By Keaobaka Tsholo and Olerato C Manyaapelo
Has President Cyril Ramaphosa been benefiting from unusually kind and uncritical treatment by the media? Is there any truth to the view that had it been any other ANC politician in charge of the state, the Phala Phala scandal would have been given more prominence and critical coverage by the media?
This question arises because Ramaphosa has had several other scandals surface during his presidency, yet, these seem to have no impact on his public image or media attitude.
The first scandal arose over the funding of his presidential campaign (#CR17) when there were suspicions that he had been funded by individuals and/or institutions that could have benefited/are benefiting from his presidency. The second was the looting of funds set aside for the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 202. His government was accused of failing to prevent and act on Covid tender corruption, especially considering his promise to fight corruption during his presidential term.
The third scandal involved the theft of millions in US dollars from his property in the Limpopo province, which he concealed for more two years until it was leaked by the former head of intelligence. This raises several questions (rather than answers): were these large sums of foreign currency declared to the Reserve Bank to avoid suspicion of money laundering? And what about the allegations that the state law enforcement agencies tried to put a lid on this scandal for more than a year?
Despite this, there has not been the usual media interest in making a meal of this latest scandal, as they have done with scandals linked to other politicians. This has resulted in several of Ramaphosa’s opponents accusing the media of taking sides in the internal squabbles within the ANC in the run-up to its 2022 national conference. Political and media/communication analysts have also raised questions about media ethics and independence and whether they are genuinely interested in exposing scandals at any expense to help fight corruption.
The media is crucial for shaping how politicians and their governments are seen by the people. Essentially, the media plays a critical role in democracy as they disseminate knowledge and raise political consciousness in society. Consequently, how the media covers political actions and inactions has a bearing on the outcome of the political action. The media helps to frame public conversions and perceptions about problems and which of our public figures are problematic and who are heroic and honourable.
However, as Mandla J Radebe postulates, ‘with the media firmly located in the capitalist system, through ownership patterns, they become tools for reproducing the ideas of the dominant class in society and for diminishing democratic space for the poor and marginalised.’ Ultimately, democracy will not prevail if the media are selective about what they report.
During a press conference in early June 2022, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema accused The Sunday Times of protecting President Ramaphosa and sanctifying him.
Malema argued that under Ramaphosa’s reign, socio-economic conditions of ordinary South Africans have worsened, and corruption in government institutions has deepened. His point is that the media have not picked up on Ramaphosa’s failures as they had done with ANC government’s failures before him. The media have thus failed to ensure that democratic values and principles are upheld in South Africa.
This has led to accusations that Ramaphosa has significant influence on the media and political reporting and is not being held accountable by the media. The language they use to report on corruption under Ramaphosa’s administration is allegedly different from that used to report on his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
This has created suspicion that the media are protecting Ramaphosa, despite ample evidence of his looming incompetence to stir this country out of its socio-economic stormy weather. While the media ought to be the watchdog of democracy, a cross-section of the media seems to be engaged in a conspiracy.
It is alleged that the media played an active role in promoting Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign, which explains the current situation, while Zuma was defamed and de-popularised by the media long before he became president.
Since global economics also affected South Africa’s economic and social development, Ramaphosa’s administration has not necessarily failed to respond to poverty and unemployment any more than previous governments. This raises the question of whether the South African media has really been captured?
This takes us back to what Radebe, quoted earlier, says about the media being captured by capitalist interests at the expense of the marginalised. The media tends to present Ramaphosa’s scandals in soft terms, such as recommending that he consider revealing more about Phala Phala when the matter gets to court.
Although the South African media tend to follow the tune of Western media, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has taken the Ramaphosa scandals seriously on several occasions, while our media have been complacent. It has spoken of the new scandal as indicative of a deep-seated problem.
Perhaps Ramaphosa’s commitment to fighting corruption was not genuine but merely a counter-narrative to the radical economic transformation trumpeted by his opponents in the battle for the presidency of the ANC. It may have been identified as a theme around which political communication could be built to save the ANC from a certain collapse ahead of the last elections.
If we are correct about the latter, this political communication strategy has worked because many, including the mass media, do not want to ‘undermine’ the Ramaphosa crusade against corruption. Highlighting his weaknesses is seen as strengthening the remnants of the condemned Zuma faction. However, at some point, the media needs to wake up to their duty to society, which should be more important than giving Ramaphosa a chance to prove his mettle.
* Keaobaka Tsholo and Olerato C. Manyaapelo are Junior Research Interns at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.