South African National Editors Forum in a tense stand-off. According to excerpts from the exchange published in the Rhodes Journalism Review, Mandela charged that black journalists did not write freely because to earn a living they had to “please their white editors.” Mandela also complained that editors “suppressed” ANC responses to critical articles.
The editor of the Sowetan at the time, Mike Siluma, questioned Mandela’s emphasis on race, arguing that the focus should be on the role of media in a democracy. “You can genuinely change the color of owners, and the publications will not automatically see eye-to-eye with government, because there will still be disagreements–as there ought to be–when the need arises. We lose the bigger picture when we get obsessed by the racial one,” he wrote in the Rhodes Journalism Review.
Yet both of Mandela’s presidential successors have bridled consistently against press criticism, arguing that the country’s newspapers in particular are biased against the ANC.
Thabo Mbeki, in the mid-1990s before becoming president, accused the press of “harboring a tendency to look for crises … faults and mistakes.” According to Mbeki’s biographer, Mark Gevisser, “By September 1995, Mbeki was branding any media criticism of the ANC as racist.”
After being elected president in 1999, Mbeki initiated in 2001 an online weekly letter entitled ANC Today to counter what he perceived as hostile media. “The serious chilling effect Mbeki had on the media was to play the race card,” said Gevisser. “He went for his critics–black and white–and demonized them, branding black critics ‘Uncle Toms.'”
It was only in late 2007, when the ANC replaced Mbeki with Zuma as leader of the party, that the organization adopted a resolution to investigate the possible creation of a Media Appeals Tribunal. Rhetoric continued to heat up: an ANC spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, told journalists in July 2010 that they deserved to be punished if found guilty by a media tribunal. “If you have to go to prison, let it be,” Mthembu said. “If you have to pay millions for defamation, let it be. If journalists have to be fired because they don’t contribute to the South Africa we want, let it be.”
An ANC discussion paper prepared in September 2010 said a cursory scan of the print media “reveals an astonishing degree of dishonesty, lack of professional integrity, and lack of independence” and cited “growing conglomeration of ownership and homogenization of content.”
In 2011, amid growing calls by ANC members for the creation of a media tribunal by Parliament, press owners together with the South African National Editors Forum set up a Press Freedom Commission, including nine members from outside the media, chaired by a retired constitutional court judge.
The commission’s report in April 2012 concluded that an independent regulatory mechanism would best serve press freedom. It said a majority of the Press Council of South Africa should be made up of representatives of the public; ethical standards should be strengthened and backed by a hierarchy of penalties, and public access to the council should be improved. The ANC welcomed this report, but it has not called off the possibility of a parliamentary investigation of the print media.
Despite ANC criticism of the press, only Zuma, both before his election as president and since, has brought legal action against the media. Between 2006 and 2010, Zuma took court action in 15 cases–suing newspapers, a radio station, cartoonists, a columnist, op-ed writers, and other journalists.
In October 2012, days before the case came to court, Zuma dropped one of his most prominent claims–a U.S.$500,000 defamation suit against the cartoonist “Zapiro,” a.k.a. Jonathan Shapiro. Zapiro’s 2008 cartoon accused Zuma of manipulating the judicial system to fend off charges of corruption, and depicted him preparing to rape Lady Justice, who was being held down by key political allies who had helped Zuma topple Mbeki as head of the ANC at its 2007 party congress. (In 2006 Zuma had been charged with rape and acquitted.)
By May 2013, Zuma had dropped all outstanding cases against the media. His spokesman said that given the challenges facing the country, Zuma had decided he “must give way.” A news report noted the decision might also have been influenced by the fact that Zuma’s legal team missed a deadline for submitting legal documents for six claims against media houses and individuals.
The judiciary, meanwhile, has consistently defended media freedom as politicians and big business have resorted to civil courts to block publication or to sue. However, the approval of the Protection of State Information Bill by Parliament in April 2013 is the most tangible threat yet to a free press.
Having met fierce resistance, the “secrecy bill,” as it was dubbed by its opponents, has been significantly improved since it was first introduced in 2008. But in its current form it continues to threaten journalists’ watchdog role with jail terms of up to 25 years by not providing a public interest defense for anyone who discloses classified information “with the purpose of revealing corruption or other criminal activity.”
In mid-September 2013, almost six months after the bill’s approval by Parliament, Zuma announced that it “did not pass constitutional muster” and sent it back to Parliament. An ad hoc committee conducted a cursory review, making minor technical changes, but the ANC majority in the committee refused to review the bill more broadly. In November, Parliament adopted this version of the bill and returned it to Zuma to sign into law. The president could sign it or submit the bill to the constitutional court for review. If the bill is signed, a range of organizations is poised to bring a court challenge.
“We may win this round,” former Sunday Times editor and political commentator Mondli Makhanya told CPJ, “but the bigger threat is the prevailing culture within the ANC which is anti freedom of expression and openness.” He said the current ANC leadership was not instilling the values of the constitution among its members, but rather the opposite, painting the media as the opposition, even “the enemy.”
While the introduction of the Protection of State Information bill arose from a legitimate need to redraft apartheid-era legislation, this urgency has been selectively applied. In response to press revelations in September 2012 of an upgrade to Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla at a cost to taxpayers of US$25 million, the government was quick to invoke a notorious national security law, the National Key Points Act of 1980, to keep the property off limits to public discussion. Declaring Zuma’s homestead a “national key point” has restricted further media inquiry.
Jovial Rantao, editor of the Sunday Tribune, says that while politicians claim to respect freedom of expression and the media, constant vigilance is required because of laws like the National Key Points Act and the secrecy bill and a failed attempt to introduce pre-publication screening for newspapers through an amendment to the Film and Publications Act. “We’ve been pushing back against the ANC for the best part of the last decade,” Rantao told CPJ. “We have these guarantees on the books, but we dare not sleep on the job. We have to make sure that none of these inimical laws are snuck in under the radar.”
Rantao, who is also chairman of the Southern African Editors’ Forum, noted that while South African journalists face some challenges, these are “vastly different” from other countries in the region where “our colleagues deal with very serious situations.”
After two decades of ANC power, the party has “good cause” to accuse the press of failing to reform, according to Libby Lloyd, a former South African journalist and now a researcher on freedom of expression and media policy. She cites 2011 parliamentary hearings into print media showing black ownership of the press at 14 percent, while female representation at board level was 4.4 percent. However, the demography of newsrooms has changed: 65 percent of editors heading mainstream publications were black in 2011, compared with 7 percent in 1994, according to the same parliamentary hearings.
Donors supporting independent newspapers redirected their funds after 1994. A decade into South Africa’s democracy, only the Weekly Mail survived. An injection of support from the London Guardian in the 1990s led to its rebranding as the Mail & Guardian. Smaller, regional publications now struggle to compete against the conglomerates.
The most dramatic change in South Africa’s media landscape since apartheid came through re-regulation of the airwaves. The current broadcasting environment, described in a report by Lloyd, includes some 200 community radio stations, five community television channels, 20 commercial radio stations, one national free-to-air private television channel, and digital pay television. The SABC remains the biggest news operation in the country with a mandate to provide news, education, and entertainment to all South Africans, but it has been plagued by financial mismanagement and executive interference in editorial practices.
A recent development on the South Africa media landscape has been the emergence of two news outlets privately owned by Indian investors with close ties to Zuma and with a declared commitment to “celebrate” South African achievements. The business interests of brothers Ajay, Atul, and Rajesh Gupta, who immigrated to South Africa in the 1990s, according to news reports, are divided into two parent companies operating in the information and technology sector and in mining. The family lives on a large estate in an established Johannesburg suburb that has provoked controversy over its size. Unpacking the family’s business interests has proved difficult due to a complex web of cross holdings and directorships, news reports say.
In 2010 the Gupta family launched The New Age newspaper. They are joint owners of Africa News Network 7, a pay-TV channel launched in August 2013. Zuma toured its studio days before its first broadcast. One of ANN7’s new talk show hosts, Jimmy Manyi, a former government spin doctor, said “people in this country are sick and tired of negative press,” and that the channel was committed to reporting good news and promoting patriotism, according to news reports.
The SABC’s acting chief operations officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, provoked derision when he echoed this sentiment in August, telling a newspaper that 70 percent of the broadcaster’s South African news content should focus on “good news.” In September, Zuma told journalism students visiting Cape Town that media owners had a responsibility to reflect a “balanced view” of the country and not to dwell on negative news.
“Every time the media expose another scandal, we see a ratcheting up of pressure to be patriotic,” City Press editor Ferial Haffajee told CPJ. In her view, the ultimate form of patriotism is to be a “critical patriot,” but without jingoism and nationalism. “It is patriotic to expose corruption, to show the impact of waste and poor governance,” she said.
“Bad news for the government is not necessarily bad news for the country. It all depends on how you look at it,” Janet Heard, the head of news and assistant editor at the Cape Times, told CPJ. Exposing corruption and ensuring better services can be considered good news.”
Heard said media freedom in South Africa has been hard-won and is jealously guarded, but there are “warning bells” from the government. “The tone of finger-pointing is sharper, the secrecy bill shows a desire to silence and shut down,” she said.
“All we can do is to continue what we’ve been doing and keep pushing the envelope,” said Makhanya, the former Sunday Times editor, underscoring the country’s strong institutional safeguards and the fact that the courts not only have ruled in favor of the media but have also consistently interpreted the law in the light of the constitution and freedom of expression. “There will come a point when the ANC is no longer in power and we must create media freedom as a norm for whoever comes in after the ANC,” he said.
For the time being, the South African media remains dynamic and determinedly free, protected by a growing body of jurisprudence and a vigilant civil society. Groups like the Right2Know, which emerged in direct response to the introduction of the secrecy bill, continue to galvanize efforts to develop a “democratic and open society.” Despite appeals by politicians for a respectful, patriotic media that should highlight positive developments, most media outlets are defiantly independent, and investigative journalism is thriving.
More than a decade after his handshake with Mandela, Anton Harber, now head of the journalism school at the University of the Witwatersrand, observed in a Business Day column in December 2011: “All of this makes for a highly contested and rowdy democracy. There are some who fear that noisiness, and would prefer calm agreement and silent consent. But the lesson of post-colonial Africa has been that it is not argument and contestation we should fear, but its absence. That raucous and sometimes jarring noise is the sound of a healthy young democracy at work.”
“Nelson Mandela taught us what a free society looked like,” said Makhanya. “Even Mandela was challenged by the media, but he became one of our biggest defenders. We created this state of media freedom for ourselves, now it’s about defending it. We must do what we do and not be frightened.”
Sue Valentine, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, has worked as a journalist in print and radio in South Africa since the late 1980s, including at The Star newspaper in Johannesburg and as the executive producer of a national daily current affairs radio show on the SABC, South Africa’s public broadcaster.