August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

“I hope the guys in red win”

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I began watching the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday evening, 12th February, with my 7 year old son and my husband. It was a family affair, an opportunity to show a young person some of the privileges of living in a constitutional democracy and hopefully spark some interest in him as a young, budding citizen.

It was a lesson, I feel like I taught him many things in a very short space of time, but perhaps not in the way I had imagined. I did teach him about democracy, but instead of using the constitution as an example of a formal structure of democracy being upheld by members of Parliament, I used it as an example of a formal structure being blithely dismissed by powerful elites. Instead of using the media coverage as an example of freedom of expression, I used the blocking of the cellphone signals as an example of the infringement of freedom of expression rights and the dismissal of the rights of citizens to information being supplied by the media. Granted, we did start our coverage on SABC (perhaps not the smartest move considering the way the state, excuse me, public broadcaster has aligned so clearly with the state), but quickly moved to ENCA who didn’t rely just on the parliamentary feed to show us what was happening inside and out of the parliamentary chambers. There was another lesson – Parliament should be open to the public and broadcast to the public. When this broadcasting was done by the parliamentary feed, it was biased and obviously in the interests of the ruling party. The lessons on freedom of expression continued as I pointed out that audio to the parliamentary feed was cut when it was clear that MPs and people in the gallery were chanting ‘bring back the signal’ in protest against the jamming of the cellphone signal.

I also used this as an opportunity to teach him about some of the rights we have as citizens of this country. We have the right to know what happens in Parliament – because it is separate from government; we have the right to speak out when we feel our rights are not being upheld by those in power, and sometimes that truth spoken to power works. It worked last night in the way that the signal was quickly returned. It does not always work. The EFF had the right to speak out about their issues – we should all be angry about the lack of accountability from the President and acknowledgement of wrong doing – but in this case their disruption of Parliament did not work. Another lesson – Parliament should be a sacred space where policemen/women (who work for the government) should not be allowed to enter. They did and so another lesson – if you are angry you can walk away from the debate to prove a point. The DA walked out of Parliament in protest against the use of force by police in the chamber – it didn’t have the same flair as the disruption by the EFF and perhaps they were trying too hard to be like their EFF counterparts, but regardless, they had the right to walk away in protest.

At one stage during the initial moments of coverage and the disruption by the EFF, my son said that he hoped the guys in red ‘won’ (I suppose at some points it did look a bit like a boxing match). And so to my last and perhaps most important lesson for this young citizen in the making – MPs are not in Parliament to win or lose, they are there to represent their people. The only losers from the shambles that was SONA last night, were the citizens who voted in the hope that they would be adequately, fairly and thoughtfully represented in Parliament. We lost big time! Parliament should be an opportunity for MPs to make gains for their constituents – it was not. SONA should be an opportunity for the President to show the citizens of the country how we’ve been winning in the previous year, what gains and what losses we’ve made, and how there are going to be more gains in the year to come – it was not. Lesson over.