Are editors crushing news of SA’s socialist dawn?

Mandy de Waal
Protest march for justice in Marikana, near Lonmin’s platinum mine. Photo by Mandy de Waal.
Mandy de Waal

Activist-cum-political contender Mametlwe Sebei says news editors are actively excluding socialist issues from the public discourse. Jane Duncan of Rhodes says editors squash or are threatened by socialist ideas. Mandy de Waal looked into their claims.

Socialist politician Mametlwe Sebei remembers a time when news journalists responded keenly to his SMSs, and flocked to get sound-bites from him. Those times have changed.

“Many journalists tell me that it is not within their mandate to cover us,” laments Sebei, the Deputy President of the Workers And Socialist Party (WASP). “When we were the Democratic Socialist Movement the media would cover our issues. But the minute we started a political party they dropped us because their editors take a very hostile position to us. Journalists have said to us: ‘We can only interview you as an activist’. Comrades on the left accommodate this – preferring to comment as an activist or academic because the mainstream media is extremely hostile to us socialists,” Sebei complains.

Are there exceptions? “Well the Mail & Guardian. Apart from the Mail & Guardian and a handful of other journalists, newspapers in South Africa are doing a great injustice to the left,” he says.

Cameron Modisane is a former audit manager who once worked for one of the world’s biggest audit firms, but resigned from this prestigious position to take up the socialist banner and to become an Economic Freedom Fighter. Like Sebei, Modisane believes that when it comes to covering worker and socialist news, newspapers are doing a shoddy job. “Newspapers always portray workers in a bad light, they have no empathy for the working class or for the plight of workers. Newspapers don’t interrogate the massive wage gap between workers and bosses,” says Modisane.


Mametlwe Sebei. Photo by Mandy De Waal originally published on Daily Maverick.

“Whenever there’s a strike it is always the workers who are targeted because they are seen to be hurting the economy. What about the bosses and what they’re doing?” he asks. “Newspapers always push the capitalist agenda and socialist views are not represented. Look at Financial Mail and Business Day - they take an out and out, complete capitalist stance,” he says.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Jane Duncan of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in an article penned for the Mail & Guardian under the headline: “The pro-capitalist media are ignoring the dawn of socialism in SA”. In it, Duncan describes the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s ground-breaking decision to break away from the ANC in favour of establishing a movement for socialism.

“Many media commentators were ambivalent about this development, welcoming the break as a sign of political diversification but expressing great discomfort at Numsa’s ideological trajectory, which was portrayed as being loopy, eccentric and out of date,” Duncan wrote in the article adding: “There can be little doubt that socialist ideas continue to enjoy widespread support in South Africa.” In the same piece she writes that when spaces in society emerge for the real contest of ideas, media bosses find them “threatening or squash them”.

Duncan elaborates on her thinking. “There’s a fairly fundamental mismatch between the ideas that circulate in society and the ideas that circulate in the media. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we still have a fairly elite public sphere. Journalists and editors often don’t like to admit this, but I think that we still have a very unfinished project of media transformation,” she says, adding: “I think there’s something wrong.” Duncan says that South Africa doesn’t really have a working class media, and that community presses established under apartheid have been decimated. She adds that union newspapers that do exist aren’t having an impact on public discourse. “There’s actually very little out there that speaks to the aspirations or the worldviews of working class people,” Duncan states.

What’s wrong with South Africa’s news media? In Duncan’s view few journalists cover labour or community beats, while business coverage has augmented significantly. She says working class ideas – of which socialism is one – don’t find expression in local commentary, and when it does, Duncan says socialism is often caricatured or misunderstood.

But could it be that the media doesn’t readily cover socialist issues because socialist ideas are not widely supported in South Africa, and therefore not relevant? WASP’s Sebei laments a loss of relevance and talks about falling out of favour with journalists and editors, but the socialist political party only secured 8,331 - or 0.05%of the total ballots cast in the general election in early May 2014.

Then there’s the question of whether a more socialist South Africa - what it would look like and how it would work - has been adequately given voice. “Some of the rhetoric that comes from the forces on the left - or those purporting to represent the left - offers interpretations of Marxism and socialism that may not be relevant to the modern global economy,” says independent economist, Gilad Isaacs. He maintains that the left still has to do its homework and re-imagine what a South African socialist alternative would look like.

“An essential ingredient that’s missing is a broad dialogue, and a critical engagement between groups on the left around what it means to have a progressive, social democratic or socialist alternative to what the ANC offers. What we have yet to see is a vision of a viable, appropriate social democratic alternative from the local left,” Isaacs says.

South Africa is not a free market state, but rather has a blended economy that strongly features private ownership and competition (capitalism), but this is limited by state ownership and regulation of ‘strategic’ economic sectors (for instance the state’s control of power utility Eskom, and ITC company Telkom).

Duncan asserts that NUMSA’s aspirations and the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF) entry to the political sphere in the 2014 elections indicate that the appetite for a more leftist government has grown. EFF captured 1,169,259 votes or 6.35% of the total votes in the general election in early May 2014. The ANC took 62.15%, while the DA secured 22.23% of total votes cast.

“What’s driving the move to the left are seismic shifts —since 2009 we’ve seen the global recession, and the South African economy’s taken a huge beating. I think that it has become more difficult for people to live, particularly working class people” Duncan says, explaining what she calls SA’s shift to the left.

“We’ve seen the rise of the working poor, and at the same time that we’ve seen an increase in unemployment. That’s one factor driving this,” she says, adding: “I think what happened at Marikana was a turning point for many people. The fact that a government that comes out of a liberation movement would turn its guns on its own people, punctured a lot of people’s perceptions. It’s made them start to look for political alternatives,” Duncan says.

But there are those who don’t agree with Duncan’s reading of SA’s political phenomena. Mail & Guardian’s deputy editor, Moshoeshoe Monare, questions whether the country is on a more leftist trajectory. “Can we accurately say that the presence of 25 new EFF MPs can or will ultimately change the country’s ideological leaning?” Monare asks.

“The South African media, and certainly the M&G, is conscious of the fact that capitalism is not the overriding ideology [of this country],” he says. “ Given what happened in the US and Europe six years ago, surely there’s no media or any other institution that can ignore the excesses and failures of capitalism. But at the same time, if by socialism you are referring to the communist definition, the failures of that ideology were exposed a quarter of a century ago.”

Rapport’s editor, Waldimar Pelser, also questions Duncan’s hypothesis that SA is witnessing the dawn of socialism. “What I see is an ANC that has been unwilling and unable to accommodate the far left sufficiently, which has led to fractures in the alliance, with the EFF splintering off, and the formerly Cosatu-aligned Numsa also choosing its own path. Given the ANC’s solid performance in the elections in May, I am not so sure one can speak unchallenged about the dawn of socialism. Socialist politics have always been part of the South African landscape, even though today there is a renewed focus on the ideology in the biggest trade union in the country, whose support has not been tested in national elections,” Pelser says.

Back at the Mail & Guardian Monare says the investigative weekly doesn’t champion a particular political system. “We do not endorse a particular ideology, although we do believe in economic equality,” he states, adding: “This is why we will continue to reflect the inequalities in society – be it excessive CEO salaries, corruption in business, and so on – irrespective of any dominant ideology. To the M&G, it’s about ending poverty, narrowing the equality gap, and ensuring that the economy serves the needs of those who create jobs while also protecting the rights of workers.”


Moshoeshoe Monare

And what about Rapport, the Afrikaans weekly that’s part of the Media24 stable, owned by Naspers? “We are, broadly speaking, liberal,” Pelser says, adding: “We aim to report accurately and fairly the political, economic and social landscape of the country we call home, and do so with our readers in mind. We explicitly support constitutional democracy. In our opinion pages we reflect a variety of views.” In his written response, Pelser also states: “The welfare state, so critical to sustaining millions of South African families, is funded by taxes on large corporations and half a million South African taxpayers without whose contribution the welfare state would collapse.”

“Rapport is proud to have broken the story in 2013 of collusion in the construction industry and we cover business robustly,” Pelser explains, saying: “But we believe government fails time and again to explicitly recognise the massively positive role business plays in growing the economy and creating jobs. The only way to create new jobs is to grow the economy by more than 5% per annum. It is simply the only way. Sustainable economic growth can only come from increased private foreign direct investment, which fuels government spending.”

Local economists like Mike Schüssler, Maarten Ackerman or Dawie Roodt would appreciate Pelser’s view. They believe SA can’t sustain becoming more socialist than it already is. “Our economy isn’t in good shape, which means that even with a mixed economy (a blend of capitalism and socialism) we’re struggling,” says Schüssler of independent economic research house, Economists.co.za.

Ackerman, an investment strategist and portfolio manager at Citadel Wealth Management, puts it a little more bluntly: “Socialism sounds like a good solution to the problems South Africa faces, because of the promise of prosperity, equality and security. The reality though is that over time socialism yields more poverty and more misery.

Roodt goes one step further by saying nationalising key industries like mines and banks would make things even worse for workers, the poor and the unemployed. “One only has to look at current state-owned enterprises to see what will happen if nationalisation is introduced. Already some of these state-owned enterprises are doing huge damage to the economy,” says Roodt, Chief Economist of the Efficient Group. “I’ve done the calculations on what Eskom has cost the South African economy and I can tell you the South African economy would have been more than 10% bigger than it is today if it hadn’t have been for Eskom,” says Roodt, who explains that stalled service delivery and inefficiencies at the state-owned power utility caused losses in production of some R 350 billion this year alone.

“Public enterprises in South Africa that are supposed to be supportive of the economy have sometimes become an obstacle to economic growth. To sum it up in a word, this is because of mismanagement, or what I’d call inefficiency,” says Roodt, adding: “By ‘inefficiency’ I mean a lack of leadership, a lack of implementation and a lack of skills. The state is very inefficient and because of this, it is a huge obstacle to the economy,” says Roodt.

Isaacs presents a very different view to that of Roodt, Ackerman and Schüssler by saying there is significant scope locally for more progressive economic policies in this country. “What we have seen in the last 20 years is incredibly conservative macroeconomic policy undertaken by ANC and government that has stunted the growth of the economy and led to undesirable developmental outcomes like an increase in inequality, so it is fair to say that there’s significant room for leftist socialist economic policies,” he says.

Isaacs uses the mineral sector to offer examples of what he means. “The mineral rights of the country are in fact nationally owned and the Constitution does not pose an obstacle in this regard. The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act enables these rights to be licensed out to companies and a more innovative approach here could see a whole range of ways the nation as a whole could benefit from mineral wealth. One could increase royalties, institute other taxes, see the state take part ownership in shares of mining companies, or nationalise them entirely. These are all ways the country can benefit from the mineral wealth, each with different levels of consequence for the economy,” Isaacs explains.

Between taxis - Mametlwe Sebei’s official transport to meet with miners or to take a meeting with workers – the WASP spokesperson believes that South Africa’s newspapers have an active distaste for class issues. “There is a very conscious class hatred against workers and journalists at mines have told me point blank they don’t cover worker issues. “If it is not bleeding it is not news. That is the only time the matters of the working class are covered – if there is violence,” says Sebei.

“Newspapers try portray the poor as barbaric savages who have a penchant for violence and that which is considered barbaric and uncivilised. We - the voice of the socialist movement – are ignored because we reflect the struggle in communities and the mines. We give voice to the factory workers and the youth rising up against the challenges of unemployment. What we are seeing is a revolt of the working class against the unbearable life of capitalism, the emancipation of the poor,” says Sebei.

“Editors adapt themselves to the mainstream bourgeois attitudes towards socialism so that they can rise to the top,” Sebei continues. “Journalists by and large are exploited as unwilling intellectual prostitutes of the ruling class. They compromise their conscience and their truth in order to present the world through the lens of the ruling elite to maintain a system that is not working for the overwhelming majority of people in South Africa.”

A look at the articles on the sites of the news media interviewed for this story tell their own story. This week Mail & Guardian features a report about a Bloemfontein man who lives on R100 a month, and is forced to beg for food. The story describes the man’s battles with the Free State’s crumbling health care system. There’s a multi-media expose about the violence, sexual abuse and discrimination female miners face, as well as a video narrative about unemployed people’s struggles with a drug called Nyaope.

Rapport’s front page on Sunday 06 July was dedicated to new revelations contained in a ‘secret report’ about murder-accused Oscar Pistorius; the drug and alcohol problems that bedevil world-champion local boxer Thomas (Tommy Gun) Oosthuizen; as well as the story of an 82-year-old grandfather who was bound and violently assaulted by squatters on his family farm. The story raises the issue of the land question in that the squatters who beat the elderly man said to him: “Dit is ons plaas” [This is our farm], and “Apartheid is nou verby. Ons gaan in jou huis intrek.” [Apartheid is over. We are going to move into your house.]

In an email Pelser writes: “The battle of ideas about which economic policies, informed by whichever ideology, would help us achieve more prosperity for more South Africans, alleviate suffering and increase employment, is the most important debate of our time. It is crucial that the media interrogate conventional wisdoms, give oxygen to important ideas, reflect accurately demonstrable political trends, connect the dots, and put evidence on the table about what works and what does not.”

Monare is more pragmatic. “If we are to bastardise Deng Xiaoping’s quote: ‘So long as South Africa is an equal society, with job opportunities and minimum (or no) poverty, it shouldn’t matter whether the cat [ideology] is black [socialism] or white [capitalism].’ As the media, we must always be vigilant against the excesses of any ideology,” the deputy editor of Mail & Guardian says.

Editor’s note: Mandy de Waal is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in both Mail & Guardian as well as Rapport.

Read more:

  • The pro-capitalist media are ignoring the dawn of socialism in SA by Jane Duncan in Mail & Guardian.
  • South Africa’s emerging new left: the birth of a new socialist party by Martin Plaut in The New Statesman.
  • Numsa, political parties & socialism by Terry Bell, initially published by Fin24.

Corrections to the quotes attributed to Gilad Isaacs were made after the article was published.

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