Category: Media & Citizenship

Young South African’s – Actively Disengaged

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“I have never voted … I don’t see the use of voting.”

These are the words of one young South African that we spoke to in 2012. This young person was not the only one however, in the group of more than 80 people that we spoke to, who had a negative perception of voting. Many of these ‘born frees’ were disillusioned with the process, regarded it as a waste of their time because they thought that putting their X on the page would have very little effect. They saw the process as simply not being able to change either the way politics played out nationally in South Africa, or more importantly in changing the situations which made their daily lives difficult. Things like unemployment, drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy – these are the issues many young people regarded as important to them, and they felt that their vote would make little, if any, difference to those same problems.

 “Ja, personally I’ve lost trust in politicians, and the last time I voted was 2006”

For a long time I thought this made these young people disconnected from society, and disengaged from what was going on around them nationally and locally. The rhetoric which I read about young people distancing themselves from politics and therefore not being ‘active’ citizens was reinforced by the way our focus group participants spoke about politics. Traditional forms of politics such as voting, attending political meetings and signing petitions have for too long been regarded as the standard by which we judge others and their value as citizens. If you don’t vote, are you really an active and engaged citizen? If you aren’t a member of a political party, can you really say you have an interest in politics? But why should young people find resonance in the rhetoric of political speak which too often does not speak directly to them or listen to them enough? We need to recognise instead that there is a clear distinction between being disengaged and disinterested in formal or traditional politics, and being detached from wider democratic and political processes which may be represented by alternative political and civic activities. Wring et al note rather astutely when speaking about young people, that “politics’ as represented by parties and politicians simply does not connect with their everyday lives in any meaningful way” (Wring, Henn & Weinstein 1999: 203).

Too often we base our judgements of citizenship on the traditional, without thinking about what appeals to young people. Based on traditional norms or standards of what an active citizen is most of the young people we spoke to would be immediately judged as passive and disinterested – as bad citizens. Hart argues, that rather than judge people based on these norms and standards, we should use a ‘cultural citizenship’ approach which “seeks to uncover and challenge the cultural and institutional practises that support fixed notions or normative assumptions of ‘ideal’ citizenship, which serve to exclude citizens who may differ from these norms, for example, in terms of identity, culture or beliefs” (2009: 645).

Drawing on survey data gathered from almost 1000 young people (http://www.ru.ac.za/media/rhodesuniversity/digitalpublications/Sanpad%20Report%202013/#/0), we see a picture of a young person who is involved in their community, and who takes an interest in what is going on around them. Although they may not participate in traditional forms of political activity, they have connections with social life and are indeed ‘active’ citizens in their own way. Their lived experiences show us that while they disregard formal politics, they show a strong regard for the people around them and for improving their lives. We need to judge young people based on the practices which take place in their daily lives such as helping a neighbour or being involved in a social group and not disregard them based on our ‘adult’ and traditional measures.

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With so much emphasis being placed on 2014 as the year that South Africa’s democracy turns 20, and the year of the next national elections, young people should be proud of their citizenship and should be looked up to as good citizens, whether they vote or not.  Unlike many people who regard themselves as good citizens for standing in a queue every four years to vote, these young people live active citizenship because they practice small acts in their daily lives. During the National Schools Festival in 2012, the Mellon Media and Citizenship project conducted World Café sessions with young people who attended and we asked them their thoughts on being citizens in South Africa. Below are some of the messages that the young people wrote to each other. It is clear that these are not the disengaged and disconnected youth that many citizenship scholars write about. Over and above the optimism about South Africa’s future (perhaps as a result of naivety), there was an overwhelming sense of action and taking charge of their situations, being involve in their communities, and of getting things done – these were active, engaged and ‘good’ citizens.

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What is a citizen?

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By Annetjie van Wynegaard

Date Released: Sat, 31 August

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This week David Holwerk, director of communications at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Ohio, USA, was visiting the School of Journalism and Media Studies to talk about how journalists write about citizens. The Kettering Foundation is a research organisation in the USA with a strong interest in work done by citizens, communities and journalists in a democracy.

Holwerk said that it seems to be a universal article of faith among journalists that they serve the needs of citizens in democracy. But journalists seem much less certain about what citizens actually do, which raises doubts about the ability of journalists to serve citizens’ needs effectively. “Why do people need things?” asked Holwerk. When you need something, he said, it implies that you want to do something. “If need implies action, then what is it that citizens do? They vote. We give them the information they need to vote. Why? Are citizens only voters?”

These are the questions Holwerk has been grappling with for the past four years. At the Kettering Foundation many political scientists and theorists have some ideas about what citizens do. So Holwerk started to think, “You ought to be able to figure out what citizens do by looking at what journalists do.” But when you look at newspapers, watch television or listen to the radio, it’s difficult to find citizens there doing anything, he said.

Journalists and editors need to develop a broader, denser, more robust understanding of what it is that citizens do, he said, but the conversation seems completely theoretical in the context of American journalism.

Enter the Eastern Cape. Holwerk said the Eastern Cape in particular is a rich place to pursue these questions about citizens and journalists that are current and real here. Holwerk said the conversations he has had with journalists from the Daily Dispatch and the Herald he could have had with few American journalists. He said because citizenship and democracy are still fairly new in South Africa, it gives these kinds of questions currency. He found in some South African newspapers community dialogues that bring citizens together to wrestle with issues and solutions.

What is a citizen?

Holwerk said an obstacle to journalists everywhere is not having a clear definition of the word. The legal definition of citizen is someone who is entitled to full rights, including voting rights, in their native state, he said, but this is both too broad and too narrow for the purpose of journalism. Another definition is anyone with the ability to act, he said, but if merely having the ability to act makes you a citizen and you choose not to act, there is no need for journalists to act, and nothing to cover.

Holwerk’s definition of citizens is two people working together to solve a shared public problem. For journalists, if two people work together to solve a private problem, it’s not news, but if they find a solution that benefits the public, that is news.

This was not Holwerk’s first visit to South Africa. Last year he moderated a panel on journalism and citizenship at the National Arts Festival, and in 2011 he was a speaker at the symposium on Ethical Reporting of Health Issues in Africa. In 2008 Marietjie Oelofsen, a PhD Fellow in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, went to the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio as a Fanning Fellow in Democracy and Media. At that time Holwerk was the editor of the Sacramento Bee and the foundation sent Oelofsen to Sacramento to speak to him about journalism and his work around citizenship. Holwerk joined the Foundation as director of communications and resident scholar in June 2009. Oelofsen went for another meeting and they started to talk about Holwerk visiting South African newsrooms and journalism schools.

Before coming to the Kettering Foundation, Holwerk worked for more than 30 years as a journalist at newspapers in Kentucky, Minnesota and California. He worked as a copy editor, reporter, editorial page editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. He has managed staffs that have won numerous national awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing.

Holwerk is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. He spends his spare time fishing, writing country music and perfecting his recipes for barbecued chicken and hot sauce.

Photograph by Annetjie van Wynegaard

Can the subaltern get your attention? (in a crowded, mediated world)

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The fascination with the idea of whether the “subaltern can speak” belies the view, says postcolonial theorist Robert Young, that subalterns “don’t have any problem speaking”.

Young was the keynote speaker at the recent AUETSA conference at Rhodes University and took at his topic “When the subaltern speaks” (as a riposte to the Gayatria Spivak essay “Can the subaltern speak?” first published in 1988).

He said as a postcolonial theorist he has always been very interested in “representing the unrepresentable or how people are represented when they’re not in a position to represent themselves”.

Of course, representation is a step removed from speaking, and perhaps that’s the subtle difference between asserting that of course the subaltern can say what she wants to say and her being able to reach into the public domain and put her hand on the recognised levers that enable her to represent herself. Young’s interest as a professor based in an English department (at New York University) is not so much in the speaking (which is everywhere and to be heard if you pay attention) but in the records and works which can be considered as generated by the marginal and peripheral, and those are the artifacts at issue here when he animates the question yet again.

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He then outlined how the ‘dialogue’ usually plays out:

  • Subalterns don’t say the things the dominant classes want to hear.
  • Dominant classes repress the speech of the subalterns – they are often “simply not allowed to speak”.
  • Subalterns don’t speak the “right language”: they could be speaking a minor language, or a non-standard language, they might not be using the legal/bureaucratic jargon required. (And as Deborah Seddon commented, “the hegemonic use of English inculcates deep ignorance in the ruling classes” because they speak nothing else.)
  • Someone else is speaking in their place: intellectuals are prone to speaking for subalterns – think Marxism with its idea that the vanguard with its “informed consciousness” will do the representing.
  • Subalterns don’t say what they are expected to say.
  • They speak with “ideological opacity”.
  • There is no reason why they should speak to us instead of speaking to themselves.
  • Subalterns don’t adopt the generic forms of the dominant classes like literature (which, in an aside, used to mean all forms of writing before it came to mean a particularly refined form of writing in the 19th century when drama and poetry qualified, but novels didn’t because of their risible readership – women; “novels were a kind of subaltern speech for women”, Young commented.)
  • Subalterns don’t used the aestheticised forms the dominant classes are used to so the form “in which we search for their voices is not there”.
  • The forms they use are not inside the literary/artistic market place and may even be considered illegal and illegitimate (like outsider art and graffiti).
  • Subalterns use silence because not speaking is more powerful. “Silence is a power and a refusal to bow to power.”
  • Violence is also a form of speech.

Young then made a very interesting point by saying that 20th century commodification has enabled subalterns to speak in public, recorded forms. Artistic forms that Theodore Adorno, for one, would call “superficial”, like film and jazz, have been a “great facilitator of subaltern speech”. Because, said Young, “commodification preserves the speech of ordinary people”.

As proof of this Young referred to the lyrics and music of Mississippi Delta guitarist Robert Johnson, silent movie clown Charlie Chaplin and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, the daughter of share croppers. In all three there is “obvious articulation” of subaltern speech in forms that are interpretable by a wide audience.

“Subaltern speech is a form of agency,” Young concluded, “because they are not supposed to have it.”

For journalists and media people keen to find and listen, the question now becomes, where in this overly-mediated, crowded, digitised world do we find subaltern speech that urges us to listen and tells us what we should know and hear?

The roads we travel

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When I was invited to attend a debate, I thought it would be a quick trip to Johannesburg. It has turned out to be a long journey. Although the traveling itself  took only 24 hours, I have learnt a lot about myself and about the people that share the roads we travel on in South Africa, and so the trip was about more than traveling over 1000kms across South Africa, it was about listening, sharing, debating and discussing.

It started last week with an invitation to The Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum which was to debate ‘The Role of South Africa’s Youth in the National Development Plan’. By Monday this week it was confirmed that I would attend and by Wednesday morning the journey began in earnest – starting with a shuttle from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth. On the drive I was fortunate to have a very friendly, intelligent South African driver, and we chatted about many things. The conversation started with talk about Nelson’s Mandela’s continued stay in hospital, and then swiftly moved onto his impressions of the bumpy road that South Africa currently finds itself on. He lamented about the fact that things had not changed significantly since the end of Apartheid, and commented that many people he had spoken to said that things had in fact gotten worse. While there are many aspects of the lives of ordinary people that have improved significantly, the media sometimes point to particular sectors which have deteriorated since the transition to democracy. The Economist, for example, recently published a story where it reported that Mamphela Ramphele had argued that education is currently worse than during Apartheid (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21580151-ruling-party-triumphed-under-nelson-mandela-desperate-need).  Business Day quoted Desmond Tutu as saying that violence is worse now than during apartheid (http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/2013/04/12/sa-more-violent-now-than-under-apartheid-says-tutu). While these are subjective positions, they clearly point to some of the potholes that we are currently experiencing as South African citizens on the road to a grown-up democracy.

The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful and I quickly made my way to Rosebank where the event was being held. The debate itself included some of the 200 Young South Africans, recently profiled in the Mail & Guardian (http://mg.co.za/report/200-young-south-africans), and was targeted very much at a young, professional, elite audience who were there to debate and discuss how to get more young people (those who are not the targets of the event) to engage with the National Development Plan (NDP – http://www.info.gov.za/issues/national-development-plan/).

The first panel comprised of Matsi Modise (National executive director of the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum), Lise Kuhle (Founder of Eco Smart), Godfrey Phetla (Director for policy and research at the Department of Trade and Industry), Angel Kgokolo (President of the JCI South Africa), and Langalethu Manquele (from BMF). This panel was tasked with discussing the NPA itself, and while this was interesting, it centered largely around enterprise development and whether this was the best option for addressing unemployment amongst the youth as proposed by the NDP. The questions that constantly came to mind for me were: Do young people know about the NDP? How do they find out about opportunities for internships, starting their own businesses, and mentorships? How much of the knowledge being shared in the room by these panelists is in the public sphere and being debated in the media in a way that is accessible and relevant to young people? Is the NDP the right vehicle for change, and are young people drivers,  passengers, or bystanders desperately trying to catch a lift?

The second panel comprised of Mike Sharman (owner of Retroviral Digital Communications), Khanyisile Magubane (SAfm broadcaster), Catherine Peter (Africa Director of One Young World), and Patrick Mashanda (Regional coordinator of Ikamva Youth). This panel looked specifically at the role of the media in addressing social cohesion – the focus of much of the work I do. The panel members said many interesting, inspirational, but somewhat idealistic things in their very short openings. The really interesting comments, however, started once the debate opened to the floor and as participants we were able to contribute. Many people complained about the largely negative reporting in the media, and the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” was quoted numerous times, guests questioned the popularity of tabloid newspapers, and the media was generally charged with poor driving and failing to obey the rules of the normative road a democracy follows – i.e. being the watchdog, holding the government to account, and giving citizens a voice to debate in the public sphere.

And this is the crux of where the mainstream news media is failing. I qualify the media here, because I think a problem with the debate was that ‘the media’ was treated as a homogenous entity that needed to be put into place, but is in fact a multi-faceted institution in South African society that varies so greatly that we need to be quite careful in how we use the term. In my view, the biggest role (and there are many) that the mainstream news media can play in engaging with young people on the NDP (or any issue for that matter) is to allow young people VOICE in their coverage of issues that affect young people. These are the very issues that we have been doing research on in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project, and we have learnt a lot about young people over the last year and a half. The issues which are the most important to young people currently are the economy, service delivery, health, education, and crime. The young people that we spoke to in our study said that they were most concerned about crime (93.4%), the economy (90.7%), and health (89.3%). The problem is that these are not the issues that are being covered for young people in the mainstream news media they consume.

                                                     

More worryingly, is that even in coverage on issues which do affect young people, the stories do not speak to young people, and they certainly do not give voice to young people. In research I conducted which examined coverage by a range of newspapers around the country (Daily Dispatch, Grocott’s Mail, and Mail & Guardian), coverage on education included young people as sources or quoted young people in only 9.7% of the stories. More often stories quoted or gave voice to adults in management positions at schools or universities, government officials, or members of the public. This, in part, is why tabloid newspapers should not be laughed at or regarded disparagingly, and it is why they are so popular – they give voice to ordinary South Africans who are telling their stories (regardless of how bizarre they are).

If the media want to include young people on the road to building a strong democracy, they need to invite them on the journey rather than ignore them as bystanders. If the young, upwardly mobile South Africans who attended the debate are any indication of where the born frees can get to and how they can do it, then the young people of today are a force as strong as those who drove the revolution in 1976.

And so, having shared the work that we’ve done, and having listened to young people with something to say, I made my way back to the Eastern Cape. Another uneventful flight, and another interesting conversation with the shuttle driver. We came to the conclusion that there is a long road ahead for South African’s, but that the scenery is worth the effort. As we made our way through the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, I wondered how many young South Africans would be making their own journeys of discovery and where the road would lead them.

Citizenship, engagement and universities

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Dr James Arvanitakis recently addressed Rhodes University staff on issues which are part of his research and part of the academic culture in Australia – engagement with communities, engagement with students and creating an enabling environment for active citizens within the university. Here are some snippets of his talk.

Dr Arvanitakis’ research areas include hope, trust, political theatre, piracy and citizenship. James has worked as a human rights activist throughout the Pacific, Indonesia and Europe. He is currently working with the Whitlam Institute looking at issues confronting Australia’s democracy. His latest book, Contemporary Society: A sociological analysis of everyday life, was launched with Oxford University Press in February 2009 which gave rise to ‘socio-logic’ – a weekly radio show on FBI Radio (94.5fm). A regular media commentator he has published widely including The Punch and New Matilda. James was a former banker and advocate for free trade, but having witnessed child and indentured labour, has worked  to develop sustainable, socially just and equitable economic policies with organisations such as the Centre for Policy Development, where he is a research fellow. James has worked extensively with a number of non-government organizations, including Oxfam International Youth Partnerships and Youth Engagement Program as well as Aid/Watch, as well as working extensively with a number of other justice-based organisations.

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