Youth, conflict, governance and the media: South African perspectives


South Africa celebrates its twentieth year of democracy this year. It has been an eventful twenty years, with much debate and contestation around the political values and practices in a new and noisy democracy. The institutions and procedures of democracy are in place and relatively stable: we have had regular elections since all South Africans queued to make their first crosses at the ballot box on 27 April 1994. This year, the ‘born-frees’ – young citizens born after the end of apartheid – will vote for the first time (and how they will vote has been the topic of some debate). We have a Constitution that includes a Bill of Rights and enshrines freedom of speech (including freedom of the media) as well as other rights such as human dignity, equality and freedom of assembly, and this Constitution is guarded by a Constitutional Court. Indeed, the ‘miracle’ discourse  of the South African transition to democracy suggests that we have made the journey from oppression to freedom without the bloodshed and conflict that mark political transitions in other parts of the continent.

The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy and the continued stability of democratic institutions does not mean that South Africa is without social and political conflict. The mounting frustration with the dividends of democracy for the country’s majority poor citizens and the tensions resulting from levels of economic inequality that rank among the highest in the world have led to an increase in street protests around the country. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg have estimated an average of 2.1 protests per day recorded between 2004-2009.

Youth have been seen as ‘central’ to these protests and the ‘main protagonists’ of the uprisings around the country that have been framed rather narrowly by the media as ‘social delivery protests’ but in fact can be seen as articulations of a more deep-seated disillusionment. These protests are born out of the frustration with the continued high levels of inequality and a revolt against a government that is increasingly seen as uncaring and not listening. The protests that have been taking place around the country are therefore not only demands for the technical delivery of basic services, but a ‘rebellion of the poor’ who are demanding basic human dignity.

Increasingly, these protests are being met with state-sponsored violence. The death of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest in 2011 in Ficksburg in the Free State province, where he was beaten and shot by police (the officers accused of assault and murder were later acquitted), received widespread media coverage. Research suggested that despite the publicity around Tatane’s death, this fatality of a citizen at the hands of the police had not been an isolated incident. Only this year, two people have been killed and several injured when protesters and police clashed at Mothuthlong near Brits in the North West province. And although it does not fit the media definition of a social delivery protest, miners striking for better wages at the Lonmin mine  at Marikana in 2012 led to a massacre in which 34 people were killed and 78 wounded – an event that sent shockwaves around the world as the post-apartheid state used unprecedented lethal force on its own citizens.

The question that arises is why, in a country where stable democratic institutions are in place, the procedural aspects of democratic life such as elections are functioning well, and a strong, vibrant and robust media continue to operate freely, do young citizens resort to direct action in order to make their voices heard?

This question could be answered, at least partly, by examining the role and positioning of the media in post-apartheid South Africa.

The media – not only in South Africa, but more generally within a liberal-democratic framework – are often seen as central to democracy. In South Africa, the media also regularly lay claim to this understanding of its role. The dominant consensus among media is that it should perform a monitorial, ‘watchdog’ role over power – mostly state power, with less scrutiny over economic power. Consequently a great deal of reporting – in a largely adversarial and confrontational tone – is devoted to issues around corruption and mismanagement in government and the public sector. In other words, the South African media’s role is seen as ensuring that democracy ‘works’. From this point of view, community protests around the country are framed as demands for ‘service delivery’ in response to what is seen as government’s failure to fulfil its technical functions – the protests are seen as signs of places where democracy isn’t ‘working’ (consider in this regard the slogan of the Democratic Alliance-run city of Cape Town: ‘This City Works For You’). In other words, the media’s emphasis in fulfilling its watchdog role seems to be more on procedural rather than substantive outcomes of democracy. The question seems to be ‘is democracy working?’ rather than ‘what does democracy mean?’ From this perspective, conflict that ensues between communities and the state in ongoing protests around the country is a factor of where the system has broken down – rather than an indication that the system itself is being rejected in a process of ongoing contestation around what democracy should mean in the everyday lives of the poor and the marginalized.

This narrow view of conflicts between citizens and the state in post-apartheid South Africa is a result of the South African media’s dominant normative framework that defines its role as primarily in relation to the state rather than in relation to the citizenry. The pressures on media freedom, like the proposed establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal as an alternative to the self-regulatory (recently modified to a more co-regulatory one with greater input from the public) Press Council, or the Protection of State Information Bill, vigorously opposed by the Right to Know Campaign, are rejected in the name of this belief that the media’s is working in the ‘public interest’. The citizenry’s interests are therefore purportedly what the media has at heart when it attacks government on its failures, but these interests mostly come to be defined by the media’s own social and political position as elite institutions. Too frequently the role of the media is seen as a monitor of the state on behalf of citizens, instead of listening to what citizens themselves have to say. The notion of ‘the public’ is not unproblematic in a country with such a long history of social polarization and continued economic inequalities. The public in South Africa is fragmented, unequal and do not all have the same access to the media. Moreover, the mainstream, commercial media that dominate the public sphere tend to represent a very narrow sliver of the South African citizenry, an elite that is attractive to advertisers and can afford access to their offerings. This results in a mediated perspective on the world that Steven Friedman called ‘a view from the suburbs’.

What role then could the South African media play to facilitate young citizens’ participation in democracy? The assumption of the media is that they represent the public interest, and recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have often led to optimistic claims about the potential of the media (especially social and mobile media) to facilitate the mobilization of citizens. If young people are central to community uprisings in South Africa as some observers claim, and if these uprisings articulate a widespread disillusionment with post-apartheid democracy, what potential is there for the South African media to act as an agent for change? To answer these questions we have to ask questions regarding the centrality of media in people’s lives, the access and reach of the media, and the media’s ability to facilitate social change.  For instance: do citizens trust media? Does the media reflect their everyday experiences? How influential is the media compared to other social actors and institutions? How widespread is access to the media, including social media? How affordable are mobile phones, for instance, and what are the opportunity costs involved in accessing social media on them? Given the asymmetries of access – the best estimate would be that about one in five South Africans uses Twitter, for instance – how big is the democratic potential of social media in South Africa really?

Research done as part of a research project into media and citizenship at Rhodes University found that the media are not as central to the lives of young South Africans as might be assumed by those that see the media as an agent for social change.  Young people interviewed as part of the study are disillusioned with politics and pessimistic about their chances in the post-apartheid economy. Unemployment has a major impact on young people’s self-esteem and identities as citizens. They feel that both government and the media have failed them, and are disillusioned by the very procedural democracy that ‘watchdog’ media guards over. Voting seems futile because it doesn’t make a difference in their everyday lives. “I voted because I wanted freedom,” one respondent said,” I thought I was going to benefit… But no, anyway I will not [vote] again because there is nothing to be gained.” Another one said the only result of voting is that it “gives people positions”, while yet another remarked that voting only “ improves things at the top and not service delivery”: “It certainly improves the party that is in power or that person who is in power at the time.”

It is perhaps not surprising that in the light of this disillusionment with democratic processes, protests are seen as a way to get the attention of politicians. Although the young people interviewed expressed a sense of trust in the media, and thought they are reliable as social institutions, the media’s representation of South African reality does not resonate with their everyday lives. Although the media provided them with a sense of connection to the outside world, it afforded them little opportunity to speak back and participate in debates in the public sphere. Social media (including SMS and the Blackberry Messaging Service [BBM] functionality on mobile phones) as well as radio provided some conviviality, but the idea that citizens could use the media to enact citizenship and take up agency did not occur to them, and in fact struck them as a rather surprising possibility.

The overall impression from these conversations with young South Africans is that they are using media to just get by, and find whatever information or sustenance they can to cope with their daily struggles. In the words of Nick Couldry, South African young people seem to be resorting to ‘biographical solutions to structural problems’. This sense of powerlessness has already started to breed a sense of being disengaged from the political system and their ability to influence policy-making. . Dahlgren speaks about this disengagement as being something other than a cynical indifference towards politics that “implies a disinterest in politics and the political altogether”. The disengagement from formal politics, seemingly exacerbated by the media’s failure to speak to young people’s everyday experiences, should in other words be seen as a political act in itself.

In the light of the disillusionment and disengagement from formal politics expressed by South African young people, how should we approach the study of young people, conflict and the media in the post-apartheid context? Some preliminary suggestions:

  • We need to move beyond Habermasian notions of rational deliberation in a mediated public sphere. Emotional expressions, whether as angry street protests or personal responses to everyday life via social media or mobile phones should also be considered as having political implications.
  • We should remain attuned for the ‘political’ in the ostensibly ‘non-political’ of everyday life. Just as the disillusionment with and disengagement from formal politics do not mean that young people are disinterested in political matters, so their lack of enthusiasm about mainstream news media does not mean that they will not use other forms of media strategically to cope with the challenges of everyday life in a precarious socio-economic environment.
  • Seductive as the possibilities posed by social media and mobile phones for political participation and activism might be, the example of other uprisings such as those of the ‘Arab Spring’ (although the centrality of social media to these protests has also been heavily disputed) cannot be unproblematically transposed to South Africa. Given the imbalances with regard to access and the exorbitant costs of mobile phones especially for the poor who rely on prepaid services, the political economy of connectivity mitigate the political gains to be derived from new modes of communication. The potential of social and mobile media to facilitate social change should therefore at best be evaluated within the broader media ecology and in relation to other social spheres of influence.
  • The responsiveness of the South African state to criticism voiced via media – a key tenet of liberal democratic media theories derived from conditions in established democracies – should not be assumed. Because of the South African media’ s historical association with white capital, and the continued slow pace of transformation in the industry, media criticism can easily be dismissed as representative of minority interests.

We know that mobile phones and social media should not be viewed in technologically determinist ways. New media technologies such as mobile and social media mobile phones do not only transmit political information needed for rational deliberation in the public sphere, but also transgress cultural and social borders and hierarchies in the way they refashion identities and create informal economies and communicative networks. We also know that social media did not cause the social change in the Arab Spring, but at most amplified the efforts of opposition movements. But given the gap between mainstream media discourses and young people’s everyday realities, and the economic obstacles in the way of the use of mobile and social media by the poor in South Africa, this amplification of social, political and economic dynamics could also go in the opposite direction. Media could also amplify inequalities, turn up the volume of those who already have access to political platforms, shove the marginalised and the poor further into the fringes, and alienate young people further from formal politics. Young South Africans are finding their own ways of expressing their agency through media, but in order to understand what is happening in these spaces, new ways of theorizing beyond models of deliberation or technological euphoria need to be found.

(Based on a talk presented at a workshop ‘Youth, Conflict and Governance in Africa’, Yale University, USA, March 2014)

Revised method to track Chinese aid to Africa


The above graphic from a story in the Daily Nation in Kenya shows how much financial assistance China has pumped into Africa in recent years. It’s based on data from the research initiative AidData collected through an open-source method of tracking flows of financing from China into the continent.

Last year a report from AidData on Chinese spending on aid and development in Africa came out that announced the massive amounts that China has contributed to projects on the continent. As discussed previously, that report was was widely reported on in the mainstream media. The $75 billion that China spent in Africa was framed as a sign of China’s attempts to cement partnerships and allies among African countries. The British newspaper The Guardian said of the report’s findings that it pointed to “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. Especially interesting was the report’s conclusion that China had contributed to fewer mining projects than to projects in the areas of health, education and social infrastructure. Examples of these were listed as a malaria prevention center; school for visual arts and an opera house, as well as doctor and teacher exchanges. The Guardian took these examples as evidence of an increasingly strong geopolitical agenda on the part of China.

However, the report was also strongly criticized by experts on China’s role in Africa. Deborah Brautigam, professor and director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University, said the figures in the AidData report were misleading because the methodology relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing, which are not reliable.

In a recent new development, AidData has released new updates from its Tracking Chinese Development Finance in Africa dataset. Acknowledging that last year’s  pilot project, which relied largely on media reports, was ‘inherently imperfect’, the new methodology cross-checks media reports with data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.  AidData believes that there are certain conditions that make the refined methodology an effective research tool. The open source nature of the data makes it possible for users to identify errors. The overreliance on media reports for which the previous report was criticized, is now complemented by other methods such as in-country fieldwork and outreach to personnel involved with specific projects. Information from media reports is cross-checked and supplemented by data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.

This refinement in methodology means that more sources are now being used to establish the extent of Chinese financing in Africa. To better reflect the shift to a variety of  ources used, AidData has now changed the name of its methodology from Media Based Data Collection to Tracking Under-Reported Financial Flows (TUFF).

The introduction to the new codebook clarifies that the original name for the methodology, Media Based Data Collection, may have been misleading to critics who didn’t review the whole codebook. Although the initial report relied heavily on media reports, according to Charles Perla, an AidData Project Manager, these reports were not their only source: “In fact, media reports are used only as a departure point, and are supplemented with case studies undertaken by scholars and non-governmental organizations, project inventories supplied through Chinese embassy websites, and grants and loan data published by recipient governments.” To make this clear, AidData has now renamed their methodology. “In the interest of providing greater clarity, we now refer to our methodology for systematically gathering open source development finance information as the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) methodology”. The codebook and an explanation of the methodology can be downloaded from the internet.

 Working with researchers at the College of William & Mary and Brigham Young University in the USA, AidData set themselves the objective of documenting all known Chinese development finance projects in Africa over more than a decade, from 2000 to 2012.  The new release includes more than 100 new projects, and more than 130 updates to existing project records. AidData seems confident that the refined methodology will withstand scrutiny. The pilot project was subjected to a test referred to as a ‘ground-truthing approach’ where researchers visited project sites in South Africa and Uganda to corroborate the data compiled by AidData. This testing involved interviews with local recipients of financing and other stakeholders. The pilot, conducted by researchers at AidData, the University of Cape Town, Zhejiang University, the College of William & Mary, and Brigham Young University in collaboration with local enumerators, did find some new information that was used to amend and correct the TUFF data. By and large, however, these researchers say that the interviews and site visits they conducted supported the open source data gathered by AidData.

The writers acknowledge that there is as yet ‘no consensus’ on how the flows of development finance from China to Africa can be tracked. They claim that this inability to follow the money in a new geopolitical environment marked by rapid shifts, flows and contraflows is a weakness of traditional academic research that cannot keep up with the ‘rapidly changing global development finance architecture’. It is however important to find a way of keeping track of these flows, so that African communities can better understand, interact and engage with the influx of funding from China so as to make best use of the opportunities it offers.

Although these researchers acknowledge that the TUFF methodology isn’t flawless, they see it as a ‘fairly robust method of independent data collection’. Where information gathered on the ground in South Africa and Uganda differed from the information gathered through AidData’s methodology, these differences were fairly minor. The places where two sets of data diverged,  involved issues like dates, contact information and similar details, while the larger, more significant items of scale, scope and sector of financial assistance remained largely the same.

 The revisions of  AidData’s approach remind us that scientific methodologies are never perfect, nor are they complete. And while the media is playing an important role in bringing to attention the flows and contraflows between China and Africa – especially by stimulating debate and interpreting these developments – media reports alone cannot serve as reliable empirical evidence. For this reason, the new multi-source approach by AidData seems like a step in the right direction. By revising their methodology, AidData has also displayed a willingness to open their work up to questioning and scrutiny. It may be expected that in a new, rapidly changing and in many ways controversial area such as Chinese involvement in Africa, research methodologies will be looked at especially closely.  AidData should be commended for undertaking this scrutiny themselves, and for displaying a willingness to engage, revise, and rework their findings. Ultimately such a collaborative effort such as their open source project – as well as the contributions of subsequent critics of this work – can contribute to a better understanding of what has become one of the most important shifts in the global political economy of development and aid in Africa.

To come back from Qunu



I wrote the following piece for the blog Africa is a Country.

Here is an excerpt:

But as we critique the pernicious effects of neoliberalism and attack the current ANC for moral insolvency, let us not forget that the country my children are growing up in is vastly different from the one in which I became an adult. They now live in a country whose founding principles are that of freedom, human dignity, and equality, instead of fear, conflict and hate. They don’t know war, bombs or uniforms. At school they share classrooms with children whose parents I would not have been allowed to play with forty years ago. They can paint the South African flag on their faces and cheer for the Boks, the Proteas or Bafana without thinking about it twice. To invert a cliché: the present is a different country.

But it is not different enough yet.

Read the full piece here

The ‘intellectual frontier’ between Africa and China



The growing relationship between China and Africa have been the topic of much discussion and debate in recent years. Media coverage of these Sino-African relationships tended to focus on what Chris Alden and Yoon Jung Park have called in a recent book chapter the ‘upstairs’ dimensions: Chinese investments in Africa, developmental assistance and the impact of these relationships for the shifting global geopolitics. The establishment of the BRICS group of emerging states is probably the clearest indication of these shifts, and has also attracted a great deal of debate. Media coverage of BRICS, as with China-Africa relations more generally, has largely been dominated by economic and political issues.

But the growing interest in China in Africa is not limited to businesspeople, entrepreneurs and politicians. Increasingly, China-Africa relations are also becoming the topic of scholarly attention by academics and researchers at institutes and think tanks.  Perhaps the most official example of these think tanks is the China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF) that is incorporated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry into the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a regular mechanism for civil dialogues between China and Africa . The first meeting of this think tank forum was already held in 2011, in Hangzhou and Jinhua, where representatives of Chinese and African think tanks, the African Union  and organizations representing economic and political organizations came together to discuss how an ongoing dialogue between Chinese and African thinkers could be established. The forum provided a space for high-level academic debates and exchanges.

The 2nd Meeting of the CATTF was held in 2012 in Ethiopia, co-hosted by the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the Institute of African Studies (IAS) of Zhejiang Normal University. According to the proceedings of this meeting (published in book form and edited by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe and Liu Hongwu ), the event was attended by more than 100 officials and scholars from 15 countries the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Chinese and African think tanks, and other regional organizations.

At the most recent meeting of CATTF, held in 2013 in Beijing, discussions about research collaboration continued. The news service All Africa reported that the discussion centred around the theme of ‘Upgrading Sino-African Relations and Constructing Chinese and African Soft Power’. The issue of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Africa, as it is being expanded via cultural exchanges such as the Confucius Institutes as well as its increasing media footprint on the continent, remains a hot topic for debate in scholarly circles.  For instance, a recent conference held at the University of Westminster in London, compared the ‘soft power’ initiatives of China with that of India. The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force. (see a more detailed conference report here)

The African organisations represented at the 2013 CATTF meeting in Beijing included, according to All,  the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, CODESRIA from Senegal, AERC from Kenya, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at the University of Addis Ababa, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, Université Mohammed V in Morocco  and the International Relations Institute in Cameroon. In a statement issued at the meeting, it was stated that Chinese and African think tanks and scholars stand on the ‘intellectual frontier’ of the developing relations between China and Africa, and that they can help to improve relations between these two regions.

This ‘intellectual frontier’ is being explored at several universities in South Africa. For instance, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch presents itself as the “most prominent and high quality point of reference for the study of China and East Asia on the African continent”, and engages in “policy-relevant analysis” for government, business, academia and NGO communities.

On the terrain of media studies, Chinese investment in South African media companies like Independent Newspapers and the pay television platform StarSat, as well as the increased presence of Chinese media organisations like CCTV and Xinhua, is being followed closely. The University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department runs a China-Africa reporting project that aims to ‘improve the quality of reporting around China-Africa issues’. At Rhodes University, a research unit for Media in the Global South (RUMIGS) has been set up , where work around the representation of China in South African media is being conducted alongside comparative projects on media systems in the BRICS countries.  A forthcoming issue (November 2013) of the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies will focus on ‘reporting China in Africa’ and features contributions from various scholars working in this area – an illustration of how vibrant this topic is becoming in academic circles.

But especially interesting is also how discussion of China-Africa issues are taking place in the virtual realm of the internet. A good example is the, a blog that also hosts podcasts and updates on Facebook.  The email listserv Chinese-in-Africa/Africans-in-China, run by dr Yoon Jung Park, has grown into a vibrant community of scholars working on China-Africa relations. The Internet is after all perhaps the biggest think tank of them all – although, as a recent article shows, the strategies pursued by the Chinese government to control online activies can also influencing and legitimizing the development of a less open model of the Internet in Africa. If this influence goes unchecked, it could reverse the gains made in the online African public sphere.

Media Development and the rise of the BRICS countries


I am at the FOME symposium in Berlin this week, where the attention is focused on the rise of the BRICS countries and what that means for media development activities in Africa, amongst others. In my presentation  I will talk about the responses in South African media to the country’s membership of the BRICS group, and how South African journalists think about China’s increasing involvement in the African mediascape.


Braai the beloved country


I have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘National Braai Day’, and the accompanying media bombardment of feel-good messages, advertisements for meat and beer and chat shows where braai recipes are exchanged.  We are told that to braai on the public holiday Heritage Day (24 September in South Africa) as this will ‘strengthen South Africa as a nation’. (And to those Afrikaners who phoned in to the radio station this morning to say the day has nothing to do with politics: you might do well to remember that you only have today off because the Zulu’s wanted to commemorate Shaka)

Let me state it upfront: I have nothing against braaiing. I love to braai. Some of my best friends are braaiers. When I lived in the UK, the mere idea of meat grilled over a proper fire (not those tin foil boxes you used to burn pork sausages into submission on rainy summer days) used to make me physically homesick. But the idea of Braai Day makes me feel ill at ease for the same reason that those beer ads with multiracial buddies drinking Castle on top of a skyscraper in New York to the tune of Toto’s ‘I miss the rain down in Africa’ left me uncomfortable. Because it makes us believe we have already arrived in fantasyland. Sure, the purpose of parties, like those around braai fires, is to make us forget reality for a while (that’s probably why they are so popular).  But to elevate a party to national heritage status is problematic because it could get us stuck in the gap between the ideal and the reality, and even make us feel quite comfortable there, munching away at our boerewors and braaibroodjies.

People will probably call me cynical and a spoilsport. After all, Braai Day has a champion in the morally unassailable Desmond Tutu.  This year, Jan Braai lit a fire under the sea and changed the names of towns to become ‘braai relevant’. There is even a national braai day anthem, for crying in a potjie. I would feel more comfortable with a statement of intent – such as, today, let’s organize a braai with someone who speaks a different language than us – rather than the ubiquitous feel-good messages (a lot of them corporate-sponsored of course) about how braaiing is supposed to be the one thing that unites us. The usual line is that some people call it braai, others call it Shisa Nyama, others call it barbecue, but – hey, Shosoloza! –  it’s the one thing we certainly have in common.  This might be true in a trivial sense, but to say that this activity unites us, is more or less the same as saying that just because we all drive on the N1 we are all going to the same address. And even if braaiing was something we all did have in common, isn’t it quite a depressing thought that it might be the only thing? And is that now a heritage worth a national campaign? Not our resistance to colonialism and apartheid, not our allegiance to the land, not even that our continent is the cradle of humankind – but the dripping of fat in a fire?

But, for a moment today I thought I should suspend my criticism and succumb to fuzzy feelings of rainbow nationalism. My son came home from school with a coloured-in South African flag adorned with slogans such as ‘Being South African means treating everyone equally’. Yes, I thought, human rights is something worth braaiing about. I enjoyed having the afternoon off to watch him run around the athletics track. Across the street, a group of students (all of them white from what I could see) were noisily having a braai. Listening to music, laughing and drinking. It sounded jolly, and I joked with a friend that perhaps I should walk over and ask for a piece of wors in exchange for an extension on their essay due date. But as we walked back to the car after the athletics practice, a bunch of young black kids suddenly came speeding past us. It took me a second or three to realize what was happening. The penny dropped when I saw, behind the group of running kids, the security guard and a student in hot pursuit. ‘Come back here, you &@#%!’ the student, shouted. He was shirtless, clearly a bit drunk, and very angry. It looked like one of the kids might have stolen something from him, probably his cellphone.  In a moment of supreme irony, the screaming student addressed the fleeing kids in Xhosa: ‘Yiza! Yiza, you &$%@!’ As a middle-class citizen of this poverty-stricken town I know the irritation of having stuff stolen repeatedly. But I am also familiar with the sight of kids begging on street corners, people rummaging through my rubbish, and the desperation of unemployment. Today the vivid juxtaposition of revelry and desperation, excess and hunger, braaiing students and loitering children just became too much for me. And my heart sank when I realized that when – not if – the kids get caught, their crime will probably only breed more violence.

I don’t see anything wrong with lighting a fire and having a good time. But let’s not allow the smoke to get in our eyes. Let’s not forget that we’re still a nation of people who can afford a chop –and-dop, and those who can’t. Perhaps braaiing is after all the perfect activity to remind us that inequality is the first heritage we need to overcome.

The media as a vehicle for China’s soft power



The developing world will shape the future, led by China – but this will still take some time and will be a complicated process.  This is the opinion of Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He spoke at the international conference “Communicating Soft Power: Contrasting Perspectives from India and China” held at Westminster University in London on 9 and 10 September.  The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

Jacques questioned the usefulness of the concept of ‘soft power’, as it doesn’t explain how soft power is related to hard power like economic clout or military might. He however pointed out that the fact that China has taken 600 million people out of poverty is already a strong message to the rest of the world and raises prospects for other continents like Africa to emulate. However, China remains on the whole a poor country and is also largely unfamiliar to a world that has been shaped by British and American culture for the last 200 years. Because of the history of colonization and global hegemony exercised from the West – for instance through Hollywood film – the world is more familiar with Western culture, and knowledge of China is still ‘extraordinarily slim’ Jacques said. ‘The way we try and understand China is always through a Western prism, but we cannot make sense of China in that way. China comes through a different history of civilization. It has a civilizational history, not a nation-state background like most Western states.’

Dawood Azami from the BBC World Service in  London agreed that world power is shifting from one set of actors to another set of actors. In this shift, we will see a ‘battle of narratives’ being played out, as different stories are being told of the shifts in geopolitical power. The media’s role will be instrumental in these power contests. Azami pointed out that globally, access to new media technologies has increased in recent decades. This means that audiences can access information more easily, and big powers are already engaged in an information war. Azami cited Hilary Clinton, USA Secretary of State, who referred to the television channels Russia Today and CCTV when warning that the US should guard against ‘losing the information war’. The rise of Chinese media (including newspapers) is taking place at a time when Western media is shrinking. The challenge however for Chinese media is to establish credibility internationally and reach its intended audiences.  The BBC’s global credibility, according to Azami, is based on the fact that the channel can ‘bite the hand that feeds it’ – in other words, the BBC can freely criticize the government that funds it. This is not the case with CCTV, and therefore the channel lacks the same credibility among global audiences and the ability to use the media for ‘soft power’.

Agnes Chung-yan Tse from the  University of Hong Kong also pointed to challenges that China still has to face in order to make its ‘Charm Offensive’ appealing to global audiences. According to her, China has thus far not been successful in downplaying its ‘China Threat’ image, despite its efforts to exert influence globally via its media like China Daily, CCTV, Xinhua and other channels. To improve its global image, China should combat corruption in the homeland, ensure food safety and build safe housing structures,  so that can they get receive more positive reporting in West that would lead to greater ‘soft power’ for China. According to Tse, China should also respect socio-economic rights in developing countries and maintain a policy of non-interference if it wants its soft power initiatives to succeed.

The editor of the website Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton gave a historical perspective on how China used propaganda films in the past to spread its message, but said that these films were unappealing and only appealed to audience who were already committed to the cause. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao put the issue of soft power on the agenda in 2006, China needed acceptance in the world for economic reasons. The 2008 Olympics were a ‘gift to soft power that went horribly wrong’, Hilton said.  Tibet revolted, there were food contamination scandal, algae blooms in the sailing venue and air pollution that made the headlines in Western media for negative reasons. The Chinese government then concluded that they needed to set up its own global media network and expanding print publications like China Daily to counter the perceived negative bias about the country in Western media. According to Hilton, China has had a limited return on its investment thus far – soft power does not work through top-down schemes that are likely to be interpreted by foreigners as propaganda. She says that the involvement of Chinese civil society  in public diplomacy efforts is too limited. The Internet also contributed to the Chinese government losing control of the media agenda at home. Chinese have via social media become creators of content rather than passive receivers of content. Unlike the diversity of perspectives from India, which makes its soft power successful, the Chinese political system prevents this diversity to emerge in online discussions, Hilton said. Instead a ‘rectification campaign’ to counter rumor mongering on internet has been launched. According to Hilton, calls for the Chinese government to form an ‘internet army’ to counter false or unfavourable content online, are appealing to an old-fashioned terminology and outdated methodology that won’t be successful in excercising soft power. global audiences associate names like the artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with Chinese creativity – however these associations reflect badly on Chinese state. In order for China to successfully exert soft power through media globally,  it therefore needs to open up and display greater transparency in order for global audiences to buy into its exercise of soft power through the media.