Joel Netshitenzhe- Launch of SADC Media Awards

20 November 2003

20 November 2003

I should thank Mrs Mampane for giving us this opportunity to share ideas on the launch of the South African Chapter of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Media Awards. The launch concludes a process that started long ago, after a decision of the SADC Council of Ministers in 1996.

We know that the wheels of government grind slowly. Put more than ten governments together, and the problem gets multiplied manifold; things may even grind to a halt. But the fact that we are having this event today shows that we are getting there.

As we all know, since SADC got transformed from a co-ordinating conference into a development community, it has been looking at ways of strengthening its institutional mechanisms so that it can implement the new mandate to focus on development and integration in Southern Africa.

One of the things that arose was how to ensure a link - coordination and synchronisation - between formal structures of government and civil society, including the media, academia, labour and so on. And at its meeting in 1996 the Council of Ministers approved the establishment of the sector that deals with matters that relate to our profession: culture, information and sport. It made the recommendation that the SADC Media Awards competition should be set up.

It decided, firstly, that the awards would recognise excellent journalism, in the areas of print, photo, television as well as radio journalism. Going through the recent discussions within the regional committee, I saw that Ms Mampane made a proposal at the last meeting in August, that we should include online journalism and the idea is in principle accepted.

Secondly, the main aim of this award is to promote values that are universal in their character, and which have profound currency in our own situation in South Africa and Southern Africa:

  • freedom of expression
  • media freedom
  • freedom of thought
  • tolerance of divergent views and opinions
  • media diversity and development
  • support for the development integration programmes of SADC
  • democracy, accountability and transparency.

These ideas, we can say with confidence, are enshrined in our Constitution; they find expression in the praxis of the South African polity.

Further, it was felt that it would be necessary, in order to root the awards in the countries of the region, that the adjudication committee at regional level should be constituted by the chairpersons of National Adjudicating Committees.

Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) is meant to be the media and information contact point for South Africa; and we were asked by the SADC Secretariat to facilitate the establishment of our own National Adjudication Committee (NAC). The rules stipulate that this committee should consist of members of civil society, businesspersons, intellectuals and other outstanding personalities of renowned competence and qualities. I can vouch that we have them aplenty in this meeting today as well as in the committee itself

We had as GCIS to convene the broad stakeholder task team that helped to set up the NAC, itself finally established in June 2003. The rules of the awards competition also stipulate that the responsibility of this NAC is that of adjudicating the awards competition in the particular country for submission to the Regional Adjudicating Committee through the SADC Secretariat.

We should say that at GCIS we are greatly encouraged by the response from our own civil society and their enthusiasm to participate in this process. But there are many, many awards and GCIS had to prepare itself when we arranged the first meeting for a reply to the question: why yet another media award? Would it be correct to say that there is award fatigue in the media; concern that we might end up like the boxing fraternity: if you are a boxer and cannot become a champion the best thing to do is bring a few promoters together and set up an organisation (WBC, IBF, IBO and so on); and you can easily end being champion.

But the uniqueness of the SADC Media Awards is that it helps integrate South Africa in the sub-continent. It helps to ensure that South Africa thinks not only about itself, but casts its net wider in defining itself as it conducts the profession of journalism. It helps ensure that South Africans come to realise that in all respects, they are also part of the broader community of Southern Africa, in other words for South Africans to realise that they are themselves "makwerekwere"!

What is it that we would gain as SA from this kind of media award?

To answer that question we need to go back to the basics, and the major reference point, for us is the document that was recently published by government, "Toward a Ten-Year Review".

Amongst the observations that it makes is that one of the major challenges in the coming ten years building up to 2014, is to ensure that South Africa expends as much energy and resources as possible to ensure stabilisation, growth and development in Southern Africa. It makes the point that this is not only on account some African patriotism, not only for the love of the people of Southern Africa and the rest of Africa, but because it is in the profound interest of South Africa itself to ensure that there is growth and development in our sub-continent.

The point is made that if we were to succeed for instance in stabilising Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as well as Angola and ensure their rapid growth in the coming decade, that will help resolve some of the problems that we have in South Africa. An analysis of foreign direct investment in our country demonstrates that since 1994 there has been some improvement, quite significant, but the reality is that it is not at the kind of level that we had envisaged.

Research points to a number of reasons, and one of them is the assessment of long-term prospects in South Africa because of the levels of inequality. Many long-term investors pose the question: with this level of inequality, can this society sustain social stability? The second question that they pose is about the size of our markets, South Africa in particular with a mere 44 million people.

Now if you were able to ensure stability in Southern Africa as well as growth and development, given the extent Angola and the DRC in particular are endowed in terms of natural resources, we would have a situation in which a combination of those countries and South Africa would become a locomotive for faster growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa and further afield on the continent.

Secondly when that happens, it mean that more people will be employed in Southern Africa: there will be bigger markets, a thriving middle class, development of industry in our own country and the sharing of comparative advantages across the region. If Angola has things that South Africa does not have, South Africa can assist Angola to exploit those advantages, for instance, with regard to oil. South Africa has other attributes that Angola can help exploit. In other words, you are able to ensure division of labour on the sub-continent with integrated as well as synchronised growth.

That can only happen in the context of freedom and democracy, and the media has an important role to play in that regard: to ensure that Southern Africa consolidates its democracy, consolidates the culture of human rights, including media freedom.

Some people may wonder, when we were referring to the values of this award (freedom of expression, freedom of thought, tolerance of divergent views, and opinion and so on), whether this does not sound like pious words, especially in countries that may be experiencing the jackboot of repression against the media.

The temptation, as we were informed today, among some of the partners who we believe should be participating in this initiative, is to adopt a holier-than-thou approach, a purist approach, to these initiatives and argue that before all these ideals and values are attained on the sub-continent, they will withdraw from media awards process.

We believe that that is a wrong approach to adopt.

It's wrong because the fact of these values being adopted by this collective that is SADC, is in fact a major achievement. It means you have put up a lodestar; you have put up a frame of reference on the basis of which you can legitimately, formally and informally, hold governments of Southern Africa to account.

But, the other important consideration is that by participating in these processes, as South Africa, as this structure of civil society - in the kind of nominations we make, in our definition of quality, in our definition of the criteria to select particular nominees - we are involved in a form of struggle. It is a struggle to ensure that in the whole of Southern Africa, the SADC Media Awards values are observed, in other words, that there should be media freedom.

So stepping aside, boycotting activities of this nature, awaiting the dawn of an ideal world, would in fact be to shirk our responsibility. It is better to participate in these processes and influence developments from within.

I suppose attached to that kind of challenge - if we all agree that participating in this process is a form of our contribution to the development of democracy, human rights and media freedom in Southern Africa - is the question whom shall we identify as the heroes and heroines? Will that be merely on the basis of a passing sensation, or will it be on account of the depth that individuals show in understanding the dynamics within our own country and the region as a whole?

As a developing region we share the challenge of ensuring that the right to receive and impart information and ideas becomes reality for all, including the majority whose access to the media, whether as consumers or producers, has been inhibited by a history of neglect and underdevelopment. We share the ideal of a media agenda for development in which the concerns of the poor are not subordinated to the fleeting sensations of the indiscretions of celebrities. And we are convinced that these fleeting sensations are the real dumbing down; not a reflection of the concerns of the poorest of the poor.

It is our view that we also need to be resolute against any dictatorship of advertisers and the public relations industry as far as matters of content are concerned: so that companies, so that journalists, so that practitioners, and so that editors are left to weigh the facts about what is objective information; what is in the interest of the public; what is it that they should give prominence to; and that those decisions should not depend on the subjective interventions and analyses of those who are in charge of marketing budgets.

We all have a common interest in the existence of a vigilant, investigative and independent media and we believe the vision of SADC to establish the awards would serve the region and South Africa well. We are convinced that the National Adjudicating Committee will take the process further to fulfil the objective which SADC has set, the objective towards which SADC aspires, as part of the ongoing struggle for freedom from ignorance, freedom from fear, and freedom from poverty.

We are convinced that, steadily, sometimes in invisible ways, as these awards become part South African culture, South Africa will become part of Southern African and African culture.

Thank you.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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