08 April, 2008

Citizen Journalism and the Succession Battle: What are citizens saying?

Nqobile Buthelezi (UKZN)

We live in an information society, the age where citizens have become aware of the need to communicate, share information, ideas, thoughts etc. Where they have taken the role as custodians and storytellers of their own history and social knowledge. Ndesanjo Macha, setting the keynote to the 2007 Digital Citizen Indaba, labeled this transformation as a move "From Rock Paintings to Mental Acrobatic". This being the era where citizens are enabled to report news aided by growing and converging technologies. Therefore citizens are not only partaking in the consumption, but also in the production and dissemination of information as well. The 'commoners' in the street have assumed a new position as dual players in the media sphere, thus citizen journalism has become the new agent speaking truth to power, Ndesanjo elaborated.

Though a recognisably fast emerging phenomenon, citizen journalism does not fall short of concern and scepticism from the conservative body of professional journalists. Gus Silber, in the article "Now, anyone can be a hack", may not be too convinced of the significance of this new form of evolutionary journalism. Gus clearly puts to perspective the dangers of citizen reporters. His prominent argument equated to the odd likes of a citizen pathologist/cardiologist, if one would gladly welcome their service. Maybe not, goodness not; and there we seem to agree. However, we live in tried times in South Africa, with the Polokwane ANC Conference in December setting a prehistoric moment that shook and sent tremors in the South African political landscape, with great repercussions and that certainly cannot be ignored, whether one is a professional journalist or not.

Recent media reports on the ANC succession battle have prompted South Africans to stop and think about the future of politics in our country and inevitably the overall fate of our political economy. Pre 1994, realised the growing strength of a party that was to become a democracy bearer and liberator of the oppressed South Africa, into a world renounced democratic country, blended with multicultural and multilingual citizens. Prehistoric was that moment when former president, Nelson Mandela, walked out of Robin Island to transform the state of our country to one that was respected throughout the world. Yet, just under two decades, every media prides itself with reports and articles of a battle of words and power, with constant finger pointing and alleged corruption involvement from the successors of the dream Mandela was imprisoned for. Focus has shifted from the party's collective purpose, policy and strategies to serve a unified freed nation to the likes of "Zuma vs Mbeki" articles flocking the media sphere.

The current state of our government calls for concern, alarm and awareness from the citizens who happen to be the masses that put those concerned into power. With the knowledge of the current state of political affairs, the burning question is "what are South Africans saying?" Is the succession issue primarily a problem for those in government and mainstream media? It is no secret that any information traded on the succession battle becomes a powerful weapon, bearing invaluable economic weight that can either make or break our nation. But in the midst of this knowledge, citizens must engage and raise their views on this issue, this action simply being their democratic right. It must also be remembered that, government exists in order to represent a state, which in turn constitutes amongst other things people, who's interests should be foremost and respected. So, South Africa, what are you saying about the Zuma/Mbeki saga? Oh, and not to forget the ANC Youth League's power struggle . Members vandalised chairs at the conference venue, disputing the election of their newly appointed president Firebrand Malema, suggesting corruption and fraudulent activities from their executive members ! Is this the kind of leadership and behaviour we are vouching for presidency in the long run? Certainly not.

If there's any platform to express one's fears, joy concern or whatever the case might be on the succession, it is through the much contested citizen journalism (blogs), and the timing couldn't be more perfect. Both Zuma and Mbeki camps have stated their case and judiciary has passed its judgement. Mainstream media has reported on the issue, keeping in mind the essence of gatekeeping and censorship. Now is the time for us citizens, to give our perceptions and individual thought about our government. This act giving birth to true democracy; a pluralism where diversity of voices of the essence.

Some South African have been vocal and label the ANC Undignified, some feel Zuma is a victim of a media witch hunt whilst others label Mbeki: an out of touch, bewildered, denialist to the end. No matter from what angle citizens and journalists are approaching the issue, what remains is that they are simply not passive viewers to current affairs that have rippling effects to their own lives, and that is commendable. Anton Harber "Is our media ready for the challenge of change?" emphasises that irrespective of the kind, "the crux of the matter is how the media shape their coverage, which in turn will determine the shape and nature of the democracy, either strengthening or weakening our democratic institutions and how the public participates in them". I couldn't agree more. If citizens take the initiative to publicise and vocalise the flaws they witness in their government, then this act surely should avail a level of understanding of the kind of leadership, policies and needs the government should uphold in order to satisfy its people. This informed take on the situation then ought to empower citizens to partake in the decision making process alongside their leaders. After all, "it is up to the media and judiciary to ensure that government functions in an accountable, open and honest manner and makes the effort to treat each and every South African with respect", these being the good words of Chief Justice Pius Langa at the Joint South African National Editors Forum. Langa endoses an independent media and judiciary which works to preserve the citizen's freedom of expression, which I believe is the aim of citizen journalism: not to hurt or jeopardise the journalism profession, but to enforce and play a mending role where mainstream media fails- and that is getting ample public voice. So South Africa must start talking.

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