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May 28, 2024, 9:40 a.m.

How South Africa’s largest digital news outlet plans to cover the chaotic 2024 election

“There is definitely anticipation in the air of change — not radical change, but some change.”

While democratic nations around Africa are anxiously watching South Africa’s general election on May 29, journalists within that democratic regional power are also gearing up for a potentially chaotic period before — and after — that date.

That’s because South Africa’s Constitution requires that a new government form within 14 days of election day. This provision, local editors say, never anticipated a chaotic and potentially secret scramble for a ruling coalition that may happen in the first weeks of June, following the recent collapse in support for the country’s dominant party, the African National Congress (ANC).

According to Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s largest digital news outlet, News24, reporters “may have to be trailblazers in covering coalitions,” using innovative means to engage human sources, inform citizens of secret alliances, and uncover possible corruption if the ANC fails to reach 50% in the country’s parliamentary democracy.

Meanwhile, journalists are also bracing for potential political and even ethnic violence in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), due to the rise of the “MK” party, formed by South Africa’s disgraced, populist ex-president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s political re-emergence serves as an incendiary complicating factor in an already bitter contest between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in that province. On the eve of the election, South Africa’s highest court ruled that Zuma himself was disqualified from standing as a parliamentary candidate in the election due to a past criminal conviction, but his image will still appear on ballot papers as leader of the MK party.

In a webinar hosted by the Reuters Institute, Basson explained how journalists are covering this historic and potentially turbulent election in Africa, and how his team is holding candidates and their enablers accountable. Significantly, he revealed that — despite its “freemium” model, where only about 30% of content is typically available to any audience — all News24 election coverage will be free for anyone to view in the week of the election.

“News about election violence and election risk will be free throughout” the campaign season, Basson noted. “We also recently decided that, for the last week of the elections, we will open up all of our election content. We also have a disinformation desk for the election, and their content will be free as well.”

Basson’s sterling reputation in the country’s journalism community stands out. He is the winner of numerous investigative journalism awards, including a CNN African Journalist of the Year prize and the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, and he was among a collaborative group of watchdog reporters who helped South Africa withstand a threat to its democracy in 2018, with the #GuptaLeaks state capture series that led to the ouster of Zuma and his enablers.

His investigative unit at News24 has also unearthed several election-related scandals this year, including an exposé by Azarrah Karrim, Sipho Masondo, and Kyle Cowan that revealed the wildly lavish lifestyle of the country’s deputy president, as well as an array of businesspeople who support it.

South Africa’s transparency problem with coalitions

“Based on extensive polling done by at least three independent polling houses, as well as my team’s reporting throughout South Africa, I think the ANC may well achieve less than 50%,” Basson said, summing up the state of political play in the country. “At this stage, it seems the ANC could need around 5 to 6% from other parties to have [Cyril] Ramaphosa re-elected as president.”

This potential for fast-moving, post-election deals creates a problem for journalists, he warned, since there are no transparency rules or laws in place that require parties to disclose coalition terms or agreements, or even that negotiations took place. Meanwhile, South Africa’s existing political coalitions — common only at municipal level — are characterized by deep instability, with the current mayor of Johannesburg, for instance, hailing from a party which won only 0.9% of the vote in the most recent local government elections.

“That’s going to be a new field of reporting for us, using our network of sources and informants: how do you report on coalition negotiations that are unfortunately not transparent?” Basson said. “The anxiety exists around the possibility that coalition partners may not be in it for the long haul, and may be there to extract positions and benefits, and may then start making unreasonable demands, so the tail could wag the dog.”

Basson further described the run-up to the election as “a strange time” for South African journalists — with some ominous signs on the horizon.

“In the past few weeks, we’ve rolled out the largest data reportage we’ve ever done on elections — and, at the same time, we had to buy bulletproof vests for our reporters in KZN, because the threat of political violence is expected to be the worst there since the 1990s,” he explained. “There is so much more technology and data tools to analyze and present election results — that’s massively exciting for an outlet like News24.”

News24’s approach to reporting on the election include numerous tactics:

  • Pursuing rapid, election-related investigations. Basson told GIJN: “Of course, we would love to receive a data leak like we did with GuptaLeaks! We have certainly played our role in holding powerful politicians to account in this cycle. We still have a small but strong pool of investigative journalists in South Africa who can report what we like, and we will do exactly that.”
  • Intensive field reporting, and “active listening” to voters. “We strongly believe in ground-up reportage, so we’ll have reporters on the ground on election day, all across the country,” said Basson.
  • Careful planning and safety equipment for areas of potential political violence. “The years before 1994 were very violent and bloody, particularly in KZN, where there is fierce competition between Inkatha and the ANC,” he explained. “In this election, we have another party, Zuma’s party, contesting that region, and some of those campaigns will be along ethnic lines, and tensions are quite high, so we have to be prepared with precautions, including careful planning, PRESS jackets, and protective vests.”
  • Close communication with international election observers. “We have election observers from across the world, who are handy in alerting us in the media about tensions or election fraud,” he noted.
  • Offering an interactive results portal to the public. “We have a very popular maps portal, where we can show audiences the results on a map, where they can put in their addresses and find the results for their districts and the country,” he added.
  • Caution with early results reporting and percentages. “We will not rush into reporting results, specifically around projections,” he explained. “It’s important to be analytical about historic results and give context, and to go back to raw numbers and be smart with percentages, and explain what they mean, because percentages can be very misleading.”

One striking takeaway from the webinar was Basson’s deep concern about the short, 14-day constitutional allowance between election day and the election of a new president. “This is ridiculously little time,” he said. “In certain European countries, it took months [to form a government and choose a leader].” What’s more, this critically short two-week window makes it even more challenging for news outlets to develop investigations into any potential backroom deals or corrupt political payoffs in a timely manner.

Basson also revealed some advantages that South Africa’s democracy — and its news media — enjoys, compared to many democracies elsewhere:

  • General public trust in election results. “I don’t expect any large-scale outbreaks of violence or protests nationally around election results,” Basson noted. This is a key context for watchdog reporters, who will have to plan for possible post-election stories to investigate. “South Africans have generally always accepted the results, even when their party loses, and our [independent Electoral Commission] is really, really excellent in their work. It’s one of the best election agencies globally, with many professional, independent auditors and lawyers, and there is no reason to doubt the correctness of the election results.”
  • Relatively high levels of trust in media and a robust investigative journalism culture. “Our public really appreciates what we do for accountability as journalists,” he explained. “We have a very proud tradition of investigative journalism in South Africa, going back through the apartheid years — publications like the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad that exposed the dirty tricks campaigns of the National Party. And that tradition has continued. Just a few years into democracy, some of the first scandals of the ANC’s corruption were published by the likes of the Mail & Guardian. When I was there, we covered the Arms Deal; the corruption of our former police commissioner; we uncovered Oilgate, a corrupt transaction that benefited the ANC.”
  • No evidence of coordinated election disinformation operations — yet. “We haven’t seen a large-scale social media disinformation campaign around this election to date,” Basson noted. “Although, after Zuma launched the MKP, we did see people posting on X [Twitter] from Russia and Belarus, which was interesting, as we know the government of Russia has an interest in interfering in foreign elections.”

Still, Basson said party supporters and journalists have been assailed with extremist invective, gendered harassment, and threats online. “We’ve had a problem with hate speech on social media for the past few years — specifically on X — with journalists targeted. I’ve told my newsroom that it’s completely up to them if they wish to have a presence on X, and I don’t believe it’s necessarily good for journalists to be there. It’s become quite toxic in South Africa.”

In summary, Basson noted that “you have a fragmentation of politics in South Africa.” He concluded by noting that South Africa appears to be undergoing another transition as its democracy matures, which puts even more responsibility on watchdog journalists to dig into how it is — or is not — functioning properly. “There is definitely anticipation in the air of change — not radical change, but some change,” he said. “The ANC is under the most pressure it’s ever been in in its history. And it remains a privilege to do this job.”

Rowan Philp is senior reporter at the Global Investigative Journalism Network, where this story was originally published. It’s republished here under a under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

Photo of a South African flag flying over Port Elizabeth by flowcomm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 28, 2024, 9:40 a.m.
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