Koos Bekker-linked News24, Naspers must shed their apartheid skin

Koos Bekker, chairman of Naspers. Picture: Halden Krog/Bloomberg

Koos Bekker, chairman of Naspers. Picture: Halden Krog/Bloomberg

Published Jun 22, 2023


THERE is a peculiar paradox that resides within the annals of South Africa’s media history. Once a staunch mouthpiece of the oppressive apartheid regime, Naspers, along with its digital offspring, News24, has undergone a staggering metamorphosis.

Today, it revels in the warm glow of the President Cyril Ramaphosa administration’s favour, and even dares to position itself as the media’s moral compass – a dramatic transformation that is cringeworthy.

However, one cannot ignore the tarnished legacy of Naspers. Since its inception, it served as a megaphone for the National Party’s (NP’s) apartheid propaganda for decades.

Publications under its umbrella disseminated racially divisive rhetoric, often stoking the fires of societal division, rather than seeking to extinguish them. It was a time when journalism’s mandate to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” was all but forgotten.

Its leading editors and owners, either were members of the NP or served the NP government in some way, shape or form. Infact, Naspers owner Koos Bekker was an apartheid era prosecutor – enforcing laws that were tantamount to crimes against humanity.

Fast forward to the present, and the roles seem to have been dramatically reversed and quite frankly, South Africans should be worried.

Naspers and News24, one of the most widely read digital news platforms in the country, are widely celebrated. The image they present is no longer one of an apartheid propaganda machine, but of a democratic news entity. But one has to ask, how genuine is this transformation?

Since Ramaphosa took office in 2018, both Naspers and News24 have seemed to enjoy an inexplicably close relationship with the presidency. This closeness has manifested in my opinion – a soft handed approach to holding the president accountable. It’s as if the Fourth Estate has morphed into a public relations entity for the Ramaphosa administration.

This is not to suggest that Ramaphosa’s administration doesn’t deserve praise where it is due. The problem lies in the lack of critical reportage. Any media entity’s role, let alone that of a giant like Naspers or a significant platform like News24, should be to scrutinise power relentlessly, irrespective of who wields it.

In a time where truth and transparency should reign supreme, News24 and Naspers seem to be enmeshed in a deceptive charade, donning sheep’s clothing to obscure their wolfish instincts.

Far from shedding their deeply problematic past as cheerleaders for apartheid, these media entities appear to have merely swapped allegiances – trading in old masters for new ones. The rhetoric may have changed, the political landscape may have shifted, but the penchant for serving the interests of those in power remains distressingly intact.

A free press is the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy. It is the watchdog that keeps those in power accountable, a safeguard against the erosion of civil liberties. Yet, when a media organisation trades its watchdog role for that of a lapdog, democracy is inevitably compromised.

In a country still wrestling with socio-economic inequalities and political controversies, a media that unabashedly holds power to account is not only desirable, but essential. Naspers and News24 must re-evaluate their roles and reaffirm their commitment to critical, unbiased reporting.

The South African public deserves a media that is more than just a mirror reflecting the version of reality that those in power want them to see. They deserve a media that dares to expose the cracks, to challenge, to question, and to hold accountable … because when it comes to democracy, a complacent media is no better than a complicit one.

The current situation calls to mind the unnerving parallels between the uncritical journalism displayed by Naspers and News24 and the propaganda machinery orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels during Nazi Germany.

A media organisation that glosses over inconvenient truths, or treats them with kid gloves, is dangerously close to becoming a tool for the powerful, regardless of its intent. Naspers and News24 must be cautious not to tread this path.

Their less-than-critical stance on significant scandals such as the Phala Phala fiasco and CR17 bank statements cases suggests a disturbing trend that, left unchecked, could have serious repercussions for the country’s democratic health.

The responsibility of a free press extends far beyond mere reporting, it includes providing a balanced account of events, questioning authorities, and shedding light on shady dealings irrespective of who it involves. When media outlets fail to fulfil these responsibilities, democracy itself is at risk.

The echoes of Goebbels’ philosophy should serve as a grim reminder of what the media can become when it’s too close to power.

  • Sizwe Dlamini is acting editor of The Sunday Independent.