SA’s media remains in the service of white supremacy

The question of the media industry has been discussed since the dawn of democracy. File Picture

The question of the media industry has been discussed since the dawn of democracy. File Picture

Published Mar 10, 2024


By Professor Sipho Seepe

Media practitioners are the first to remind all and sundry that robust and fearless media plays a vital role in ensuring that those in power are held accountable. In his support of media freedom, former President Nelson Mandela argued that “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 favour.”

In an ideal world, Mandela's defence of the media is unproblematic. Unfortunately, the world we inhabit is undeniably shaped by vested interests, which rarely if ever favour or savour the voice of the people. History has proven that the media is not immune to vested interests. Speaking of his own experience, Mandela acknowledged as much. In his report at the ANC 1997 elective conference Mandela observed, “ Even a cursory study of the positions adopted by the mainly white parties in the national legislature during the last three years, the National Party, the Democratic Party, and the Freedom Front will show that they and the media which represents the same social base have been most vigorous in their opposition, whenever legislative and executive measures have been introduced, seeking to end the racial disparities which continue to characterise our society."

It would be foolhardy to assume that South Africa would emerge unscathed from centuries of racial oppression and racial bigotry. Under apartheid and colonialism, the philosophy, policy, and practice of white supremacy coloured and contaminated every aspect of life. The total onslaught of the apartheid regime and the omnipotence of its propaganda machinery saw many white journalists succumb to the pressure of having to serve the interests of apartheid's political masters. Only a handful was prepared to take a stand against acts of inhumanity perpetrated against the African population that were unfolding in real time before their very eyes. By design, African journalists were kept occupied with menial rather than meaningful tasks even in cases when stories revolved around issues that involved their communities. Strong African voices who spoke out were quickly muted and decimated. Others were simply absorbed into the white fold, and slowly transformed into mimics of the white-vested journalistic pools.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process, 127 journalists from the Naspers group apologised for the role they had played in the apartheid years. These journalists included those from Beeld, Die Burger, Rapport, and Volksblad among others. The journalists said although they had not been personally or directly involved in gross human rights abuses, they regarded themselves as morally co-responsible for what happened in the name of apartheid because they helped maintain a system in which these abuses could occur.

Unfortunately, the TRC did not, or could not go far enough to expose the complexities and contours of propagandism that served the apartheid's political interests. Today’s journalism remains coloured by racial bigotry. Typically, the face of malfeasance and corruption is associated with people of colour. In many instances when white people are found guilty of illicit acts, the media portraiture is far kinder and such transgressions are depicted as errors of omission and commission rather than corruption.

The 2000 Inquiry into Racism in the Media by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), whose intervention was castigated by vested interest groups, is perhaps the nearest we have come in democratic South Africa to investigate racism in the media. The SAHRC embarked on this inquiry following requests "from two professional bodies, the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa (Abasa) to investigate two newspapers publishing from Johannesburg: The Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Times for allegedly being guilty of racism." The inquiry revealed that (a) "South African media “reflect a persistent pattern” of racist expressions and content of writing that could have been avoided", (b) that "racism cannot and must not be equated simply with bad journalism... a too easy resort to an explanation of bad journalism, might be another form of evasion and denial of racism", (c) "that much racism occurs at the institutional or structural level." Despite these findings, the commission did not propose any measures to counter this unsavoury conduct. Rather the SAHRC proposed that the media profession undertake its self-introspection. The shifts that have since occurred in terms of ownership of the media have not gone far enough in changing the master narrative of white supremacy. This on its own is not surprising. All of this should be seen from the prism of political, cultural, and economic interests. It is about who controls the master narrative. Karl Marx could not have been more precise in his observation when he averred the following, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…the class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production...the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” Marx continued, the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

The fact that more Africans sit on editorial boards has not disrupted the master narrative of white supremacy. There is no new navigation of narratives or fresh complexion to storylines or headlines. There seems to be, as was the case in the apartheid era, consensus, and parallels across many of the mainstream media players on interpretations and analyses of matters of national importance and the major political role players. The herd mentality of mainstream media is an orchestrated way of ensuring the large-scale protection of vested interests. The promotion and protection of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who remains a poster child of white monopoly interests, is a case in point. As Mondli Makhanya pointed out (Can Cyril stage a comeback? City Press 7, July 2019), "When Cyril Ramaphosa took office last February amid a wave of euphoria and optimism, it was hoped he would tap into this spirit and use it to consolidate his authority...Every speech, action, and gesture was met with gasps of “Wow!” Even the silly act of walking around in funny, colourful socks was endearing. When he repackaged old programmes and pledges to make them look like new ideas, even the informed public got excited. And when he took normal steps that anyone with the job description of president would take, it seemed revolutionary."

This self-generated euphoria led to a situation where Ramaphosa's questionable conduct was shoved under the proverbial rug. For South Africa's economic oligarchs, Ramaphosa remains the best bet. Their minions in the mainstream media understand this very well. He is to be spared from sustained scrutiny or accountability. Justice Malala's observation is worth repeating. In his article, “No Accountability in the Ramaphosa Administration” (Sunday Times January 10, 2021). He writes: "It must be nice to be in President Cyril Ramaphosa's administration. Imagine we were back in the year, say 2016, and a virus had come along and killed thousands of South Africans...Jacob Zuma, who was president at the time, would have been eaten alive. Not so in the age of Ramaphosa. This administration, after a spectacular shambles in the handling of the vaccine rollout and a clear lack of strategy, is continuing in its opaque ways, with little or no noise from most quarters. There is no accountability, no taking responsibility, and no consequence."

Thirty years into democracy, South Africa’s mainstream media continues to be in the service of white supremacy. White supremacy is a thought system that afflicts both black and white people. Its power lies in its ability to co-opt and be embraced enthusiastically by those Africans who seek affirmation from whiteness. Snug and content in the shelter of whiteness, they turn away from the ugly truth that they are simply being used as useful idiots against their brothers and sisters. Perhaps there is a need for another probe into the media. For now, we head into the most important election since democracy with a mainstream media that may well sing the tune of the highest bidder.

*Prof. Seepe is an independent political analyst

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL