Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why the bad news is actually good news for South Africa

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17 Sep 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The impulse for some ‘obligatory optimism’ appears to have washed over these shores quite vehemently in recent days, writes Tony Leon

THE prize-winning Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, once wrote balefully of the "obligatory optimism of socialist society". You get the idea when you view some of the extraordinary movie footage — replete with smiling and well-fed children — in North Korea, a country where most people outside the governing elite exist on starvation rations.

On a visit to China some years back, I bought a large coffee-table book titled Chinese Propaganda Posters. At least its title told the truth of its contents. The front cover shows the "great helmsman", Mao Zedong, suitably dwarfing his thronged supporters below him. On the back is an idealised portrait of a young girl harvesting an abundant crop of mealies, appropriately with the chairman’s little red book peeking out of the pocket of her lilac tunic.

The inconvenient truths of his rule and the reality of years of starvation do not feature in the 250 portraits. One has to read such works as Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, to learn of the 38-million people who perished during "the greatest famine in history", a consequence of the "great leap forward" he thrust on his country between 1958 and 1961.

South Africa is far removed, in every sense, from China and North Korea, but the impulse for some "obligatory optimism" appears to have washed over these shores quite vehemently in recent days.

The acting chief operating officer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Hlaudi Motsoeneng, called last month for a quota of 70% of its news to be positive. As quotas have become de rigeur around here, doubtless applying this to news content might seem only logical. However, his own organisation’s bad news revealed in the latest annual report of the SABC might, on any objective basis, well exceed the proposed 30% allocation for negative news. This shows a R1.5bn hole blown in its own budget on "consultancy fees" that could not be accounted for; and the small matter of nearly R1bn of lost licence fees and R106bn in irregular expenditure. By the time the SABC has simply reported on its own impressive contribution to the bad news cycle, it would certainly crowd out other items jostling for national attention. Doubtless "GuptaTV" will take up the slack.

President Jacob Zuma recently added his voice to the "good news is best" chorus. He was reported, during a visit to media students in Cape Town last week, as saying that "whenever I travel abroad people have great things to say about SA, but when I am in SA, I feel like running away because of the media reports". It was famously claimed by insiders close to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, that "he never read the newspapers". While Mbeki never confirmed the truth of this assertion, someone in power who did not read the reams of negative coverage about her was Margaret Thatcher. She relied, instead, on a daily "news digest" prepared by her ferociously loyal press secretary, Bernard Ingham. Presumably, all of the personal items about her hectoring style of leadership were shorn from these reports.

While the Chinese propaganda-poster style of media reporting might have confirmed Mao in his echo chamber of ruinous certainty, there is a striking paragraph in Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s 1987 lecture, Food and Freedom.

Of the great famine in China that devastated the country for over three years, he noted: "It is quite remarkable that a famine of this magnitude could continue unrecorded without bringing about a major policy shift, and this failure is certainly one connected closely with the absence of a relatively free press and the absence of opposition parties free to criticise and chastise the government in power.

"It may thus be argued that the massive deaths connected with starvation and famine during 1958-61 relate closely to the issue of freedom of information and criticism."

The good news in the bad-news diet against which some in the local power elite chafe is precisely the presence of so many feedback mechanisms in South Africa, which are so noticeably absent from authoritarian regimes, where the policies of plunder and ruin have rampaged unchecked.

The "Arab Spring"-turned-winter provides another example. The authoritarian lid was blown off an entire region where, as US journalist Thomas Friedman reported, there were just "frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation". Only the mosque or the army seemed on offer outside the strongman leader, and Egypt’s unhappy swap from the one to the other has left its democratic experiment stillborn.

Our "boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry polity", as Judge Edwin Cameron recently depicted South Africa, is one reason for being optimistic about the future. It certainly bears reporting on and beats the obligatory alternative.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

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