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South Africa

"You Can't Have a Democracy on the Basis of Anger"

November 21, 2012 | by SGI NEWS

Guy Berger, Director of the Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development of UNESCO, about the role of media and education for sustainable governance in South Africa.

SGI News: According to the SGI study on the BRICS, South Africa is doing rather well when it comes to issues of governance and media freedom. What is your view?

Guy Berger © private

Guy Berger: It's true. Unlike under the apartheid regime the country now has press freedom which is guaranteed in the constitution and upheld by the courts. Usually, the authorities have respect for that but in the past few years, as the governments have become weaker, they've tried to control more. The ruling party, the Africa National Congress (ANC) is calling for a replacement of the self-regulation system by promoting a new information law. But South Africans are very keen on keeping freedom of expression, so there is a lot of pushback from civil society, businesses, and churches. It's a healthy society from that point of view. The satire in the press is indeed so strong sometimes that it wouldn’t even be tolerated in other democracies.

SGI News: However, the concentration of media ownership is often said to be a big problem in South Africa. You don’t agree with this assessment?

Berger: I think people are often making a mistake here. Of course, ownership means control but it doesn’t work so easily. The editors are appointed by owners but the journalists are still quite strong. They have their own editorial values. Also, if you look at private television stations in South Africa they are mainly owned by the trade unions, which are allies of the government, but their editorial offices are very independent: They are often doing investigations about corruption, for example. But, obviously, it’d be healthy to improve the ownership situation.

SGI News: What are other challenges for quality media in South Africa?

Berger: The big disappointment are the public broadcasters, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). In the transition period after the apartheid, it was decided to put the state broadcaster outside political control and create independent structures. Those worked at the beginning but over time the SABC became rather politicized in its content. I don't think it's a government broadcaster today but it's not very proactive. It's more a civil service broadcaster. In recent years, the politicization has been coupled with financial mismanagement and corruption. The system became sabotaged. The legal framework is there and good, but you need more legal framework. The big challenge is that the government hasn’t worked out how to establish a working business model. SABC is today only chasing advertisement, mainly in English language. This is, for example, neglecting minority languages. Moreover, what is losing the SABC its credibility is that its programs are boring and its production values are bad. It’s a tragedy – like the education system.

SGI News: What role do the media play here?

Berger: It’s a thing that puzzles me. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to get an education system fixed. Of course, it has a history in South Africa: It was designed to keep black people uneducated and the teachers now come through a system that was designed to keep pupils uneducated. I think the media play a watchdog role here: Are the books delivered to the school? Are the teachers in the classrooms? And there is also some educational content in the media. But the institutions of schooling are a disaster in South Africa for which the media can’t compensate.

SGI News: In how far can this affect the overall democratic structure of the country?

Berger: South Africa has a tradition of destruction because they needed to destroy the apartheid state. People then burned libraries because they didn’t regard it as their infrastructure. That tradition is still there and it comes out from time to time. But you can’t have a democracy on the basis of that nihilistic anger. Part of the protests that have been happening recently which have been boiling for many years – for example the Marikana miners’ strike – are to me a sign that the media is not working as it should be to actually bring these protests to the light of the authorities. To put pressure on the authorities to solve the problems. To give people a voice. If people feel they’re heard in the media, they don’t feel so angry to go to the streets and burn things. It’s a big challenge for private and community media in South Africa. But there is some excellent journalism, too. The big challenge is to have a media that can really do a good job.

Interview: SGI News