The media is not the culprit, govt is

President Zuma’s positive reporting plea is a good idea, but not at the expense of the poor.

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Sometimes I wonder what this country would be like without the local media. President Jacob Zuma recently lashed out at them for not being patriotic, asking for positive reporting on the country and government. I have no problem with the president’s plea, as long as the government does its job and the poor and voiceless do not suffer in the process.

The media has played a crucial role in uncovering shocking truths about what our government officials get up to with taxpayers’ money. One such example is the case of Dina Pule, the former communications minister accused of using public funds to take her boyfriend on expensive trips abroad. The reports led to her sacking. Another example is the Masibambisane saga.

This presidential NGO, run by the president’s cousin Deebo Mzobe, wanted more than a billion rands from government to implement a food security programme. This NGO was recently dropped by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform denied ever having ties with it. The point is that media reports on this issue put so much pressure on the two departments that they eventually decided to do away with the organisation.

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Media to the rescue
A few weeks ago, Farmer’s Weekly published an article on Bopang, a co-operative that started off with more than 470 people placed on just over 460ha of land during the 1990s. I cannot understand the thinking behind putting so many people on such a small piece of land and expecting them to run a farming business. It’s hardly surprising that, of those 470 original members, more than 98% packed up and left; the department had effectively abandoned them.

In fact only seven members remained. They were determined to farm, despite the fact that the department kept abusing them. After 15 years, the settlement money promised to them was still not paid, nor did they have a title deed or lease agreement, making them squatters on their own land. This is because these were poor, voiceless people. They talked, yet no one listened. A quick walk around the farm revealed the poor conditions they were living under.

One has to ask: what kind of people work in the Bela-Bela department of rural development? They were aware of the situation but simply did not care. Farmer’s Weekly wrote to the department to enquire about the matter, but received no answer. Instead, officials crept quietly to the remaining members and made promises.

The last I heard, a lease agreement had been drafted and should be delivered by now. The department also issued a notice to the tenant – who had refused to leave – to evacuate the farm. In two weeks, the department accomplished what it had failed to do in 15 years. And the sad part is that it wasn’t as if the officials had a genuine change of heart and now started caring; they did it to save their own skin and prevent embarrassment to the government.

How many more Bopangs are out there, and who will give them a voice?