‘Don’t abdicate your citizenship’

Songezo Zibi, Business Day’s new editor, is an unusual business journalist, he has a powerful political awareness and a keen interest in how our democracy is working. He also has some critical things to say about capitalism (which needs an overhaul in his opinion). He visited the School of Journalism and Media Studies in September at the invitation of Reg Rumney, director of our economics journalism programme, to speak about his new book (Raising the Barand his ideas about journalism and citizenship.

Zibi, who didn’t study journalism because it was too dangerous to do so in 1992, opted for a BCom, which he hated. But as he was also studying public relations (which he loved) he then worked in this capacity for Volkswagen and Xstrata (now Glencore) and then came into journalism via a relationship with the Financial Mail for which he wrote columns.

His attitude as an editor is that journalists cannot be “passive observers” of the way our democracy is unfolding, because “those in power do not like [explaining] why” they have made certain decisions and taken certain actions. “Our role is to illuminate, to show what it means. Our role is to say why, and to provide knowledge and context.”

Zibi is scathing of the kind of journalism that Allister Sparks called “stenography” — bland reporting of the immediate events and statements. Zibi, as an editor, demands a journalism that “joins the dots”, makes the connections, tells us what from the past we ought to know to interpret the present.

He’s particularly concerned that right now those in power are putting extreme pressure on the media and the legal system and that most actions taken against the government for access to information or for keeping the public space open are being taken by journalists without sufficient back-up by other organisations. “There is an abdication by citizens of responsibility to the media,” he said. This allows the government to characterise the media as their particular enemy and “it isolates journalism”, he said.

“There are two constituencies in trouble,” he said, “journalism and judges. The rest of society is not doing its job. Shareholders don’t stand up and Sanef (the SA National Editors’ Forum) is not doing a terribly good job rallying society. Civil society doesn’t understand the responsibilities of democracy, it’s as if they need the painful experience first.”

When he addressed the writing students I asked him why he had written his book. He said he had watched the way Americans in the post-9/11 world traded their freedom for a promise of safety. He also talked about the 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention that catapulted Barack Obama to presidential candidate. Another promise of change dashed with revelations that the Obama regime has intensified the aggressive surveillance and control that administrations before him laid down. And then there is his reflection on Nazi Germany, the ordinary person “abdicated their right to say no”.

Zibi’s learning from these other countries are: “There is good and evil in each one of us — individual and corporate. We always have the obligation and right to ask why. This really, really has to be the general attitude. We are always on our own and all we have is each other. Watch each other, become your brother’s and sister’s keeper; take ownership of everyone around you. In business the shareholder is king, Act like owners of this country.”



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