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Competing narratives

A fascinating exchange about South Africa on BBC radio's Today programme this morning. The BBC has been running with a particular narrative of what's been going on with the downfall of President Thabo Mbeki, portraying events essentially as a subversion of the constitutional and democratic process by the populist and possibly corrupt Jacob Zuma. This morning's piece had a South African businessman (with an obviously Afrikaaner name) and a South African business journalist (with a more English-sounding name) interviewed live to comment on turmoil in the Johannesburg stock markets following the rumoured resignation of the Finance Minister.

The BBC's narrative collapsed; there is no other way of putting it. Apparently, in late-breaking news, the Finance Minister isn't resigning after all, and the markets are recovering. What was even more striking was that the two South Africans both said that the removal of Mbeki was a good thing, from their perspective; he was arrogant, out of touch, and incompetent, and they are already getting better communication with the new government.

What was even more striking was a comment made by the finance journalist: "There are an awful lot of poor people in this country, and they ought to be listened to; and the old government wasn't listening." Can you imagine the averge Financial Times or Wall Street Journal or NRC Handelsblad correspondent spontaneously making that sort of remark?

The interviewer tried weakly to get them to agree that political instability in South Africa is now a serious problem. But the South Africans indicated that the problem was Mbeki's behaviour, and the ensuing difficulty of getting rid of a leader who has spent all his political capital in a system that hasn't done that before; and that has now been resolved, in a completely legal and democratic way. They rejected the BBC interviewer's description of South Africa as a one-party state, pointing out that while the ANC is indeed strong and will probably win next year's elections, all bets are off for 2014. And anyway, they saw the ANC as a middle-class, establishment party, leftish but not very, which was unlikely to lurch into new policy paths after the change of leadership.

I found it extraordinary that the BBC's narrative, which I have been uncritically accepting for months, got blown apart by its own choice of interviewees (also of course the story hook they were using for the piece melted away). Also, it's sometimes nice to discover that things are not as bad as you thought they were.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 24th, 2008 08:19 am (UTC)
Bother. I slept through that bit & instead got endless coverage of the Labour party conference & the financial crisis in the West.
Sep. 24th, 2008 08:42 am (UTC)
Yes, I've noticed this too. I'm addicted to the BBC documentaries and the perspective on Mbeki seems so different now.
Sep. 24th, 2008 08:58 am (UTC)
I've not been in Southern Africa for over a decade, but that comment about poor people sounds just about right to me. You haven't seen real poverty until you've been to ZA or similar parts of Africa. The biggest change I saw physically after Mandela came to power was that electricity, water and sewage started being run into the townships. Towships were relatively 'posh', it was the squatter camps that really made me shudder.

Probably 80-90% of the population have that standard of living, if you can call it that. No wonder the wealthy in Johannesburg live in armed compounds demarcated by razor wire with guard dogs running loose each night and guns by their beds. Life is cheap out there, and it has always felt as if it was perched on a political knife edge. In general terms ZA has been very lucky with the quality of its leadership that the whole thing didn't degenerate into another Zimbabwe.

FWIW I always felt much safer living in a tent on top of a mountain in Lesotho under the protection of the local chief. The main thing that used to bother me were the leopard tracks near the campsite, and just how hungry that animal might be getting.
Sep. 24th, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)
In general, I don't think we get the good news from Africa. I first became aware of this when the BBC reported on an African film conference. I had no idea they were making movies in Africa.

And we didn't hear that Zimbabwe was the breadbasket for the region until it was wrecked.
Sep. 24th, 2008 12:08 pm (UTC)
The BBC has been running with a particular narrative of what's been going on with the downfall of President Thabo Mbeki

This is interesting becuase I too had a competing narrative from here.
Sep. 24th, 2008 06:23 pm (UTC)
I read this too and found it illuminating. My perception beforehand was midway between the BBC and the Observer's narratives -- Zuma was corrupt for sure, but that didn't mean Mbeki's hands were tied. I was always suspicious of him because of the AIDS thing anyway.
Sep. 24th, 2008 12:30 pm (UTC)
Well, if the post-Mbeki regime stops cozying up to Mugabe and stomps on the "HIV does not cause AIDS" crowd and starts pushing a full antiretroviral AIDS campaign it'd be a start...

...of course, the guy who's likely to succeed him thinks that showering after unprotected sex is a good anti-AIDS strategy.

Come back Nelson!
Sep. 24th, 2008 01:10 pm (UTC)
Quite. Not that I'm any sort of expert, but I do froth at the mouth every time I hear about the current ZA govt's AIDS "policies".
Sep. 24th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
The Zuma unprotected sex thing - it's one thing to have crazy public policy approach to AIDS (like Mbeki did), another thing entirely to do stupid things in your private life.
Sep. 24th, 2008 03:51 pm (UTC)
D squared is running an all-Africa-all-the-time policy (at the discretion of The Management, of course) during the American election year.
Sep. 24th, 2008 07:03 pm (UTC)
I have visited SOuth Africa a couple of times in recent years - attending Universities. We have close academic contacts with academics at Stellenbosch, UCT, JO'burg and Pretoria. The political issues concern my colleagues in Gauteng more than those in the south of the country - one Professor there (white, but gay, and who suffered various prejudices in relation to his career under the apartheid system as a result) has - since I first met him in 2001 - been particularly condemnatory of Mbeki. From his perspective Mbeki arrived with a lot of goodwill, but his behaviour on AIDS, and his failure to address social inequalities as he might, have - in his view - fostered a climate where tensions that had largely vanished in the preceding years have risen again. For each that I've spoken to about it Zuma is not popular, but - in the current climate - is likely to be better and more effective than Mbeki (although my reading of UK media was to stress the financial concerns you allude to in your post if Zuma takes over) - but all are concerned at the lack of a viable multi-racial opposition party.

Sep. 24th, 2008 09:20 pm (UTC)
I heard a 'From Our Own Correspondant' piece a while ago - around the tiem Zuma got in - that had much the same puncturing effect on my view of the SA situation. Wonder what happened to that reporter? Perhaps the BBC ate him.
Sep. 24th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
Is there a difference between the BBC on the radio and on the internet? I get almost all my news from the BBC news website, and had very much wanted rid of Mbeki for his general crypto-authoritarianism and rubbishness on Mugabe, AIDS, the recent anti-foreigner riots.

From where did those experts see a serious 2014 challenge to the ANC emerging? The opposition parties in South Africa are pretty puny. Or were, last time I checked.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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