August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

The trouble with mediated citizenship

A recent report from the Eldemen Trust barometer which measures the level of trust citizens have for different institutions, rated South Africans at a mere 17% in terms of trust for the South African Government compared to a staggering 82 % in terms of trust for media. Although this says very little for South Africa as a democracy, it does place media at an ideal space regarding its potential to act as a democratic mediator and support social, political and economic development. Media gives people a platform to communicate, decide what kind of development they want to see in their community as well as hold their local government to account. Access to true and proper information is therefore key to sustainable development, particularly for the global south which battles with a myriad of developmental issues. However, for South Africa and particularly the Eastern Cape, this still remains a misleading notion, merely because of a low level of media literacy and difficulties in gaining internet access as well as, and most importantly a local government that remains disconnected from the communication stream.

The Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy have found that more and more democracies across the globe are acknowledging the need to get youth to consume media more critically and therefore become media literate. “Definitions of media literacy range far and wide, but common attributes include the ability to access, evaluate, analyse, assess, comprehend, review, critique, and produce information from a variety of media” (Milhailidis, 2009). However, in my experience of Media Literacy Training, I have found such interventions in the Eastern Cape to be quite complex; racial divides, the gulf between the rich and poor, high levels of unemployment, unresponsive local government, and the great digital divide, means that the  small number of young people that become media literate through self-taught citizen journalism or media development projects, either begin to view their media engagement as a chance for upward social mobility or are halted half way up the ladder when they realise that mediated citizenship requires the same social capital as citizenship enacted in the physical, public realm, or worse yet, when they realise or start thinking about who is actually listening. Are the people in power connected to the conversation? They quickly begin to see that in South Africa, who you are and where you come from matters as much online, on paper and on the airwaves as it does in the community hall.

In the Eastern Cape, every township or neighbourhood has its own unique set of developmental issues that they would like to bring to the fore; from qualms around dog walking parks to issues around the unavailability of proper sanitation facilities. Furthermore, each area carries its own cultural identity and is probably either mostly populated by English, Afrikaans or Xhosa speaking people. In most cases, public discourse (developed and maintained via mainstream media) is dominated by an elite middle class, not only because this group have the means to communicate and participate, (something the poor usually don’t have) but also because they have the interest, a soft skill habitually missing amongst the often politically apathetic rich. (Excuse my gross generalisations; I only use them for effect).

There is a whole lot of hype in South Africa around an enchanting pill called media that is believed to have the ability to magically bring voices from the so-called margins into the mainstream. I am respectfully appropriating the title of last year’s “Highway Africa” conference – Social Media, from the margins to the mainstream, where journalists from all over the world came together to discuss the role of social media in nation building. This hype, has for some time now encouraged journalists, political activists and development projects to see mediated citizenship as a viable alternative for subaltern groups who “lack” a voice in the physical realm. It is believed that, through media platforms, they can air their grievances and by so doing enter through the narrow doors of elite civil society as equals to join the rich and middle class where discussions about dog walking parks and sanitation are held in the same regard (tongue in cheek). We often forget the role and value of social capital and its impact even in mediated citizenship. We forget that a recent report by IDASA states that most people feel disconnected from their local government. There can be no benefit to inciting ideals of liberal democracy…share…share….share… with such sensitive developmental issues as education, sanitation and housing when there are insufficient mechanisms in place to raise these voices to a level where they count most.  I feel we must tread carefully, when it comes to such concerns and get local government plugged in to the conversation.

Without the buy in of local government, I think campaigns around access to information and media literacy will continue creating a citizenry that is aware of their rights and responsibilities, equipped with the knowledge and information necessary to engage fruitfully and prepared to do so but without a platform to act. They will continue creating a citizenry whose social mobility may not be limited by their space, place and language but limited by a lack of social capital to legitimise their claims. Access to information campaigns will continue creating an empowered citizen that speaks to their local government but without anyone actually listening. Who is listening?

Civil society needs to continue to act by providing skills and knowledge for engagement with media through Media Literacy Trainings, while local government needs to tap in to these conversations and proactively listen to what the people are saying. Without all four working together (citizen, state, local media and civil society organisations) in tandem, mediated citizenship will remain a failed project.