Category: Media & Citizenship

Let’s Talk Accountability! GIZ-GSP German Study Tour

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Berlin | Hamburg | Bonn
The Eastern Cape Socio-economic Consultative Council (ECSECC) has adopted the acronym VUCA to succinctly describe the socio-political landscape of the province. According to the council, the setting in which our provincial leaders, civil society organisations and media houses operate in is challenging, not only because it is Volatile and holds much Uncertainty, but also because it has problems that are Complex and Ambiguous. However, the Eastern Cape is also a province with a strong storytelling and oratory historical tradition. There are therefore many institutions and organisations that use this asset to facilitate inclusive communication spaces that address the VUCA environment. The province has a vibrant community and local media sector, civil society organisations (CSO’s) like the Eastern Cape Communication Forum (ECCF) and state actors like the Government Communication Information System (GCIS), working together to facilitate inclusive communication spaces where citizens can discuss key development issues and hold their local Government to account.

CSO’s and state actors frequently make use of dialogues and debates to facilitate inclusive communication spaces where citizens can not only voice their opinions freely but also be heard by relevant decision makers. However, one of the major disadvantages or challenges of many of these invited spaces is that firstly, there is a negative invited-inviter power dynamic unintentionally formed by technicalities as simple as the process of agenda drafting, seating arrangement and feedback loops. The importance/role of inclusion and listening as a value and act is often under-estimated within these spaces. There also exists a healthy, yet complex historical tension between state and local/community media. A thorough exploration into the complexities of the relationship between state and media is imperative to facilitating a radical shift in the metanarrative and meta-values used to underpin communication in the Eastern Cape public domain.

From 10-25 June 2015, I travelled to Germany on a study tour with 12 South African communicators. The group comprised of editors and journalists from the community and local media sector as well as government communicators from both Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. The Government Communicators included Siyasanga Hompashe (Communication Manager, Nkonkobe Local Municipality), Siyabulela Makunga (Communication Manager, Amathole District Municipality), Joseph Mandlenkosi Ngala (Communication officer, Mbombela Local Municipality), and Tabita Ngqunge (GCIS Regional coordinator, Amathole District) while the Community Journalists included Phumza Sokana-Ntongana (Journalist, Daily Dispatch), Thomas Richard Nkosi (Editor, Ziwaphi), Tumelo Brain Dibakwane (Journalist, Bushbuckridge News), Wandile Fana (Editor, Skawara News), Max Matabhire (Editor,Zithethele News), Buntu Gotywa (News reporter, Grocotts Mail), Thembisa Mjiba-Makasi (Editor, Idike- Lethu News). The tour was organised by the South African-German GIZ-Governance Support Programme (GSP) in an attempt to facilitate learning and transfer of knowledge on tools and mechanisms in the field of accountability. Over 15 days the group travelled through Berlin, Hamburg and Bonn, to engage on the importance of two-way communication between state and citizens and the role of local media as an intermediary. The team visited a variety of media houses, public offices and communication enterprises to gain an overview of the German, media-state dynamic, especially regarding state accountability.

The tour was facilitated by trained journalist and Coach, Andrea Tapper of Tapper press who gave input in the form of workshops, guidance and assisted in eliciting deliberative dialogue on key issues throughout the trip. The trip successfully provided a variety of insights into the inner workings of the German Federal State and the healthy tension between itself and the German media. The trip also provided the opportunity for me to reflect on the historical differences and similarities between the two countries. Here are some highlights and insights from the trip:

Overview of the German media landscape

germany2.jpgThe German media landscape is characterised by a vibrant print, TV and radio sector. The print sector has about 50 daily, 1, 528 local editions, 121 weekly and 7 Sunday editions. Out of a population of 80 million people, 22 million are regular readers, making Germany one of the greatest reading nations in the world. According to the same numbers, television has a penetration of 90%, Newspapers 63% and online about 46%.

The media sector is divided into public or private. There are 2 nationwide television channels (ZDF 1 and 2) and a number of community television stations. Public TV is run by an independent board made up of people from all walks of life (church, trade unions and parties). Since 2010, a law was passed, forcing all citizens to pay tax to finance public TV. However, not all citizens are supportive of this law and the state has two cases in the constitutional court against the regulation. This is interesting because in South Africa, TV licenses are rarely contested. Comparative to the American-centric South African TV, German TV is still very much under the influence of British Television especially the BBC.

Compared to a country where state advertising is relied upon for survival, (state recently promised 30% of its advertising to community media), in Germany, for the past 5 years, more money is made from distribution (4.7 billion Euros) than advertising (3.1 billion Euros) in print. This is a major paradigm shift that impacts the relationship between state and media drastically, especially making media free to report on state matters as they wish. This theme ran through the various engagements that the team had with media houses throughout the journey.

Alex TV: Free Radio and TV for all.

germany4Alex TV is a public access television station based in Berlin, Alexanderplaatz. The main vision of the television station is to encourage public participation and because of this, anyone and everyone can produce and share content on its platform.

In 2006/2007 German online had become saturated with low quality content and German TV inundated with badly produced programmes. The big question then arose; do we need open access TV, if it’s really this bad? In 2008 Alex was then re-born.

Alex has an open TV and radio studio where young people can come and produce and broadcast their own radio/TV shows. Radio shows are produced using a simple software programme called Mairlist. In Berlin there are about 150 radio stations and many open access radio stations. This means that there is huge competition and content has to be good. Alex allows young people to produce content by providing equipment for anyone to use free of charge, as long as they produce for Alex. The quality of equipment provided and duration allowed depends on the quality of the production and level at which the product engages the audience. Alex has about 530 evaluators of content. The evaluators watch the content and then critique the quality. Suggestions are given and workshops are provided to help producers improve. Alex is seen as a valuable stepping stone for practical experience for young people. A great deal of the content produced is placed online, with their website receiving around 27, 500 clicks per day. The station has about 800 producers and 86% of them are from Berlin.

Bezirksamt Neukӧlln: A problem district changing

Neukӧlln is one of 12 boroughs in Berlin. Each Borough has its own municipality. Similar to Soweto in South Africa, the borough is home to a large migrant population. In its totality, the area has a population of about 310 000. 137 000, almost half of the population, are immigrants coming from 146 different countries. Not only art the immigrants from a different racial/ethnic background, mostly, Turkish or Arab; 63, 500 members of the population are Muslim. One major difference between Neukӧlln and Soweto is that the state provides a great deal of financial and social support to foreigners. Firstly, there are many schools where parents do not have to pay for books and furthermore the state pays out €185 per child for school fees and other expenses related to education. The down side to this is however that because the state provides so much support, a small minority of migrants do not work and others even go as far as pocketing the surplus cash.

Most of the Germans who could not ‘handle’ the influx of foreigners moved to other suburbs and for the many that remained, integration became a top priority for the municipality. Regardless of the state support, the area was soon labelled a “problem borough”. Social workers began to work closely with the police and develop strategies to manage integration and encourage engagement. The situation became difficult in the district when in 2006 an elementary school, the Rutli School, was declared unmanageable by its own teachers due to the high levels of violence. The issue was communicated extensively through local news. Political tension grew between politicians and those working on the ground.

In an effort to curb this, the Municipality began to run projects with Civil Society. A nationwide debate about the schooling system ensued and the school has since been reformed. In addition to this, the main church was developed into an intercultural centre. There is even a café run by an African and rooms for seminars. In order to maintain close communication with citizens, the municipality does not use a complex communication strategy but rather relies on close ties with CSO’s through hands on municipal officer and social workers who also speak directly to the media. It is interesting to note that in comparison to the multi-layered communications departments that many of the South African municipalities have, the Neukӧlln Municipality is very simple, and has had no formal communications department for 15 years.

Neukoellner.Net: Famous, wild and unpaid

germany5Neukoellner.Net is an online news website founded in 2011 by three young ladies who studied Cultural Journalism. They started off as student project and continued on when they got their first jobs (none of them are actually working as journalists).The magazine is run as a Non Profit entity. The website is attractive to the eye, clean and fresh with beautiful photography. News section is creatively labelled as “art and kitsch” and the politics section as “power and fairy tales”.

The website can be translated into 8 different languages and receives almost 12,000 clicks per day. The main aim of the online news website is to re-imagine and shape the image of the “problem district” which it serves.

The topics started with culture, street life, and galleries and changed as the district changed. Issues of crime and gentrification took the fore but the magazine still aims to provide balanced and fair reporting that gives everyone a voice. They recently won the Grimm award which is an important step for acknowledgment of online journalism.

Professor Caja Thimms: Social Media Expert from Bonn University

If there is an expert on social networks, twitter, Facebook and the like, it’s Dr Caja Thimm who studied communication and political science in Heidelberg, San Francisco and Berkeley and is a professor and director of the media science faculty at Bonn University for 15 years.

The dynamic social media expert talked to the team about her recently published analysis “Digital Citoyens: Political participation in times of Social Media” covering case studies In Germany, Egypt and China. She provided the team with an insight into an all-important question: In times of digital democracy, what do citizens really want?germany6

One cannot talk about politics without talking Mediatisation of politics (Strimback 2008: 243 and Thimm et al 2014:254). In essence we are experiencing the transformation of politics through media. Habermas talks of the normative political deliberation. Thimms asks can the traditional concept of deliberation be applied to the digital world. As a team they have been attempting to model twitter as a discursive network by looking at German national elections through qualitative research methods. They looked at 3 million tweets from certain selected events. The results of their research are yet to be completed and published. They have however found that more and more people are fighting for their digital rights and demanding to be heard. However, what is even more interesting is the overwhelming feeling that the digital world cannot close the real life and social divide that we experience on a day to day basis.

Conclusion

Just over two decades after the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, state and media in South Africa are still in a state of transition. More and more, people are expressing a feeling of exclusion from public processes. Although the media exists as a fantastic opportunity to develop inclusive communication spaces in the country, the fractured relationship between state and media remains a cause for concern. Not only is the strength of the media to hold government to account precarious in its position, the state still has a long way to go in terms of social innovation in the communication space. What has become clear through the study tour is that South Africa holds all the necessary resources to facilitate inclusion, transparency and accountability. What is lacking is only a paradigm shift in the metanarratives of power and force within these spaces. Not only should deliberative dialogue and democracy play a more established role in public participation processes, communicators and actors need to come to the spaces with a stronger emphasis on listening.

Deliberative dialogues and democracy is less about finding the correct technical solution to an issue as we already have the frameworks and structures in place, it is more about working with what we have in common as state, media and civil society. It is about figuring out what our values are and what the assets and interests are that are most important to us as we think about our way forward. If implemented in the Eastern Cape Province, this kind of communication will allow problem solving in a deeper and more sustained manner.

Civic Mapping in Ward 3

*names have been changed on request of participants

 

*Auntie Bessie sits squarely on the plastic children’s chair, its legs digging into the grey soil. She and her sister have been living here most of their lives. “Ons is local hier,”[we are locals here] she says as *Auntie Jasmine chuckles, nodding in agreement.

We’re sitting in the small, muddy playground of Rainbow Kids Pre-School, the two teachers watching over their noisy flock as the kids rush over and around the once brightly coloured jungle gym.

“Ons ken onse mense, en hoe dinge hier werk, ons kan vir jou al die stories vertel,“[we know our people and how things work here; we have all the stories] says Bessie pointing across the makeshift parking lot and decaying sports field, to the low lying area stretching out in front of us.

The settlements follow the natural geography of the region, modest brick, mud and corrugated iron homes hugging both sides of the two little valleys. Neighbourhoods almost arbitrarily divvied-up by two streams, both contaminated to a gurgling grey sludge- sewage and household runoff that’s been left to flow freely, “Sjoe, for many years now!” says Bessie.

Abandoned by the current local government, the estimated 5000 inhabitants of Ward 3, regard themselves as pawns in an ongoing DA, ANC squabble in a now thoroughly defunct municipal council and governing structure.

“People are angry, always angry because there are few opportunities here and the quality of life is very bad for some,” says Bessie giving me some background on the social well-being of the communities to which she has dedicated most of her life.

“People have it hard here, most of them live on grant money or rely on piece-jobs to make a living,” says Jasmine, affirming the cold, statistical data I pulled off the most recent document of the Makana Municipality Integrated Development Plan (IDP) for the 2013/2014 financial year.

3314 registered voters and their subsequent families, subject to life in conditions similar to much of the socio-political and economic tensions experienced by marginalised communities in the Eastern Cape; high poverty levels, low employment and an almost complete lack of basic service delivery.

Ward 3 has an unemployment rate of 25.8 percent.

However, despite the rigidity of Ward boundaries and the administration governing how, why, and by whom basic services are rendered, the inhabitants don’t think in terms of Municipal Wards here, the administrative boundaries are as arbitrary as the visits from journalists and organs of state.

“Kyk, ek bly in Scotch Farm, daar onder langs die opsigter se huis by die Oval,” [Look, I live in Scott’s Farm, down there next to the janitor’s house by the Oval], Bessie says pointing to her home about a kilometre away. “Jasmine bly in Ghost Town en meeste van die kinders hier is van die ander areas.” [Jasmine lives in Ghost Town and most of the kids at the school come from surrounding areas.]

Most of the inhabitants of Ward 3 and 4 self-identify as culturally coloured, black or “mixed”. People here live in “areas” loosely defined by streets and other prominent geographic features; churches, established taverns, schools…

Each area has a distinct character and history, membership is gained through birth, family ties or an arduous process of naturalisation.

Ghost Town, Central, Sun City Squatter Camp, Scott’s Farm, Hooggenoeg, Vergenoeg and Polla-Park Squatter Camp.

Seven areas loosely bound by municipal administration, history and geography.

Civic mapping – methodology 

For a period of three months as the first phase of a potential three phased action research based project, I have been using civic mapping methods to uncover within the context of a specific hyperlocal area, Ward 3 of the Makana Municipality, “who talks to whom about what?”

This approach draws on Harwood’s (2000) typology of civic life which organises civic/community life into five layers; “the ‘official’ layer of local governmental institutions; the ‘quasi-official’ layer of local municipal committees, civic organisations, and NGOs; ‘third places’ like community halls, places of worship, and taverns/shebeens; ‘incidental’ encounters on sidewalks, at food vendors’ stalls, and in backyards; and the ‘private’ spaces of people’s homes (Harwood 2000 in Haas 2008: 5).

Through these methods, civic mapping allows journalists to identify and cultivate a range of civic actors: official leaders (elected officials, school board members, CEO’s); civic leaders (religious leaders, ward committee members); catalysts (people who have wisdom, know-how and historical perspective about issues and places), and connectors (people who move from organization to organization, like pollinating bees spreading ideas and social norms), (Harwood 2000 in Haas 2008: 5).

By exploring these relationships between various members and groups in a community defined according to their position in relation to the layers of civic life, I have been using civic mapping as a research tool in a number of adapted ways, with the aim of improving my journalistic understanding of the people and communities of Ward 3 and surrounds. I elected to employ this approach strategically over time as it seeks to improve how and for whom journalism is produced, as the underlying rationale of civic mapping methods is the cultivation and production of journalism that improves the public’s understanding of its own problems and ultimately contributes to the overall health of public life.

No trust and no confidence, but can we get excited about local government?

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Municipal elections are taking place in South Africa in 2016. It may seem a bit premature to start talking about voting again with the memories of the 2014 national elections still fresh in our memories, but the battle for services at local government demands that we start to focus our attention on these elections as early as possible. The biggest problem with local elections is the lack of trust and confidence by citizens in local structures. Political parties should be seriously considering the questions of ‘why would citizens vote in municipal elections if they don’t have confidence in local government, and what can we do to change this?’

A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Race Relations shows that while 54% of those surveyed believed the national government performed well in 2012 (not a particularly encouraging percentage of the population), that only 49% had confidence in local government. That means that more than half of South Africans do not have confidence in the structures which govern their lives at local level. The research conducted by the Mellon Media & Citizenship project showed similar trends in their survey of young people in the country. The baseline study on young people measured their trust in local, provincial and national government and found that local government fared the worst of the three. “Only 34.4% of respondents say they trust local government a great deal or quite a lot. Close to four out of ten (38.3%) of respondents say they trust provincial government quite a lot or a great deal, and 40.9% of respondents say they trust national government a great deal or quite a lot” (pg58).

If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, what can they do during election time to change that? There is probably a long list of things that citizens can do, but I came up with a short list of three which are directly related to voting: 1. Vote for a party other than the one that is currently holding the municipality. The problems with this are numerous, including the fact that often people cannot relate to any party other than the ANC, they may be wary of voting for a party that has no history of success in their area, and they may be wary of voting for another party that may prove even less efficient than that which currently holds the municipality (better the devil you know…). 2. Abstain from voting at all. Again, this comes with its own caveat including the fact that this does mean you have one less avenue for engagement at the formal level. 3. Vote for the same party that is currently running your municipality, but this time plan to hold the party and the officials accountable once they are in power. This may seem the most logical and rational, but politics is hardly either of these things, and often citizens feel like they have very few avenues for engaging with public officials once they are in office – so how can they hold them accountable? It seems our formal political structures leave very few options for citizens to feel truly empowered, and provide very few avenues for changing levels of trust and confidence.

If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, then levels of voting during municipal elections are predicted to remain low. I would suggest this will be particularly true for young people. During the national elections, only 31% of people between 18 and 19 years of age registered to vote. In a paper called ‘South African Youth: Politically apathetic?’, Potgieter and Lutz suggest three strategies for getting young people more interested in voting as a formal means of political engagement. 1. Dealing with ‘bread and butter’ constraints. “Effectively addressing socio-economic constraints (such as unemployment and health care) might impact on youth participation in formal political activities” (pg24). The problem with this is that these are the very constraints that citizens are struggling to get, a lack of these is the very reason that confidence in government is so low, so what are the chances that this will change? So called ‘bread and butter’ constraints are what is hampering local government, these are not going to change unless citizens have an avenue for holding officials accountable and voting is not an option because they do not have confidence in those who will be voted into power. 2. Addressing voter education. I agree that many citizens are politically illiterate, but this has less to do with ‘voter education’ and more to do with an understanding of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of citizens (of which voting is just one). 3. Mandatory voting. I would strongly disagree with this suggestion because citizens already feel immense pressure to vote for historical, cultural and social reasons, most of which have little to do with democratic values and active citizenship. Making voting mandatory will simply lessen the value of the vote rather than make it a more powerful means to engage politically which is what we need.

 

I think the problem is not with the citizens, particularly young citizens. The problem starts with a lack of understanding of what citizenship means to young people, not how young people don’t fit into our conceptualization of citizenship. If young people have a lack of trust in government and are not voting as a result, the solution is not to try entice them to vote, but to give them alternative means through which they can engage politically, alternative avenues for making them active citizens, and more engaged ways of holding public officials to account. I remember the IEC introduced an advert for the 2014 elections which saw a number of cool celebrities telling us why they are voting and why we, as cool citizens of a cool country, should vote too. What I’d like to see for the local government elections is an advert where ordinary young people tell us why they don’t see voting as an option, but can help us understand other ways of engaging with local government, ways that they use to better their communities, ways which hold officials accountable, and can help other citizens gain confidence in local government.

I have decided not to go back to Zimbabwe!

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N/B Read these first: http://263chat.com/2015/01/i-have-decided-to-leave-zimbabwe/

: http://www.newzimbabwe.com/news-22893-Govt+to+unleash+army+on+vendors/news.aspx

Do you still remember Jimmy? Yes. Well my name is Timmy, and Jimmy is my brother, from another mother. I have never decided to leave the country, but I have decided I do not want to go back.

But first things first.

My name is Timmy, I am a university student (….currently pursuing a Master’s degree). My mother was a ‘vendor’ and that’s how I managed to get registered, and in part pay for my very first degree, at one of Africa’s best universities, actually the Ivy League down here in the Southern Hemisphere. I managed to get myself two degrees from that revered institution. Do I love my country? Am I a patriot? Yes! Nothing could be further from the truth.

But things changed, have changed and are changing.

I was lucky enough to be considered for a government scholarship, during the Government of National Unity, which I was subsequently awarded. And so thus I graduated with my first degree, after much wooing and coaxing of my beloved government, who happened to have no funds after selling me expensive dreams. But then again in this knowledge, that there were no funds for the government, I cajoled and coaxed them into paying for my honours year. Was this a mistake or a masterstroke? I will leave you to judge for yourselves dear readers. I can reliably inform you that after completing my honours studies in the year of Our Lord 2013, I will only be receiving this Honours degree, passed with first class, via courier, next week, in the year of Our Lord 2015. I am writing this missive on a coldish and windy Saturday by the way. You see dear readers my beloved government had completely run out of money to educate its citizens, who by the way they always pompously claim to love so very much. The question then was what would become of me? Here I was, armed with only an undergraduate degree, and I wasn’t even the only one. I was doomed, or so I thought, considering that unemployment statistics have not made good reading for both South Africa and Zimbabwe for a while now, in fact the whole of Africa.

 

Like my brother from another mother Jimmy, I also realized something about our beloved nation and its leaders.

Our fathers and mothers don’t really care about us anymore. They fought in the colonial wars and that was it. They are now only interested in petty politics and self-enrichment whilst forever blaming everything that is anything on the ever-willing sanctions. For the common citizen on the street we have become but just a useful tool for only campaigning and boring to death with speeches which do little to nothing to fill our ever growling tummies.  This is what my brother from another mother Jimmy also realized:

“No one cares for the public. We have dirty water in the taps and no one cares. We have erratic supply of electricity and no one cares. The roads are in shambles and no one is doing anything about it. Fuel prices go up and we can’t do anything about it. New taxes are introduced and we can only comply. Internet is very expensive. The public hospitals, the ones which we can afford, provide crappy service and people are dying because the nurses don’t care. I know because I watched my mother in law die at the hands of poor service delivery. And no one cares. Not them, not you, not the minister of health. No one. The company CEOs get treated outside the country now. But what about me? What about my kids?”

Now is that not the truth my fellow countrymen? So yes I have grown comfortable here, and I do not intend to get out of my comfort zone at all, although this makes me wonder. Am I now contributing to the problem of not fixing my country by shying away? Well we can debate this one until donkeys grow horns. But still I am happy here in my comfort zone, and I have decided I will not go back home, although the South African Department of Home Affairs and some disenchanted South African citizens will not agree.

So my countrymen, was it a masterstroke or a mistake that I cajoled and coaxed our beloved government into keeping one of the promises, enshrined in the constitution, to educate its citizenry? Was I selfish when I did this because I knew the financial situation was dire, but you see the MP’s were getting those Ford Everest 4WD’s.  Anyway plenty of information is missing in this tale due to time and space, but one day I hope to tell it fully to anyone who would care to listen.

And so once again my name is Timmy, brother from another mother to Jimmy. I am a Zimbabwean citizen and I have decided I do not want to go back home!

 

 

Paying Attention To The Pain!

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What is interesting about the protests on both the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University campuses is that while the issues as these students see them are being put forward in no uncertain terms and with all the skills of logic and argument a university education imparts, this eruption of protest is also marked by an intensely emotional outpouring of suffering. This is suffering endured by those who have grown up in the post-apartheid era and who speak of their frustration and feelings of debilitation on campuses which are overtly committed to ‘transformation’ but which still demand that they adjust themselves to a liberal hegemony of values.

In this time of ferment and renewed struggle (and in which most of us at these universities acknowledge the need for ongoing change), there are people shutting each other up by claiming such a degree of pain that anyone without pain to profess is made mute as a participant (except as a commiserater) and by silencing those expressions through outright rejection of that pain. (UCT academics Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass have written about this)

At a recent conference at UCT Steven Robins, a social anthropologist at Stellenbosch University who for years has been researching the uprisings of the Western Cape, showed us a photograph of a UCT academic facing off student protesters with a self-made placard which said “Don’t shout louder, improve your argument”. If we are listening to these young South Africans in our tertiary education institutions they’re telling us that a denial of humanity and intelligence is built into our particular forms of rational discourse which we employ not to listen but to control the direction of debate and to deflect the tough stuff. In other words, if I don’t like what you say we denigrate it as overly emotional, devoid of clarity around issues and therefore irrational, ie to be dismissed. Who gets to decide what is rational and arguable? That’s the important question here.

In a recent article for The Con written by Sekoetlane Phamodi, a Rhodes graduate, was posted to Facebook by Niren Tolsi. Phamodi addressed his article to our current Vice-Chancellor directly and refused to be “reasoned” and well-meaning” about his feelings of rage and despair based on the V-C’s public statements and his sense of being “crushed” while studying at an institution built on the “forgotten thousands buried in the earth beneath, butchered defending their land and people from invasion”.

Among the many likes for this article, there were some dismissive responses. But the one which provoked many exits from the Facebook discussion was this one by Richard Spoor: “My heart bleeds for you Sekoetlane. A life of such unremitting misery and suffering must be unendurable. What courage. What heroism. Alternatively you are a self indulgent privileged fuck.”

To which Richard Pithouse responded: “There are evidently some sick people here. I want nothing to do with this.” Spoor replied: “Those in the humanities are such delicate souls. So sensitive to existential pain. Back when, Marxists could care a shit. Fuck you are a pathetic lot.” Even the usually robust Eusebius McKaiser simply did this: #TurnsOffNotifications, but Niren Tolsi (the founder of The Con) appealed to Spoor:  “Richard Spoor. Away from the sarcasm and ad hominem attacks, whats up?” He continued: “I’d like to engage but not in the manner that you have been so far on this timeline….” Jane Versveld responded: “don’t waste energy niren. some will never learn”.

But Estelle Prinsloo weighed in: “Hey Richard Spoor! That’s pretty stupid you have to admit. Then again, you’re not a Humanities graduate so how are you supposed to know, right? I get it. If you had studied the Humanities you would know how intellectually lazy and empty sweeping statements are. And you would have known how telling your choice of words is. Do sensitivity and delicateness (traits associated with feminity, which is the opposite of masculinity, and therefore, undesirable in patriarchal societies) upset you? No? then, why do you use them as insults? I know. Because anything that threatens the dominance of white heterosexual partriarchy (ding,ding,ding: THE HUMANITIES) is judged as pathetic. I’m sorry your view of the world is so narrow. It must suck.”

Then surprisingly Spoor came back with: “Yes I am overreacting and I was offensive. I apologise, it’s not called for. I am a humanities graduate and I do place huge value on empathy, compassion and decency. The ‘whiteness’ issue is however a sure fire way to incite me to fury. I do not accept that an argument is elevated above criticism on the basis that the person advancing it has a special insight by virtue of their race, gender or class.”

Having got fairly used to a predictable pattern in such exchanges in which at soon as there is a reactionary response the discussion is exited – usually with the comment that the atmosphere has become “toxic” – I was intrigued as to how Spoor was engaged enough to apologise. While I don’t think anyone feeling angered and hurt by a response such as Spoor’s first posts, should stick it out in order to educate and humanise the mouth-shooter, I am interested in how these exchanges could be shifted so that listening and conversing can happen.

My thoughts about Spoor’s statements are that:

Those reacting with anger to pain are assuming that the suffering of the present is illegitimate because we are living in an era of democracy and liberation. It’s also illegitimate because this era has severed our relation to not only the immediate apartheid past but very definitely to the colonial past. Any attempt to show that colonialism is alive in our present is to be therefore discounted with vehemence.

Expressions of racially-based suffering are also taken as personal attacks, owned directly and then instantly rejected. Can a white person not allow a black person to express themselves (even with emphasis and hyperbole) without immediately involving themselves as the recipient of the expression? It seems to me a technique most of the reactionary in these exchanges need to learn and learn quickly is that you personally are not always the intended object of the expression.

I’ve been looking at these kinds of exchanges on blogs, Facebook and Twitter for a while now (and I’ve been focusing my attention particularly on those that get really heated over racial issues), and it’s quite startling how social media provokes a level of ad hominem aggression that we’ve removed from face to face conversations and from other mediums of communication. Is there something about the fastness of the technology, the remove via a device, the hit the buttons before you’ve got your mind to think about consequences, at play here?

Or is it about our “culture of speaking” which seriously devalues listening? Marietjie Oelofsen posted on my Facebook page a link to a post by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings which comments that we use listening as “the idle pause amid the monologue of making ourselves clear”. This sounds like a comment on the manners of being a good conversationalist. But it’s way more than that. In heated and heightened political struggles, it’s the first thing that goes; real listening has to involve paying attention and you don’t want your own political stance modified by any kind of empathy for the person in front of you trying to change your mind if you’re going to hold fast to the course of action.

As part of our research into media and citizenship in South Africa we’ve made a great deal of use of ‘listening theory’, which came to us via a group of Australian researchers but which is nicely expounded by a political theorist called Susan Bickford (The Dissonance of Democracy) and a person with roots in radio called Kate Lacey (Listening Publics). The essence of this approach is that giving voice to people in society stripped of it, is not really about creating more ways for those people to speak. It is far more about getting those with power to actually listen and pay attention in ways that alter the relationship between trying to shout louder and louder and actually being heard with attention and respect.

It seems to me that while academics and administrations are demanding rationalism and manners from their activist students, they should also be checking their own impulses to talk over, jump to conclusions and out-think the anger, arguments and demands being put forward.

If the young South Africans waging this struggle now can be emotional and rational; vocal and attentive, political and personal, clear-minded about their goals without turning their opponents into enemies and non-humans, then they’ll have succeeded where previous revolutions didn’t. And we should be helping them by paying real attention.

 

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