Journalists must remain critical of those in power, not succumb to intimidation, says Max du Preez.
South Africa has failed many of its challenges the last 20 years. But it has achieved one thing that few other societies in their first decades of democracy achieved: it is an open society.
Is the ruling ANC now undermining this achievement through, among other things, a war of attrition against the media?
When advocates of doom talk about South Africa becoming a failing state, I always tell them: history teaches us that very few open societies fail.
What is an open society?
You could take time off to read philosopher Karl Popper, the man who first popularised the concept in 1945, and all the intellectual debates that followed.
But let’s simplify it and say it is a society where citizens are allowed to have divergent views and to express them freely – there is thus not just one official truth or party/leader with a monopoly on wisdom.
Minority views, interests and cultures are tolerated and protected.
There is a free flow of information between the state and citizens and a minimum measure of accountability in the government.
Open societies have a clear distinction between state and governing party.
There is freedom of religion and association, and enough democratic space for diverse civil society groups to operate in.
In short, an open society is the kind of society that the constitution wants us to be; a constitution negotiated by the representatives of the people that includes the other criteria of an open society like the rule of law and regular democratic elections.
The ANC played a leading role in drawing up this constitution.
Twenty years after it became a democracy, South Africa scores high on most of these criteria, higher than most societies outside the established Western democracies – definitely higher than any of the other states in the Brazil, Russia, India and China business communities (Brics).
We should all be proud of that.
But we should also all be deeply concerned about the ANC and government’s concerted efforts to now undo this achievement.
The surest and quickest way to undermine the openness of a society is to weaken freedom of speech by reining in the media and push the idea that the party that received the most votes in an election has a monopoly on truth.
Criticising the majority party or its government becomes an act of disloyalty to the country.
There is no doubt that the ANC has decided to launch such a project.
Immediately after the May 7 elections, President Jacob Zuma, cabinet ministers Blade Nzimande and Malusi Gigaba and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe attacked the media in strong terms, calling it “hostile” and stating that the ANC’s 62 percent of the vote meant it had “defeated” the media.
When Eyewitness News published a cartoon depicting some ministers as clowns and those who had voted for them as fools, the ANC quickly seized the moment and whipped up emotions, mobilising a crowd to protest.
Under the leadership of ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa, the protesters threatened to burn down the Primedia building, called EWN a bunch of white racists and demanded the nationalisation of the media.
Last week the ANC organised a march on the Mail & Guardian, busing in young people from as far afield as Atteridgeville.
Some placards stated that the “Mail & Garbage” was guilty of treason for criticising the ANC and its president, while others accused it of being white racists.
ANC members, many of them holding office in party structures, took the hysteria to Twitter and Facebook.
The media was white-owned, racist and unpatriotic and deserved to be controlled by the state.
Last Friday, Nzimande, told a meeting of trade unionists that government should stop advertising with newspapers that criticise the ANC.
“Large sections of the media represent minority views of whites,” he said.
God help us if the minister in charge of universities doesn’t understand that the money spent on government advertising was public money and not the ANC’s.
To him, the party is the state.
The simple reality is that most media houses in South Africa are black-owned or partly black-owned, and that most of the journalists – and editors – are black.
Anyway, most South Africans get their news and analysis from radio stations and television channels of the SABC, now clearly a state broadcaster tightly controlled by Luthuli House.
Free speech and free, independent media are the lifeblood of a democracy and an open society.
The ANC is playing with fire.
I hope every editor and journalist will refuse to be intimidated and remain critical of all those in power.
That, rather than kowtowing to the majority party, is an act of patriotism.