University of KwaZulu-Natal burn 'imphepho' outside the legislature during the #FeesMustFall protest on September 20. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/JACKIE CLAUSEN
University of KwaZulu-Natal burn 'imphepho' outside the legislature during the #FeesMustFall protest on September 20. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/JACKIE CLAUSEN

WELCOME to Tweet of the Week. Every Friday I will use this column to hand out an award to one person who has tweeted something of significance. There are no strict rules, only that the tweet in question must offer an important insight, define a debate (notorious or otherwise) or mark an occasion.

This week of the Tweet of the Week goes to @eNCA for:

 

Tweet of the Week

 

Profile: @eNCA is the official Twitter handle for the television channel eNCA. Its Twitter profile states eNCA is a 24-hour news channel, "focusing on news from across South Africa and the continent". It has 1.03-million followers on Twitter.

Citation: The moment Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande took it upon himself to become the central decision-making mechanism for any potential 2017 university fees increase, the scene for conflict was set.

Nzimande, being a shrewd operator — at the very least, having a sense of self-preservation — eventually, by sitting ever so carefully on the fence,  made sure to avoid most subsequent blame: universities can decide, but only within a suggested 8% parameter. Over to you.

In doing so, universities’ campuses countrywide were immediately designated as the unofficial battleground for whatever would follow.

The media, however, was ahead of this particular curve. And eNCA seemed to typify the trend. On day one it was clear it had decided to cover the fees protests as it would a war.

The news channel stationed its biggest names on campuses — the "frontline" — across the country and presented on its bulletins and reports, with much hyperbole and emotive rhetoric, a scene of intense instability between the antagonists, including administrations, government, students and security forces, that could descend into chaos at any moment.

As it so happened, day one was a bit of a letdown on this front. Sure, there had been isolated incidents of violence. The worst of it involved 30-odd students (if they were students) who threw stones and clashed with police at Wits. There were some sit-ins and singing and, on other campuses, roads were "blockaded". The "blockade" at the University of Cape Town comprised two canoes. But I suppose any "blockade" will do. Shame, what a letdown.

Of course, given last year’s national mayhem, eNCA had obviously invested a lot in what it predicted, perhaps even hoped, would be far more dramatic events. So, come its prime-time bulletin, it was forced to squeeze every last ounce of sensation out of the 30 stone throwers.

Jeremy Maggs, his language infused with tension and a sense of impending doom, would again and again describe the stone throwing in different ways. He would interview people who saw it, for a "first-hand account" and, with a handful of students (maybe another 50) singing boisterously in the background, repeatedly intimated this was only the beginning.

The universities, who had likewise seen this coming, for the most part chose to shut up shop on the day of the announcement. But this too was presented as a sign of massive "tension", rather than a pre-emptive measure taken long before any such "tension" had manifested.

From campus to campus its coverage would flick and flash. The situation was "tense but stable", "emotions were high", and people were "on alert".

Of course there are about 30,000 students at Wits, and about a million nationally. And so there was another way to present all this: For the most part, certainly in comparison with last year, the reaction to the fees increase announcement was relatively muted. That is not to misconstrue the tension and conflict. There was some, it was real, dangerous and deserving of coverage. But this was not 2015 and the response not nearly as dramatic.

But then that doesn’t make for good television. Sure enough, the next day, in many cases the newspapers followed suit. The double page picture spread in The Times, for example, had front and centre a sensational (and actually very good) picture of two or three students throwing stones at Wits, and gave the impression of a national meltdown. Surrounding it, more pictures of chaos.

And so it went, into day two. And day three. This week’s Tweet of the Week is from day three, Thursday, when a student was shot at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), prompting some serious student unrest and security response there. UKZN was one of the few universities to keep its doors open and, obviously, eNCA was there in force and all over it like a rash. Accompanying the tweet, which was soon pinned to the top of its profile for all 1-million followers to see, a video of the victim.

So "tensions" certainly seem to be rising. Perhaps, by the time this is all over, things would indeed have escalated to last year’s level. Students at the University of Fort Hare took advantage of the generally hysterical atmosphere to burn a building, although for reasons entirely unrelated to the fees announcement. So they certainly capitalised.

But you do have to wonder to what degree the media would have helped engender or hinder the situation. Watch any eNCA bulletin and you certainly would be left with the very serious impression the conflict was far more widespread and acute than it actually was, at least initially.

SABC resident despot Hlaudi Motsoeneng says the presence of cameras fuels public violence, so he doesn’t want to send any. He is wrong, of course. The media should cover news, not generate it. If it does that, in print, on radio or television, well, there should be consequences, but effectively banning the news altogether is not one of them. But what is less controversial is that the media certainly does thrive on sensation and conflict, across the board. And, in its eagerness to cover such things, it is perfectly capable of creating the impression that things are far more out of control than they actually are.

Part of the problem is 24-hour news. As host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart had a regular beef with the likes of CNN over this. When there just isn’t 24 hours worth of news, without repetition, 24-hour stations inevitably start to fashion their business into crisis centres. They wait for an event, significant or otherwise, and then go into war mode, the repertoire for which is now well established: the "on the spot" reporter, the "eye witness", back to the studio for "an expert", a dramatic graphic, a projection of how things might escalate, the "worst-case scenario" and so on.

Essentially, they are geared for moments like the fees increase announcement.

Stewart says that "24 hour news networks are built for one thing and that’s 9/11; the type of gigantic news event, that the type of apparatus that exists (at 24-hour news stations) is perfectly suited to cover.

"In the absence of that," Stewart continues, "they are not just going to say, ‘There is not that much that is urgent or important or conflicted, happening today’. [Instead they say], ‘So we are going to gin up. We are going to bring forth more conflict and more sensationalism, because we want you to continue watching us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when the news does not necessary warrant that kind of behaviour."

Thank goodness South African news stations have not yet descended to that level. eNCA is certainly far from it. And the fees increase announcement is certainly worthy of careful and significant coverage. It is a national event of profound importance. But, there is evidence of a creeping tendency towards sensationalism, and the ramping up of conflict in reporting on it; in turn, the fuelling of an atmosphere of widespread panic, when a broader perspective might suggest otherwise. Unchecked, the game ends with Stewart’s analysis.

But for all that, and as ever with SA, the real victim suffers the fundamental problem itself: a lack of money. It gets relatively little attention amid all this drama.

The students are remarkably slow to channel their unhappiness at the relevant authority. Last year it took an age for them to realise the Union Buildings where the best venue to air their grievances. When they did it worked a treat. But what about the Treasury? What money there is has to come from somewhere. It is difficult to understand why the finance minister is not at the heart of this discussion. Why, in television debate after debate, is the Treasury not answering questions?

The assumption seems to be that there is money around, R50bn hidden under a pillow somewhere. Bad news folks. There isn’t. And the Treasury owes SA a very clear, detailed and fundamental explanation of the exact financial situation in this regard, as well as options and constraints.

Look to whomever you want, but the final answer will come from that department. If it is not an answer anyone likes, well then, time to cast your eyes further up the political ladder to the administration which, through years of neglect and mismanagement, has created an educational load-shedding mess as only it can.

But then there is conflict of course. And you can’t capture on television economic policy like you can violence and mayhem. There can be only one winner in this race, and, so far, it hasn’t been perspective.

© BDlive 2016