ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte briefing the media at Luthuli House Johannesburg. The writer says she has shown great intolerance towards the media. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/Africa News Agency/(ANA)

South Africa is known throughout the world for Ubuntu – which roughly means a shared humanity – but our beloved country sure has a lot of intolerance, and even more so in an election year.

One can expect heightened intolerance when political parties are competing for your vote, but there is a part of me that worries about whether, amid the crazy tensions, political parties do not expose their true selves.

ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte showed intolerance towards the media through her verbal attack on eNCA’s Samkelo Maseko at an ANC media briefing this week. It was not so much what she said but the sub-text that she has very little respect for journalists.

I am a journalist and one who, unlike Maseko as Duarte rightly pointed out, fought in the Struggle for the media freedom that we enjoy today. But it was never about media freedom.

It was always about a package of rights that form part of being a democratic society. Neither Duarte nor any other politician can take away this hardwon right, unless they take away our democracy too, which, it seems, quite a few politicians would like to do when the heat is turned on them, which is the work of journalists.

These politicians are not confined to the ruling party. There are many in the opposition ranks who have exposed similar intolerant streaks.

Journalists are not meant to be lapdogs of any politician or political party, but they are meant to interrogate the words and actions of public representatives on behalf of the people politicians and the media are meant to serve. In a perfect democracy, I suppose, there will always be tensions between journalists and politicians.

If there is no tension, it probably means that one is not doing her job properly. I was one of those who foolishly believed that the end of apartheid and the beginning of democracy in South Africa meant the end of intolerance towards the media.

No doubt, things were worse under apartheid. I worked for several publications that were banned. When I worked for Grassroots community newspaper our offices were placed under 24-hour police guard – in case we tried to enter our place of work – and I have had my share of detention and arrest.

For those who might not know, detention was when the police could lock you up without any reason and without having to tell your family or friends where they were holding you.

When they arrested you, it meant that they intended to charge you with a crime such as promoting the aims of the banned ANC or possessing banned publications.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists sacrificed during the Struggle, either working for publications that were banned or being arrested or detained. I suspect that, if Maseko had the misfortune to be born earlier, he would probably have been one of them.

But intolerance in South Africa is not restricted to fights between politicians and the media. It can be found everywhere in our society. Many South Africans are known to be intolerant towards people who look and sound different to them, people who might be from a different race, class, age, sex, African country, or have a different sexual preference.

We are also often intolerant towards people who do not necessarily peddle what we believe to be the truth or display different opinions. We often see things as purely black and white – which is ironic for a country with South Africa’s history – and we struggle to accept that most issues in society are grey.

But all of this is probably good for our democracy. It means that, at some level, people are feeling challenged, even if they do not want to admit it. Expect to see more intolerance in the run-up to the May 8 elections. But do not expect it to end soon afterwards. This is all part of being a democracy.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter: @rylandfisher

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus