The folly of good news quotas (from 2013)

THE state broadcaster’s acting chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, recently reduced hardened reporters to tears, when he observed that positive news stories help nation-building: “You are building the future of the kids.” Guptarian media celebrity Jimmy Manyi equally movingly explained that creating a country with evenly dispersed coloured citizens is hard when “a lot of work that government does isn’t considered newsworthy”. But it has been another difficult week for patriotic journalists trying to fill their 70% “good news” quota.

Fortunately three resources are available for newshounds struggling to escape the chains of negativity. First, the government is generating a blizzard of selective pre-election statistics: adult literacy has soared; malnutrition has halved; access to water and sanitation has doubled; and so on. Second, the Government Communication and Information System’s South Africa News offers living proof that a “good news” approach can work. President Jacob Zuma’s “Senegal visit”, the organ incisively commented this week, “was a great success!” Every day, fresh headlines bring to life fascinating stories ignored by the mainstream media: “Big boom in Switzerland’s SA investments!” “SA, Kazakhstan to boost relations!”

The achievements of maligned Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies are also, at last, properly showcased: “DTI initiative pays off for Limpopo company”; “Entrepreneurship centre for Butterworth students”. The minister’s accomplishments (like the minister’s speeches) simply go on and on.

Third, the African National Congress (ANC) is a great font of liberationist good news. It has taken big steps to liberate South Africans from exploitation by international capital (in particular by BMW). It is also emancipating citizens from sin. Under the Higher Power, Thabo Mbeki, any ANC relationship with God would have represented an unnecessary duplication. After 2007, however, the original Supreme Being was back in charge, selecting a humble Zulu pastor to be Number One, personally picking out the chief justice from his flock, and elevating the deeply spiritual Cyril Ramaphosa (who earlier this year told Pentecostal Holiness churchgoers in Rustenburg that Christians like himself must become the country’s “moral conscience”) to the ANC’s deputy presidency.

Women’s liberation is another wellspring of positivity. ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete, unelected AgangSA life president Mamphela Ramphele, and all the president’s wives, have all been decisively freed from material deprivation.

There is admittedly tension between the ANC’s twin goals of spiritual and gender liberation. Religious activists are apparently clamouring for the righteous Ramaphosa to become state deputy president next year. They observe that only Ramaphosa combines financial management expertise, an excellent short game and profound godliness.

Radical feminists in the ANC Women’s League, by contrast, have been shouting: “We want one of the president’s wives to succeed him!” Their campaign is modelled on the world’s most advanced banana republic, the US, where Democratic Party activists insist the next incumbent should be Hillary Clinton, the present wife of a former president. In order to avoid accusations of nepotism, the ANC may opt instead for the former wife of the present president. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, after all, has already vanquished HIV/AIDS, defeated western imperialism, turned around the Home the Department of Affairs in one month, and transformed the African Union into a dominant actor in global affairs. Speculation about her prospects is now so rampant it has even reached the ears of national newspaper editors.

Confusion in the league this week suggests this issue has suddenly become very sensitive. On Monday, league president Angie Motshekga reportedly described the search for a female leader as “futile”. Later in the week, however, a different spokeswoman insisted there was “absolutely no truth in the reports that the ANC Women’s League has said South Africa is not ready to have a female president”. For Ramaphosa, at least, this may not be entirely good news.

 Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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