Printing press, press freedom, press, media, paper, news, free, fair. Photo by Michael Walker
Printing press, press freedom, press, media, paper, news, free, fair. Photo by Michael Walker

A different kind of media transformation

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 18, 2020

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Mandla J Radebe

This year’s Black Wednesday commemorations will largely take place through mediated platforms.

The novel Covid-19 pandemic has expedited what many perceived as the inevitable transformation of the media industry through digitalisation.

But the South African media must still grapple with a different kind of transformation – that of ownership and control.

During the month of October, the media fraternity recalls the events of October 19, 1977, where the racist apartheid regime shut down independent media in a desperate attempt to censor dissenting voices. Progressive journalists and editors were at the receiving end, with many thrown in jail and progressive publications like the World, Weekend World and Daily Dispatch, muzzled and banned.

Perhaps latent to the struggle of media leaders like Zwelakhe Sisulu, Percy Qoboza, Joe Thloloe, Mathata Tsedu, Aggrey Klasste and many unsung heroes, was the fundamental question of transformation. To honour these pioneers, not only should we celebrate the hard earned media freedom and freedom of expression enshrined in our constitution, but also address the fundamental question of transformation.

But how exactly should we approach this question? In the book Constructing Hegemony: The South African Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation, I argue that any attempt to analyse the contemporary South Africa media will be incomplete without unravelling the often ignored or misunderstood question of transformation.

In our context, transformation seeks to address the racial imbalances as a result of colonialism and apartheid legacies, which entrenched white minority control of the economic base and, to an extent, superstructures such as the media.

Media transformation must also be located in the broad-based black economic empowerment programme, which seeks to address historical imbalances. Ferial Haffajee once employed the “cappuccino” change metaphor to describe our transformation journey.

The metaphor paints a picture of the South African private sector, where 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.

Last year Mail & Guardian Data Desk reminded us that our media, just like many companies in the country, is still mostly run by whites.

Some of the findings of the book suggest that the increase in the number of black senior managers in newsrooms has not altered the content of the media’s approach, to ideologically charged discourses.

On the contrary, the representation of such intricate discourses has rather sharpened the class contradictions beyond race. Black senior managers in newsrooms are also subjugated to the hegemony of capitalism, which pre-determines the direction their work takes by setting the rules of engagement.

As we remember media stalwarts who paved the way for media freedom, we dare not forget their dream of a truly transformed media.

* Mandla J Radebe is a communication practitioner and the author of, “Constructing Hegemony: The South African Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation”, published by UKZNPress.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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