#TshwaneUnrest: the quest for democracy

Unrest in South Africa’s capital city

On June 20th, 2016, ANC mayoral candidate Thoko Didiza was announced as mayoral candidate for the municipality of Tshwane in Gauteng. Tshwane includes South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria. Violent protesting followed this nomination. As the Times Live reports, the unrest apparently stemmed from the imposition of an outsider (Didiza) on the ANC branch in Tshwane. Current mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa and the regional deputy chairperson Mapiti Matsena had already been nominated for the post.

The move – described on Monday as an “intervention” by the ANC’s national leadership – was widely seen as an attempt to avoid factional confrontations between supporters of Ramokgopa and Matsena. Mokonyane on Tuesday said the intervention was necessary as members sometimes “need to be led” and “need to be empowered by the leadership of the ANC”‚ and was at pains to deny that there was a “split in the region”. (Times Live)

Soon after this “intervention”, violent protests occurred first in the debate hall, then on the streets outside where one ANC member was reportedly shot, and finally the protests spread to neighbouring streets and areas. Fires are currently burning in the CBD and the Twitter hashtag #TshwaneUnrest gives you some indication of the seriousness of the situation.

Because this protest action occurred in South Africa’s capital city, unsurprisingly the international media has pounced (like a hamster, because we’re not currently media darlings) on the story and one of the leading headlines on Google is currently the EWN story of the UK travel advisory updates for tourists (because, you know, tourists are more important than voters in Google’s global neo-liberal framework). The BBC has found the story too, reporting, predictably, vertically: the police lead, and the protestor’s grievances follow (if at all).

Democracy, the media, and protest action

So what are the ramifications for South Africa’s democracy? What’s actually at stake here?

Firstly, this is symptomatic of South Africa’s entanglement with democracy, media, and electorate/government policy issues. Secondly, and I’ve spoken about this before, is the problem of the state broadcaster’s controversial censorship policy on protest action. Thirdly, this protest action is complex – rumours of a “third force” (and South Africans are right to be wary of that term, as it was used and misused a LOT under apartheid) actors in this unrest, discourse about the unrest (terming it “unrest” rather than riots, or protest action, or dissent, or violence is symbolic, too), and the actors and motivators involved create further strata.

1 Entanglement

As my Head of Department wrote, recently, the voices of the poor are missing from mainstream media. The Media, Conflict, and Democracy working group dedicate many hours and much EU-funding to deciphering the relationship between protest actors and action and the media, especially in non-Western countries where democracy is burgeoning. Protestors are either not heard, or not taken seriously, and Wasserman, Bosch, and Chuma explain that

protests are reported only inasmuch as they inconvenience a middle-class audience, for instance to inform them where traffic may be disrupted.

Indeed, we see this through much of the framing on mainstream news media about the Tshwane unrest. Traffic is disrupted because of burning vehicles. Looters run rampant, destroying and stealing private property. Middle class economics are threatened, and must be protected. South African media is often angled towards middle class audiences, so this type of framing makes sense. What happens, though, is that depth and context are obliterated and all we see is the “razzmatazz” of mediatisation. Protestors are not, or perceive that they are not, treated “seriously” by an unsympathetic media, anger flares up, and the distance between communities and the government, mediated through the press, increases.

2 Hlaudi’s censorship

I’ve spoken about Mr Motsoeneng’s censorship policy of the SABC previously, but this plays a large role in how the SABC covers (or ignores, actually) the current protest action. With our state broadcaster, which has majority if not monopoly rule in the rural areas of South Africa, refusing to cover protest action where property damage occurs, the public interest is no longer being served. Dissent occurs whether or not video cameras are pointed in that direction, although it is also true that some community protests use violence to attract attention to their causes, as they perceive violence as the only way to be heard by a wider audience.

I feel, at it’s root, that the state broadcaster’s relationship with the government is less about promoting a “prosperous country” (see Mapisa-Nqakula’s point below…), and more about a lack of listening to the grassroots communities the SABC and the ANC are supposed to serve.

^ (SA Government clearly misunderstanding social media and irony)

3 Complexities

It’s simply unworkable to talk about this “unrest” in any kind of monolithic, hegemonic way, because of the various communities, histories, reasons, and outcomes contained within the event. Of course, because media is simply a window on the world – framed, contained, and constructed – it’s basically impossible for journalists NOT to simplify and reduce their commentary to stereotypes, cliches, and simple narratives. It’s just the way the media works (blame economics if you want to, it’s the root of many evils here). So we have an entanglement. A complex series of events leading to visually-rich images of burning buildings and trucks and sky-high towers of smoke in the CBD. As Bucy and Grabe (2007: 656) argue, visual primacy occurs in most news media: audiences tend to remember visuals first, and discourse second. Hence, news media is very often visually driven, and a burnt-out wreck of a taxi and truck blocking a highway makes for a very rich semiotic diet.

Protest action is either euphemistically called “unrest” or “simmering protests”, with the majority of protestors calm interspersed with “opportunistic criminals” or discourse goes the other way – “protestors loot“, or are “thugs“, or stories have a focus on “violence“. Very little depth of discussion, picking apart the complexities that got us to this point, exists. A notable exception is Mashupye Herbert Maserumule’s analysis in the Sunday Times and on The Conversation. As he rightly exclaims,

The razzmatazz is deafening.

What do we do?

A recent study on media framing of service delivery protests in South Africa over one year, for instance, found that the most prevalent frames in the mainstream media emphasised the ‘war spectacle’ (dramatic images of the theatre of conflict), the idea of the ‘failed state’ as well as the criminality of the actions of the protestors. The ‘official’ (government officials, police sources) sources topped the list of preferred media sources, and the net effect of the framing of the protests was to delegitimise the protestors. (Pointer et al 2016: 14)

So here’s what the problem is, that I see and foresee: (political) protest action will (most likely) continue at an increased rate in South Africa for the next couple of months, culminating with the municipal elections. The situation is complex, with multifarious reasons and rationales. Simplifying these types of stories to “burning tyres” and “looting thugs” will only serve to further distance the electorate from the media, the communities from the authorities, and give some kind of warped justification the Hlaudi’s paranoid censorship policy. Reporting on protest action should be in the public’s interest, rather than a ratings game.

I know, I know. Economics rule, especially in underfunded, ill-equipped newsrooms. I know. I sympathise.

But democracy is burgeoning in South Africa, and the media (big, small, mainstream, grassroots, broadcast, press) have a responsibility and role to play in maintaining clear communication during times of unrest. Look at Kenya’s press during the 2008 post-election violence – and although Peace Journalism may not be the way forward, as it has a similar damaging impact as Sunshine Journalism, I think the call should be for journalists and media outlets to take more of an independent role where unrest occurs.




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