Is the press complicit in reinforcing Luthuli House as the centre of the people’s power?

Everyone knows the ins and outs of the nation’s favourite soapie, Luthuli House—who is in whose camp, who got burnt by whom, who’s on the rise and who is going down. And as December approaches we receive minute-by-minute updates of the goings on.

Who is this engorging our minds with the fates of the personalities on Sauer Street? Why it’s the South African press of course. From their printed and pixel pages to the editorials, op-eds and TV and radio talk shows we learn of the Luthuli House personalities and their affiliates. From there it cascades, oozing its way through places of public dialogue. You can’t escape it. That’s the power of the press.

The new press code came out recently and maintains that the press exists to serve society. It says press freedom: “provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the time, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution.”

It may seem like the press is living up to this, after all, Luthuli House is the epicentre of political power in this country. What happens there shapes our society as can be seen by how its failings are said to be at the heart of what’s gone wrong in this country.

I do not agree with that diagnosis, as in that I see a mere symptom. Nonetheless what is lost in this way of thinking?

Well, for one, the Luthuli House soap opera is not Idols. At the end of each episode, ProVerb doesn’t pop up telling me to vote for my favourite, nor is the one who got the least votes kicked out each week. Wouldn’t that be nice? But, see, I have no direct say in what goes on in Luthuli House.

Where I do have a say on national issues is 1,400 kilometres away, on Plein Street, in the Houses of Parliament.

Rarely, though, do I ever hear what goes on there save for the drama of the National Assembly and NCOP debates, which are little more than a dance-off and thus ultimately meaningless. Once in a while the parliamentary questions and replies sessions will make front-page news and, if there’s drama going on, so will a bill, long after it’s been through the public comment period. And anyway these will be sound bites in a larger story that ultimately goes back to, surprise, surprise, the nation’s favourite soapie, Luthuli House.

Forgive me, for I, too, have done this. I’ve participated in the hollowing of Parliament by reporting the events there with reference to the jostling within the ANC. Sure, most of the players are ANC MPs, but they are owned by the citizens of this democracy. For citizens to “make informed judgements on issues of the time”, the information provided should be from the context of where the citizens have power.

Stop anyone on the street and ask them what any high-ranking ANC politician did last week, and you’ll likely get a correct answer. Ask that same person what the chairperson for the portfolio committee on correctional services did in the same week and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask them who the chairperson is, what the committee does, or the matters under currently consideration—any of these will yield an incorrect answer, if any answer at all.

Today is Sunday. A big news day. I dare you. Find me a front-page story in any of the main newspapers about Parliament, the legislatures or any of the councils, and I’ll eat my hat. But you will find something major about the rivalries heading into Mangaung.

On Friday, appearing before the standing committee on appropriations, basic education director-general Bobby Soobrayan said that in 2011/12, his department completed only 8% of the projects it had to improve school buildings under the R8.2 billion (over three years) accelerated schools infrastructure delivery initiative. In the Eastern Cape, where too many students are forced to learn in appropriate structures, the department completed only four of the 49 projects it had underway.

If it’s drama you want, the parliamentary committee meetings have that, too. Soobrayan, you’ll recall (because it was reported in the context of Luthuli House), is under investigation following the non-delivery of textbooks to Limpopo pupils and the subsequent failures to comply with court orders that the department do so. He’s claimed mission accomplished several times only for it to be proved otherwise later.

Committee member Lumka Yengeni called Soobrayan a liar for repeatedly providing the committee with misleading information and changing deadlines for when projects in the Eastern Cape would be complete. She reminded him that last year, so distrustful the committee was of the words that came out of his mouth that they demanded he be put under oath. Kudos, Ms Yengeni!

At least one headline today should read: “You’re a liar, Mr Soobrayan!”, in all caps. That’s unlikely however.

The ANC may complain about the coverage it receives, but ultimately it’s been to its benefit. It has exaggerated the party’s importance, which plays right into its messaging that it’s only through the ANC that the democratic revolution will be realised. Right now there are people who believe becoming ANC members is the only way to influence this country’s future. That is tragic.

The coverage has also worked for the ANC in that it’s diverted attention from Parliament, the legislatures and the councils, and the true power that shapes societies: citizens.

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2 thoughts on “Is the press complicit in reinforcing Luthuli House as the centre of the people’s power?

  1. Adrian Galley says:

    YES!!! It’s to the advantage of the ANC that the lines between party and state are blurred. Many a reporter in the increasingly ‘juniorised’ newsroom cannot even tell the difference.

  2. Craig Olyott says:

    Thanks. Lots to think over. I am all for the stories you pitching.

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