By Dr Sello Mokoena
Globally, experts in various fields such as economics, politics and leadership, health sciences and technology, to name a few, provide cutting-edge commentary, especially as the issues involve the macro political arena.
In addition to current affairs and policy analysis activities, these commenters may also engage in policy advocacy, as the media seek varied views on an assortment of topical issues in an effort to reflect on what is right or what could go wrong in societies.
South Africa is not immune from this phenomenon which sees emerging and well-informed voices of reason blending in well with old authorities-hugely experienced and calm as the country takes unprecedented measures in the quest to quell numerous d socio-economic problems.
Among others, these include the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality as well as gender-based violence.
Which have been exacerbated by the recalcitrant Covid-19 pandemic crisis and the Russian-Ukraine war causing more uncertainty in geopolitics and resulting in more debilitating socio-economic challenges.
As I analysed the national discourse during this poignant moment in the history of our country, I felt compelled to reflect on the role played by analysts in shaping the public discourse.
Thus, my intention here is to shed some light on this less published topic, which does not grab the headlines.
As most newspapers’ opinion pages and radio and television panels and social media platforms dissect a myriad of issues providing varying viewpoints and perspectives on relentless societal problems.
It is crucial to sharply focus on this cohort of experts because more often than not one hears nothing about their immeasurable contribution to the democratic dispensation in a variety of fields.
Despite the fact that they have become a force powerful enough to be reckoned with as they collectively bisect and dissect various issues.
And express and spread opinions or evidence with the potential to add more value to pertinent national debates which have significant consequences for society.
In a country such as ours whose media landscape is not as diverse as it should be commentators provide a wide range of views, which serve to present different perspectives on the issues which have the potential to ensure that the established views are not all that is heard.
For example, what could arguably be considered the biases of media houses and political rhetoric can be compensated for by the commentators who diligently present totally diverse perspectives on a multiplicity of pertinent and controversial issues.
In this way the general public is exposed to a wide range of opinions and evidence.
Thus securing balanced views and perspectives on a variety of contentious issues.
These could be contributions and views of individual analyst spreading fast and far throughout the length and breadth of the country.
In this manner, the problems facing the society are made more widely accessible and known from various sources and perspectives holding diametrically opposing views.
I am convinced the best commentary comes from patriotic men and women who debate diligently, firmly and strongly as there is no need to exaggerate or dramatise the issues as the practice serves only to undermine the public interest.
Whether these assertions are true or not, in my view each of these issues challenge us to further deepen our understanding of the challenges facing our country.
And to remind ourselves that commentators are obliged to provide fair and impartial perspectives for the purpose of advancing the “public interests”.
However, note should be taken of what Professor Denis McQuail, a scholar whose work on the role of the media continues to be drawn upon globally, as he eloquently put it, in his book titled Mass Communication Theory: “Although the general conception of public interest can be slippery and controversial as it is never fixed but always changing, developing and subject to negotiations; in the end it comes down to the view that in democratic societies there are likely to be grounds on which an argued claim can be made, by reference to some widely held views and according to specific circumstance… for reasons of wider or longer-term benefits to the society”.
There is no doubt in my mind that if commentators are to make our country a better place and make their clout felt in this century and beyond, they have no choice but to harness and embrace the ongoing digitation of communication technologies.
Which have exponentially disrupted the traditional way of communicating and created more communication platforms and changed the role of commentators .
As an American writer Robert J Samuelson, put it in his article titled ‘A Nation of Experts’: “If you think you ‘are one, well, maybe you are… But the lager truth is that new technology has disrupted the traditional enclaves of expertise, upsetting those who find its demands too time-consuming or demeaning.
“What matters now is not only what you know but who hears you, and so those who resist the constant calls for public blather find their status altered and often diminished.
“Alan Dershowitz may not be America’s greatest legal authority, but he is among the best-known because he is always camera-ready.
“In our status-conscious society, standing out from the crowd is an unrelenting ambition.
“Aspiring to expertdom is merely its latest expression.”
Their diametrically opposed views are notable as they share their knowledge and make immense contribution to the national discourse.
As Theodore Ferguson an international development consultant eloquently put in an article titled ‘Knowledge is Power’: “Knowledge only has value when it is useful for society’s development. Otherwise, it remains useless information in books or in the heads of people.”
All factors considered, analysts as thought leaders play a crucial role in the society as they share their knowledge and bring it into the public eye which can be used to make sound decisions and judicious judgements.
In particular, pertaining to the strengths and shortcomings of individual politicians and their political parties, including their policies as well as their election manifestos.
As the country grapples with the challenges brought about by the prevailing socio-economic climate mainly due to both internal and external factors mentioned previously.
However, I am of the view that while they make an invaluable contribution as they share a confluence of ideas on various communication platforms in the quest to enhance national debates some of their ideas and views encapsulate their own personal idiosyncrasies.
What remains a matter of concern and problematic is that some of them cannot conceal their political biases with distinct ideological learning as they represent particular interest groups.
This point demonstrates that while there is a need for a plurality of voices and more cross-fertilisation of ideas the communication environment is not without flaws and difficulties, and should therefore not be regarded as a panacea for the political and socio-economic challenges experienced in South Africa.
Whether I’m right or not, you be the judge.
* Mokoena (PhD) is director for evaluation research and policy in the Gauteng Department of Social Development and an independent researcher in educational media, mass media, globalisation and development economics. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.