In the thousands of news reports on the ‘land expropriation’ debate, the one thing that gains little attention is the sentiments of ordinary South Africans.

A report by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) – which, since its inception 26 years ago, has sought to be an organisation that ‘implements successful media strategies for positive social change’ – gives some important insights into how the media covered ‘land reform’ prior to the 2019 national elections.

‘Land expropriation’ as a term was frequently used by the public but is often confused with the idea of ‘land reform’. ‘Land expropriation’ is land taken by the state where the state is the main custodian of the land distribution.

MMA’s monitoring was conducted from 1 October 2017 to 30 September 2018, encompassing 3 933 articles published by South Africa’s mainstream media. The analysis looked specifically at online articles in local English-language mainstream news media.

The results show that coverage afforded to land reform across all the media appeared to be events-based and was inconsistent over time. Its report detects a slight focus by journalists on the issue of reform itself, with the bulk of attention being devoted to land grabs and prominent events that occurred during the period.

The number of articles on the topic was quite low at the start of the reporting period, but increased when the Cabinet welcomed the adopted motion to amend Section 25. The number then dropped, but peaked when Donald Trump tweeted about land seizure and farm killings in South Africa.

Of concern is that the media’s interest initially peaked only after the cabinet adopted the motion to amend Section 25.

The Presidency received the biggest share of coverage on the land reform issue (17%), with the African National Congress (ANC) following closely at 14%. The next political party to receive a high percentage of coverage was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which had presented the motion to amend the Constitution in Parliament early in 2018.

It is telling that very little exposure appears to have been given to parties opposing a constitutional amendment on property rights.

MMA held that the findings showed the importance of the land reform issue to political parties, and how land reform would be a crucial issue in the May 2019 election.

The irony is that the issue of land was barely mentioned during the election campaign.

The question arises: did the ANC and EFF know something that the media did not, namely, that land is a low priority for black South Africans, as repeated research by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and others has shown.

The MMA report reveals that less than 1% (0,4%) of sources accessed by media were people working in the agriculture industry (forestry, farm workers, farmers). Of 5 216 identified sources, only 22 worked in the agriculture industry. As MMA said, it was clear that the people most affected by land reform – farmers and farm workers – received very little coverage.

The sobering effect of this is that the media is shown to have done very little to ascertain how the potential beneficiaries, and existing landowners, felt about the subject. This is a huge gap in the media’s duty to society, for it appeared to rely extensively on the easily accessible information put out by political parties who were in favour of an amendment, and saw that as the final word on the subject.

In MMA’s analysis of ‘land’ coverage, the most dominant words appeared to be ‘politics’ and ‘elections’, clearly indicating that the land issue is highly politicised. Our interpretation is that the media by and large followed the line of political party press releases, and chiefly from a pro-amendment position.

One notable trend was a massive increase in the reporting of white views. However, according to MMA, farmers and landowners do not feature even in the top 10 in terms of source affiliation. It seems that only when AfriForum went to Europe and America to put the anti-amendment position was there an increase of white ‘voices’.

There is another area concerning EWC that the media is hardly covering, if at all. The Ad Hoc Committee to Initiate and Introduce Legislation Amending Section 25 of the Constitution (Committee) has set out its proposed timetable for drafting a constitutional amendment bill. In what appears to be a familiar government stratagem, the Committee plans to give the public just seven weeks – carefully timed to coincide with the December holidays – to comment on the bill. The call for public comment is ‘expected to end on 27 January 2020’. Public school holidays start on 5 December 2019 and end on 14 January 2020.

Prior to this, the Committee held a two-day workshop on 6 and 7 November with ‘experts’ on land and constitutional matters. The aim of the workshop was to have ‘a constitutional dialogue on land ownership’.

The Committee proposes drawing up a draft bill by 27 November – next week – and will then arrange several sessions ‘for [its] deliberation by Members of Parliament’.

Democratic Alliance MP Natasha Mazzone has pointed out that, given the great importance of this amendment, MPs must have more than four days to discuss the draft bill.

However, the Committee is determined to have the draft Bill published on 10 December. This is, ironically, international Human Rights Day. Public hearings will then be held in February, so that the Committee can have the bill ready for adoption by Parliament by the end of March.

The government looks set to subvert the constitutional requirement to ‘facilitate public involvement’ in the Committee’s work. It disregards a number of Constitutional Court rulings on what proper public participation requires.

According to the court, citizens must be given ‘a meaningful opportunity to be heard in the making of laws that will govern them’. They must also be given ‘a reasonable opportunity to know about the issues and to have an adequate say’. The court holds that a ‘truncated timeline’ may in itself be ‘inherently unreasonable’. 

Given the gravity of what is at stake in a constitutional amendment bill intended to curtail the guaranteed property rights of all South Africans and which will extend to other property beyond land, the media needs to pay much more attention.

The IRR agrees that land reform is an extremely important issue for South Africa to address, but this doesn’t mean expropriating land without compensation, or that state ownership will lead to such reform. In our view, it will achieve little positive for people.

In that case, it is vitally important that the media ask South Africans what they want, and report on it.

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