Home Opinion and Features A thriving South Africa can’t be built by armchair critics

A thriving South Africa can’t be built by armchair critics

A young boy raising the South African flag
A young boy raising the South African flag. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency/ANA

OPINION: South Africa needs active citizens – even in media – to hold politicians to account, writes Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane.

The action taken by media practitioners last week to demand accountability from Parliament, and to what extent ordinary citizens in the media space can take action to hold politicians to account, has raised a debate.

I would have thought that in the new dispensation this debate, while more than welcome, is a bit stale and old.

Citizens of whatever influence must use their voice to rebuild a country ravaged both by apartheid with its oppressive laws and dispensation, and the current regime with its tainted reputation drowning in corruption and disrespect for the Constitution that they have brought into existence.

But I was wrong if media personalities Stephen Grootes and Redi Tlhabi are to be believed.

On his radio show, Grootes quizzed: “Must I consider them (Lukhona Mnguni and JJ) colleagues or politicians?” Tlhabi added that talk show hosts can only analyse but “cannot initiate [political] action”. With all their good intentions, these colleagues are highly mistaken, if not terribly and intellectually mischievous.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi, on the same topic, went to the extreme: journalists and judges should not vote to guarantee neutrality.

The reality is that judges and journalists are voters as we speak, and cannot be expected to only be satisfied to point out wrongs and not use their influence to be part of the solution. These theories are misplaced in a dynamic democracy.

Those with influence in the media must always use it to help build an accountable and compassionate society. Every academic theory of the ideal public sphere in a democracy recognised that the media, in all its diversity, is the fourth estate.

Its specific recognition and protection in the Constitution is not for nothing, and it is certainly not a tokenistic appreciation of the role it should play in strengthening democracy.

Historically, the media – even by genres such as investigative journalism – initiated action that often led to the fall of governments. They hound the authorities through multiple actions to act on their reports.

By doing so, they are just not happy to analyse and be passive. Here at home, who can forget the historic actions of Daily Dispatch’s Gavin Woods in relation to anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Hardly passive.

Yes, the media must not lose its watchdog role. But, equally, it must not believe that this is all it is good for. To ask me to simply shout from the sidelines is highly mistaken – apart from arrogating to one the right to tell me how to exercise my freedom of expression.

Such expression must also include initiating actions that can make a real difference in society – the same way that civil society bodies like Section27 and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) took the government to court when they failed citizens.

A simple case study was what investigative journalism group Amabungane did to demand transparency from President Cyril Ramaphosa. They are in court initiating action against the president over the CR17 bank statements.

No one argued that Amabhungane journalists are now politicians because they dared to challenge the powers that be, and by going above mere analysis and reportage.

Incidentally, these are Grootes’ colleagues at the Daily Maverick. He has never made snide remarks about them being colleagues or politicians – this smacks of hypocrisy and condescension.

The late Karima Brown, a former eNCA and Radio 702 presenter, once initiated action to get the EFF deregistered by the IEC. I don’t recall her being lectured about being a passive media practitioner by the likes of Tlhabi. I am happy to apologise if I missed Tlhabi’s mandatory editorial tweet on the matter.

I can go on and on about many examples of advocacy journalism. Least of all courageous journalism of many other colleagues who were left alone to conduct their craft including writing books that did more than “analyse”. Editor of Media24, Adriaan Basson, wrote a whole book on Zuma’s corruption that could be said to have decampaigned him out of office. That is more than initiating action.

Talk shows are often used to make a difference in many ways. We deal with thousands of people who write to ask for help because of the subjects we tackled on our shows over the years.

Such correspondence recognises that the media must do more. From citizens reporting corruption in their local municipalities to consumers who feel robbed by greedy businesses. We spend time off air initiating helpful action against both the government and the private sector.

Through his radio show, Eusebius McKaiser once shamed and forced Momentum to pay a claimant when they thought they could get away with it.

I dealt with a similar case where an insurance company refused to pay a widow because the waiting period was one day away. They eventually paid out because action was initiated against them.

Bursaries have been given and business partnership achieved through these platforms, and not through some magical passive journalism that we are being invited to practise.

There is nothing wrong with a choice one makes about what type of journalism they want to practise. But, please, don’t impose this on others who want to pursue much more with their craft. It is silly to label such citizens politicians and seek to box them into passivity.

This would mean it is okay if we tackle the greedy private sector through programmes like Carte Blanche, the Devi Show and CheckPoint but not so when politicians come under the same fire. What is special about politicians? Why should they be spared from media practitioners’ actions of scrutiny? Are we being asked to tiptoe around them?

This country cannot be built by “armchair critics” only. Citizens need to ask themselves what they are doing for others in concrete terms.

I am only pleased that this debate has exposed the fact that most media practitioners appreciate that their role is not linear but diverse no matter what their understanding of their limitations imposed by their profession are.

In their heyday, both Tlhabi and Grootes used to ply their trade at Radio 702 under the slogan: Walk the Talk. This was a clear mission for them to dirty their hands and not be satisfied with passive journalism.

The mechanics of how we do this in a constructive and not prescriptive manner remains an interesting debate. A county is waiting to be built and, as they say, a dog barks only at a moving bus. No activism and revolution is perfect. The debate, while stale, must still be welcome.

* Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane holds a PhD in Media Studies from Wits University and hosts Power to Truth on eNCA

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