By Mandisa Mpulo
Harnessing the power of communities to solve the problems of governance has taken various forms. From our social media timelines, we observe and participate in, the sharing of memes or GIFS capturing our commitment to #CountryDuty.
At other times, we take our collective power offline – as in the case of the Abahlali Basemjondolo social movement – to change our societies, by turning the wheels of power that hold together the hulking machinery which produce the status quo.
The OSISA workshops on “Media, Accountability and Local Governance” presented an opportunity to explore this year’s conference theme by providing space to discuss how the media can help to locate “the power of communication in a time of radical change”.
Journalists who attended 28-30 August workshop at Rhodes University, as part of the Highway-SACOMM (the South African Communication Association) conference, discussed how communities of place, circumstance and interest have access to different forms of power. What session facilitator (and Rhodes Radio Lecturer), Shepi Mati, challenged session participants to do, is to organise people with power to bring about social action by capitalising on assets other than money – relationships and connections, knowledge and information, artistic expression and public opinion, among others.
By keeping the various shapes of power in mind, media practitioners could produce stories in a manner that transcend the role of passive observer as the journalist becomes a catalyst for formulating solution. To do this, session participants were reminded to continuously take stock of the bricks and mortar of story construction: naming, framing, including and positioning. With the use of these concepts, journalists writing stories on the manifested issues of governance – such as service delivery protests – should also keep in mind the “master narrative” when making choices that provide the first draft of the history of places, circumstances and society’s interests.
Mati’s warning about engaging in “a moving on the deck chairs on the Titanic” – by giving prominence to mainstream actors and narratives – also provided a plan of action for journalists in the field: pose the devices of story construction as questions – question how you lay the bricks.
A state of consciousness of the elements at play in the representation of communities also requires a level of consciousness about how the social actors in stories are positioned. By positioning social actors as citizens, media practitioners can portray them as having rights and responsibilities, investing citizens with the ability to change their circumstances.
From avoiding the characterisations of life in “squatter camps” to making use of language to portray life in “informal settlements”, media practitioners can change our ways of seeing the people behind issues of local governance.
This change in perspective challenges journalists to see the layers and dimensions of community life. In portraying the dimension of gender, politics, economics or culture (among others) journalists can navigate the complex of layers of community life from the private to the official. With a strong enough set of tools, journalists can potentially produce stories that provide the big picture and change our ways of seeing. Aligning these tools with an understanding of place, circumstance and interest – journalists can help take up the challenge laid down by South Africa’s former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan: connect the dots and connect communities to their power as citizens. Simply put, in fewer than 140 characters; as we say on Twitter when on #CountryDuty, “gadani iCowntry”.
- Mandisa Mpulo was writing for Open Source, the publication for Highway Africa