Relations between South Africa’s governing coalition led by the African National Congress (ANC) and the mostly white-owned press have been edgy from the beginning of post-apartheid South Africa. They worsened under President Thabo Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma.
The tension is the result of a fundamental disconnect. The press argues that it has the responsibility to print the unfettered truth, no matter how embarrassing it might be to personalities in power. The ANC leadership believes that the press should mute its criticism and promote a socially transformative agenda. Though the Democratic Alliance is a credible, formal opposition in South Africa’s parliament, the ANC majority is so huge the press, in effect, often functions as an opposition. (There is media sympathetic to the ANC, but it is smaller.)
To curb what it sees as press irresponsibility, the ANC government has sponsored a “Protection of Information” bill. The ANC sees the legislation as necessary to protect the state and guard “national interests,” which it does not define. Opponents – who include much of the traditional Great and Good, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s office – fear that the press will be effectively muzzled. The legislation passed the lower house in late 2011. It still must be passed by the upper house and signed by the president. Hence, there is still time for significant amendments.
There may be a new wrinkle. Public awareness of corruption, especially in the public sector, appears to be growing. The Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, junior partners to the ANC in the government, have launched an anti-corruption initiative called Corruption Watch. Transparency International’s 2011 corruption index ranked South Africa sixty-four out of 183 countries, not so bad, except that it also showed that a majority of public perceive the public sector as corrupt.
The press has been the most successful corruption watch dog. There is concern that the Protection of Information bill, by muzzling the press, could reduce its role. At public hearings on the bill in the huge township of Gugulethu and Thembalethu outside Cape Town, speakers linked the proposed legislation to the press and its increasing exposure of corruption. The Democratic Alliance, firmly opposed to that legislation, is seeking to capitalize on heightened unease about corruption.
There is nothing new about corruption in South Africa, though it is perhaps less open than in other countries. But, under the apartheid National government, there were kickbacks and other contracting irregularities. Most South Africans appear to believe that corruption has become worse over the past decade. The disunity of the ANC and the personal factions that increasingly dominate its internal politics may mean that more evidence of corruption seeps out than earlier. Rising popular concern about corruption could become an important wild card in South African politics.