The Empowerment Myth or the Tooth Fairy – who do YOU believe?

2013-12-17 21:30

"Empowerment" is a potentially scary term in South Africa. It either implies confiscation from one party for the benefit of another or erodes opportunities on the basis of race, language or ethnicity. Generally unrecognised are its costs to ordinary citizens and the power it hands over to politicians and the well connected.

A Personal Anecdote:   There was a time when I used to write enthusiastically to the Cape Times letters editor. For years I subscribed to the paper and either initiated or contributed to press debates – often challenging establishment views and promoting unfashionably liberal values in pursuit of greater economic freedom, a society centred on the individual and greater freedom of action and choice.

I frequently spent an hour or two at a time crafting what I had to say into less than 300 words - the limit set by the newspaper – so as not to leave out anything important, and more often than not my letters were published.

And then – inexplicably – my contributions ceased to be featured with the frequency that they once had - and then dwindled to virtually nothing. My more contentious or argumentative contributions were totally ignored whilst the most innocuous pieces at least stood some chance of an airing.

I was sufficiently irritated at the waste of my time to take the matter up with the editor - only to be fobbed off with excuses about how they (suddenly) get so many contributions that they cannot feature them all – but was advised to “do by all means please keep trying”.

I also detected a new bias in the paper’s reporting and dialogue which I initially put down to my fertile imagination – and began contemplating whether I should part company with the Cape Times. Having confirmed my suspicions with others, I cancelled my subscription and started writing for a new forum – this one - and reading about the world on News 24. I have since discovered that I am representative of many.

But although my urge to stay informed and contribute were satisfied, I remained deeply suspicious of the change in the paper’s persona. What could have caused it? One possible cause was the bias of the now recently dismissed editor Alide Dasnois – who has been labelled by more than one source as "left-of-centre" in her views.

But then – why all of a sudden?

Another was the advent of new CEO - Iqbal Surve.

Surve’s Gamble?: An “aha” moment dawned for me when the Financial Mail featured an article on Sekunjalo – an empowerment grouping - that had for a time been in the process of negotiating to acquire the Independent Newspaper Group that happened to own the Cape Times and other publications. Under the headline – “Surve’s Gamble”, the FM questioned the financial wisdom of such an investment. After all, it argued, most people seem to realize that print media news is on the skids as consumers switch in their droves to embrace the internet for news gathering.

So how could anyone with financial savvy see Independent Newspapers as an attractive investment?

Things were starting to fall into place for me.

I began to suspect that this “investment” could hardly be driven by free market business considerations and went on to discover that Sekunjalo Independent Media shareholders include proxies for a number of trade unions plus parties fashionably – and, I think suspiciously - termed “broad-based, value-adding partners".

But even then, I wondered how would SIM (previously Independent Newspapers) make any money on the deal? How could it survive plummeting circulation figures and changing consumer trends?

It made little sense - until a week ago.

The Thuli Factor:  When the Public Protector raised the red flag on a deal between the beleaguered Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and a Sekunjalo subsidiary, deeming it to be irregular, things unfolded fast. When it emerged that the Public Protector had criticised minister Joematt-Petterssen for entering into a flawed R800m deal with Sekunjalo Marine Service Consortium, CEO Surve swung into action with his hatchet following reports in the Cape Times and Sunday Times.

The Cape Times editor was axed from her position and replaced; the Sunday Times was given notice of impending court action and news reporter Melanie Gosling was likewise put on notice. Surve had read the Public Protector’s report as exoneration - but few seemed to share his interpretation!

Confronted with a public outcry, he claimed that the Cape Times editor had been "moved" for other reasons: because she had "erred" in the handling of the the paper's editorial approach following Mandela’s death; and on account of plummeting circulation figures. To remedy the circulation problem he installed an editor with a worse track record than the Cape Times' outgoing editor.

Very strange indeed.

Demonstrations in support of press freedom by the Right2Know campaign followed, as did counter demonstrations by the new - and according to some, contrived - “Movement for Transformation of Media in SA”.

Confused?  These developments and intrigues are enough to confuse anyone, but a couple of things have become very clear to me.

> Given my iconic and seemingly insignificant experience with the Cape Times it is plain that the independence of the press and open debate through press channels (certainly within the Sekunjalo Group) are being seriously compromised and deteriorating fast - especially in the light of what since followed.

> My next "aha" moment brought home to me how investing in print newspapers with falling readership can show a return. Their government friendly editorial slant offers an attractive quid pro quo for a group seeking to conclude shady business dealings with incompetent ministers and government departments. Opportunities abound to make bucks at taxpayers' expense.

That, after all, is empowerment SA style and drilling below the surface will always reveal one incontrovertible truth – “Empowerment” and Patronage are two sides of the same coin.

So when it comes to integrity, I think I'll stick with the tooth-fairy.

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