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25 April 2017 10:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Nic Muirhead

A view from outside: Is South Africa’s media transformed?

  • Nic Muirhead
    Nic-Muirhead-web.jpg
    Nic Muirhead

    Nic Muirhead has been with Al Jazeera English since 2008, working on the network’s weekly media review show The Listening Post. Born and bred in South Africa, Muirhead’s editorial focus has been the evolving political and cultural debates across sub-Saharan Africa. With each report on The Listening Post, his aim has been to add nuance to the understanding of how media operates on the African continent – from the phenomenon of brown envelope journalism in Nigeria, to the work of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro in South Africa, to the mainstream media’s coverage of the homosexuality debate in Uganda.

In the interests of full disclosure: I am a white South African journalist based in London. On a story like this — about transformation in South African media — the irony of my race does not escape me. Neither does the reality of my distance.

So I made sure I came home to investigate and report this story for my employer Al Jazeera English, and I made sure I spoke with a range of people who represent the diversity of modern South Africa.

Transformation was a promise, a hope for a more just future that was a key part of the ANC’s appeal back in 1994. Given the role that certain news organisations played in supporting the apartheid government, the need to transform the media was crucial.

Fast forward 22 years, and transformation in the media is still a work in progress. I thought Songezo Zibi of Business Day put it best when he told me: “Transformation as a concept has been enormously vulgarised. It is usually seen through the lens of racism or anti-racism… But I think it’s more than that. Transformation for me means alignment with the values of a new nonracial society.”

Zibi sets a high bar for meaningful transformation in the media — and he is right to do so. But, despite the concerted efforts of many to transform news organisations, the result has been what the editor of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, labelled “cappuccino” change in her book What If There Were No Whites in South Africa. The metaphor paints a pretty clear picture of what South Africa’s private sector looks like, where we find that the workforce has been mixed to a good brown at the bottom, but there is still a thick white layer of foam on top, with a few chocolate sprinkles.

Haffajee says that in the private sector, “the grooves worn by our past have not changed sufficiently.” I visited a number of South African newsrooms for this report, and saw some very diverse workplaces, but when you get to upper management and ownership, those old grooves Haffajee refers to become more visible.

Just take a look at the four big media companies that control most of South Africa’s newspapers — Caxton, Independent Media, Times Media Group and Media 24. The composition of their ownership is telling. Media 24 for instance owns about 90 newspapers, including six out of the big 10, according to its website. The company claims to have about 47% black ownership, which may seem like a significant figure, but the 2011 census tells us that South Africa is about 80% black. So 47% black ownership does not reflect the racial breakdown of the country. Black ownership at Caxton is just under 19%. Times Media Group’s ownership is 41% black. So Independent Media is the only company with significant black ownership, and that only happened in 2013 with a government-backed takeover, although critics say that the move was more political than transformative.

The question is: what impact is “the cappuccino” having on actual media output? Phelisa Nkomo, Chairperson of the Media Development and Diversity Agency, told me she does see an impact cascading into the quality of content. Too much output in South African mainstream media does not interrogate the institutionalised racism and the monopolistic nature of the South African economy, which she claims is still disproportionally controlled by white South Africans.

Karima Brown, Group Editorial Executive of Independent Media, argues that the content still displays the same old biases, particularly on economic coverage. For instance, the same white pundits are regularly tapped for comment as if they are the repositories of objective economic truth in South Africa.

To say that they are selected primarily because of their race is a bit of a leap in my opinion but I do think that the independent media reflect a narrow band of opinion that tends to serve corporate interests. This is a pervasive issue in the media, not just in South Africa, but it is compounded by our chequered history and the fact that not much has changed for a lot of South Africans.

According to Oxfam, inequality is greater today in South Africa than at the end of apartheid and you don’t have to look hard to see that it still divides along racial lines. Many black South Africans still live in poverty and many white South Africans still have a disproportionate hold on the economy, which is why corporate interests are still seen by many as synonymous with white interests. And when the bottom dollar of big business gets priority over the livelihood of many South Africans, you can see why they don’t see the media as transformed.

We can’t discuss transformation without talking about the most influential news outlet in the country, the SABC. At first glance, the state-owned broadcaster looks like a success story — transforming from a bilingual state outlet that excluded many more viewers than it attracted, to a broadcasting network that speaks to the country in all 11 of South Africa’s official languages; an institution that is proudly diverse across the board, especially in its news division.

But there are a growing number of critics who say transformation at the SABC has merely been a guise for the ANC to insert pro-government executives into the channel who ensure that the ruling party gets favourable coverage. The examples abound — from snubbing the opposition by refusing to cover live the DA’s Annual Congress last year; the reported “happy news” quota that was demanded of SABC journalists by chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng just before the 2014 elections — stories that would get the ANC re-elected; and just this week, the official order that all SABC radio talk shows were to stop taking calls from the public until after the local elections because too many callers were criticising the government and its leadership.

The SABC calls itself a public broadcaster, but doesn’t seem able or interested in actually producing public-interest broadcasting that takes on all the establishment interests in the country. I tried to arrange interviews with the group acting CEO Jimi Matthews and the SABC’s spokesperson, Kaizer Kganyago, but neither got back to me.

Media works best when it reflects society but in South Africa what we see too often in the coverage is a battle for power and privilege. Some use the media to entrench their power and others use it to preserve their privilege. If transformation means alignment with the values of a new nonracial society, then the media in South Africa have ways to go. DM

  • Nic Muirhead
    Nic-Muirhead-web.jpg
    Nic Muirhead

    Nic Muirhead has been with Al Jazeera English since 2008, working on the network’s weekly media review show The Listening Post. Born and bred in South Africa, Muirhead’s editorial focus has been the evolving political and cultural debates across sub-Saharan Africa. With each report on The Listening Post, his aim has been to add nuance to the understanding of how media operates on the African continent – from the phenomenon of brown envelope journalism in Nigeria, to the work of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro in South Africa, to the mainstream media’s coverage of the homosexuality debate in Uganda.

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