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His master’s voice

- Tawana Kupe

What are the prospects for a free media in a captured state in 21st Century South Africa?

Media and communications have been key to exercising power in Africa historically, entrenched as they were in colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. 

Different forms of media ownership and control have been central to political-economic control and the dominance of forms of cultural representation. Media freedom was threatened because of censorship, bans, arrests and the incarceration of journalists and editors, multiple restrictions and the monopoly of broadcasting. 

Media that offered a counter-narrative to oppression and an alternative vision of a free society opposed colonialism and apartheid. The cast characters which owned media supportive of liberation included nationalists, radical activists, churches and emergent media entrepreneurs of all races. Since colonialism and apartheid, during all Africa’s political, economic and cultural upheavals, the media have driven, recorded and stymied or facilitated change. Developments in media have been indicative of African ‘progress.’ 

Media mark African progress 

Of course media outside state control contributed to the struggle for independence and freedom despite repression. It follows also that it was some media outside the control of post-independence African and the post-apartheid states that gave voice and editorial space to forces opposing those stifling democracy, clean governance and economic inclusivity. 

Even then, colonial and apartheid played out in the media space. Media freedom is still a long walk to freedom in many African countries. Colonial era restrictive media laws remain embedded in statute books despite the departure of the last colonial governor. South Africa is a beacon of hope only because of its constitutional guarantees, yet it is not immune to other insidious threats to press freedom.

The use of predominantly non-African languages by the print media perpetuates an urban elite orientation. News media struggle to strike the balance between reporting positive developments without practicing ‘sunshine journalism’, and being critical and confirming the stereotype western media have of Africa as the archetypal home of disasters untold. 

State monopoly of broadcasting endures in many guises with occasional periods of relative freedom. The South African Broadcasting Corporation – the continent’s great hope since the resurgent democracy in the 1990s and the promise of a model of genuine public broadcasting free from state or commercial interests – has succumbed to his master’s voice. 

Advancing African media frontiers 

On the other hand, the emergence of FM radio stations and talk radio across has expanded freedom of expression across Africa. The growth of locally-made television programmes and African music videos demonstrate African cultural creativity and the exploration of new identities and self-expression. A tradition of investigative journalism is strengthening in precarious political environments and demonstrates courage to hold the powerful accountable and for transparency to triumph.

New media and mobile telephony have spawned online and digital media spaces – that, despite not reaching a mass audience – enable free expression, particularly among the young and educated. Interactive features of online and digital media and their disruption of the traditional sender and receiver positioning of media and audiences has the potential to transcend control and censorship and to deliver real democracy. 

Reborn media monopoly 

However, the media market has exercised its own modes of censorship, at times reinforcing the enduring hand of state and political controls. Ownership and control of media remains in the hands of the historically economically privileged and the newly economically empowered. Some media, such as the print sector in South Africa, that supported repression during apartheid, are reborn as supporters of editorial independence in relation to state and government power, but are silent on the insidious corporate and commercial control of the media and the power of private interests. 

A careful analysis demonstrates that access to the expanding range of media available on the continent follows lines of economic privilege that marginalises the poor and creates new digital and social divides. Inequitable access to communications and media and information asymmetry contributes to the 21st Century phenomenon of increasing and unprecedented social inequality that threatens the creation of sustainable democracies. 

Tawana Kupe is an Associate Professor in Media Studies in Wits Journalism and Vice-Principal of Wits.

Read more about capital in the context of political economy, monopoly capital, corruption and ownership in the third issue of Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY.