One quarter of a century into democratic rule, South Africa will conduct its sixth general election on the on the 8th of May. It will do so at a time when the country still grapples with debilitating legacies of its past, and new challenges – global and local – that were hardly fathomable at the time when it experienced its political transition in 1994.
One of these is the phenomenon of political polarisation around elections, as has in recent years been the case in the United States, Kenya, Colombia, Brazil, and to this day, the consequences of the Brexit referendum. These election periods highlighted the rise of “fake news”/disinformation or misinformation, the presence and sometimes predominance of extreme ideologies and identity politics in media and discourse, citizen engagement with various forms of political participation other than voting – such as protesting, and in some instances political violence. In the lead up to South Africa’s national elections in 2019, South Africa’s democratic political culture will also be under scrutiny, as much as the outcomes of the elections.
In understanding democratic political culture, it is helpful to investigate what (media) sources of political information or news people use, and trust. The role of the media in South Africa is captured in the code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media. In the preamble of this document, it is stated that “The media exists to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that that shape society and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgements on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognized in the Constitution.” South African media thus plays a pivotal role in South Africa’s democratic society, and its independence remains essential for it to fulfil this role responsibly.
(Traditional) South African media, however, faces multiple challenge, including: political factions trying to push their agenda through media channels; declining revenue and the limited to moderate success in migrating from print news sources to online sources; budgets cuts and retrenchments; and, companies forming large conglomerates that share media and news platforms. This latter trend can limit the diversity of news made available to South African audiences, and may lead to “cutting jobs” in the industry. In addition, the use and impact of social media (as a non-traditional source of information) on democratic political culture, in particular during election times, is still relatively uncertain. Even more so what measures to keep such media sources accountable may be.
Recently, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) launched a pilot project to combat “fake news” in the form of a website through which South Africans can lodge relevant complaints which will be forwarded to the IEC for an executive ruling. Cases of online intimidation will be investigated, as well as the deliberate spreading of misinformation. This is a notable step, but may miss out on a key aspect – social media is not the primary source of political information or news for many South Africans, and the risk of dis- / misinformation does not only lie on social media platforms, but also whether social media sentiments find its way to traditional forms of media, without institutions being mindful that social media sentiments are not necessarily representative of South Africans, but rather of South Africans that 1) has access to internet-enabled devices; 2) can afford the data costs involved with accessing and sharing political information and news on social media; and, 3) those with a certain level of literacy to read and write.
The most recent SA Reconciliation Barometer (conducted in 2017) found that the most used and trusted sources of political information and news for South Africans is still the radio and television.
In addition, in 2015 and 2017, the SARB showed that the institution South Africans had the most confidence in was the SABC. This helps us understand how important it is that the integrity of the SABC is upheld at all times, and that reporting – in particular in this context around election times – is unbiased. In addition, we should be mindful that as much as social media is a source of political information and news for some South Africans, for a many this is not the case. We thus need to be mindful of social media as a source of political information and news, but not to the extent that we (further) marginalise South Africans that do not have access to such platforms or do not have the means to participate on such platforms. In addition, exploring ways to keep social media platforms accountable is important – but not in expense of the core issues driving dis- / misinformation around elections times. We will then merely be treating a symptom.
Elnari Potgieter is a Senior Project Leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation currently managing the IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) project.