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How the media spins today’s South Africa
May 27, 2016, 7:08 pm

The African National Congress Chief Whip in parliament Jackson Mthembu writing on the party website ANC Today last December accused the local media of bias against the ruling party.

To drive home his point, Mthembu drew on the work of Noam Chomsky’s and Ed Herman’s Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media which argues that the mass media serve special interests through the choice of stories, of emphases and – importantly – of omissions.

This accusation came in the wake of the #Zumamustfall Twitter campaign when President Zuma unexpectedly replaced his Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene with somebody unknown in the financial community leading to a sell-off of South African government debt in capital markets.

This severely affected the local currency – the rand plummeted by more than 10 per cent in two days.

What Mthembu found objectionable was that editors and journalists in South Africa were using social media to air their own views in support of the above-mentioned campaign.

Currency gyrations are not new – they have been a feature of South Africa’s financial markets since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

South Africa went through two crises under Nelson Mandela in April 1996 and again in September 1998 and one under President Mbeki in December 2001. But there was no respite for President Zuma in December 2015 from the media .

No mitigating reasons were offered for the rand’s decline by the financial media as was the case in December 2001 when rand weakness according to Greta Steyn in Manual, Markets and Money (2004) was blamed on the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, policy error by the Central Bank to reduce interest rates, and South Africa’s determination to pay off its dollar debts which made the local currency a one way bet.

The rand crash of December 2015 was solely blamed on President Zuma for his firing of Minister Nene notwithstanding that our foreign exchange earnings were already coming under pressure earlier in the year and that the US Federal Reserve was poised to raise their rates in the same month – putting further downward pressure on the rand.

When Zuma tried to explain in parliament that the rand was already declining before he replaced his finance minister in December 2015 (as graphs clearly showed), the official opposition – the predominantly White Democratic Alliance (DA) party – promptly walked out.

When Mandela was still president, media coverage of the ANC was much more favourable.

This was in line with how his government went about liberalising the economy under a program called GEAR while not addressing the inequalities of Apartheid, which the ANC promised its supporters in 1994 elections.

Under President Mbeki, inequality was addressed with more urgency than under Mandela; the tone gradually started to change in the White-dominated media but not as stridently as when Zuma came to power in 2009.

Zuma’s ascendancy should also be seen against the backdrop of the sub-prime mortgage financial crises that began to affect Western economies since 2008. Whereas Whites could have easily gone to places like the UK, Australia, and the US to work or settle permanently, it became more difficult from 2009.

President Zuma was also seen by the media as being close to the trade unions and the Communist party – both viewed with hostility in the conservative White community. These allies of Zuma fell out with the previous ANC governments of Mandela and Mbeki who were positioning the ANC more towards the centre of the political spectrum.

Patterns in the media landscape

As one examines the media landscape in South Africa one finds that the printed titles which exert more influence on voter perception than electronic media are concentrated mainly among a few large groups like the Times Media Limited Group.

Its origins go back to English mining capital, which owns the influential Business Day and the mass circulation Sunday Times.

Later, we will see how this group mindset is still very much entrenched in the ‘robber baron’ era of ruthless exploitation by foreigners.

Other newspaper groups include Naspers with its Sunday title City Press competing for the same audience as the Sunday Times followed by the Independent Group – until recently foreign-owned but now in Black ownership.

The latter also has a flagship Sunday title call Sunday Independent which straddles between pro and anti-ANC views compared to its direct competitors.

There are also independent small circulation print titles like the Mail and Guardian also competing for the same readers as other so-called anti-ANC papers.

Lately, news websites have sprung up like the Daily Maverick, which is also critical towards the ANC government, and even smaller operations like The Con and the Daily Vox which deal with single issues affecting young South Africans like the recent university fees protests.

Racial patterns of readership still play a huge role in determining the editorial stance of news outlets and this also applies to radio and television.

The Primedia group, which owns the talk radio stations Radio702 and CapeTalk, leans more towards the opposition party DA as their listeners are predominantly White middle class.

Competition for Primedia in radio for the middle class market listenership – particularly the Black segment – has come in the form of new entrant Power987FM but this station is less partisan than its White counterpart.

The national broadcaster SABC, which owns radio stations and television channels and is funded partly by license fees paid by the general public, is often criticised by the anti-ANC media for being pro-government.

The free-to-air independent TV channels Etv and EnCA lean more towards the opposition parties.

To address the concerns of the ruling ANC party that its views are not being carried in a balanced and objective manner a new entrant has appeared in both print (The New Age) and electronic (ANN7) which is run by a fledgling Indian conglomerate owned by the Gupta brothers.

What the anti-ANC media have done over the past few months is to use President Zuma’s closeness to the Gupta brothers as a proxy for a wider agenda of undermining government policies with BRICS countries, and retard black economic empowerment in the mining sector.

The Times Media Limited group practically set the editorial agenda for the anti-ANC media factions through its editor-in-chief Peter Bruce who sees the present ANC government leaning more towards BRICS, and taking the country outside the Western sphere of influence.

On April 4, Bruce claimed on radio and television that President Zuma is lining up Russia to supply South Africa with nuclear power for the sole purpose of awarding the uranium contract to a mine partly owned by the Gupta brothers and the president’s son.

These types of comments hardly raised an eyebrow and went uncontested from journalists, readers or listeners irrespective of how contentious they may have seemed to a neutral observer.

The Independent-owned Africa News Agency, which focuses on news from the continent, reported in the Cape Argus newspaper last August that Russia can do without South Africa’s contract.

It said that Russia has lined up countries like Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, India and Jordan which can source uranium from anywhere in the world including the SA uranium mine owned by the Gupta brothers and Zuma’s son.

All these contracts negotiated with the Russian State Atomic agency Rosatom were done without any influence from the Gupta brothers or President Zuma.

“…With demand (for uranium) set to outstrip supply as early as 2018 there is a lot of cash to be made even without South Africa’s nuclear build program,” the chief executive officer of the Gupta controlled uranium mine told the Sunday Times  on September 6 last year.

Target: The mining sector

The anti-ANC media have also shown hostile reporting in the area of Black economic empowerment, particularly in the mining sector.

The Zuma government has taken a hardline stand towards mining companies – especially those based in the UK – which have fired employees to cut production costs and reduce supply of commodities to boost prices that have been falling over the past 18 months.

This is compounded by the ANC government’s desire to see black economic empowerment speeded up in the mining sector.

In October last year, President Zuma replaced his mining minister to fast-track black ownership of the mining sector which has stalled in recent years over contentious interpretation of empowerment bills.

Zuma wants to see Blacks taking a meaningful stake in the mining economy through vendor financing rather than through the previously encumbered share schemes which were dependent on how well the shares were doing on the open market.

Resistance in our media has been growing against these moves by the ANC as the newly emergent BRICS development bank and China prepare to offer loans to prospecting Black miners not only extracting raw materials but adding value to them.

The White mining sector always shunned away from this approach.

Very little credit is given to the Zuma government by the media with regard to saving jobs at the mines.

A World Bank report cited in a Business Day editorial (9/2/16) said: “Job losses in SA mining have been relatively small…down by 2 per cent off its peak in 2014 compared to Australia where it has fallen 18 per cent and Chile 10 per cent”.

Furthermore, whereas mining exports made up 26 per cent of earnings in rand terms in 2014 due to a fallen but competitive currency, its share has gone up to over 50 per cent of foreign earnings.

Not only has the Zuma government saved jobs but it has also kept the mining sector profitable for locally-based mines; not so much for UK-based mines because the sterling pound appreciation to the rand did not work in their favour.

The currency exchange value works in favour of UK-based mines if they want to expand their operations in South Africa but due to Zuma’s determination to see black economic empowerment and opting for BRICS channels of financing it has caused consternation among London’s mining elite groups with historical ties to South Africa.

Most of the reports which alleged that the Zuma government was captive to the interests of the Gupta brothers emanated from UK papers like Africa Confidential and Financial Times. These reports were latched on by journalists in South Africa without checking their veracity.

An example of this negative type of reporting against the interest of indeginisation of capital is evident in how the Times Media Limited group has shone the spotlight on the Optimum coal mine which the Gupta family bought from the UK-based commodity trading company Glencore.

Aspersions were cast by the media that it was bought under most suspicious circumstances with the newly appointed Mining Minister Mr Joseph Zwane specifically appointed by Zuma to swing the transaction in favour of the Gupta family and Zuma’s son Dudezani.

Again, none of the journalists here have bothered to familiarise themselves with the terms of the sales agreement

If one were to track the transaction in the Independent Group’s Business Report (on December 2, 14 and 15, and February 2016 ) from the initial stages to the finalisation one would arrive at a different narrative than what was pushed in the media.

The media would have you believe that the deal was mired in corruption and had the imprimatur of state capture by the Gupta brothers of the ANC government under President Zuma.

Which begs the question – why are certain sections of the media here more inclined towards favouring foreign capital than Black economic empowerment?

This kind of media approach is unheard of in other countries, such as India, that were once colonies of the British Empire.

Until the local media sign up to patriotic capital, its commitment to economic transformation and social cohesion in South Africa will always be questioned.

From the global 2008 financial crises onward, it has become clear that the world no longer spins on a unipolar axis dominated by Anglo-Saxon capital but a multi-polar world with a shift towards the East underpinning it.


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