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Manto: villain. Sunday Times: hero? MA assignment

The late former health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

IN AUGUST of 2007, the Sunday Times published a series of stories about the then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Through an analysis of the narrative structures of the story “Manto: a drunk and a thief”, an analyst is able to make valuable determinations regarding discursive and ideological positioning in the texts, as well as assumptions of what is (and is not) appropriate behaviour for a minister such as Tshabalala-Msimang.

The Sunday Times is a weekly newspaper owned by Avusa Media, one of four media conglomerates in the country. In the company’s “pledge” to readers Avusa describes itself, and therefore its titles, as “trustee for the public interest”. Avusa additionally posits that its newspapers play “a vital in indispensible role in facilitating the dissemination of information in South Africa”. The Sunday Times is further described as “South Africa’s biggest selling newspaper” at a readership of roughly 4-million and print order of about 560 000. The story, “Manto: a drunk and a thief”, was published as the leading front-page story (the ‘splash’) on August 19, 2007. It is the second in a series of stories about the then health minister – the week before the newspaper ran another splash about Tshabalala-Msimang headlined: “Manto’s hospital booze binge”.

The story, subject to my analysis in this essay, may be identified as a news story by some of its structural elements – the most apparent indicator being the lead paragraph. The concise single sentence and first paragraph of the story exemplifies the classic “inverted pyramid” style of news writing, where the most important element of the story is placed at the top of the narrative, and it is followed by facts of decreasing relevance and importance.

Fiske describes language as a ‘basic way’ to make sense of ‘real’ experiences, insofar as ‘the real’ is “illusory” and structured by way of intertextual narratives and relations (1987: 128). Narration, then, operates as a “sense-making mechanism”, and operates through two dimensions: the syntagmatic and paradigmatic. The syntagmatic dimension of narrative focuses on linking events rationally, according to the perimeters of cause-and-effect or rules of association (Fiske 1987: 129). This “refusal of randomness”, according to Fiske, makes the sequence of events in a narrative of consequence, and creates the means to understand ‘time’ in the narrative. The paradigmatic dimension, on the other hand, is where a narrative takes characters and elements and removes them from their temporal meaningfulness, and gives them a non-temporal sense (Fiske 1987: 129). Both Todorov and Propp’s theories of structural analysis of narrative elements exemplify the syntagmatic dimension; while Lévi-Strauss’ theory of the “deep structure” in narratives is paradigmatic, and I will discuss this later in this essay.

Todorov’s model of narrative charts different stages in a narrative, beginning with a stable ‘equilibrium’ which is destabilised by a narrative’s villain. The “causal transformation from one state of being to another” takes place through a chain of events which Wigston describes (2001: 154) as follows: a state of equilibrium; a disruption of that equilibrium; recognition of the disruption; attempts to restore the equilibrium; and a second equilibrium. This second equilibrium is similar to the first, but not identical (Fiske 1987: 139). Fiske notes that Todorov’s model of narrative is useful in analysing news stories due to definitions of the ‘newsworthiness’ of events according to the disruption or restoration of equilibriums (1987: 139). In news stories, according to Fiske, the ideological work is “at its clearest in the selection of which evens are considered to disrupt or restore which equilibrium and in the description of what constitutes disequilibrium” (1987: 139).

The chronological sequence of events (see Table 1.1) which informs “Manto: a drunk and a thief” begins with an (implied) equilibrium prior to the mid-1970s, when she was apparently found guilty on charges of theft. I believe the equilibrium to be that of Tshabalala-Msimang as a ‘scandal-less’, and perhaps honest, medical professional. I have also identified two kinds of disruptions in the text. The first is a potential and minor disruption, which I will term a “lesser” disruption, and refers to Tshabalala-Msimang’s theft conviction in Botswana. The fact that the Sunday Times included the theft conviction in the story’s headline is, in my view, an indicator of its importance in the expurgation of Tshabalala-Msimang as the villain in the narrative. The theft conviction, and its associated dishonesty, makes type-casting Tshabalala-Msimang as the ‘villain’ in this narrative that much more efficient. The second and main disruption I have identified is Tshabalala-Msimang’s abuse of her ministerial power in order to have a liver transplant despite her alcoholism – and, to a lesser extent, despite her age – rather than the action of the liver transplant itself. The next stage of the narrative, the recognition of this (‘greater’) disruption, takes place when the Sunday Times begins their “five-month investigation”. The last two phases of Todorov’s narrative model, attempts to restore equilibrium and the second equilibrium, are not present in “Manto: a drunk and a thief”. There is a proposed action which would constitute Todorov’s fourth stage, however. In the Sunday Times expurgation of Tshabalala-Msimang as dishonest, secretive, and inappropriate, I believe there to be an implicit suggestion that Tshabalala-Msimang be replaced by someone who is the binary opposite – a minister that is honest, transparent, and respectable. These binary opposites will be discussed at length later on this analysis to accompany a discussion of Lévi-Strauss.

                                                  Click here to see Tables 1.1 – 1.4

Prinsloo posits the work of Russian formalist Propp to be “a more extreme” example of the syntagmatic approach than that of Todorov (2009:223). After analysing a hundred Russian folk tales, Propp identified and described thirty-two narrative functions he believed to be common in these stories. Fiske notes that Propp names these narrative elements “functions” in order to emphasise that “what they do to advance the narrative is more important than what they are” (1987: 136). This may mean that the say action may have a different narrative function in different narratives or that, conversely, two different actions may have the same function (Prinsloo 2009: 212). Additionally, these functions are sequential in a narrative, but not every function is strictly necessary for a narrative to make sense. Wigston (2001: 156) emphasises that those narrative functions that do occur must contribute to the plot development and are chronological, however. I was able to indentify three of Propp’s narrative functions in the text (please see table 1.2): counteraction (10); 1st donor function (12); and the receipt of an agent (14). Wigston (2001: 157) defines ‘counteraction’ as the point in the narrative when the “seeker” or hero agrees on an action to counter that of the villain, or the perceived lack/misfortune of a family member. I believe ‘counteraction’ may therefore be identified in the Sunday Times’ decision to counteract Tshabalala-Msimang’s perceived villainy and abuse of power by commencing with an investigation of Tshabalala-Msimang’s illness that caused her to need a liver transplant, as well as her subsequent behaviour. The 1st donor function, wherein the hero is “interrogated [and] attacked, which prepares the way for his receiving either a magical agent or helper” (Wigston 2001: 157) could refer to the investigation process itself, where the Sunday Times reporters goes in search of witnesses and sources willing to speak to the newspaper about Tshabalala-Msimang’s behaviour and transplant. The sources which then provide information to the Sunday Times of Tshabalala-Msimang’s villainy then become helpers to the newspaper and the “receipt of agent” narrative function, described by Wigston (2001: 157) as the point when the hero acquires use of the a magical agent (or helper), comes into play.

Propp further defined seven “character roles” (in addition to his 32 narrative functions) which are defined by their ‘spheres of action’, rather than who or what the characters are. Fiske explains that: “different individual characters may perform the function (or character role) of villain at different times in the same narrative” (1987: 137), and Prinsloo emphasises that the hero is not identifiable “by his noble intentions”, for example (2009: 212). Rather, the hero in a narrative is identified by his sphere of action, and so a hero fulfils that role when (s)he seeks to complete some kind of quest. Three of Propp’s seven character functions are identifiable in the text, “Manto: a drunk and a thief” (please see table 1.4): the hero; the villain; and some helpers. In the narrative, the Sunday Times sets off on a five-month investigation to “expose” the wrong-doing committed by Tshabalala-Msimang, and in so doing seek an end to disruption created by Tshabalala-Msimang’s actions. This echoes Wigston’s description of the ‘hero’ in Propp’s character roles, who “departs on a search” with the purpose being to “restore equilibrium” (2001: 161). In contrast, Tshabalala-Msimang’s actions create the disruption, and so also complicate the narrative, casting her as the villain. In future stories she will also engage in a fight with the hero, the Sunday Times, as she takes the newspaper to court over the allegations made by the newspaper both in “Manto: a drunk and a thief” and “Manto’s hospital booze binge”. The various witnesses in the text act as ‘helpers’ by supporting the Sunday Times (the hero) in its descriptions and positioning of Tshabalala-Msimang as the villain in the narrative. For example, the anonymous medical experts who claim that Tshabalala-Msimang only received her new liver because of her position as a cabinet minister, and thus was inappropriate; as well as the 27-year-old man who claimed Tshabalala-Msimang behaved like a “psychiatric patient” while in hospital.

While the narrative structures conceptualised by Todorov and Propp are syntagmatic, Lévi-Strauss’ work conceptualising the “deep structure” of meanings in narratives is of a paradigmatic nature, and thus removes narrative elements from their temporal sense and gives them non-temporal meaning (Fiske 1987: 129). As such, Lévi-Strauss suggested that the paradigmatic relations of “similarity and difference” through binary oppositions in narrative myths reveals a deep structure of meaning that may be traced in other myths. The binary oppositions that are revealed upon deeper analysis of narratives are “anxiety-reducing mechanisms” which attempt to deal with “unresolvable contradictions in a culture and provides imaginative ways of living with them”, according to Fiske (1987: 131 – 132). Additionally, these binary oppositions are usually arbitrary generalisations, like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Fiske explains that these myths work “metaphorically”, and change the seemingly abstract binary opposites into ‘concrete’ representations: the “logic of concrete”, according to Lévi-Strauss (Fiske 1987: 132). Prinsloo adds that these binary opposites act to classify, distinguish and evaluate categories, and that these categories are weighted and, either implicitly or explicitly, one side of the binary is valued as superior and the other as inferior (2009: 236-237). I have listed the descriptive terms pertaining to both the Sunday Times and Tshabalala-Msimang, and difference in numbers between the two is striking (see table 1.3). Tshabalala-Msimang is referred to and described in “Manto: a drunk and a thief” using 21 terms, all of them negative, while the Sunday Times is referred to only four times. While it is probably largely due to professional journalistic imperatives of objectivity and impartiality that the Sunday Times draws so few referents, this does not explain the imbalance of highly negative referents to describe Tshabalala-Msimang. Several of the binaries are also clearly value-laden and weighted, such as quote describing of Tshabalala-Msimang’s behaviour of “screaming and shouting” like a “psychiatric patient”, which I believe may call on past discursive constructs of the “hysterical woman” subject. Here, the binary opposites of “psychiatric patient” – and by extension, “insane” – would likely not only include sane and rational, but also perhaps that of masculinity. This extensive positioning of Tshabalala-Msimang as the villain in the narrative then serves to posit the Sunday Times as the hero in the good: bad and hero: villain binaries created in the text – the Sunday Times is clearly positioned as opposite to Tshabalala-Msimang, who is also made the villain.

In “Manto: a drunk and a thief” the various narrative structures, conceptualised by Todorov, Propp and Lévi-Strauss, help to expurgate Tshabalala-Msimang as a villain in the narrative, and so doing place the Sunday Times as the hero in the text.

Media and Texts with Prof Jeanne Prinsloo, submitted June 2011.



Fiske, J. (1987). Television Culture. London, Routledge: 128 – 148.

Prinsloo, J. (2009). Textual analysis: Narrative and argument. In P.J. Fourie (Ed.), Media Studies (Vol 3, p 204 – 253).

Wigston, D. (2001). “Narrative analysis”. Media Studies: content, audiences and production. P. Fourie. Lansdowne, Juta Education 2: 150-182.