Take another look

2014-07-02 00:00

CYRIL Ramaphosa is a talented guy.

He helped build the country’s most powerful trade union, helped negotiate South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, left politics to become a self-made business tycoon and has now returned to public life as our deputy president.

He’s clearly not a man looking for a job, but if he wanted a gig as a journalist, I would offer it to him tomorrow, based on his recent speech at the South African National Editors’ Forum’s Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism ceremony.

Ramaphosa’s speech marks a refreshing change in approach towards the press from the ANC government after the extreme hostility which characterised much of the past five years.

It is also the most lucid map through the minefield of government and press relations that I have had the pleasure to read recently.

I have reflected in this space before on my own view, and that of other commentators, that the tension between the two arises from two different world views on the role of the media. For many of us in the industry, the traditional watchdog role of the press over authority is paramount, while the ANC adopts a view of journalism as “developmental” and which seeks to place it in the greater context of South Africa’s transformation.

At first glance, these views appear irreconcilable, but this is not necessarily the case, as Ramaphosa detailed in his speech.

“As a society, we expect many things of the media. We expect many things of you. But at its most basic, we ask you to communicate the story of South Africa and its people. Tell the stories that are good — and there are many — but also tell the stories that are difficult, painful and troublesome,” he said.

“Write of the experience of the woman who has been freed from the burden of collecting firewood because she now has electricity; of the one who no longer has to walk to the river to draw water because she now has running water at home. Tell us how this has enabled them to go out to find work and how their lives have improved.

“But also be the voice of many people who have not yet had such opportunities,” he said.

There is little about this that we can quibble over as editors. These exhortations speak to the heartbeat of journalism.

Ramaphosa’s speech also dwelt on the important issue of “context”, something we journalists are rightly criticised for ignoring or brushing over.

“Converse with us about those who have moved from the countryside into the cities in search of a better life. Tell the story of the struggles they face — to find shelter, to access services, to find work.

“And provide us with the context. Help us understand the challenges of urban development, the social pressures of high unemployment and extreme inequality, and of the forces that drive up the cost of living.”

Again Ramaphosa is right, although the challenge he lays down is not easily conquered given the realities of the media today.

Read from beginning to end, the deputy president’s speech is something of a manifesto on reporting South Africa 20 years into democracy.

In essence, what he was saying is that when the glass is half empty, it is also half full and, as an editor, I know that we hasten to the half-empty perspective, figuring that the government is well-placed to tell the half-full story itself.

But Ramaphosa’s offering is more sophisticated than demanding the media toe some feel-good line. It accepts that our society is textured and demands of us that we tell stories reflecting that.

This sentiment was echoed in a recent conversation with Msunduzi Mayor Chris Ndlela —  and reiterated in his State of the City Address on Monday — when he complained that many of the critical views on the state of the capital reflect only the perspective of those concerned with the CBD and the northern suburbs.

Take a look at Edendale, which comprises some 60% of the city, and you will see the changes that have come, and have a different view, he says.

It’s a valid point — and we plan to take up the challenge.

I’m hoping we will be able to report that the city’s glass is more half full than many of our readers and contributors, and ourselves perhaps, realise.

We plan to do this and more, and we plan, as Ramaphosa exhorted the editors of South Africa, to “tell it robustly and accurately, without fear or favour”.

“Tell it movingly.”

I’m glad to see that for once we appear to be on the same page.

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrew trench

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