This blog follows the debate surrounding the state of media freedom in South Africa. It is compiled and written by Julie Reid, an academic and media analyst from the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When did we loose our “Rainbow manners”?

My mother was a remarkably intelligent, though unashamedly outspoken and un-politically correct woman. One of the things which irritated her most about the public rhetoric of the post-1994 ‘halo period’ was the politically-correct tone of discussions; in the media, between politicians, amongst public figures and so on. Remember those days? When we were all enamoured by our new constitution, proud of our new ‘Rainbow Nation’ and would not have dared utter racial slurs, angry rantings or rude insults of any kind, particularly not within the public sphere. The polite and politically-correct veneer of public discourse of that time frustrated my mother endlessly, and this was a woman whose own husband and brother had been imprisoned during apartheid for taking a stand against the government.

It’s not that my mother was not in favour of the new South Africa. She was. She had certainly sacrificed enough for it. But she would have like to see a little more honesty within public debate, with regard to how all the political stakeholders really felt about each other. (Thankfully, I think she was largely alone in this). But I am not sure if even my mother would have approved of the current tone of public rhetoric that seems to plague South African debates now. She was irritated by political-correctness, but she loathed rudeness. In a way, it seems that we have somewhere, somehow jumped from one extreme to the other. 2010 has been the year when suddenly it has become widely acceptable to adopt a level of indecency on the public platform.

My question is: is this widespread lack of decency (and in some cases, just a lack of good manners) indicative of a worrying downward trend in the collective ethical psyche of South African public voices, or are we simply purging ourselves of 15 years of strenuously maintained politically correct modes of communication? More importantly, if we are just taking a breather from being polite, are we going to pick that ball up again at some point, or are we simply going to decide not to make the effort to be nice, and continue on our current trajectory?

As examples of how we lost our ‘Rainbow manners’, I think of Julius Malema’s singing of the ‘Kill the Boer’ song earlier this year. No matter how you look at it, he must have known it was going to offend someone, yet he did it anyway. Why? This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Gareth Cliff’s letter to the government on 12th October calls Blade Nzimande ‘ugly’ and refers to Jacob Zuma’s ‘bastard children’. Even though I agree with some of Cliff’s points, the tone of the letter was downright mean (which, I suppose, is true to Cliff’s persona). Obviously, the letter garnered some response and Blade Nzimande's chief of staff, Nqaba Nqandela, said: "Please note that Minister Nzimande is not going to dignify these rantings of a racist with a response”. Well, ok, I might be missing something here, but even though the letter was scathing, I did not see any racism in Cliff’s letter.

Which also reminds me that we have become terribly quick to accuse one another of racism these days. Again, Malema springs to mind: when he accused journalist Jonah Fischer of having a “white tendency”, also calling him a “bastard” and a “bloody agent” before throwing him out of a press conference. After the death of Eugene Terblanche, which all evidence would suggest was a purely criminal act, the media began punting notions of a looming “race war”, and had some wondering if the supposed civil war that had been averted at CODESA, had simply been postponed until now.  In this atmosphere of racial tension, there was the debacle of the “Don’t touch me on my studio” eTV interview when Andre Visagie and Lebohang Pheko had a rather ugly on-camera spat.

More seriously, I do not want to believe that the loss of our ‘Rainbow manners’ indicates a general loss of our ‘Rainbow ideals’. The most current, yet not the only, example of this would be the ANCs recent systematic attempts at limiting media freedom in South Africa, with the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and Protection of Information Bill being only part of their arsenal in their battle with the free press. Here I would like to refer supporters of the idea of the Media Appeals Tribunal to a little piece of reading: Chapter 2, section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa: point 1 reads “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes (a). freedom of the press and other media…”.

We know that other African governments are looking south for justifications of their own, sometimes dubious, actions. In Zambia, where the struggle for media freedom and a self-regulated press continues, the minister of information and broadcasting services, Ronnie Shikawasha reportedly said South Africa’s taking the issue of media self-regulation to Parliament is indicative that self-regulation would fail in Zambia, similar to how it is failing in South Africa.

Except that many of us who believe in a free press, do not feel that self-regulation is failing in South Africa at all. The symptomatic consequences of the ANCs rhetoric against the media are, however, having international consequences on the continent.

I raise this point to show that we must not think that what we do here at home, or how we choose to behave toward one another, goes unnoticed by our African neighbors. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to get in right in terms of how we do or don't regulate our media. Similarly, we have a moral responsibility to treat each other with dignity and decency, not only in terms of safe-guarding our now apparently fragile democracy, but also, because the rest of Africa is watching and it’s up to us to set an example.

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