South Africa has entered one of the most turbulent political periods since the advent of democracy on April 27, 1994. It is not an understatement to say the leadership of the entire country is potentially at stake when the ruling ANC holds its elective conference in Joburg in December.
President Jacob Zuma has already made it clear that he will relinquish the presidency of the ANC then, rather than create the spectre of two centres of power when his term at the Union Buildings expires in 2019. This is admirable in any society, but particularly so in a continent such as ours. South Africa has always been a beacon for democracy, not just for Africa, over the past 23 years.
Democracy, in its full bloom, is never neat or tidy. By definition it is messy, often robust; the more entrenched a democratic society is, the more uproarious its debates and exchanges.
The ANC certainly personifies this spirit of contestation and difference of opinion, even though the movement - Africa’s oldest - is well over 100 years old. This leadership contest, which has yet to officially begin, embodies this same spirit too - which is where the greatest danger lies and concomitantly the importance of the role that the media plays.
We live in a world of democratised information, where social media has become both the world’s greatest enabler and paradoxically the greatest threat as it spreads fake news with the same speed and dexterity as real news. In an environment where the stakes are as high as this, right here at home, so too the propensity to spread fake news will intensify, designed with only one purpose: to confuse conference delegates with often quite sophisticated smear campaigns.
Misleading, indeed playing, the media is not new and certainly not in this country. It was beloved of agents of the apartheid regime and has continued to be used by unscrupulous individuals in the democratic era. Now, more than ever, journalists have to work even harder to ensure that the news they report is real; they need to ensure the credibility of their sources, scrutinise the agendas behind the leak of information, test the allegations and, above all, ensure that the news they ultimately produce is fair and balanced.
The mudslinging, the planting of fake news, false leads, accusations, the finger-pointing and attempted character assassinations of leading candidates will all increase in intensity as December draws ever closer.
It would be wonderful if this were not the case, but sadly it is a reality that we have to prepare ourselves for.
For the media to remain credible in all this, its practitioners will have to continuously ask: is it true, is it fair and, critically, is it in the public interest?
Far too often, we all choose to interpret the “public interest” as what interests the public. As any editor or media academic will tell you, this is certainly not the case, which is why today, I reiterate the commitment of this group of newspapers and news platforms to reporting news that is balanced, free from bias and fair.
I have asked our editors to desist from backing any particular candidate. I commit us as a company to do our utmost to ensure that we do not become unwitting pawns in any possible dirty tricks campaign launched by any of the factions.
We will tell all sides of the story, in fact, to prove our commitment to this, we will offer all the candidates equal opportunities to put forward their vision of the party, the key points of their candidacy to become president, on our pages. We want to encourage debate on the merits of their campaigns, to ensure that those ANC members who do go to the elective conference do so with the fullest possible information to be able to vote according to their consciences for the people who will be best suited to lead their party - and possibly the country after the 2019 general elections. We hope that the ANC will emerge unified because unity in the ANC is important for social cohesion.
Independent Media is a firm believer in our democracy and the constitution that underpins it. It is the constitution, the Bill of Rights in fact, that gives us our mandate to be a free media, to impart information and ideas. That freedom though is not freedom to only publish views and news that we might like or which accords with our own preconceptions, but rather an obligation to publish news and views that we might not like; opinions and articles that might not interest the public but which are very much in the public interest.
My commitment, as a media owner but most of all as a citizen like you, is that our group will tell it like it is, without fear, favour or prejudice. We will treat all the candidates equally, we will endeavour to bring their views to you and your views to them. We will do everything that we can during this period to take every opportunity that we get to strengthen democracy and repay your faith in us as a credible and vital news organisation.
* Dr Iqbal Survé is executive chairman of Independent Media, the publishers of IOL.