A free press critical to South Africa’s democracy

A free press critical to South Africa’s democracy

Gary Rynhart, Senior Employers’ Specialist, ILO (garyrynhart@protonmail.com)

Photo by LT Ngema on Unsplash

July was a perilous month in South Africa with the country on the very edge. While a devastating third wave of COVID 19 was in full swing, destructive political and economic forces conducted a concerted assault on democracy. These efforts were rebuffed but the country remains on high alert with democracy still under threat.

How did we get here? 

In many ways, a familiar playbook was employed.  Capture the State’s institutions, in particular the capture of “extractive” economic institutions where the money taps can get turned on. Creating monopolies, loading parastatals with cronies, stifling competition. This is where the gravy is. Sound familiar?

Political capture follows as a necessary appendage to ensure the continued control of extractive economic institutions. This is the pathway to failed State status. 

Standing in the way of all this are society’s independent institutions. NGOs, community groups, trade unions, business groups and especially the media. These organizations have the power to mobilise public opinion and create a bulwark against nefarious forces intent on economic or political looting. From the ship workers of Gdansk, Poland in the 1980s demanding political freedom to crowded Pretoria streets in 2017 and 2018 demanding ‘Zuma must fall’, mass mobilised street protests has historically mostly worked.

Worryingly, recent examples of ‘people power’ have been a failure. In Hong Kong protestors have been jailed and silenced. Belarus resorted to international aviation piracy earlier this year to stifle dissent. In Myanmar, the Generals have discarded democracy and unleashed the soldiers onto the streets.

There are numerous reasons for this but technological improvements are a significant one. Technology has empowered repressive regimes or would be ones in ways previously unimagined. Facial recognition technology, drones, CCTV, phone surveillance. The reach of the State is much more omnipresent. COVID 19 Restrictions have additionally been used as cover by non-democratic governments to tighten control on dissenters.

This is a particularly fragile time for democracies, South Africa included. A forty-year study (1950-1990) by Adam Przeworski showed that democracies are directly threatened by economic crises. The chance that a democracy will succumb is 1 in 135 when incomes grow during any three or more consecutive years, and 1 in 13 when incomes fall during any two consecutive years. The situation is especially dangerous where governance is weak.  Even in strong democracies, governing becomes more difficult during an economic crisis. Government majorities shrink and parliaments tend to fragment. Radicalized parties get more of hearing.

The narrative that democracy is not the optimum route for middle income and developing economies to economic prosperity is often peddled but this does not stand up to scrutiny. Ruchir Sharma in his book “The 10 rules of successful nations” identified the most successful economies over time (70-year period). Democracies dominate.  What characterizes these countries is slow and steady economic growth due to the ‘stabilizing effect of democracy’. Democracy brings a certainty that investors love.  

The grease on the wheels of democracy are a nation’s independent institutions, in particular a free press.  Thankfully South Africa has a vibrant and noisy media, with courageous investigative journalists.  Take the following excerpt from the Daily Maverick’s investigating and reporting on the VBS scandal and defamation case. “Malema’s reason for accepting the VBS money … was ‘to support the revolution’”. Apart from being, the funniest line I have read in a while it is a good example of why this country needs to keep supporting its journalists.

The media also provided enough reporting on the reasons so many people were able to be mobilised to loot. Take the following. “We don’t care. We have no jobs and never will”. Spoken by a 28 year old looter interviewed by the Sunday Times in Vosloorus. Or this “I don’t care about Jacob Zuma or the ANC. I don’t hate white people either or anyone else. I am just tired of not having stuff”. Those are the sentiments of the hopeless and further evidence that SA’s bourgeoning inequality is a ticking time bomb.

On any given day, the media here is a buzz with stories of political intrigue, graft and State larceny. In one way, that is a good thing. When you are not hearing about these things, then it is time to really worry.

The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the CMA or its members.

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