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Concern over mainstream media influence amidst global election frenzy, 2024

12 January 2024 Gareth Stokes

As 2023 gives way to 2024, the South Africa focused online news sites were chockful the usual dreck. Those among us who were unable to escape to the bushveld or coast over the holidays were subjected to countless reports of corruption, crime, cronyism and every imaginable form of political skulduggery, domestic and offshore. In this writer’s humble opinion, you will have to concentrate on your ‘reading for understanding’ skills this year, as the weaponised mainstream media dusts off their nuclear arsenal to influence 2024 opinion.

The resurgence of the ‘fire pool’ debacle

These weapons are already detonating, as evidenced by the stories that the ‘stay at home’ crowd had to endure around New Year 2024. Articles documenting child grant payment bungles by SASSA; corruption allegations against NSFAS higher-ups; ruling party politicians conning Parliament about ‘fire pools’; and tax evasion claims against one of the many beneficiaries of Eskom’s state-capture largesse were rife. As you digested these narratives, you were also subject to countless features and opinion pieces documenting South Africa’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) action against Israel; this the latest in government’s increasingly inconsistent approach to global human rights issues. 

You need not search far for contradictions and ironies in South Africa’s post-1994 approach to global politics. And while much of the mainstream media celebrates government’s allegedly anti genocide (sic) stance, there are plenty of online commentators who are howling about government’s patently inverted positioning around the Russia-Ukraine war. Many more have lamented the country’s approach to other Africa-based conflicts, and a mere handful have mentioned the now-forgotten 2015 decision not to apprehend Sudan’s president as requested by the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

The question becomes: how do you spit on an ICC decision on one human rights-related issue, and then turn to the ICJ to back your view on another? It is this level of flip-flopping that likely contributed to Morocco pipping South Africa in recent contestations for UN Human Rights Council presidency. Whatever the case, you can expect truckloads of deflections from the online media houses through 2024 as the influencers and newsmakers lead you on whatever merry dance their funders favour. 

Bracing for a tumultuous year

Those keen to keep the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in power will divert attention from domestic challenges towards international issues; those keen on a leadership change will flood your news feeds with accounts of crime and corruption and other ruling party shortcomings. Government and the ruling party will play the deflection and diversion game too, having long realised that South Africa’s 2024 National Election will not be an easy win. As election fever takes hold, you brace for a tumultuous year. 

In an article published on IOL, Professor Raymond Parsons, North-West University Business School singled out the 2024 National Election as among the key risks facing the economy. “Global research shows that policy uncertainty tends to spike when elections are due; elections create volatility, and South Africa is moving into uncharted political waters in 2024,” he said. The professor noted that the wide range of plausible outcomes to the local elections were generating uncertainty in excess to the policy uncertainty that was already constraining the country’s economic prospects. Why the concern? 

Parsons mentioned four factors to support his view including: authoritative opinion surveys showing ANC support has dropped below the 50% threshold; that individual candidates can participate in the proportional system without belonging to a political party; the competitive and volatile political environment that stemmed from new opposition formations; and current support patterns moving the country into coalition territory. Each of these factors point to a post-elections, multi-party coalition scramble as the incumbent seeks to remain in power, and myriad wannabes strive to take over. 

On kingmakers and coalition debacles

South Africans do not need to be reminded about how “highly unpredictable and unstable” coalitions have proven to be, with the City of Johannesburg offering an excellent case study. Voters are all but forgotten as parties that secured one or two seats in the most recent elections become kingmakers in ‘loose’ political alliances, demanding influential positions in return for support. If a large party reneges on a deal, or another large party offers a better deal, the kingmaker simply switches teams, causing instability that renders local districts, metros and municipalities incapable of achieving their service delivery mandates. 

Regardless of how many kilotons the online media’s skewed narratives ‘pack’, the domestic economy is in serious trouble entering the New Year. “The 2024 economic outlook will be shaped by global economic trends, geopolitical developments, domestic infrastructural challenges, effective implementation of reform commitments by government, and the pending elections in this country,” Parsons wrote, adding that globally, around 40 elections impacting 4 billion individuals would play out over the coming 12-months. The prof. reckoned that Western countries might do better than expected this year, even as businesses and consumers acclimatise to higher-for-longer interest rates. 

South Africa is in deep, deep trouble

The outlook for Africa is more subdued. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has pencilled in 4% for the Sub-Sharan Africa (SSA) region, but South Africa is weighing down its regional peers. “South Africa’s economic performance in 2024 will be driven by trends in exports, consumer spending and investment,” said Parsons. On the plus side, he mentioned potential trade windfalls from BRICS and a revised AGOA; on the negative, the familiar refrain of fiscal debt, loadshedding, lacklustre growth and Transnet bottlenecks. Overall, the country is pencilled in for around 0.8% GDP growth for the coming 12-months, with warnings that downgrades are probable. 

The mainstream media seems more objective when it comes to prospects for South Africa’s stock market, perhaps because they cannot fiddle the numbers as easy as the politically focused journos can stoke emotions. Just consider this ‘screamer’ courtesy ‘South Africa stocks lose USD50 billion in eight-year exodus’. The piece leads with “2023 was the eighth year in a row that foreign investors dumped South African equities, a record-long streak, selling stocks worth USD8.3 billion [and taking] the total since 2016 to USD53 billion, based on data reported by exchange operator JSE”. Ouch! 

Based on this evidence we can conclude that given the choice, global investors are finding better stock market opportunities elsewhere, and that the South African risk versus return equation is simply out of balance. As for local retirement savers, they will have to keep lapping up the ‘local is lekker’ narrative being sold by domestic asset managers. These guys need to keep funds onshore to maintain the scale necessary to operate sustainably, and are unlikely to shun local assets in an environ where certain onshore versus offshore asset class exposures are set by law. Local retirement savers are compelled by the Pension Funds Act, or more specifically, regulation 28 under that Act to invest the bulk of their capital onshore. 

The capable state conundrum

“While key risks to the business and economic outlook remain elevated and warn of another roller-coaster year for South Africa, the country’s underlying economic prospects in 2024 still hinge on steady progress in implementing agreed reforms, and a capable state to provide public goods and services,” concluded Parsons, who seems to eschew the doom and gloom messaging that accompanies most assessments of government’s capabilities. 

The prof. conceded that the near-term focus should be on “addressing growth-limiting electricity and transport challenges” and encouraged government “to use the right policies and projects immediately available to ensure that tailwinds will prevail over headwinds in determining the country’s economic performance this year”. These are the big picture issues that local citizens only get to influence once every five years, by exercising their vote.

Your job, entering the 2024 national elections, is to cut through the misinformation that mainstream media will inevitably dish up, or at least take each headline story with the proverbial pinch of salt. You, not the media, should decide how you want your country to be governed, and how you will use your voice.


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Twitter: @stokesmedia

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