Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Proteas need new captain. Why not Ntini?

The South African cricket team – for cricket’s sake – needs a new captain. I suggest that it should be Makhaya Ntini.

Ntini has tons of experience, has scooped top cricketer awards locally and internationally, is level-headed, is a great motivator and has steadily honed his temperament to lead. Over the years, Ntini’s has been the goading voice, boosting flagging spirits in the toughest of games. He is the ideal player to guide and support the younger and newer players in the national side.

Our gum-chewing captain, Graham Smith, is a good opening batsman and will continue to be an asset to the Proteas; but he is not captain material. He appears to lack the qualities needed to lead the team, to get the players to focus and to draw out their greatness.

Under him, the Proteas are languishing. The South Africans are not short of talent; their problem revolves around mindset issues. The team struggles to retain its focus and its collective sense of self-belief during critical matches.

When the team is riding high and thrashing the other side, it's all hunky dory, team spirit is up and they play like world beaters; but when the chips are down, it's another story. In the face of setbacks and when the going gets difficult on the field, they are unable to stay focused, sustain team spirit and wear down the opposition through patience, excellent fielding and doggedly doing the basics right.

Some have referred to this as choking. I don’t like the term “choker”; such a put-down adds insult to injury, and has a fatalistic ring to it. But we must confront the team's recent propensity to lose heart when tension and pressure mounts. We have seen shoulders sagging, glum faces, a loss of fighting spirit and a slew of fielding errors when a different attitude could still have turned a particular game in their favour. At one stage in the last Twenty20 game against India, we needed 26 from 16 balls (not to win, but to progress to the semi-finals); with nothing left to lose, the batsmen at the crease couldn’t muster the boldness and drive required. They simply continued aiming for a run or two a ball – and thus we were bundled out of the competition.

At times such as these, it is clear, Smith’s captaincy is unable to bring out the best in the team. In addition, he has sometimes made patently wrong decisions (of whether to bat or bowl first) and – on occasion - seemed not to have been aware, or informed his teammates in time, that we needed a certain number of runs to win or stay in the contest. Under his watch, also, Herschelle Gibbs was moved around - with detrimental effects on the latter's game. Poor decisions were also taken in relation to AB de Villiers who replaced Gibbs as opener. De Villiers, who will one day have the mentality requred of an opening batsmen delivering consistently good performances, should have been positioned lower down the order, and perhaps given a season or two to play alongside a Pollock or Kallis.

At the start, Smith’s captaincy was complemented by Jacque Kallis and, to a lesser extent, Shaun Pollock. But Smith is overdependent on, for example, the experience and solidity of Kallis. Kallis and Pollock, brilliant as they are, will not be youthful or available forever. Smith needed to bring forth/mentor other talent that can steady the team when top order wickets have fallen and it is he, as captain, that ought to be effectively guiding and supporting younger players in the heat of a match.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni gave us a salient lesson in cricket captaincy. Leading the Indian team in the Twenty20, he demonstrated superbly the importance of captaincy and its tremendous value add: he showed, par excellence, how captaincy contributes to team character and grit, and how these factors win games.

In a life-and-death game and when the team is in a wobble, a good captain (regardless of whether he loses wicket or bowls a loose ball) is somehow apart from the wobble; his guidance, calmness and leadership is something that other players can hold on to. With a team of younger players and with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid left at home, Dhoni excelled as captain and was my man of the tournament. In the case of Smith, on the other hand, he seemed just a part of the wobbling and sense of panic in the game we lost.

I ask: how much longer must we endure the spectacle of the Proteas making a good start and then bombing out?

I think Ntini is the man for the hour. It would be a shame if only prejudice prevents us from properly considering this solid cricketer. Sure, Ntini is not at his peak at the moment. However, when Smith was made captain, he was completely off form and frequently went out for zero or single figures. If we made Ntini captain, I am convinced, he will rise to the leadership challenge and simultaneously raise his game.

Do you agree with my assessment? Share your views by submitting a comment.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Pregs Govender survives political pressures to tell a tale of courage

Love and Courage: A story of insubordination, a book about the life and times of former ANC parliamentarian Pregs Govender, is an important record, filled with insights.

The writing is a cut above Govender’s occasional opinion pieces where flashes of passion and inspiration are frequently offset by stilted and preachy segments. Love and Courage exemplifies a better way to write about ideological issues (such as socialism, feminism and political economy) for the wider public. By telling a story, and by discussing values, principles and vision as they are deployed in events and real-life situations, we give life to concepts and big ideas.

This book is well put together and reveals talented and evocative writing, leavened by a good number of wry observations. It chronicles Govender’s life and the factors that shaped her evolution as parent, feminist and hard-core activist. Growing up in a racially divided Durban, in circumstances ranging from poor to lower middle class, Govender’s teacher parents were a big influence and she imbibed her early political awareness from her father, the inimitable Ronnie Govender, playwright and author of At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories.

The task of completing Love and Courage could not have been easy for Govender. The appeal and power of biographical writing lies in the way it interrelates the subjective and the objective, the private and the public - and in the capacity to reveal feelings and personal development alongside discussion of the big issues. But putting oneself in the spotlight is difficult, more so for a high-profile and somewhat controversial figure. Will your approach be defensive, will you be self-deprecating in parts so as to avoid charges that you take yourself too seriously, how will you deal with antagonists (or people close to you who harmed you) who have no chance in the text to reply?

It is all managed pretty well in this book. Govender speaks openly about life and the challenges and hurdles she faced - including problems with her first marriage, its humiliations and the emotionally-taxing fallout. She tellingly conveys the messiness of politics. In her story, there was pain and points of sheer burnout, but she soldiered on in both her work and personal life, all the while enhancing her organizational and leadership capabilities. She has accomplished much and there is a sense that many - in the women’s movement and beyond - regard her as an inspirational figure.

In the book, she comes across as squeaky clean – as one who almost always does the right thing, and never regrets any choices made. But this comes across as bona fide and innocent, rather than deceptive. From what I know of Govender, this is the way she is and how she is viewed by those who know her. There is no doubt that she dedicated her life to the struggle. Govender is strongly value-based in all she does, and when she looks back on various aspects, her orientation is to appreciate what she has learnt from the diverse experiences and the key life stages. In fact, because she is such a “salt of the earth” person, her adversaries in the ANC find that mud does not stick to her – and are frustrated that they can harass and needle, but are never able to deliver a final, vanquishing blow.

From the onset – in fact from the title, which indicates that “insubordination” is part of her identity - the book surfaces the tension between insubordination and adherence to party discipline.

This dilemma may be summed up as follows: Most times your strong convictions fit in well with the party; but at other times you find the collective position weak and ineffectual. Will you speak out? Related questions are: Which battles will you fight to the end, and where will you give in? And what will be the personal cost of taking independent paths based on strong convictions? Govender for the most part solved/managed these tensions through a life that kept the focus on adding value to important political processes. In the latter period as covered in the book, however, she answered it through her withdrawal as an MP and (it would seem) from an active role in party politics. At all stages, there were costs and pressures.

Govender – as she tried to fulfil her parliamentary role - clashed with her party on the arms deal and its approach to HIV/Aids. She also voices a more general gripe: that the democratic government has, in her view, insufficiently prioritised fighting poverty and mistakenly adopted the GEAR macroeconomic policy.

Her experience in the party echoes that of Deputy Minister of Health Madlala-Routledge in Cabinet, where the latter faced huge pressures as a result of expressing herself more clearly and openly than her colleagues on issues such as the right to decent hospital services and the importance of effective rollout of ARVs for people living with Aids. Parties strive to maintain “the line” and are likely to push back when one in their ranks goes against an agreed or officially sanctioned way of handling an issue. This makes striking out alone (if you are unable to change the party’s view) risky and career-limiting. This is the stuff of all parties. For the Govenders and Maldlala-Routledges of the world, there are many factors to weigh up before taking a stand than may offend certain senior Party figures, but it seems the enormity of a national issue is what finally propels such persons to speak out.

Love and Courage, furthermore, gives us an insider’s perspective of the manoeuvring that takes place around policy making. Decisions are based on information, but data and opinion (especially the views of the most influential and powerful) get intermingled until sometimes it is difficult to know which is which. There are party hacks who desire – due to certain agendas at play - a particular end and who make no pretence of engaging with relevant information. Thankfully such “hack” behaviour co-exists with many more instances of sound decisionmaking.

The background role of experts, also with interests and agendas, is woven through all of this.
In many of her roles, and in the light of the gender-related portfolios she often occupied, it can be said that Govender wielded influence rather than power. In some battles her influence won the day, while in others – especially in head-on clashes over direction, strategy and policy choices – formal power trumped influence. This book gives a rare view of life behind the scenes in politics.

On reading this book, her adversaries may be angered - and will probably find in its pages confirmation of their view that she does not meet the requirements of a good and reliable party person. But other people will find in Love and Courage evidence that Govender is a woman of integrity who contributed in distinctive ways to the construction of the new South Africa.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Finding the "fit" between Biko's ideas and the Tambo path to freedom

The core message of Black Consciousness may now seem to be simple and straightforward, but in the 70s, it was groundbreaking. In a time of general acquiescence within oppressed communities following the wave of state repression of the 60’s, BC was subversive, radical and life-giving.

If the black experience under apartheid was a powder keg, for the professionals and intellectuals BC constituted the striking of the match. The result was Black anger (expressed as passive resistance) and the assertion of “black power”. For the working class and the wider community, it was less directly efficacious. But these sectors were indirectly impacted as black consciousness activists began working to establish trade unions and community projects.

Black Consciousness propagated that:
- Ideas per se were a powerful force. A primary emphasis was placed on changing thinking and outlook, including perceptions of themselves, among black people
- Black pride resting on black traditions and notable historical achievements ought to be a key starting point. Black writing, black music and black achievement in various fields in Africa and the Diaspora should be celebrated.
- Black people should unite and reject ethnic divisions as an imposition of apartheid. Black solidarity should also overshadow the difference between African, Indian and Coloured.
- Blacks should reject the term “non-white”; instead of using white as the reference point, they should embrace a positive identification with the term black.
- In the theological sphere, black theology should be advanced; in this connection, reference would be made to a Christ that more likely was a swarthy Easterner than a blue eyed European and who was Black also in the sense that he sided with the poor and downtrodden.
- Whites should have no place in the struggle. This meant that black people should liberate themselves, as captured in Steve Biko’s phrase “Black man (sic), you are on your own”. Whites who wanted to work for justice should work in their own communities.

There were many “fights” or clashes, particularly in the eighties (when rival resistance groups strove for dominance and movements appeared to be vying to “own” the masses and the struggle); but these battles obscure a fundamental complementarity between Black Consciousness and an ANC approach to the struggle.

The ANC, focusing on national liberation, organized the masses around the concept of an inclusive national liberation as expressed in the rights enunciated in United Nations declarations and charters. Inherent in the ANC’s broad mass-based approach was the notion that ideas could not be the starting point in mobilization; ideas changed – and change happens - when material conditions and balance of forces are shifted or through a focusing on the material interests of target groups. Given how much the later Oliver Tambo, former ANC President, has written on this approach, I dub it the Tambo path to freedom.

There are distinct differences in approach. I choose, however, to see these differences [depicted in the table below] not as antagonistic or mutually exclusive: I see the two approaches as conceptual and strategic ingredients that combine, intermingle and work in complementary ways in history and contemporary reality (click on the box below for a clearer view):

Many of us easily combined the two approaches in our lives. Some who had been in the BC movement crossed over to join the ANC-aligned liberation forces in the height of engagement with the apartheid state, as the ANC regained ascendance in on-the-ground struggle. People like Mosioua Lekota, Ahmed Bawa, Ishmael Moss and others continued to espouse the core philosophy of BC; and sought to play a role in minimising tension and conflict between the rival political forces. A good number of my peers defined themselves as both black conscious and “progressive”.

My first real engagement with politics and political ideas happened through coming into contact with black consciousness. This occurred indirectly: my older brother and a few friends in Pietermaritzburg had some links with prominent SASO activist Henry Isaacs, who at the time was banned and under house arrest. I imbibed the philosophy through overhearing their animated discussions that followed their visits to him. I later heard a form of it disseminated by Norman Middleton at Labour Party meetings in the local community hall.

However, by the time I arrived at UWC in 1977, BC appeared to be on the wane (of course, the vicious state crackdown on BC organization has also played a part). The leading activists, some with roots in black consciousness, were already beginning to organise through educational material and discussion groups on an ANC and Marxist platform. Students listened to the ANC’s Radio Freedom on crackling transistor radios behind locked hostel doors.
Looking ahead, it is clear that the new South Africa needs to honour the late Black Consciousness leader

Steve Biko (who was killed in detention in 1977). And when it does so, it should remember him less in terms of his death than in relation to the life he lived, the power of his ideas and the continuing relevance of Black Consciousness as an antidote to the dominance & widespread internalization of racist thinking in our society.

I have no fixed ideas about how Steve Biko should or could be honoured and black consciousness acknowledged. But we should take into account that in heritage there is a move away from monuments that are “frozen in time” and static. The emphasis should be on representations that are interactive and that include reflection and discussion of the contemporary role of Black consciousness.

Clearly, Steve Biko’s name will be remembered through the name change processes, and indications are that we could be driving down Steve Biko Road or Avenue before long. But we need to go beyond this. Thus, for example, planners in relevant government agencies could consider creating a place for thinking and remembrance in Soweto, near the Hector Peterson museum and the famous Vilikazi Street. Here the link can be drawn between BC and the uprisings that began in June 16. Another possibility is to locate a “living museum” next to the District Six Museum or near the Bat Centre in Durban; in such a facility, art, text, film and interactive material can be used, in addition, to discuss racial oppression over time in Africa and the Diaspora, together with ideas and leadership in response to such oppression.

Share your views through leaving a comment.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Time to make changes so SABC serves democracy better

The row over the the nomination of a new SABC Board - with claims that the list of nominees was determined at the ANC Head Office and that ANC MPs were cajoled into a rubber stamping role - raises a number of interesting points.

1. This nominations row come in the wake of complaints by ANC leadership about the role of the media, with the print media being accused of bias in its content, editorial choices and quality in news and commentary. These complaints are as yet untested, but have been getting ever louder. This is referred to in my piece entitled Discussion of media quality needed, not more regulation (7 Sept 2007). As I note in that blog entry, there are many unresolved issues about the media's role in a transforming South Africa. A major problem is the lack of a process to thrash out the issues and find a way forward. In this vacuum, calls for regulation among authoritarians in the ANC for state action to constrain the media are gaining a certain prominence.

2. We are witnessing a great deal of desperate maneuvering by different ruling party and other activist groups that are working to get their person elected President of the ANC. There are two main protagonists - the camp agitating for Jacob Zuma to ascend to the presidency and Thabo Mbeki's support group which is bent a different leader become’s the country's next president. But there are other forces and subgroups, with some of the covert alliances lodged in COSATU and the South African Communist Party. The media, or at least sections of it, has become a player in the game in that some protagonists use the media as a platform for discrediting certain opponents.

4. The mainstream media and the ruling ANC have a love-hate relationship. Most influential newspapers believe corruption is one of South Africa's biggest problems, and some like nothing better than to run a weekly expose fingering a top ANC leader involved in some unsavoury business. Of course, the basic concern about corruption is good and needed. Yet, with many media entities, corruption stories are seldom sustained and a focus on institutional issues of corruption is generally neglected. This means that there is a dearth of media campaigns to force government agencies to change practices which contradict policy, facilitate corruption or cause unnecessary hardship to citizens.

The ANC is riled by the abundance of corruption stories that target top individual, and it charges that constant images of the black male involved in corruption may reinforce racist perceptions that prevail in large parts of society. Unfortunately the ANC leadership is also in an loving embrace with the media. The ruling ANC uses the print media as a key source of information and a vehicle to reach the public. In addition, during periods of controversy and conflict within the ANC, insiders attack opponents through carefully placed “leaks" to the media. In this regard, the media is mobilised to attack individuals and to further factional agendas.

3. Compared to the role of other media, the SABC has decided to strike out on its own path. It has done so by taking conscious newsroom decisions to cover certain political stories differently and some major stories not at all. This recently culminated in a letter to the national editors’ forum, Sanef, in which the SABC accused other media of selling out on democracy and transformation for "thirty pieces of silver". Essentially, the official SABC stance is that coverage of political stories in the major news media (especially newspapers) is flawed. It claims that these entities are too busy pursuing profit to care about the damage done through sensationalism and scandal-mongering or influenced by a conservative political outlook that makes them unpatriotic and disrespectful of government leaders. The SABC is concerned about the "dignity and privacy" of government ministers and is highly annoyed that Sanef refuses to take the same view.

4. The row around the selection of the SABC board shows how multifaceted the problems in our media are. Organisations across a wide spectrum have raised a red flag over the selection process (and the way in which ANC headquarters allegedly intervened to influence the list, even against the wishes of ANC parliamentarians). Various political parties as well as the ANC's alliance partner, COSATU, have objected to the process ad well as to the final the list that pushed through. There are calls for President Thabo Mbeki to reject the names and to refer the matter back to Parliament for reconsideration. The controversy around the selection of its Board undermines the SABC's critique of mainstream media. This is not entirely fair since the debacle is less about what the broadcaster is doing and more about how powerful politicians are intervening to maintain an influence on it.
The row presents us with a good opportunity to review various aspects of the SABC with the aim of strengthening its role in democracy. Now is a good time to refine checks and balances to ensure that the broadcaster advances the values in the Constitution and serves the public in best way possible.

I suggest that a commission or an inquiry (probably instituted by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) be launched into the role and mandate of the SABC. An inquiry should be consultative and create space for organised interest groups as well as communities across the country to give input. Such a review process ought to probe and advise on the balance between various functions and imperatives related to the SABC's role, such as:
- providing information
- critique of public officials and institutions (holding public representatives and officials accountable)
- critique of private sector practices (including consumer issues and good governance practices)
- providing entertainment
- supporting cultural development
- uniting South Africans
- generating income.

Such an inquiry should lead to a set of findings and recommendations that are an advisory in nature. I believe the SABC will be strengthened through such a process. It can draw on such findings to substantiate certain positions. Alternately, if it chooses to, it can make clear choices to ignore certain recommendations. Of course, it would need to fully substantiate its policy position and take any possible flak that would come its way.

I believe that a public consultation process around the role of broadcaster would also be good for the broader debate about the role of the media. Issues, perspectives and broadly agreed recommendations would impact on the ongoing debate about the role of media in the transformation.

In the meantime, here are some of my views on the role of the SABC.

The SABC should play a different role to other media. For one, because the SABC is not a fully commercial animal, it can undertake functions and roles that the mainstream commercial media cannot do justice to. The public broadcaster has the latitude, for example, to do better in terms of use and promotion of language diversity, increased local content and educational programmes. It can also do a better job covering development stories, which often do not meet the standard or dominant criteria for newsworthiness (e.g. controversy, conflict or scandal). However, such a distinctive role should be the subject of open consultation and continuous review by stakeholders and by the relevant Parliamentary subcommittee.

But while we should use the public broadcaster to address gaps in media provision, it should continue to provide news and commentary that is fair-minded, reflective and encourages open debate. To be fair minded means to reflect a broad range of views and - in the case of the SABC - the views of people and organisations on the ground. Coverage of political and socio-economic issues in the South African electronic media is dominated by two categories: leading politicians, Ministers and government spokesperson on the one hand, and a handful of political commentators on the other. There is immense scope for including a wider range of voices in the news and current affairs.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Discussion of media quality needed, not further regulation

It is very difficult to properly debate the media in South Africa because we use the media itself as a platform. Who we are and what we say is already mediated by the media, and thus our discussions may already be defined by certain parameters.

But it is precisely why discussion of the media’s role is vitally important. Those of us who use print media extensively constitute a rather small group – a group which includes key opinion makers, decisionmakers and movers and shakers in institutions. But the discourses in the print media are intrinsically linked to the electronic news media. In terms of analysis and intellectual framing, the print media constitutes, as it were, the first economy while the electronic media forms the second economy. In terms of cultural influence, however, (and potential for social dialogue with all South Africans) the electronic media is by far the more powerful force.

There are other reasons why it is tricky reviewing and reflecting critically on the role of media.

As a democrat, I am wary of inciting interference with something that works – albeit with room for improvement; the concern is that - because we aren’t sure about what needs improving and how to set about making improvements – we could end up causing more damage to this important institution. It’s like the lay mechanic who pulls apart an engine, hoping to soup it up, but ends up with just a disastrous pile of engine parts on the floor.

In addition, some voices/interests in the media can be ultra sensitive to criticism. A critical comment is branded as an attack on freedom of speech, just like critical discussion of Zionism often leads to allegations of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, fools rush in …

The media is doing a great deal of good work. Like many institutions in civil society, it was not fully prepared for life (and role-shift) beyond democracy. It had not thoroughly interrogated, before 1994, what it would mean to be the media in a transitional society and in a fragile democracy.

The media suddenly found itself having to help usher in and bed down the new democracy. Squarely in the deep end, it had to provide relevant information for voters, monitor electoral processes, introduce exiled leaders to the public, try to build bridges between alienated communities, comment on processes to deal with the past, disseminate the new Constitution’s core principals, track alliances within and between parties, be a watchdog without promoting stereotypes about black rule, hold leaders accountable and - most difficult of all - tell the development story. It had the gargantuan task of managing the ambiguity of holding leadership accountable while recognizing that this new leadership had done infinitely more to address the needs of the black majority than any government before. There are gaps, but a great deal of good work has been done.

The question is how to improve the media. Rather than stagnate and rest on laurels, the question is how to move to a new level of performance. Forget for a moment the bitter complaints by certain powerful politicians and the ruling ANC about the media; impelling us to make improvements are (a) the information needs of the people and (b) the challenge of building a collective belonging and shared goals among the widest group of South Africans.

The media needs to be prepared to undertake a deeper reflection. It needs to be prepared to navigate itself through a second loop of learning. The first level of learning is how to do better (more accuracy, retain journalistic experience longer through better pay, channels for complaint-handling, etc.) within accepted notions, the conventional and long-held traditions. A second level of rigorous reflection would go back to a review of the paradigm itself, to guiding values and the core mission of media work. Here the basic framing ideas may be adjusted, but may also be confirmed.

These days there is, frighteningly so, much talk of media regulation; (I understand the ANC has a policy proposal in this regard for discussion at its national conference later this year). It is said that being the fourth estate, the media needs checks and balances comparable to regulation governing the other 3 key spheres of democracy. Then there is the usual complaint that, in newspapers, major front page errors are followed by a barely visible retraction on a more obscure inside page. It is further argued that current self-regulation, such as the Press Ombudsman facility, is insufficient and that defamation payouts from the courts have generally been low.

But regulation would be the completely wrong way to go. Apart from the dangers of doing damage, and constricting the democratic oxygen in society, quality in the media cannot be brought about by regulation. By and large, the starting point for those supporting tougher regulation is either the need to protect the dignity and privacy of public figures or has to do with specific grievances among key politicians about coverage of their portfolios. In my book, a much broader perspective is required – including society’s needs, how to deepen our democracy and nationbulding. Also, better newspapers and better electronic news (including better quality and more depth) cannot be regulated into being.

A social dialogue process on the media and its role would need to examine:

a. Depth and quality in the media
For those who argue that quality is in place, this would represent an opportunity to confirm that. For others, identifying gaps and barriers to excellence would be important in strengthening the role of media in promoting democracy.

b. Diversity to meet the needs of the population and differentiation
A diverse mass media that comprehensively meets the information, awareness and entertainment needs of all South African is needed. Here we need to ask: what are the gaps and silences, and what can be done about these? At the same time, there must be an appreciation of the fact that a newspaper or a station needs to create a particular profile and standpoint. In some ways, it would be preferable if media vehicles were more open about their particular agenda and positioning; we could then read their editorials and their story choices in context.

c. Certain culture issues
This is a specific reference to forms of address in the media. How – given a fractious society - should, for example, the President be addressed. President Thabo Mbeki won the last elections by a sweeping majority and now occupies highest office as head of the country. That requires some acknowledgement and respect. In SA, we won’t accept groveling terms such as His Excellency to refer to Cabinet Ministers, but many of us also squirm when columnists refer to the President Mbeki simply as “Thabo”. For sure, the gloves do come off when top media voices clash with politicians; but surely it is possible to be incisive, strident and even devastating in criticism by focusing on content and without being rude or boorish.

d. How development is covered
The commercial media relies on an oppositional approach, since conflict and contestation works best for selling newspapers and drawing listeners. But mass media also has a service to perform (each media outlet must, of course, decide to what extent it does so), and communication of development information should be one of the benefits of a good media system. The media in Mzansi does well in terms of broad coverage of education - of innovations, changes and new initiatives. But many other developmental topics, e.g. housing, water, social grants, etc. are usually covered only in relation to "scandals". NGOs and community organisations constantly complain about the dearth in thorough coverage and critical analysis of development - of policy implementation, choice of instruments, policy outcomes and impacts on communities. It needs to be asked: despite the bottom-line pressures on the commercial media, what improvements in coverage are possible so that a free media contributes to better development planning, decisionmaking and implementation?

I now turn to suggestions for the way forward. One of the problems is that debate on the role of the media is often confined to/dominated by media practitioners and editors on the one side and aggrieved politicians on the other. This is far too limiting – in any case suspicions on either side about vested interests and concealed agendas mean these two sides never really dialogue. In effect, the discussion is often frozen. We need to bring the third part of the triangle into the picture – us, the public, the community and the consumers of the news media. What is needed instead is a social dialogue between the public and the media.

I propose the following:

1. There should be a major commission into the quality and depth of the mass media in South Africa. Such a commission should include leaders and practitioners in the media locally, some academics as well as experts from other countries. It should issue a “Depth and Quality” report, bearing in mind the needs of a transitional society, and draw conclusions that can guide broader engagement and dialogue.

2. Newspapers and stations should have a regular dialogue with their constituencies. For example, an Eastern Cape newspaper could hold an annual “imbizo” with people representing its constituency, including local church leaders, local trade unionists, NGOs and professionals working at community level. This would allow for a vibrant and edifying exchange on the role of media, and may provide interesting inputs into discussions about quality and effectiveness.

3. Forums and conferences for editors and journalists should include input from thinkers and analysts outside the media. It seems to me that, on the media’s role, there is a great deal of consensus (the latest outburst by the SABC aside) prevailing in the liberal/mainstream media. There seems to be a general sense of comfort that all is going well, while conceding that some tweaking and minor improvements are needed such as more training and measures to retain experienced journalists as well as better strategic responses to opportunities presented by technology and new media. The discussions at these conferences could be enriched if they were addressed by people, not necessarily politicians, who - while embracinng media freedom - could be more heretical and provocative about the role media media can play in consolidating a new democratic society.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Protests reflect need for community organising skills

Reflecting on the many service delivery protests, the latest clashes being in Soweto, I believe that there is an urgent need for the rollout of community organizing skills.

I must begin by citing a friend and colleague, Owen Stuurman, who insists that a clear distinction be drawn between community development and community organization. Community development aspects are always needed, but community development usually implies communities organizing themselves and starting community projects.

Communities are seen (and positively so) to drive the projects themselves, but they take and use whatever they can get from donors and government. Community organization– on the other hand – points much more clearly to the need to engage with authorities, with official plans, with budgets and to take action that will ensure the delivery of vital community-wide infrastructure and services.

Community organization has a strong inward-out focus, seeking to impact on wider systems. It seeks to make those systems more enabling and supportive of development in the community. In the SA context both are needed. Communities must launch their own projects and bring other players and resources to the party. At the same time, there needs to be community organization.

Such organization improves democratic local governance and helps to bring about a proper and balanced distribution of resources that has already been approved by Parliament(s) in order to improve the lives of people.

The Department of Social Development, as part of its shift away from welfare to effective development, has over the years been placing increasing policy emphasis on community-based facilitation. They have linked this to the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and government’s Community Development Worker (CDW) programmes which are ventures that seek to provide skills to the unemployed through a kind of internship. In the EPWP, for example, the focus might be on social public works such as door to door HIV/AIDS work. The CDWs would fan out into communities, informing households about key government programmes and – using internet-linked laptops – help people in poor communities to access social grants and other services. Should these programmes not also be providing workshops on the basics of community organisation?

The social workers in government - who focus on psychosocial work (counseling services and group work with vulnerable groups) - also have the scope to include activities that enhancing community organization skills. In recent years, the Department has experimented with income-generating projects, inter alia through using UN funding. All pretty good work, trying to build self-esteem and initiatives based on group trust in communities battered by poverty. But, I would argue, there is now immense opportunity to enhance levels of empowerment through supporting communities to engage more effectively with government.

Aggrieved groups should recognize that protesting well and with impact is a skill. The answers to the following questions emerge only after planning and careful consultative work at local level. What are your demands? How deep and wide is community support for your demands? How long can you sustain your action? How will you appeal to the wider public so they side with your just demands? How will you leverage knowledge of the law, plans and budgets, etc – to advance your case?

A deeper grasp of community organization would suggest that effective protest (although from a distance it sometimes looks similar) is distinct from “running amok”, angry outbursts, spontaneous violence and wanton attacks on property. These latter forms may as easily lead nowhere, especially if you lack the capacity and support to sustain the protests through crackdowns and state action.

I know, as one community protester from the Ekurhuleni area told me recently, an outraged oppressed group finds it offensive that any individual from outside should try to prescribe how it should protest. I am aware that many things affect decisions about tactics: knowledge of tactical options, levels of anger, number of times official promises have been broken and depth of leadership experience and insight into social change processes.

And yet … as an observer, I am often left in the dark about what the specific demands are and who the specific target of the protest is. I am also puzzled why passers-by (and sometimes hawkers along the route of protests) are attacked. And given that these are anti-poverty protests (and many people may want to show solidarity), how can sympathetic individuals or groups forge any alliances with an amorphous group?

My views are that:
++ We should make full use of the channels that exist in the democracy we fought for. Don’t start breaking down the door before you have actually ascertained that it is bolted shut.

++ Once you have exhausted options (and there is no positive change in the lives of your constituency despite your petitioning and appeals over a long period of time), you will logically move to more radical protests. In the end, your focus is on making sure you meet some or all of your objectives – not necessarily on whether you bring discomfort to officials or not. Although used more sparingly in a functioning democracy, no-one can take away your right to toyi-toyi.

In the literature on advocacy (changing dominant views and shifting policies), the types of possible actions to demand change form a continuum. Actions can range from passive resistance (doing it on your own), co-operation/collaboration (working with government) through to open and forceful opposition. In our legitimate and democratic government, the focus is surely not on planning to overthrow the government, so any calls to violent action must be rejected as destructive and ill-advised.

All in all, there appears to be a widespread and dire need for enhancement of old-fashioned community organizing skills. Such enhancement will seek out continuities with past struggles and will draw out experience and knowledge, possibly neglected in the heat of the moment, that resides within poor communities.

With deeper understanding of community organization history, processes and case studies, protestors are likely to do better at forcing officials to face up to rather than avoid the real issues. Demonstrators can also minimize clashes with police and are more likely to garner wider public support and a positive overall outcome.

Many officials may like the idea of respectable leaders of community groups sitting at the table rather than toyi-toying in the streets. They may imagine that dealing with organized communities means tame groups sitting in paneled boardrooms sipping tea and listening to presentations and speeches by officials. But such a view would be cynical and shortsighted. Embracing community organization as a feature of local governance will require a change on the part of officialdom as well.

On their part, officials need more generally to understand that active citizenship is part of a process of realizing a rights-based society. They need to accept that “Batho Pele” (the public service slogan, People First) can only be effectively implemented if communities are active in following up on the rights formally accorded to them by law.

Officials should have their doors open to engage with organized communities and leaders of campaigns on burning socio-economic issues. During meetings, they ought to listen, clarifying needs and getting a clear understanding of community perceptions of what changes are required. Officials need to be committed to reporting back within agreed time lines. Mutual respect, rather than disdain and arrogance, should be the preferred style. Officials should impart facts, and openly discuss their constraints and challenges. Initially angry groups dismiss official reasons and explanations, but even the poorest communities prefer to hear the truth rather than empty promises.

What are your views? Kindly leave a comment.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Despite confusion in the political world, a time to build hope

With the arrival of spring 2007, is it not time to encourage and engender a more positive mood among South Africans?

Although calendar demarcation lines such as a "new year" (and decades for that matter) are artificial markers of time, Spring is much more real, grounded in meteorological reality. Maybe we can use nature’s gear change as leverage to spur on the shift in mood as we enter the last four months of the year.

Despite the problems and challenges of developing countries - and ours in particular - how does one contemplate the future without a bucket or two of optimism? Without hope, we remain trapped within the past, and within the limits it imposes. Our thinking becomes narrow and we run low in generosity and openness to others.

Being optimistic is a choice. We can opt to look at things differently. Indeed, we can choose the lens we want; we can decide what must be in the frame. This is applicable as much at a personal level as at the broader level of social awareness.

Of course, any talk of a so-called positive mind, conjures up the image of the motivational speaker, which in turn provokes sniggers among the skeptics. Motivational speakers are renowned for framing their positive outlook in terms of the maxim: you can be whatever you want to be. Of course, you need to make sense of such a sweeping claim: what it really means is that - by shifting one’s perspective and refocusing your energies - you can always do better. Or you might take it to mean that – as I heard one motivational speaker confess – you can be what you want to be, provided that you can build a credible bridge to that goal.

Hope is not just pie in the sky; it is a life-giving force. In her edited book, Hope: new philosophies for change, Sydney-based Mary Zournazi ropes in several leading philosophers to explore the “politics of hope” and “revolutionary hope”. For her, hope is not just “the desire for things to come” but “the drive or energy that embeds us in the world” and makes us a vibrant part of what she calls the ecology of life.

In the current context, where politics momentarily seems rudderless and many politicians appear estranged from their constituencies, being hopeful and optimistic means asking: how can we as a country emerge from this stronger and more aligned with each other in terms of broad national goals. What stance can we take and what actions, responses and comments can we make that would tilt us in such a direction?

The country’s brand statement “Alive With Possibilities” can be instructive here. The core argument in the brand statement is that because of who we are (personality), what we have (attributes) and what we do (capabilities), we offer the world (anyone who engages with use) unique new possibilities. This line of thinking does not entail that we close our eyes to problems, challenges and missed opportunities; what it means is that if we believe in the country and can see what is possible (based on how we overcame the odds in the past), we will work harder to make this democracy better and more effective.

We have many things going for us. Sustained economic growth that raises the possibilities of improving the lot of the many who live in poverty and deprivation. South Africa’s robust constitution that is backed up by key institutions. We are gearing up for a Soccer World Cup that will give visitors a unique experience: the best of soccer coupled with easy-to-reach beaches, game parks, cultural tourism and some of the most scenic spots in the world. We also boast a diverse people with a rich cultural life.

Of course, the skeptics and the cynics who seemingly include large numbers of South Africans, will look at these aspects and argue that they are not enough. Yet at the same time, researchers tell us that many more South Africans feel good about being citizens of Mzansi. According to a report (29 Aug 2007) on the research results of the World Values Survey, 96% of South Africans are proud of their country. And while 5 years ago, 83% of white people viewed themselves as proud of SA, that figure has since jumped to 95%.

The lead researcher, Dr Hennie Kotze, ascribes the good results to “positive socio-economic trends”. The survey also found that, although a substantial number are concerned about crime, South Africans' confidence in state institutions had increased by 11%.

So despite the glum mood on the surface, beneath it all, South Africans clearly recall where they have come from and their basic long term perspective remains good. Let us build on these robust foundations.