Talk presented at a workshop ‘Youth, Conflict and Governance in Africa’, Yale University, USA, March 2014

South Africa celebrates its twentieth year of democracy this year. It has been an eventful twenty years, with much debate and contestation around the political values and practices in a new and noisy democracy. The institutions and procedures of democracy are in place and relatively stable: we have had regular elections since all South Africans queued to make their first crosses at the ballot box on 27 April 1994. This year, the ‘born-frees’ – young citizens born after the end of apartheid – will vote for the first time (and how they will vote has been the topic of some debate). We have a Constitution that includes a Bill of Rights and enshrines freedom of speech (including freedom of the media) as well as other rights such as human dignity, equality and freedom of assembly, and this Constitution is guarded by a Constitutional Court. Indeed, the ‘miracle’ discourse  of the South African transition to democracy suggests that we have made the journey from oppression to freedom without the bloodshed and conflict that mark political transitions in other parts of the continent.

The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy and the continued stability of democratic institutions does not mean that South Africa is without social and political conflict. The mounting frustration with the dividends of democracy for the country’s majority poor citizens and the tensions resulting from levels of economic inequality that rank among the highest in the world have led to an increase in street protests around the country. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg have estimated an average of 2.1 protests per day recorded between 2004-2009.

Youth have been seen as ‘central’ to these protests and the ‘main protagonists’ of the uprisings around the country that have been framed rather narrowly by the media as ‘social delivery protests’ but in fact can be seen as articulations of a more deep-seated disillusionment. These protests are born out of the frustration with the continued high levels of inequality and a revolt against a government that is increasingly seen as uncaring and not listening. The protests that have been taking place around the country are therefore not only demands for the technical delivery of basic services, but a ‘rebellion of the poor’ who are demanding basic human dignity.

Increasingly, these protests are being met with state-sponsored violence. The death of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in 2011 in Ficksburg in the Free State province, where he was beaten and shot by police (the officers accused of assault and murder were later acquitted), received widespread media coverage. Research suggested that despite the publicity around Tatane’s death, this fatality of a citizen at the hands of the police had not been an isolated incident. Only this year, two people have been killed and several injured when protesters and police clashed at Mothuthlong near Brits in the North West province. And although it does not fit the media definition of a social delivery protest, miners striking for better wages at the Lonmin mine  at Marikana in 2012 led to a massacre in which 34 people were killed and 78 wounded – an event that sent shockwaves around the world as the post-apartheid state used unprecedented lethal force on its own citizens.

The question that arises is why, in a country where stable democratic institutions are in place, the procedural aspects of democratic life such as elections are functioning well, and a strong, vibrant and robust media continue to operate freely, do young citizens resort to direct action in order to make their voices heard?

This question could be answered, at least partly, by examining the role and positioning of the media in post-apartheid South Africa.

The media – not only in South Africa, but more generally within a liberal-democratic framework – are often seen as central to democracy. In South Africa, the media also regularly lay claim to this understanding of its role. The dominant consensus among media is that it should perform a monitorial, ‘watchdog’ role over power – mostly state power, with less scrutiny over economic power. Consequently a great deal of reporting – in a largely adversarial and confrontational tone – is devoted to issues around corruption and mismanagement in government and the public sector. In other words, the South African media’s role is seen as ensuring that democracy ‘works’. From this point of view, community protests around the country are framed as demands for ‘service delivery’ in response to what is seen as government’s failure to fulfil its technical functions – the protests are seen as signs of places where democracy isn’t ‘working’ (consider in this regard the slogan of the Democratic Alliance-run city of Cape Town: ‘This City Works For You’). In other words, the media’s emphasis in fulfilling its watchdog role seems to be more on procedural rather than substantive outcomes of democracy. The question seems to be ‘is democracy working?’ rather than ‘what does democracy mean?’ From this perspective, conflict that ensues between communities and the state in ongoing protests around the country is a factor of where the system has broken down – rather than an indication that the system itself is being rejected in a process of ongoing contestation around what democracy should mean in the everyday lives of the poor and the marginalized.

This narrow view of conflicts between citizens and the state in post-apartheid South Africa is a result of the South African media’s dominant normative framework that defines its role as primarily in relation to the state rather than in relation to the citizenry. The pressures on media freedom, like the proposed establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal as an alternative to the self-regulatory (recently modified to a more co-regulatory one with greater input from the public) Press Council, or the Protection of State Information Bill, vigorously opposed by the Right to Know Campaign, are rejected in the name of this belief that the media’s is working in the ‘public interest’. The citizenry’s interests are therefore purportedly what the media has at heart when it attacks government on its failures, but these interests mostly come to be defined by the media’s own social and political position as elite institutions. Too frequently the role of the media is seen as a monitor of the state on behalf of citizens, instead of listening to what citizens themselves have to say. The notion of ‘the public’ is not unproblematic in a country with such a long history of social polarization and continued economic inequalities. The public in South Africa is fragmented, unequal and do not all have the same access to the media. Moreover, the mainstream, commercial media that dominate the public sphere tend to represent a very narrow sliver of the South African citizenry, an elite that is attractive to advertisers and can afford access to their offerings. This results in a mediated perspective on the world that Steven Friedman called ‘a view from the suburbs’.

What role then could the South African media play to facilitate young citizens’ participation in democracy? The assumption of the media is that they represent the public interest, and recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have often led to optimistic claims about the potential of the media (especially social and mobile media) to facilitate the mobilization of citizens. If young people are central to community uprisings in South Africa as some observers claim, and if these uprisings articulate a widespread disillusionment with post-apartheid democracy, what potential is there for the South African media to act as an agent for change? To answer these questions we have to ask questions regarding the centrality of media in people’s lives, the access and reach of the media, and the media’s ability to facilitate social change.  For instance: do citizens trust media? Does the media reflect their everyday experiences? How influential is the media compared to other social actors and institutions? How widespread is access to the media, including social media? How affordable are mobile phones, for instance, and what are the opportunity costs involved in accessing social media on them? Given the asymmetries of access – the best estimate would be that about one in five South Africans uses Twitter, for instance – how big is the democratic potential of social media in South Africa really?

Research done as part of a research project into media and citizenship at Rhodes University found that the media are not as central to the lives of young South Africans as might be assumed by those that see the media as an agent for social change.  Young people interviewed as part of the study are disillusioned with politics and pessimistic about their chances in the post-apartheid economy. Unemployment has a major impact on young people’s self-esteem and identities as citizens. They feel that both government and the media have failed them, and are disillusioned by the very procedural democracy that ‘watchdog’ media guards over. Voting seems futile because it doesn’t make a difference in their everyday lives. “I voted because I wanted freedom,” one respondent said,” I thought I was going to benefit… But no, anyway I will not [vote] again because there is nothing to be gained.” Another one said the only result of voting is that it “gives people positions”, while yet another remarked that voting only “ improves things at the top and not service delivery”: “It certainly improves the party that is in power or that person who is in power at the time.”

It is perhaps not surprising that in the light of this disillusionment with democratic processes, protests are seen as a way to get the attention of politicians. Although the young people interviewed expressed a sense of trust in the media, and thought they are reliable as social institutions, the media’s representation of South African reality does not resonate with their everyday lives. Although the media provided them with a sense of connection to the outside world, it afforded them little opportunity to speak back and participate in debates in the public sphere. Social media (including SMS and the Blackberry Messaging Service [BBM] functionality on mobile phones) as well as radio provided some conviviality, but the idea that citizens could use the media to enact citizenship and take up agency did not occur to them, and in fact struck them as a rather surprising possibility.

The overall impression from these conversations with young South Africans is that they are using media to just get by, and find whatever information or sustenance they can to cope with their daily struggles. In the words of Nick Couldry, South African young people seem to be resorting to ‘biographical solutions to structural problems’. This sense of powerlessness has already started to breed a sense of being disengaged from the political system and their ability to influence policy-making. Dahlgren speaks about this disengagement as being something other than a cynical indifference towards politics that “implies a disinterest in politics and the political altogether”. The disengagement from formal politics, seemingly exacerbated by the media’s failure to speak to young people’s everyday experiences, should in other words be seen as a political act in itself.

In the light of the disillusionment and disengagement from formal politics expressed by South African young people, how should we approach the study of young people, conflict and the media in the post-apartheid context? Some preliminary suggestions:

  • We need to move beyond Habermasian notions of rational deliberation in a mediated public sphere. Emotional expressions, whether as angry street protests or personal responses to everyday life via social media or mobile phones should also be considered as having political implications.
  • We should remain attuned for the ‘political’ in the ostensibly ‘non-political’ of everyday life. Just as the disillusionment with and disengagement from formal politics do not mean that young people are disinterested in political matters, so their lack of enthusiasm about mainstream news media does not mean that they will not use other forms of media strategically to cope with the challenges of everyday life in a precarious socio-economic environment.
  • Seductive as the possibilities posed by social media and mobile phones for political participation and activism might be, the example of other uprisings such as those of the ‘Arab Spring’ (although the centrality of social media to these protests has also been heavily disputed) cannot be unproblematically transposed to South Africa. Given the imbalances with regard to access and the exorbitant costs of mobile phones especially for the poor who rely on prepaid services, the political economy of connectivity mitigate the political gains to be derived from new modes of communication. The potential of social and mobile media to facilitate social change should therefore at best be evaluated within the broader media ecology and in relation to other social spheres of influence.
  • The responsiveness of the South African state to criticism voiced via media – a key tenet of liberal democratic media theories derived from conditions in established democracies – should not be assumed. Because of the South African media’ s historical association with white capital, and the continued slow pace of transformation in the industry, media criticism can easily be dismissed as representative of minority interests.

We know that mobile phones and social media should not be viewed in technologically determinist ways. New media technologies such as mobile and social media mobile phones do not only transmit political information needed for rational deliberation in the public sphere, but also transgress cultural and social borders and hierarchies in the way they refashion identities and create informal economies and communicative networks. We also know that social media did not cause the social change in the Arab Spring, but at most amplified the efforts of opposition movements. But given the gap between mainstream media discourses and young people’s everyday realities, and the economic obstacles in the way of the use of mobile and social media by the poor in South Africa, this amplification of social, political and economic dynamics could also go in the opposite direction. Media could also amplify inequalities, turn up the volume of those who already have access to political platforms, shove the marginalised and the poor further into the fringes, and alienate young people further from formal politics. Young South Africans are finding their own ways of expressing their agency through media, but in order to understand what is happening in these spaces, new ways of theorizing beyond models of deliberation or technological euphoria need to be found.

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