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Sunday Times STLive By Jonny Steinberg, 2010-08-14

Something else lies behind moves against the media

Why did the police come to the Sunday Times to arrest a reporter? And why is the ANC drafting laws to discipline journalists and to keep government business secret? The obvious answers do not tell the whole story. Yes, many people in public life are guzzling at troughs and they believe that it is their right to keeping guzzling undisturbed. But a lot of clean politicians are also backing the media tribunal and the information bill and they are presumably concerned about something else.

And, yes, journalistic practice is sometimes very poor (we don't yet know the half of it, I suspect) and that causes anger. But I am not sure that anger explains the vitriol public figures are hurling at journalists.

I think that those in public life who take a long view are seeing something else. The ANC governs because its promise that it can better the lives of the poor still holds some credence. That is really its most important claim to power. It is not an easy claim to keep making. Sixteen years after liberation, a greater proportion of adults are idle than at any other time in recent South African history. The government cannot create enough work. As a substitute, it has vastly expanded welfare. It has done so reluctantly and within the constraints of fiscal prudence, but welfare has nonetheless become the single most important thread connecting the ANC to the poor.

Who pays for this welfare? Taxpayers, of course. But who are they exactly? A couple of years ago, the analyst Antony Altbeker calculated that about 400000 South Africans pay more than half of all personal income tax. One can assume that of those 400000, many are white and do not vote for the ANC.

Looked at this way, things seem a little unsteady, do they not? To keep the system functioning, the ANC must take from people who do not vote for it and give to people who do. It is by its nature an unstable situation. It requires a great deal of massaging, a lot of reciprocal encouragement between those with money and those with political power.

Under what conditions does this balance start to wobble? One is when the rich believe that the political class is too corrupt to pass their taxes on to the poor, and that the ANC can thus no longer secure the future. Another is when the poor believe that the ANC is too corrupt to turn the taxes of the rich into welfare, healthcare and education. It is here the media enters the picture.

Not long ago, the media wrote very respectfully about the political class. There were a host of unwritten rules. White journalists were not rude about black leaders and black journalists were not rude about democratic politics. Even when Thabo Mbeki went the route he did on HIV/Aids; even when the arms deal scandals broke: the reporting and the commentary were robust, and politicians got very angry, but certain lines were never crossed.

All of that changed when the ANC went to war in the run-up to Polokwane. State agency was pitted against state agency. Prosecutors were fired and their institutions dismembered because they were trying to do their jobs. A president lied and cheated. A new president manipulated ostensibly independent institutions to escape justice. The gap between what leaders said and did grew too large.

During the depths of this battle, the media began to use a language it hadn't before. The old unwritten rules were set aside. Politics was represented as a herd of pigs fighting to get to the trough. Distaste entered public discourse as a standard mode of expression.

As I have said, the South African rich are threaded to the poor through the ANC, and each of these threads is delicate. The question of how politics is represented is very important to the stability of the whole tapestry. When politics comes to be seen as rotten and hollowed out and nothing more, it is a sign that the balance will not hold forever, that South Africa's current political configuration is temporary.

I think that influential people in the political classes understand this. In the way they are represented in the media, they see intimations of a time when their position is no longer secure. They are sending out a warning signal: even if the delicate balance does not survive, they will; if something is going to give, it will not be them. They are showing how hard they will fight.

  • Steinberg is at the Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town