The heartbeat of society

2014-03-12 00:00

MONDAY saw us lead The Witness with the kind of story I hope we will be able to provide more often for our readers.

Chief reporter Rowan Philp did a great job in getting under the skin of a question which dominates many a dining room table, mine included: where did all the money go?

Philp’s piece dug deep into the issue of the invisible taxes that seem to endlessly fleece the South African middle class.

Drawing on some insightful research that he arranged, he was able to show how up to 60% of middle-class incomes are going to service these “hidden taxes”, mainly in paying for services to replace those provided by the state that are viewed by the middle class as either inadequate or so broken that they are practically valueless.

I liked this story a lot. It did what I believe The Witness needs to be doing daily — explaining why and how things are happening, rather than reporting only what happened the day before.

Some of the biggest stories in our lives are not events like the Oscar Pistorius trial, but subtle trends and processes that are the real heartbeat of our society. They’re the stories that come from reporters asking the “I wonder” questions, and then following through with journalism to find the answers.

This is a conversation that is part of our day here at the paper, with varying degrees of success. My own rather pompous — and probably inaccurate — phrase for it is “zeitgeist journalism”, which I classify as stories that step away from traditional news sources, and which are driven by a sense of exploring what makes our society tick. It really isn’t easy to do, which is why it is so rare to see stories like this in any paper — and why I am thrilled when we pull one off that is good enough to lead page one.

I also liked this story because it hit what we describe in our newsroom as the “tick”, the shorthand we have for our target audience. The fate of the middle class is an important “tick” story for this newspaper. I know this is not a popular thing to say. In fact, saying you care about the middle class almost seems to be like talking dirty these days. The government pursues a “pro-poor” agenda, as it should, and make no mistake this newspaper and its reporters care about the poor too, but our core readers are middle class, and therefore what matters to the middle class matters immensely to us. I think the phrase “middle class” is so uncomfortable in South Africa because it has traditionally been a shorthand for “white”.

But here’s an interesting insight: research done for The Witness shows that people classifying themselves as middle class in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012 to 2013 rose to 1,9 million people, an increase of 19% on the previous year.

Those classifying themselves as upper middle or upper class in the province rose to 734 000, a jaw-dropping 37% increase from 2012 to 2013.

People classifying themselves as working or “lower” class stood at one million, a 25% decrease on the previous year, according to our research.

And the top end is not white any more. In 2002, in KwaZulu-Natal, only 21% of the top 10% of personal-income earners were black and 52% were white. By last year, 57% were black and 23% were white.

The story of the change that has happened in South Africa and in KwaZulu-Natal is told in those phenomenal numbers. Combined, those classifying themselves as middle or upper class would outnumber those classifying themselves on the bottom of the class ladder, which measures people’s own perceptions of where they feel they are.

That’s a trend that perhaps explains some of the radical reshaping of the political landscape that we appear to be witnessing. It would certainly support the ANC’s claims of having, in fact, created a better life for all, but would also explain the massive swing vote that appears to be developing ahead of these elections, as class-mobile voters look for options that better suit their new world view. But I’m no politician; I’m a newspaper editor who is proud to represent this vibrant, growing, multicultural middle class in our pages (and who braces for the storm to come because he dared to say it).

• Finally, a quick note of thanks to the dozens of readers who took the time to write to me last week when I asked if you would buy a newspaper with the Oscar Pistorius story on the front page. I had a ton of responses and I tried to reply to all of them. The verdict from my correspondents? Keep it off the front page unless you have something exclusive. You will notice that is what we have done, the exception being Saturday’s Weekend Witness, where, thanks to sister paper Beeld, we had an interesting exclusive not tied to court testimony.

From today, we’ll be posting this column on our Witness Facebook page (here’s the shortened link ) on a Wednesday too, and I’ll be popping in to engage with you there too, so please check it out.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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