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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 2, No. 12, 18 June 2003

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Reflections from a Communist University: Need for patient rebuilding of a left anti-imperialist movement

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

The SACP was honoured by the invitation to attend the first “Communist University of Workers and Students” in over twenty years. This event was convened by the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) from 13-15 June 2003 at the University of London. The primary aim of this “university” was to provide a platform for communists and other marxists to reflect on the current global situation, particularly in the wake of the Iraqi invasion by the US and UK governments. In our South African language, this was a political school drawing in members of the CPB, left trade unionists, independent marxists and others.

This university was convened in the wake of what were possible the biggest mass demonstrations and mobilisation in the UK and Europe in the post Second World War period. In February, the Communist Party of Britain played a leading role in mobilising and organising an estimated 2 million people to demonstrate against the war. The secretary of the Stop-the-War campaign is a leader of the CPB. So this communist university was an opportunity to reflect on these successes, and debate how communist, worker and other left parties should seek to build on this massive mobilisation towards the formation of a durable global anti-imperialist movement. The challenge posed for communist and other progressive forces at the “university”, was that of seeking to weld the anti-globalisation protests and the Stop the War campaign into laying foundations for an anti-imperialist movement.

Participating in this communist university provided another important international platform to reflect together with other communists on the global situation from a consistently Marxist perspective – a very refreshing exchange in itself – and also to interact with communists from the Sudan, Iraq, Cuba, Greece, Iran, the UK, India and South Africa. The presence of senior leadership from the Iraqi Communist Party – who are already back in the country after decades of exile - provided a unique insight into developments in Iraq at the moment. It is clear that there is inevitable and growing resentment amongst the Iraqi people towards the occupation of their country. The Iraqi people are clearly rejecting manoeuvres by the US occupying army to install a puppet regime, and the Americans might get more than they bargained for.

Iraqi Communists

What is heartening is that the Iraqi Communist Party is emerging as one of the more organised political formations in the post-Saddam Iraq, thus placing it in an important position to impact on the transition there. At the moment, there is chaos in Iraq, with a serious breakdown of law and order. The US seems primarily concerned with securing oil installations and other assets important to their imperialist designs, and leaving the rest to be policed by the army, principally through repression. This in fact sets the scene for a very long struggle between the US and the Iraqi people, whose outcome may in the end not favour the imperialist agenda, unless the US embarks on even more severe repression, thus pre-empting any emergence of a democratic order. This underlines the need for continued mobilisation in support of the position of the Iraqi Communist Party for a national conference on the transition, convened by the United Nations and not the US and UK.

The British Labour Party and the failure of Blair’s Third Way

The Communist University was seen by the CPB as the first step towards repositioning and strengthening the Party in the wake of new opportunities provided by the mobilisation around the war and growing dissatisfaction within the ranks of the labour movement. It is clear that the CPB has a long way to go, but, as the Chinese would say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first mile. To this end, discussions and debates at the university highlighted some new trends beginning to emerge not only in the British labour movement, but also in the rest of Europe and the US.

It seems as if the Cold War “pact” between western governments and their labour movements is beginning to unravel for two reasons. Firstly, the neo-liberal attack on the welfare state, rolling back some of the gains and protection that the working classes in these countries had secured, is beginning to expose them to the harshest realities of the capitalist market. These include retrenchments, rising unemployment, casualisation and privatisation of basic services on an unprecedented scale. For instance, there is increasing relocation of production capacity to some of the underdeveloped countries, which has a huge negative impact on these working classes.

Secondly, now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, it seems as if the “compromise” between capital and labour that was so necessary to shield these working classes from “Soviet Communist influence” is also falling apart. Advanced capitalism needs this working class less as an ally than a producer of surplus labour. This situation seems to be leading to the replacement of the old “Cold War” leadership at the helm of many trade unions, with a younger and more radical leadership. Consequently, many communists – who before were actively marginalised and removed from senior trade union positions – are now being elected into senior positions. The emerging younger workers and leadership has less experience of trade unionism and trade union life during the cold war. This will not automatically translate into sympathy with socialism, but it provides new opportunities for socialist propaganda and education in the trade union movement. The challenge – as identified at the communist university – is how to exploit this situation in order to rebuild a left trade union movement in Europe.

Back to basics

In confronting this challenge, debates at the “university” also focused on the need for communists to go back to the basics. Possibilities of a radical labour movement, the growing aggression of imperialism, and growing anti-imperialist sentiment amongst ordinary people, all point to the need to revisit communist strategies in the current period. To this end, there was emphasis on focusing communists on the issue of building the widest possible alliances with progressive forces, cadreship development of a new kind, and communist activism through campaigns that are focused on the immediate needs of ordinary people and the condition of the working class.

Battle of ideas

In carrying out these tasks, the area of the battle of ideas becomes key. Imperialism, particularly after the end of the Cold War and even more so since September 11, has deepened its control over major national and global media institutions. This means that the left generally has to devise a much more systematic strategy to try and counter this.

The aim of capitalist and imperialist media, as we reminded ourselves at the “university”, is nothing but a vehicle for the dominant ideology whose purpose is to conceal the contradictions of contemporary global society, and reproduce capitalist hegemony. To this end, there was wide canvassing of the possibility of seeking to co-ordinate and harmonise media activities and institutions in the hands of all communist and progressive forces globally. The internet, amongst other things, provides an important weapon in this regard, as well as other existing communist and left newspapers and radio outlets.

Whilst this is going to be a long and hard struggle, the “university” began to reflect the extent to which there is growing confidence once more amongst communist and other progressive forces. Perhaps this might also be an indication that we have now at least overcome the blow of the collapse of the Soviet Union and it is time to seriously start rebuilding.

Communists and Religion

Another important topic touched upon at the “university” was that of religion and communism. Whilst reaffirming our general understanding and characterisation of religion, the one major conclusion reached was that this is an important site of struggle, with religion being a living material force in our societies. More important was the conclusion that imperialism is the biggest manipulator of religion, particularly in developing countries, in order to advance its goals. For example, if it suits imperialism, it would sponsor and reinforce religious fundamentalism (e.g. the mujahadeen in Afghanistan in order to fight the Soviet Union), but at the same time would use its very own product (right-wing fundamentalism) as an excuse to attack countries.

The US is the leading sponsor of right-wing evangelical movements, particularly in developing countries, as a way of depoliticising the mass of the people and defeating progressive movements. South Africa itself is witnessing the growth of these evangelical missions, centred around “popular” individual preachers, some of whom urge our people not to respect any worldly authority (including legitimate governments), but to respect only “God”. It is clear that this is a matter that requires the attention of all progressive forces. The view at the university was the need to work with progressive religious forces (e.g. liberation theologians and religious movements), and to deepen the struggle for the separation of state and religion. This is a matter that all communist parties will have to continue sharing experiences on, as a critical site for the battle of ideas and anti-imperialist struggles.

Aluta continua

Difficult as the struggles that lie ahead will be, it is clear that the consolidation of imperialist dominance is not without its contradictions. The Washington Consensus has clearly failed as poverty is deepening in the world. The Blairite “third way” is also failing, as everywhere it is nothing more other than an attempt to give neo-liberalism a human and democratic face. There is also a resurgence of the left in Latin and South America, its most recent expression being the Lula victory in Brazil and growing mass movements for people’s power. There are still in existence strong communist parties in the former Soviet bloc, some of whom are making impressive electoral gains. All these, as well as some restlessness in the European labour movement and the struggles for the renewal of the African continent, provide a new platform for rebuilding the communist movement. The anti-war movement provides an immediate platform around which to launch this rebuilding process.

The anti-war mass struggles have also managed to assist the left to break out of the post-September 11 “You are either with us or with terrorism” paradigm. These mass struggles have enabled the left to say we are neither for imperialism nor terrorism but we are for a just, equitable world order. And this is increasingly finding resonance with the mass of the people throughout the world.

We congratulate the CPB and its General Secretary, Cde Rob Griffiths for convening this communist university and providing yet another platform for communists to share experiences and ideas. Let a thousand communist universities bloom!

The Fourth Estate: A Fifth Column? – transforming South African media  

Can we talk about freedom of speech in South Africa given that the media is owned and controlled by a few? Ja, nee! Yes, because of the legal and constitutional framework coupled with practice and commitment. No because, it is freedom of expression for a few.

Over the weekend, the South African Communist Party submitted substantial comment on the editorial policies, funding and role of the SABC in our society. The process and discussions which shaped this submission reaffirmed the long-standing SACP repudiation of the falsity that the media is a neutral arbiter and analyst of society seemingly above and outside of ongoing contestations and struggles. To be sure, the SACP believes that South African media still represents the ruling class in the ongoing ideological battles and power relations based on race, class and gender inequalities in our society. The majority of South Africans do not have access to alternative media platforms and institutions.

The media in South Africa is shaped by the same political, social and economic forces which have shaped our society over several decades. At the same time, the media has itself in various ways and at different points contributed to the development of these forces. Under the apartheid state, the media played a leading role in propping up white support for the dominant political ideology. A smaller section of this media played a role at different points in challenging this ideology. But what role has the media played in our new democracy? The media plays a much greater role in informing and forming public opinion amongst a significant section of our populace.

In many instances, the media has assigned for itself the role of being protectors of South Africa's liberty against "the natural inclination of a predominantly black government to dictatorship and corruption" and to, overtly and covertly, promote a virulent agenda against the interests of the majority of the people.

This situation has been allowed to continue without a serious vision, strategy and mobilisation from working class forces. As progressive and working class forces in South Africa have paid insufficient attention to the transformation, democratisation and diversification of media ownership, control and content.

The public discussion of the SABC editorial policies and its role must also be directed to probe fundamental questions about South African media. As much as the SABC is a public broadcaster, it would be a strategic mistake to leave the rest of South African media un-challenged and un-transformed with regard to its ownership, control, content and agenda. What is the nature of the relationship between the ruling class and the media? What role does the media play in the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of our society? Whose views, interests and perspectives does the media reflect and perpetuate? Which class interests does the media advance? What is the working class vision of a transformed media? How do progressive forces achieve this vision?

Ownership and Control of SA Media Inc.

The Position Paper on the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) published in 2000 by the Government Communication and Information Systems provides a revealing profile of media ownership in South Africa. This media ownership profile still reflects the deeply embedded fissures and divisions within society as well as the distribution of power in favour of hegemony by a small number of people not elected by, and accountable to anyone other than their profit interests. The irony is that these narrow interests are projected daily as the best interests of the nation. The MDDA Position Paper correctly states that “Media ownership is still concentrated and does not meet the needs of all groups and interests.”

Through inter-locking directorships, holding and ownership arrangements, these major media players are in turn themselves closely linked with important sections of domestic and international capital, which actually run and control the South African economy. Clearly then South African media, despite claims to the contrary and indiscreet charms, is a central cog in the continued domination of the South African economy and major institutions of culture, by a small ruling class.

The same media houses which own print media also dominate media distribution. This effectively monopolises distribution and kills off any competition from smaller operators. It is important that working class forces mobilise to ensure that this practices is regulated and capped through legislation.

In addition to these structural deficiencies, the media itself faces major challenges with regard to equity, skills development and improvement of working conditions. Admittedly, the last two years have seen the managerial and editorial promotion of black individuals in the media. This kind of active promotion holds out more transformational possibilities. In principle, the promotion of individuals with an organic connection to poor working class communities can help (and in practice is often helping) to change the character of various media institutions. However, here too, matters cannot be taken for granted, the core objective of media diversification must be overall and collective transformation, not just individual promotion.

What the media covers

The crux of the media ownership and control question is directly related to the what and how of what is covered by the media.

Most often than not, it is the opponents of the transformation agenda of government who find disproportionately more space to articulate their views. Instead of debate, media is dominated by sound bytes from political and business elites that do not stand for fundamental transformation of our society at the expense of a sober analysis of mattes of national importance.

Many media houses claim that the ‘market’ determines what our media covers. The so-called market still embodies and reproduces the same class, race and gender legacy we inherited from apartheid. There is a link between the 'market' and the continued reproduction of class, racial and gender inequalities. Many atimes, the interests and needs of the ‘market’ have become the convenient explanation for the media to deny or defuse issues of black people, women and the black working class.

The Independent Newspapers’ Group runs the Business Report as a daily business section in all its newspapers. The Business Report provides important economic, company, policy and international trade issues. BUT, from what perspective? To illustrate, the Business Report provides various local and international economic indices and indicators which can be used to determine economic and other policies. But.the economic indices the Business Report focuses on are informed by how private companies and shareholders can maximise their returns. Of course, the SACP accepts that these indicators are useful in assessing economic growth and development. But, even if we live in a capitalist economy, this exclusive focus on narrowly-defined economic indices limits space for real debates and consideration of diverse options on sustainable and job-creating economic growth and development. If the Business Report was really about enriching public debate and information on economic trends, then, as a patriotic South African newspaper it would have long developed economic indicators on other aspects of the economy relevant to the majority of our people. These indicators could be tracking poverty indicators, service delivery indicators, impact of retrenchments on livelihoods of communities, retrenchments watch, and so on.

Through its Editor-at-large, Robyn Chalmers, the Business Day has, over the last three years, acted as the shop-steward for privatisation without, at the same time, allowing for objective public debate which would have allowed a range of voices to contribute to a debate on the role of state-owned enterprises. Despite of the introduction of the column by the COSATU economist, Neva Makgetla, the content of the Business Day is geared towards securing increasing acceptance of a free market economy as if there should be no public debate.

Another example is how most of the print media has acted as overzealous shopstewards of big business is the systematic attack on organised workers. The most sinister of these attacks has been an attempt to project the gains of organised workers (e.g. worker friendly labour laws) as the principal cause of unemployment and poverty. These attacks have also demonised organised workers as being responsible for the very same retrenchments they have been victims of. Even more sinister in these attacks have been attempts to project working class struggles as being directly at the expense of the poor. The SACP understands these attacks as neo-liberal ideological distortions informed and motivated by the class interests of the owners of South African media.

The less said about the Citizen and the Star newspapers the better. We suspect that there must be a “Dial the DA to make a story” provision in the editorial codes of these 2 newspapers. Out of 78 press statements that the SACP has issues on a diverse range of important issues this year, the Star would be performing extremely if it has given coverage to at least five of these statements. Yet the Star claims to be important carriers of news and information. What a cheat!

The reforming Mail and Guardian is beginning to provide a breath of fresh air in this otherwise stifling media environment, yet it has a long way to go.

Freedom of Speech?

It is folly to talk about these rights and freedoms whilst ignoring and without changing the current media ownership and control patterns and structures. In fact, for the majority of our people these and freedoms are meaningless as these rights, in these circumstances, essentially mean freedoms for a largely white (albeit slightly transformed), male rich oligarchies to express and present its views as the national view, and this, at the expense of the wide array of opinions and views in our diverse and overwhelmingly working class society. A fundamental pre-condition to realise freedom of speech in South Africa is the diversification of media ownership and control.

This situation privileges and entrenches the freedom of expression of an elite at the expense of the interests, issues and experiences of the majority of our people. This situation is an anti-thesis to the role which should be played by a truly free and independent media in a free and democratic country.

Towards a vision

The progressive movement in our country must start a debate on what is our vision of a transformed media in our country. This debate must deliberately focus on how to change the ownership and control patterns in the media, including distribution.

Given the predominance of private commercial media in our country, the role of the SABC is important in ensuring that a diversity of opinions and viewpoints are indeed reflected in the content of what the media covers.

Issues of ownership, control, transformation, democratisation and diversification of the media are as important as addressing our capacity as the democratic forces to communicate effectively. This includes the capacity to influence how the messages and content of our transformation are mediated through the media.

The impact of community media will also be important and hopefully the MDDA, as meek as its programmes are, can address the fundamental problems affecting this sector. The community sector that has seen the roll-out of a hundred stations since 1994. It relies on grants, some form of government support and advertising revenue for its survival. The community stations that thrive are those that are able to draw considerable advertising revenues. However, the task does not end there given that dominant interests in localities can drive and subvert real, democratic and developmental community media. And thus the need for workers and other progressive forces to play a central role in the community media sector.

As the progressive movement we need to grow and build cultural and media activism because in this way “consumers”, “users” of the media can work collectively to air their voices and issues to the media from the perspective of the majority. Otherwise the opinion pieces, letters to editors and phone calls to talkshow become complaint forums for a well-resourced and vocal elite. The Friends of the Public Broadcaster initiative, started a few years ago, is the kind of media activism we need.

The critical steps to start this discussion would be a national media transformation network or forum focusing on the SABC and the transformation and diversification of the media. This forum must also provide space for inter-action with, and mobilisation of media workers who are important motive forces in the media transformation agenda.

For the next few years, the SACP will take forward these initial perspectives to ensure that the media in our country is indeed transformed.


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