Friday 1 March 2024

Is the media fulfilling its role in promoting South African democracy?

By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

As we observed the second week of Lent, and as the Bishops of the Province met in Episcopal Synod this week to reflect and speak to church and society, our lections demanded of us that we be alert, that we take seriously how our behaviours affect others and, when they are not conducive to abundant life in God, that we amend them.

In the latest of my series of reflections on the state of society from a faith perspective, I examine how the media is taking stock of its role and measuring up to what we require of it in our current circumstances.

It is an unfortunate reflection on the quality of debate in Parliament that real political life in South Africa is to be found on the streets and in the media. Three decades into democracy, as we gear up for our seventh national and provincial elections, we need to ask: are the media facilitating or hindering the growth of democracy in our country?

A decade ago I was privileged to serve under the former Chief Justice, Pius Langa, as a commissioner of the Press Freedom Commission, which was appointed to recommend how best to ensure that the press adheres to the highest ethical standards.

So to help answer my question on the media’s performance, I have solicited the views of a range of media professionals – former editors of print and broadcast media, journalism academics, board members and ombuds – and tested them against the demands articulated by the commission.

In the commission’s report, we defined our primary objective as being “To ensure press freedom in support of enhancing our democracy which is founded on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedom..."

We were of course guided by the principles of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including media freedom and the rights of everyone to impart information or ideas.

Now the Constitution does not include in its definition of these freedoms the requirement that speech or private publications need to be fair or balanced, or even that they be truthful. We are free, for example, to promote propaganda in support of our ideas. In recent years, as well as those publications which print propaganda, we have seen the phenomenal growth of social media outlets, which – when used well – have helped ordinary people to realise the Constitution's promise of free speech. (In the church, for example, our members don't hesitate to hold us to account on Twitter and Facebook.)

But propaganda, like the fake news and toxic debate we see on social media, is of no value in promoting human dignity, equality and the advancement of human rights. Nor is it of any use at all in helping voters provide the reliable and truthful information they need to make informed choices at election time.

Fortunately, we have in South Africa private and public media committed under the codes of conduct of the Press Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to publishing truthful information and diverse views. When operating at their best, they are independently edited by experienced professional journalists who are neither mere tools of their bosses and shareholders, nor hijacked by politicians.

Journalists with inflated opinions of their influence are often brought back to earth by research which says that what they publish rarely changes the minds of their readers and viewers. That said, the media set agendas: they tell us what to think about, how long we should be thinking and talking about something and they can influence how we think about something.

Ideally, they hold those in power accountable and enable democracy by giving voters the information they need to become, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, “active citizens” instead of “passive subjects”. Unlike newspapers during the apartheid era, which were often banned and always constrained by more than 100 laws, they can promote transparency to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

In short, the media in South Africa have demonstrated that they have the power to influence individual beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, choices and decisions. But in one area that is crucial to the effective growth of democracy in South Africa, they fall short: most of our print, online and broadcast outlets speak to or reflect the interests of social and political elites.

In the Press Freedom Commission's 2012 report, we noted that “Diversity of content in the media is essential to ensure that the voices and opinions of all South Africans are heard." When it came to print journalism, we added: "It has been noted that the voices of some sections of the population are seldom heard in newspapers. The increased urbanisation of the print media has resulted from the concentration of both advertising and editorial imperatives on the large urban areas where larger newspapers are situated. Even national newspapers focus more on urban news. This results in fewer voices of rural people being published.”

Has the situation improved since then? There have been some positive developments: online or print outlets financed by philanthropic foundations and trusts which respect the independence of editors, and which – within their limited means – try to publish news about those otherwise ignored.

But traditional print media is in grave financial straits. Newspaper circulations have plummeted in the past decade and although there is growth in online news, it competes with the unreliable content seen on social media. Reporters who continue to travel to smaller towns and rural areas deserve praise and support but many papers cover their lack of ability to put reporters on the ground by running opinion pieces from politicians or academics.

With some exceptions, the media are not good at covering those whom they do not see in front of them – the 40 percent or so who still live in former “homeland” areas. And if you came to South Africa from another planet, you might think you had arrived on another continent, so little news from the rest of Africa – even crisis-hit, war-torn regions – would you see or hear.

The picture in broadcasting is not much better.

A former media executive who helped launch a new commercial broadcast venture tells me that at the outset their stated aim was to give a voice to the marginalised. But within months, the “market” taught them that it was not the marginalised, or even “the workers”, who bought new cars or bakkies – if the station wanted to attract advertising from businesses to sustain itself, it had to avoid antagonising them, so ended up paying lip service to the poor.

For its part, public broadcasting is not realising its full potential. Another former executive gave me chapter and verse of how the SABC’s transformation in the early 1990s from a state broadcaster into a public one has soured.

Under the visionary leadership of the late Zwelakhe Sisulu, the SABC began building a new, inclusive public broadcaster which aimed to develop a professional and fair news service that reached the poorest of communities around the country. But two crucial developments served to shift their focus.

First, political interference began to take place after the 2004 election when, for example, the news department began to spend vast sums, not on getting reporters to rural areas or uncovering problems with poor township schools, but instead on covering senior politicians on myriad overseas trips. Censorship was reinstated, with prominent experts on Zimbabwe banned from the airwaves. Then financial disaster hit during the reign of the political deployee, Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

I speak frequently to SABC journalists who are consummate professionals, and broadcasting experts acknowledge that the SABC is challenged not only by poor governance and corruption – its onerous public service mandate is largely unfunded and so it has to rely on advertising for most of its revenue.

But its response to the financial crisis was to undermine the reforms of the 1990s. An example of this can be seen in radio, the medium which can do the most to represent and reflect the interests of the poor.

With about 37 million people relying on it as their main source of news, radio has more listeners than print media has readers, reaching every corner of the country, both urban and rural. In the 1990s, the SABC established an integrated news team that could report all the news to every station in each of our 11 official languages.

But in response to the financial crisis, news and current affairs programmes in prime-time slots were cancelled and the time was given to talk shows. Call-in shows can be deceptive. Listeners may think they are getting “news” but phone-ins are not the same as news reports, which to stand up to scrutiny, have to be verified, balanced, and fair.

Commercial stations, whether private or public, generally fill their time with call-in shows because “talk is cheap and news is expensive.” In effect, listeners provide free content. It is expensive to send reporters out to far-flung, or even local areas.

As a result of this change of focus, it is effectively the elites whose voices get heard: listeners with air-time and the opportunity to call in, politicians, academics and business leaders.

Journalism is a key and central feature of a democracy. Without it, leaders are largely left unaccountable and the voices of the poor are unheard. We have been blessed in South Africa with a free and often robust media which have done an outstanding job in recent years of exposing corruption and misrule, as well as a judiciary with integrity that has withstood political pressures.

But right now, and especially leading up to the May 29 elections, the greatest challenge facing the media is to step away from being an interlocutor between the middle classes – both old and new elites – and reflect those who are still struggling to be citizens.

Thursday 22 February 2024

What role does education play in the public discourse and in shaping South Africa’s future state?

In the second of a series of Lenten reflections on the challenges facing South African society, motivated by our readings in the Lectionary, the Archbishop focuses on education.

At their heart, our current Lenten readings call us to set our houses in order, engaging in deeper introspection to help us boldly proclaim God’s name in the healing of our society. This week, I am asking: As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our democracy, what is the role education should play in the discourse around the future of our country?

In the words of Madiba, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And Barbara Jordan, an American educator, lawyer and politician noted that, “Education remains the key to both economic and political empowerment.”

When I was inaugurated as Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, I asserted that the purpose of education should be to develop the ability of students to practise discernment and to be part of the solution, not the problem, as we confront the world’s challenges; in other words it should be about teaching wisdom.

As we approach the national and provincial elections on May 29, we ought to place high priority on demanding of our national and provincial parties and candidates how they plan to deal with the crisis in education in South Africa.

It is not overstating the challenge we face to declare that our country is educationally bankrupt:

  • While the government has good policies on issues such as school infrastructure, delivery on those policies in townships and to the rural poor is dangerously inadequate, with woefully too few proper toilets, too little clean water and, importantly, a lack of schoolbooks and textbooks;

  • There is a yawning gap between class sizes in overcrowded predominantly black schools and those in middle-class schools in formerly white areas;

  • Our curricula give far too little attention to the need to teach our children about ethics, morality, values-based decisions and appreciating the consequences of their actions.

  • As has been revealed recently, four of every five learners in Grade Four are under-performing when it comes to reading for meaning.

Of course, since the advent of democracy we have achieved better access to basic education, and we need to celebrate teachers who make the best of teaching and learning under tough conditions. But we must also challenge our political parties on exactly how they propose to improve funding, especially for no-fee schools in poorer areas, and to achieve equality for all in the provision of education.

What worries me is whether the politicians really have the commitment necessary to improve the quality of education.

A few years ago, the commentator Moeletsi Mbeki concluded in a report on voting patterns and the educational level of voters that it is in best interests of the ruling party not to have an educated electorate. This was troubling to me at the time and remains so today. It suggests that it suits political leaders, the moneyed and the powerful if we as citizens – and especially black South Africans – are prevented from becoming an informed electorate.

It goes without saying, but is worthy of repeating, that to be uneducated is not to be fully free. Only the educated are truly free. Ignorance and illiteracy render voters susceptible to populist politics, manipulation and coercion, serving the interests of demagogues and the morally corrupt. Organising one’s followers means listening to them, not manipulating them. Leaders who insist on imposing decisions on people do not liberate, nor are they liberated: instead they oppress.

Is the desire of politicians for voters who can be easily manipulated the reason education is pushed to the back-burner when it comes to election time? In this election season, where is the dialogue, the debate, the discourse about the condition of our education system and the future state of South Africa?

My conversations with educators – from parents and learners to teachers and activists, to a member of a governing body and the chairperson of a university council – tell me that in this debate, we ought to be challenging a number of different players:

  • As well as calling on parties to outline their policy proposals, we must hold the government’s feet to the fire on how it will overcome the failure to teach learners to read well enough to equip them to cope in our capitalist-driven society.

  • We need to challenge business to support the closing of our country’s education gaps.

  • We need our universities to produce social reform activists who speak up, register to vote and use their voices to shape our country’s future.

  • Moreover, we need tertiary education at all levels to equip graduates to meet the needs of our economy, not those of economies overseas.

  • Lastly, teachers have a role in unmasking and defeating the agendas of those whose interests are served by the status quo.

Some years ago I attended a high-level school on governance, economics and management in Hong Kong, which looked at how to achieve a new “economy of life”. Such an economy would replace the current global governance of money with financial systems which are less exploitative and share resources and income more equitably. We need to develop initiatives such as this to help our young people dare to challenge old stereotypes and find new ways of making an ever more complex and fast-paced world into an ethical and sustainable place for all.

And I strongly believe it is the responsibility of teachers to take sides in this struggle – part of what I call the New Struggle, one that replaces the old struggle against apartheid and works to eliminate the inequalities in our society which have been perpetuated in democratic South Africa; a struggle which favours the “rag-pickers” – the poor, the exploited and the downtrodden – and stands up to injustice, as the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, argued in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Because of the admiration our communities have for our teachers, their activism is essential. They need to join civil society in raising awareness through protests and peaceful mobilisation. Failing to take sides and engage on behalf of the oppressed makes the teacher simply another minion of the corporate world.

Education is not only a preparation for life, but life itself. It can shape the coming generations into virtuous, informed citizens committed to achieving equality, and can provide our children and grandchildren pathways to solving political and societal problems we ourselves are unable to resolve.

A peaceful and sustainable future hinges on our willingness to confront many of the assumptions we take for granted and upon which our system of inequality rests. There can be no true democracy without all voices being heard and respected. Such mutual respect benefits all—the oppressor and the oppressed. To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to enter a discourse on humanism but at the same time to negate people is a lie.

Equality does not mean sameness; it means each of us enjoys equal freedom to explore and pursue our dreams and aspirations without limiting the dreams and aspirations of others. That may sound idealistic, even utopian, but that it a lot better than the dystopian miasma of mass poverty and exploitation that we are headed for now. And overhauling our education system is critical to achieving equality.

††Thabo Cape Town

Friday 16 February 2024

What is business’s role in public discourse and what is its responsibility in shaping South Africa’s future state?

During Lent, the Archbishop is issuing a series of reflections on the challenges facing different sections of South African society, motivated by our readings in the Lectionary and based on conversations with and inputs from influential leaders in their fields. His first reflection focuses on the business sector.

One of my greatest disappointments about our country today is how cynical we have become, particularly when it comes to the role of business in public discourse. One of the lessons my father taught me that has stuck with me was never to become a cynic, reflected in the saying: “A cynic is one who, when smelling the scent of flowers, looks around for a coffin. Don’t ever become that person.”

Those who know me know that I am the antithesis of a cynic. Yet, as I travel the country, the overwhelming reverberations of the conversations I have are that cynicism captures the national conversation, spirit and attitude in almost all segments of our South African society, particularly business. This has become the spark, the catalyst for a series of editorial challenges I plan to preach and write about over the next six weeks. My goal is to share with you my thoughts on the opportunities the various sectors of our country have to impact positively our upcoming election in the short term and shape our future in the long term.

As we enter the season of Lent, our lections stress that true fasting seeks, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, which in South Africa today means growing our economy with the objective of sharing its fruits more equitably.

Where to start? Perhaps it is no more complicated than having the courage simply to say: “Enough is enough!” In society we always pay a penalty for indifference and inaction. Unquestionably, taking action always involves risks, but adopting a position of comfortable inaction carries much greater risks.

In South Africa, we have long had a love-hate relationship with business and the success that can be derived from it. Thirty years after winning our political liberation, despite falling short of our objective of achieving economic liberation, our relationship with business has improved considerably.

For many it has grown from hate to love, largely because it has been seen as democratic—ethically conducted, it spreads its benefits broadly, and success in it is often viewed as a matter of merit, not just luck. Not only that: it has become the tie that not only binds the culture but defines it to a large degree.

As a result, many South Africans have developed an almost religious belief in the power of business. The durability of the business community through all our country’s crises and the vortex of governmental corruption, ineptness and incapacity has led to the belief that the sector can remedy all of our challenges and deliver the country to the promised land. This is testimony to the quality of many, but not all, of our business leaders—especially of those who represent quality of character, make values-based decisions and genuinely have South Africa’s best interests in both their hearts and their minds.

Business has in many areas been seen positively for the last two decades or more, but it will be viewed positively only as long as it is seen as capable of delivering the goods. The great question is, how will the business world cope if and when it cannot meet everybody’s needs? What is it going to be like for people if the bottom falls out?

Today, as our economy keeps cooling, as the government displays its inadequacy, and as we contemplate an election in which we have an unprecedented range of new parties to choose from, I believe that 60 million South Africans would like business leaders to contemplate and answer a number of questions:

    • How can I help create equal opportunities for all?
    • How can my business work to overcome the continuing inequality in a society which claims to want to eliminate it?
    • How can I reduce the polarisation being pushed by some political parties?
    • Given the positive attitude to business of many young people, how can companies be a catalyst for championing youth voter registration?
    • How can companies use their political influence responsibly?
    • What role can business play in exemplifying courage in meeting these challenges?

There are three practical steps business can take to address these questions:

The first step is probably the most difficult. It involves the business community showing its spine by refusing to do any business with the state without government making a tangible shift towards meeting its responsibilities, addressing inequalities of opportunity and service delivery, and making demonstrable efforts to root out systemic corruption.

The second step is for companies to create working groups at top executive and board level to draw up corporate political responsibility strategies, as distinct from social responsibility strategies, focusing on the company’s role in creating the architecture for the future state of South Africa.

The third step is to have these executive-level committees answer the six questions that I’ve asked above, and to consider whether it isn’t time for South African companies to rethink, redefine and reset their corporate social responsibility strategies to align with corporate political responsibility strategies.

In urging business to take this path, I am conscious that corporate leaders face complex questions about whom they represent and on what basis. Big business has traditionally avoided taking overt political stances; after all, why would they want to alienate potential customers? But in reality, the line demarcating business from politics has never been more than a convenient fiction — one that becomes less credible with each passing year.

In other parts of the world, companies are urged to balance the interests of all their stakeholders, not just shareholders but also their staff, their customers and their potential customers among the wider population. But the desire to balance stakeholder interests and speak up for employees or customers on high-stakes societal questions is colliding with the realities of divided, polarised workforces, political dysfunction, and anger about corporate hypocrisy.

What is needed are considered and deliberate strategies for speaking up. Lacking both the authority and the mechanisms to advocate or represent everyone’s interests in a coherent way, corporate leaders risk undermining both their businesses and other societal institutions when they claim that they can — or feel that they must.

My friends in business tell me that companies tend to make three big mistakes when setting and publicising societal, political, and environmental priorities.

Firstly, they aspire to speak out on too many issues to appease stakeholders in the short term. Making a public statement is often a way to compensate for, or distract from, a lack of meaningful action. Secondly, organisations fail to set tight priorities, ending up with a laundry list of too many goals and aspirations. When companies suggest that they can address every relevant issue, they over-promise and under-deliver, fuelling impatience and diminishing trust. Thirdly, senior leadership teams tend to set strategy and goals in isolation from the rest of their workforce or delegate the task to teams of consultants.

Business experts urge that changing the way companies determine their priorities—and whom they involve—can correct all three errors. They need to listen to a wide range of concerns and opinions, including those of their employees, then focus on the handful of issues they are truly capable of prioritising.

In South Africa, we are seeing strong external as well as internal drivers that are forcing companies to define themselves as social and political actors in addition to their traditional role as economic engines. Whether leadership teams like it or not, putting one’s head in the sand is no longer a viable option. Perceptive and innovative businesses move proactively with these trends and turn them into opportunities and competitive advantages.

Of course, we need to be careful not to expect business – or for that matter government, or any other institution – to create heaven on earth. When we put too much confidence in any worldly system, it is bound to disappoint us at some point. So business, and the great striving that accompanies it, will continue to be one of the most significant forces in South African culture, but it will always struggle against people’s need for a perspective that is beyond these worlds. We all have to get used to that tension.

It seems to me that at our best, in South Africa we have held individualism and a communitarian spirit in creative tension. We need to keep doing that if we are to maintain social stability. In my view, we are in a time in this country in which our faith in capitalism has combined with a radical sense of individualism to create a dangerous degree of selfishness. It is expressed in the sense, “I have got mine; you get yours. I am going to hold on to mine, and I will support a system that allows you to hold onto yours, but I am not going to share any of mine.” Even worse, there are political and government leaders who justify corruption with the phrase, “It's our turn to eat.” Those ways of thinking corrupt capitalism, putting a sharp, mean face on a system that has the capacity to do great good.

If you treat success in business as life’s ultimate goal, then it becomes a great, glowering, impressive, but empty and futile, tin god. Business must be a means, not the end. 

††Thabo Cape Town

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Ad Laos - To the People of God – January 2024

Dear People of God

We begin the New Year amidst conflict abroad and political contests at home as we look on with horror at the war between Israel and Hamas, agonise over the continuing conflict in Sudan, and hear the loud voices of squabbling politicians both within and between the parties gearing up for our national and provincial elections later this year.

The fighting in the Middle East has drawn intense scrutiny across South Africa, no more so than in Cape Town, where we have important communities supporting both Palestine and Israel and where Anglicans hold strong views on both sides. If you are confused about the issues, I recommend following last year's Lenten Bible Studies, which noted that the modern state of Israel should not be confused with the Israel of the Bible. You can see the first of the studies here:

In my Christmas sermon, I addressed the fighting in the Middle East, where after two months the death and destruction inflicted on Gaza had already matched that in the notorious bombing of Dresden in Germany in World War II. I said it is as if the military wings of Hamas and Israel have reverted to fighting by the standards of atrocity deployed in wars of the early 20th century, with both sides committing war crimes and with leaders on both sides guilty of rhetoric which constitutes incitement to genocide, or which will be interpreted as such by their followers. 

Soon after the Daily Maverick published excerpts from my sermon, South Africa filed its case against Israel in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where one of the lawyers representing our country was Professor John Dugard, a leading legal academic in the struggle against apartheid and one-time Chancellor of the Diocese of Johannesburg. I issued a prayer for the court as the case began, which is published in this issue of Good Hope, and I urge you to pray for the judges, including our former Deputy Chief Justice, Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

I found our presentations to the court chilling. Based on our experience in South Africa, I found it impossible to accept the contention from Israel's lawyers that the court should not base its ruling on “harsh statements” by Israel's leaders – those suggesting that all Palestinians, including women and children, were legitimate targets – but on the policy and decisions of Israel's war cabinet and security cabinet. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not find policy documents showing that killings and torture were explicitly authorised by the apartheid government. But when its foot soldiers appeared before the commission, they justified their atrocities by quoting precisely the kind of rhetoric from our cabinet ministers which Israel's leaders are using.

Although the court does not have to decide at this stage whether Israel is guilty of inciting genocide, it does have to decide whether to order the country to take measures to curb the death, destruction and human suffering being experienced by Palestinians. Whatever the outcome of the case, our application to the court has already had some effect on Israel, with their leaders softening their rhetoric and their military saying their war is against Hamas and not the people of Gaza.

Please pray for the people of Sudan, where more than 9,000 people have been killed since the civil war between two military forces started last April, and where 17 million people are suffering high levels of acute food insecurity as a result. This conflict gets scandalously little attention in the international community.

On the 30th anniversary of our political liberation in South Africa, we need to recommit ourselves to the economic liberation which we have not yet achieved. As our politics reconfigures itself, that too can be confusing. I urge you ignore the bickering and personal attacks, and demand that political parties – both old and new – spell out their policy decisions, enabling you to make wise choices when you enter your voting station later this year. And of course, pray for a peaceful process in which the true will of the people is expressed.

Finally, in all the controversy and uncertainty that surrounds us, let not the still small voice of our God – the God who says you are my children in whom I am well pleased – be drowned out. May this be your experience, and that of your families and everyone around you, throughout the coming year.

God bless

††Thabo Cape Town

Wednesday 10 January 2024

A Prayer for the International Court of Justice

Archbishop Thabo issued the following prayer to the church today, ahead of the case in The Hague on Thursday and Friday in which South Africa will ask the International Court of Justice to interdict Israel from its actions in Gaza:

Download the prayer here >>

A Prayer for the International Court of Justice

Lord, the world – your world – is sick of war.

Religious leaders sometimes call this anachronism “just war”,

But wars kill and instill fear in your children,

Wars blind your people to reality and truth,

Whereas you call us to search for non-violent solutions to human conflict.

Seeking that all should live in peace and that hostages of war are released,

We turn our gaze today to The Hague,

We pray for members of the International Court of Justice,

That they will say “Yes” to justice and peace, and “No” to violence and conflict.

We say this war in Gaza, Israel and Lebanon must stop,

That it's time to reveal your truth and bring all war to an end.

Be with all who seat around tables seeking peace,

Speak to the moral conscience of soldiers,

Speak to those who supply weapons to the world's killing fields,

Turn their thoughts and deeds to those of peace.

We ask this in your name,

For you are the Life and the Resurrection.


Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

January 11, 2023

Monday 25 December 2023

Sermon for Midnight Mass, St George's Cathedral

 Sermon for Midnight Eucharist  

Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr

The Most Revd Dr Thabo Makgoba

Archbishop of Cape Town

Christmas Eve 2023