Polishing turds won’t save our papers

Circulation of English language broadsheets in South Africa is largely in decline. We all know that. But the response hasn’t been to invest in better content. Instead, staff numbers have been slashed, news from elsewhere gets regurgitated and a fixation with other media – websites, multimedia and, of course, Twitter – has developed.

Most of our broadsheets have become emaciated pastiches of newspapers, stuffed with copy from the news wires. I’m sick of seeing SAPA reports every time I turn the page – all too often they’re badly written, inaccurate and lacking nuance and context. The shoddy copy is hardly surprising when the overstretched and under resourced agency is often one of the few news organisations that actually bothers to cover a host of events across South Africa.

Across the spectrum, the desire to offer compelling, relevant content to readers seems to have evaporated. While cost-cutting and declining ad revenue has obviously impacted on the quality of content, a championing of mediocrity is as much to blame. Gone are the days, it seems, when South Africa’s journalists actually went out and hunted down exclusives. Instead, we’re served up stories that are in within easy reach: it’s so much easier to fill column inches about the folk across the corridor or fulminate interminably about the latest antics of Malema (or new bad boy on the block Jimmy Manyi) than it is to deliver an exposé about muti murders in Limpopo. Even areas not too far beyond the comfortable confines of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs seem too much of a stretch: the best, most comprehensive reporting on Diepsloot’s mob justice was in the New York Times – not in any of our rags. This results in the ANCYL’s buffoonery or Manyi’s madness getting disproportionate coverage. South Africa is a vast and astonishingly complex, diverse nation. It’s a great injustice that our newspapers largely fail to reflect this, and that so many stories remain untold.

The Independent newspapers are beyond redemption, almost. Regional titles like the Cape Argus do an adequate job covering their cities, but news about their respective provinces is poor, and international coverage completely reliant on wire copy.

Business Day is possibly our last credible daily. Its shrunken newsroom remains populated with some good reporters, but pressure from the bean counters still means an over-reliance on wire agencies as well as liberal copy-and-pasting of content from its big sister, London’s Financial Times. A lack of presence in the rest of Africa is a major disadvantage: a title committed to seriously covering African business should have bureaus in Lagos and Nairobi – or, in these straitened economic times, at least a set of reliable freelancers and stringers reporting out of these budding business hubs.

I read with dismay a few days ago that Business Day was developing an app for iPad. I’m no Luddite, but I think it’s a crying shame knowing that money’s being wasted on a gimmick when it should be rather spent on improving the paper’s core product.

In a developing country like our own, printed paper remains the best way of being accessible and affordable to your audience. Even with exciting developments like iMaverick on the horizon, tablets will still remain out of reach for millions of South Africans. Broadsheet titles won’t grow readership or convert the emerging middle class into devoted fans by wasting money on a snazzy app, especially if this is done at the expense of delivering quality content.

While the web plays an important role in both disseminating and shaping the news agenda, it can easily become distraction. Journalists and editors should undoubtedly be at ease with social media tools, but you can’t help thinking that if editors spent more time editing, and if journalists spent more time writing instead of tweeting, there would be a better paper at the end of it.

When we presented ideas that were beautifully rendered but conceptually weak, my branding course lecturers at college told us we were polishing a turd: we were trying to dress up something that was still, ultimately, shit. This is true of Times Live – after yet another facelift this week, the SAPA copy and celeb fluff may now appear in a slightly different layout but the content still remains largely dismal. A chunk of Sunday Times/The Times’s whopping digital budget would be better spent on hiring a few fact-checkers.

This is not a universal tale of woe. The Mail & Guardian is less provincial than many of its peers, regularly serving up vital investigations and engaging reportage about urgent issues. Its amaBhungane project is an exciting manifestation of its wonderfully old fashioned commitment to holding the powerful to account. Another weekly, the Financial Mail, is an elegant and essential business briefing. Online, The Daily Maverick deserves applause for its fresh, intelligent writing while Politicsweb embarrasses our print dailies by offering a far superior dose of political commentary, with the likes of RW Johnson and Rhoda Kadalie contributing regularly to the site.

Clearly there’s hope for quality journalism in South Africa. But if our papers keep dishing up myopic reporting and superficial analysis, their terminal decline will only be accelerated, not reversed. Slick apps and websites are all good and well, but if paired with poor content, they offer old media more of a red herring than a white knight.

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Cowardly big business is failing our democracy

Democracy is an ecosystem. Its survival is dependent on many things: a sound legislative framework, an independent judiciary, a vibrant parliament and a responsive government. Beyond this, it also needs a vigilant, proactive civil society, engaged voters and a free media: three elements that ensure government is held accountable for its actions, transparent about what it does and goaded into serving the best of interests of the people – not of those in power.

The Protection of Information bill is one of the gravest threats to this ecosystem. It will critically undermine the ability for parliament, the media and civil society to ensure accountability and transparency in government. The ANC claims this law is to protect state security but, as many before me have pointed out, its wide-ranging mandate means it can easily be used to cover up wrongdoing, severely punishing those who dare to expose it.

Earlier this week, Pick n Pay’s chairman, Gareth Ackerman, spoke out against the bill. He provided a calm and clear explanation of its potential to damage the economy and deter foreign investment. Financial information could be concealed, as could corruption – thereby severely stymieing the economic freedom needed to foster entrepreneurship and attract investors – both essential ingredients required to combat poverty and narrow the vast gulf between rich and poor.

While the dangers of the Info Bill seem self evident, it is startling that so far Ackerman is the only significant businessman who has criticised it. The silence from the rest of business is as deafening as it is inexcusable.

When the prosperity of our economy, our democracy and our country’s future is being put at risk, you would have thought there would have been a cacophony of outrage from businesses – it is in their interest that the bill does not become law, after all. But no. Two of our biggest and most important business groupings, Business Leadership South Africa and Business Unity South Africa have not said a word. Neither have our largest companies.

What can explain this gutless behaviour: is business hoping this is a battle that will be fought by others? Or that the ANC will suddenly override its totalitarian instincts and dump the legislation at the last minute?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that many businesses are simply too afraid to stand up to government because they are reliant upon political goodwill to operate freely. Many businesses unquestioningly and sycophantically signed up to Black Economic Empowerment. This was despite them knowing that BEE had little to with empowering blacks and everything to do with consolidating the ANC’s economic clout: a system designed to massively enrich a tiny yet powerful elite.

Big business thought it would get an easy ride if it cosied up to the ANC. And indeed, with loyal ANC cadres dotting the boards of some of South Africa’s largest companies, business has largely been left alone to get on with making money.

Now they’re really caught in a fix. Even if they are conscious of the long-term dangers of a law like the Info Bill, they are too entrenched in the ANC’s patronage network to speak out about it lest they incur the wrath of the party’s titans and lose business deals and political support as a result.

Our nation’s corporations should have been more careful when they made this Faustian pact with the ANC in the Nineties. In the afterglow of the first democratic elections it must have seemed pragmatic and sensible to cuddle up to the new snouts at the trough. But with the ANC’s non-racial values long squandered by the craven despots that call the shots in the movement now, the folly of such an approach has been exposed.

If the Info Bill is thwarted, it will certainly not be thanks to big business. It will be in spite of it: in spite of a group of companies that have cosily conspired with the ANC to maintain a status quo of wealth in the hands of a few, at the expense of the countless millions who remain economically oppressed.

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UCT’s affirmative action excluding SA’s poor?

Well, that’s what Jonathan Jansen, the vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, seems to think. Click here to read his arguments on the matter, which appeared in the Business Day as part of the Centre for Development and Enterprise’s fabulous series on “transformation”.

Jansen’s contribution to this vexed issue is a breath of fresh air, and he brings much needed intelligence and rationality to the debate.

My own thoughts on University of Cape Town’s racially-based admissions policy can be found here. They were written in my last year of school (and no I wasn’t an embittered applicant — I didn’t even apply to the esteemed institution), appearing as letters to the Business Day and the Cape Times. Although that was all the way back in late 2006, the issues remain all too relevant.

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Mugabe’s cronies: the new colonialists

According to an investigation conducted by ZimOnline, 40% of commercial farmland seized as part of Robert Mugabe’s so-called “land reform” programme is in the possession of the Zanu PF elite — a group of approximately 2200 people.

This is a powerful indictment on the land grabs that have ruined Zimbabwe. It shows that expropriation had little to do with tackling the inequities created by Zimbabwe’s colonial past, and everything to do with buttressing Zanu PF rule and stealing resources for the benefit of a few.

The amassing of land, diamonds and other resources by this corrupt and greedy ruling cabal represents a new, horrifying colonialism in Zimbabwe: a system of oppression which denies ordinary Zimbabweans basic political and economic freedoms, and condemns the poorest of the poor to the enslavement of poverty and persecution.

Read more about the investigation’s findings at the M&G.

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Technology’s toxic end

Last week Thursday, Pieter Hugo’s latest body of work — Permanent Error — launched at the Brodie/Stevenson Gallery in downtown Johannesburg.

Copyright Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York.

Hugo is one of my favourite photographers. His portraiture captures African lives and stories with a potent blend of empathy and poignancy — from the South African border town of Musina, to Botswana’s judiciary and Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry.

Permanent Error takes us to the edges of a Agbogbloshie, a Ghanaian slum, a dumping ground for the West’s technological waste.

The gallery’s website says:

The UN Environment Program has stated that Western countries produce around 50 million tons of digital waste every year. In Europe, only 25 percent of this type of waste is collected and effectively recycled. Much of the rest is piled in containers and shipped to developing countries, supposedly to reduce the digital divide, to create jobs and help people. In reality, the inhabitants of dumps like Agbogbloshie survive largely by burning the electronic devices to extract copper and other metals out of the plastic used in their manufacture. The electronic waste contaminates rivers and lagoons with consequences that are easily imaginable. In 2008 Green Peace took samples of the burnt soil in Agbogbloshie and found high concentrations of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and PVC.

The show will run until 15 December.

Find out more here.

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Cape Town: a culture of complacency?

Last week human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie raised a stink about the abysmal state of the toilets in Cape Town’s City Hall. A contractor was hired in April to renovate them. When she requested a progress report last month senior council officials ignored her so she visited the loos herself. She wrote in Business Day last week:

[I] found shockingly that the contractor had gone AWOL, that the toilet windows were wide open during raging winter weather, that tiles were missing, and pigeon droppings were everywhere. While some toilets and basins were installed, others were just lying about. The necessary tiles and equipment were missing. In brief, the place was in a state of disgusting chaos. After much ado, I managed to trace the person in charge, who reassured me the process would be re-advertised and put out to tender. No one can give us a time frame and there is no way of knowing when the toilets will be ready […] The fact is no supervision took place while the contractors were there, and I was the one to discover that they had disappeared.

It didn’t take very long for the council’s media machine to leap into action. In a statement released last Tuesday, it was quick to point out that a R2 million turnaround strategy had commenced two years ago and included:

Repairs to roof leaks; Repairs to the clock, which has also been automated; Electrical reticulation repairs; Repair of the pipe organ; Minor repairs to the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra back room area; Rewiring of and repairs to chandelier cables; Replacement of lettering on Main Hall chairs; Painting of the first and second floor walls and ceiling; Sanding and varnishing of Press Room; and, Sanding and varnishing of two rooms on the first floor. The foyer has also been painted and the first set of four toilets is currently being upgraded and modernised.

The council said that it hoped “the City Hall should serve as a fully functional amenity” within three years.

While the City Hall is certainly dilapidated, it is ridiculous that it should take a projected total of five years to restore the building to being “fully functional”. As Kadalie’s column points out, an entire stadium has been built from scratch in less than that time. And quite frankly, it is pathetic that all that has been achieved in two years has been little more than a bit of rewiring and and a spot of sanding and varnishing.

The lack of progress in restoring this civic beauty to its former glory is a disturbing indication that the City of Cape Town has allowed a culture of complacency to creep in. As Kadalie’s story shows, the council’s claims of increased oversight, accountability and efficiency ring hollow in this instance.

Since the coalition that has ruled the city since 2006 came into power, there have undoubtedly been achievements. Finances, which had been in disarray, have been brought under control. Service delivery has tripled. And private-public initiatives have made enormous strides in reducing crime in the CBD and Khayelitsha.

But that is not enough. Cape Town is a city of vast inequality, a cauldron of simmering social problems that include crime, unemployment, excessive migration and a shortage of housing and services. The council would do well to stop resting on its laurels: if these issues are to be effectively dealt with then urgency, innovation and excellence are essential.

One only has to look to the Cape Town Stadium for further evidence that these qualities are sorely lacking. With SAIL Stadefrance abandoning plans to run the stadium for the next thirty years, the facility increasingly resembles a ratepayer-funded white elephant. The consortium calculated that the running costs of the stadium just didn’t make operating it viable (why it took until after the World Cup to figure this out is beyond me).

The council has decided to operate it on its own. This is shortsighted — council officials are not stadium experts: they ought to be running cities, not stadiums. The breakdown in negotations earlier this month between the city and SAIL Stadefrance leads to several questions. Why couldn’t an agreement be reached? And if the issues were completely unresolvable, why has this not been put out to tender again? Why are there no public discussions on how to ensure the stadium is sustainable and relevant for decades to come?

Cape Town may be South Africa’s best run city, but considering the shambolic state of so many of our other municipalities this is hardly something to be content with. If the DA is serious about proving it can offer a more principled and more effective alternative to ANC rule, it needs to redouble its efforts to match rhetoric with action.

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The Swazis who dare to demand democracy

You know a monarchy is feeling the heat when errant subjects face a beating with spikes. Last month, the prime minister of Swaziland, Barnabas Dlamini, threatened to use “sipakatane” — the beating of the feet with of metal or wooden spikes — to cow pro-democracy activists into submission. His comments came after a protest march triggered fifty arrests and the deportation of several South African trade unionists from Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

King Mswati III has led Swaziland since 1986. Ruling by decree, he has maintained the state of emergency his father, King Sobhuza II, instituted in 1973 — five years after independence.

Forbes magazine estimates Mswati’s wealth to be $200 million, making him the world’s 15th richest monarch. In a country with the world’s highest prevalence of HIV (at 40%), and with seven out of ten citizens living in poverty, Mswati’s lavish lifestyle (funded by an annual allocation larger than the education budget) has provoked outrage. Plans to buy a $45 million Bombardier jet in 2002 were shelved but the king’s penchant for heavy metal persists, with a purchase of ten BMWs (one for each of his wives) in 2005 and 20 armour-plated Mercedes last year.

The Swazis are losing patience with this conspicuous consumption, however. In August 2008, hundreds of women marched through the streets of Mbabane, the capital, to protest against a shopping trip for nine of the king’s wives to Europe.

In February this year, the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, an umbrella body of Swazi and South African organizations, including trade unions, churches and NGOs, was formed. The organization rallied hundreds to march for democracy during a common market of Eastern and Southern Africa summit on the seventh of September, as Mswati played host to 19 African heads of state.

The police responded in brutal fashion. Mario Masuku, president of Swaziland’s banned political party, PUDEMO, was put under house arrest while his deputy, Sikhumbuzo Phakathi, was arrested at the border. Phakathi remains in detention, fuelling concerns he will meet the same fate as Sipho Jele, a fellow activist who died in police detention earlier this year.

Zanele Matebula, the deputy international secretary of South Africa’s largest trade union, COSATU, was one of the 50 activists detained. After four hours of being questioned by police, she and four colleagues were booted out of the country.

“To deport five people, they mobilised about 300 members of the police, military and other officials. It was ridiculous. It was all about the pretence of a strong state,” Steve Faulkner, a union spokesman, told the M&G. “But this is a turning point for Swaziland,” he added. “In spite of the intimidatory behaviour, the confidence of the people is soaring and they’re really getting organized.”

Swaziland’s future is uncertain, but what is clear is that its nascent civil rights movement is gathering a momentum not seen since independence. With Swaziland economically reliant on South Africa, the latter is ideally placed to capitalise on this momentum and pressurise Mswati to reform. But as its approach to Zimbabwe shows, South Africa is notoriously reluctant to step on the toes of her neighbours. It will be up to the rest of the international community encourage Swaziland’s monarchy to modernise.

According to the Swaziland Solidarity Network, the EU provides £65 million in aid to Swaziland annually, while the US donates approximately $200 million. Donor countries should stop turning a blind eye to Mswati’s excesses and should rather use this funding strategically to encourage democratisation.

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