By Feroza Petersen
According to a well-known African proverb, a leopard never changes its spots.
The adage rings true, especially today, thirty years after apartheid ended. It urges us to take a closer look at the corporate legacies of companies such as Naspers, a media and technology conglomerate, which demands particular attention for its historical links to apartheid and ongoing impact in the media arena.
Naspers is the parent company of Media24, which houses news outlets such as News24 and other media titles. Today, reporting by media titles under Naspers does not seem to have deviated from its old apartheid past, especially the interlink between media, politics, and society.
Naspers' century-long legacy, marred by oppression, explicit racism, and active involvement in the apartheid machinery, serves as a crucial lesson in the power of media directly serving government interests.
The origins of Naspers trace back to 1914, in the aftermath of the Second Boer War—a period that left the Afrikaner population economically and socially devastated under British rule. It was during this tumultuous period that a group of prominent Cape Afrikaners founded a publishing house in Stellenbosch.
Their objective was not merely cultural affirmation but to forge a political and ideological bastion for Afrikaner nationalism within the Union of South Africa. This initiative was indicative of a broader movement to mobilise support for a distinct Afrikaner identity, one that would soon find its political expression in the policies of apartheid.
The establishment of Naspers coincided with the rise of the National Party, led by Barry Hertzog. Formally known as De Nasionale Pers, Naspers quickly became the mouthpiece for a party that would institutionalise racial segregation and discrimination.
The company's publications, spearheaded by figures like DF Malan—a future Prime Minister with pronounced sympathies for Nazism and Hitler—were critical in promoting Afrikaner nationalism and the oppressive machinery of apartheid. Through its media outlets, Naspers effectively wielded its influence to shape and sustain the ideological underpinnings of apartheid, demonstrating the formidable power of the press in steering public opinion and political agenda.
Naspers' influence extended beyond mere publishing; it was instrumental in elevating key figures within the apartheid regime. DF Malan, for instance, transitioned from his role as a minister in the conservative Dutch Reformed Church to become the editor of De Burger, a Naspers daily newspaper. This move highlights Naspers' direct involvement in promoting the architects of apartheid.
Similarly, Hendrik Verwoerd, dubbed the 'father of apartheid', served as the editor of Die Transvaaler before his tenure as South African Prime Minister. Die Transvaaler is a publication that Naspers would later acquire. The Malan and Verwoed appointments highlight the company's role in advancing the careers of individuals who would go on to shape South Africa's oppressive policies.
Naspers leveraged its vast media empire to spread racist ideologies, acquiring Drum Publications along with other titles such as the Sunday Newspaper, City Press, and the weekly magazine True Love & Family, which were aimed at a black readership.
Despite this outreach, its flagship newspapers, Die Burger and Die Huisgenoot, played critical roles in championing the National Party's agenda, illustrating the company's dual strategy of broadening its audience base while reinforcing divisive policies. Today, there has been little to no change in that approach.
The end of apartheid ushered in a period of accountability, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission leading the charge in addressing the atrocities of the past. Naspers openly refused to fully acknowledge its collaboration with the apartheid regime, even as around 127 individual journalists from its ranks came forward to acknowledge and apologise for their roles in perpetuating the injustices of that era.
The digital revolution of the 80s and transition saw Naspers expanding its empire into new territories, including electronic media and pay television. The expansion, then under the leadership of Koos Bekker, was critical for the formation of pay television assets such as Multichoice. Reports are that the expansion was made possible by the tight symbiotic relationship with the corrupt apartheid government, government tenders and kickbacks.
Prior to moving into government, President Cyril Ramaphosa was the owner of Shanduka, a company where Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa served as Chief Investment Officer. In a notable transition, Mahanyele-Dabengwa became the CEO of Naspers in 2019. Under her leadership, in 2022, Naspers orchestrated a significant financial move, transferring trillions of rands out of South Africa with a Netherlands stock exchange listing.
In today's South Africa, the history of Naspers is increasingly relevant as the nation confronts the legacies of its divided past.
The evolution of Naspers from an apartheid-era propagandist to a modern-day propagandist demands a careful examination. Over the past three decades, mainly through platforms like News24, Naspers has been accused of continuing agenda-driven journalism, allegedly undermining black individuals while safeguarding white interests and the racist establishment.
The pattern of racially biased reporting is clear, drawing attention to the need for a critical examination of its influence on public discourse.
Without the unwavering support of the Naspers, the apartheid regime might not have established itself and thrived the way it did. Naspers was a key player in promoting apartheid, a system denounced by the United Nations as a crime against humanity. This support was not merely a passing phase but was perceived as ingrained in the company's DNA. The apartheid leopard never changed its spots after all.
* The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.