Address by President Nelson Mandela at a luncheon hosted by the Conference of Editors

6 September 1994

Mr Chairman,
Honourable Editors,
Distinguished Guests,

Allow me to express my heartfelt thanks for the invitation to partake in such a sumptuous meal and share some views with you.

I should confess that when Mr Richard Steyn hinted at this event, I readily obliged. I did so because no public figure in his or her right mind would not jump at a rare opportunity to meet the doyen of the media: in civilised parlance, "to share views"; yet in reality to seek to bring them round to his or her point of view.

I sincerely hope that this discourse will be of benefit to both ourselves in Government and to you in the media.

If reports of statements by public officials and related media comments are anything to go by, relations between Government and sections of the media can be said to be at a relatively low ebb, given the fact of the broad perspectives that the democratic government and the media share.

Is it entirely unhealthy that this should be the case? What are the perceptions feeding what could develop into an unproductive dog-fight?

My remarks will revolve around these issues; in particular, the vexed question of the role of the media in our fledgling democracy.

Just over a hundred days ago, the world marveled at an achievement of epic proportions by a nation almost written off as one of civil warriors and, therefore, a nation of failures. Our society as a whole managed the elections period and the inauguration in a manner that confounded even the worst of skeptics.

But it was not uncommon then, as now, to find people in broader society and in the media who saw in that achievement a misleading sense of tranquillity, a proverbial quiet before the storm. But the storm didn't come.

So the advent of this storm was postponed, in the minds of the pessimists, to the end of 100 days of the Government of National Unity - the "honeymoon period", as some chose to call it. Yet the storm didn't come.

We are convinced - as government and as the ANC in particular - that such a storm will not come. South Africa should not again experience conflict based on racial, religious and ethnic differences. Rather, these attributes should form the basis of our richness, our strength and our unique contribution to world culture.

The formation of the Government of National Unity - premised on the interim constitution and Charter of Fundamental Rights - has removed the most immediate cause of the social antagonisms that rent our nation apart. Reinforced by the goodwill manifest among all sectors of our population, this has underpinned the almost miraculously peaceful transition that our country has experienced.

However, this is only the beginning of a long and hard journey to social equity. Success in the implementation of reconstruction and development is the sure guarantee for lasting peace and stability. This realisation has focused the minds of all parties, within and outside the cabinet, towards the achievement of the objectives of the RDP.

Differences do remain among all these diverse groups. They will and should play themselves out in the open. This is healthy, in the context of our young and vibrant democracy.

To come back to the theme of pessimism: I have deliberately said that skeptics are to be found within society in general and in the media in particular. This is to underscore a truism: that the media is not an institution apart, divorced from society and deriving its ideas from some mysterious force.

If there are parties and individuals in Government and in society who elect to stake their worth on a conjured threat of disaster, so are such individuals also to be found in the media. If there are business people who hesitate to invest because they are skeptical about our ability to manage political and economic transformation, so are such individuals also to be found in the media. The opposite is also perfectly true. And this is entirely natural!

Yet we should continually challenge the kind of pessimism which can be self-serving. That is, a state of mind that hopes for and unwittingly encourages a social disaster, an approach to any developments from the point of view of confirming a pessimistic prognosis.

For the media everywhere, this has always been a difficult balancing act over the centuries. For, it is in the nature of your trade, and it is absolutely crucial, that you should be searching, critical and even skeptical. At the same time, you also have to exercise the responsibility of accurately reflecting the hopes and fears, aspirations and apprehensions, optimism and pessimism as they exist within society.

Perhaps this is the greatest new challenge facing South Africa's media. In the abnormality of apartheid, it was much easier to strive simply to be normal and defend that right. In the new situation of relative normalcy, the challenge is to undergo what some would characterise as a transition from the sensation of conflict to that of reconstruction and development.

To cite an example: One was quite surprised that only a few of the media establishments noted, at all, the advent of the date of 1st September on which the primary school feeding scheme was due to start. Reports that we have are that 388 schools had by this date already started with the scheme, affecting over 100,000 children. Others were due to start phasing the programme in, ultimately to cover about 4-million children.

But are these reports accurate? What are the positive experiences, weaknesses and failures on the ground? By investigating and objectively reporting on such issues, the media can play a crucial role in the building of a new society.

Mr Chairman,

An area that has not received sufficient attention thus far is the deepening and expansion of media freedoms.

Quite correctly, during the multi-party negotiations, the media drew attention to the weaknesses in the formulation on "freedom of information". The ANC will ensure that, in the drafting of the new constitution and Bill of Rights, the qualifications which are inconsistent with international democratic norms are done away with. In the meantime, the government, backed by civil society, will urgently elaborate the principle of access to information in the hands of the state, in the form of legislation. In doing so, we should stretch to their limits, the provisions in the interim constitution.

There are a few other realities which impact on freedom of expression. In brief, these include:

Firstly, the ownership structure of South Africa's media - which is not only concentrated in a few hands, but reflects the patterns of racial exclusion characteristic of the old era.

Secondly, the demographic composition of management, editorial executives and senior journalists which mirrors the same pattern.

Thirdly, broader socio-economic issues such as illiteracy, poverty, lack of media skills, language constraints and so on, all of which limit the ability of the majority to exercise their freedom of expression.

Needless to say, all these factors do have a direct bearing on whether South African media, as presently structured, can truly reflect the diverse views of society as a whole!

You will agree with me that it is crucial for media establishments to act and be seen to be taking the initiative in dealing with these matters: be it in the form of unbundling, training, deployment of personnel or any other relevant actions. On the other hand, the government needs to take urgent steps to create conditions for the emergence of more commercial and community voices, particularly among disadvantaged communities.

Within the electronic media, much progress is being made by the Independent Broadcasting Authority - although the pace might not be to the satisfaction of everyone.

Government is also faced with the urgent challenge of putting in place a Government Information Service in tune with the realities of our times. This entails the restructuring of bodies which, in the past, served the abominable security-management strategies of the apartheid state. The aim is to have an accessible, user-friendly Government Information Service, designed with the participation of the media and the communities it is meant to serve. Deputy-President Thabo Mbeki, who has been charged with this task, has already started initiatives in this direction.

There is therefore a partnership that should develop in earnest between democratic Government and the media, in pursuit of common interests. Such a partnership should not be premised on the subservience of one to the other, or on uncritical praise-singing. Rather, like any genuine partnership, it will have its stormy moments, in the knowledge that democracy would be the ultimate beneficiary. We know too well from our past experiences that robust and honest exchange of opinions and criticism are necessary for any society to be truly democratic and for any government to stay on course.

Mr Chairman,

You will notice that I have elected not to touch on the matter of the so-called "gravy train". I do not know much about Einstein's law of relativity (on objects moving at very high speed), for me to immerse myself any further into this debate. In case I am misunderstood, I am referring here to the speed with which all sectors, within and outside Government, want preparations to be completed for rational, informed and open debate to take place on this issue.

Suffice it to note that, if the media reports, no matter how accurate or inaccurate, have helped to make Government more sensitive in dealing with such matters, then they have had a positive spin-off. However, to the extent that the inaccurate ones harden attitudes and create unnecessary tension, they have been most unfortunate.

I should once more thank you for this invitation. There are many other issues that one would have wanted to raise. But, given the constraints of time, we felt that these tentative views on media-related matters might serve as a good starting point for future discourse.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation