September 22, 2014

A review of the HSRC’s volume on SA Media



Power, Politics and Identity in South African Media

HSRC Press 2008, ISBN 9780796922021

Review by Michael Schmidt

Originally published in Focus #51, journal of the Helen Suzman Foundation


The rows centred on Jacob Zuma, the recent attacks on black lesbians, and this year’s antiforeigner murder spree have raised the crucial question of whether the media have stoked South Africans’ apparent reversion to antagonistic roles – or whether changes in identity are gaining ground, via either the state’s own simunye policies, the “market leveller” of commercialisation, or the sense of virtual community created by new media forms. And the answer is far from simple. The media have advanced on some fronts and retreated on others; yet even where they have advanced, they are hobbled by contradiction, and where they have retreated, they show inherent promise.

The nationalist project of constructing a “South African” identity – especially using the SABC – would seem to be unassailable thanks to the ANC’s near hegemonic political position. Yet the rise of mothertongue community radio stations, interest-group publications, and blogging have seen a decentralisation and fragmenting of identities, some of which are held to be superior to the national identity.

South African society is usually represented in socio-political myth as a binary black/white culture, deeply, irreconcilably divided by centuries of colonial discrimination and 46 years of apartheid – and the liberation movements’ adherence to this black/white dichotomy entrenched this still further. The 1994 elections were hailed, however, as unifying factors that superseded race, class, gender, ability and sexuality.

This Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) volume collects some of the best new
sociological examinations of where that polarity finds itself today: reaffirmed, deconstructed, or reconstructed – by print, radio, television, books, film, popular music and the internet.

Dominant themes are white Afrikaner and black identity, and another covers the shifting sands of identities in between those crude polarities: of coloureds, and of those defined pejoratively as “coconuts” and “wiggers” for their affinity with “other” cultures. Sub-themes address identities related to class, gender and sexuality.

On Afrikaner identity, several papers show two divergent vectors. One is that the Afrikaner sense of racially exclusive nationhood – especially in relation to the black “other” – has barely shifted. Within this laager one might locate Radio Pretoria, which claims the democratic right of disassociation. The other vector regards the expansion of Afrikaner identity to embrace coloured and black Afrikaans-speakers.

On black identity, three issues are tackled. Firstly, the culture of youthful nihilism of the ’76 generation, with its ingrained violence echoed in current black youthful attitudes towards violent crime and HIV/Aids.

Secondly, however, the notion as portrayed in kwaito and film that black males can only succeed through tsotsi-culture is challenged. Lastly, the misrepresentation, or lack of interrogation, in black-owned media of Zulu tradition in relation to Zuma’s actions is examined. But a sea-change is in evidence. The dramatic rise of the tabloids has allowed the vernacular voices of poorer South Africans to be heard for the first time.

Commerce has created ersatz “universal” identities – yet the internet has allowed unprecedented 
decentralisation of information, interest, and thus identity. This book lacks an interrogation of black middle-class identities, but is a brave attempt to chart our shifting sense of self and society.