Covering Mandela – of vultures and watchdogs

In light of the controversy today about the SABC airing a visit today by high-ranking ANC delegates, including president Jacob Zuma, to an ailing Nelson Mandela , I repost below a piece I wrote for the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin last year. Today’s controversy comes in the wake of accusations that the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, tried to appropriate Mandela’s legacy for their own gain.


Nelson Mandela is a national treasure for South Africans.  Our government recently issued new banknotes with Mandela’s face on it, a daily reminder of the social, cultural and political capital that the country’s first democratic president created.  Mandela is also globally admired. So it’s understandable that people all around the world to be concerned about the news that Madiba has been hospitalised.

His admission to hospital made frontpage headlines over the weekend, and journalists have kept websites, radio and television bulletins and newspapers buzzing with round-the-clock updates.

This is not the first time that journalists are sniffing around the 94-year old Nobel Prize Laureate’s sickbed. In 2011 it was reported that international news agencies Reuters and Associated Press had hidden cameras trained on his house in the Eastern Cape town of Qunu (where he lives when he is not in Johannesburg). This was widely viewed as in bad taste, as if the agencies were waiting for him to die. Others felt that since Mandela had not been a factor in South Africa’s political development for at least a decade now, the media should leave him in peace to live out his retirement.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to think that Madiba’s passing will not be a huge international news event.

When Mandela was admitted to hospital with a respiratory infection last year, rumors about his condition spread like wildfire because the government failed to send out any information for 48 hours.

This time, the government seemed to have learnt its lesson, and have been sending out more regular communiques. The South African National Editors Forum has welcomed the government’s attempt to keep information flowing.  This did not stop some journalists from complaining that these updates are too vague and do not contain enough detailed information about the former president’s condition and the ‘tests’ that were being carried out.

Public interest or sensationalism?

However, questions about the reporting of Nelson Mandela’s hospitalisation is about much more than just the efficiency of government communications. It raises the familiar ethical conundrum about the line between public and private information, the difference between news in the public interest and the peddling of sensationalism, but also about the political dynamics of this specific news event.

The collective holding of breath about Mandela’s health is not only sentimentalism or the usual response to ‘human interest’ stories. The fading sparkle in Mandela’s eyes is also highly symbolic. As we nervously follow the updates from the hospital, many also worry about the health of the democracy that Nelson Mandela founded.

It has not been a very good year for the ANC government, which is now frequently accused of squandering Mandela’s legacy. Fresh reports of government corruption have become weekly news staple. In August, police massacred striking miners at a platinum mine at Marikana in the Northwest Province in an attack by the state on civilians unprecedented in the democratic era. Findings from a national assessment of mathematics and science educational at schools confirmed that there is now a full-blown crisis in education  in the country. A Bill (the Protection of State Information Bill) that would give the state more powers in classifying information as ‘secret’, widely condemned by media and civil society organizations is about to be signed into law. The current president, Jacob Zuma, is embroiled in a scandal around using taxpayers money to pay for upgrades at his private home.  This follows other scandals, including a rape charge and corruption charges against him. He was acquitted of the former, and the latter charges were dropped. In the light of the ongoing bad news about our current president, we are desperate for good news about a former one.

The news about Mandela’s hospitalisation followed shortly on revelations by the weekly investigative newspaper Mail & Guardian of an auditor’s report that shows how Zuma is beholden to a range of benefactors that bankrolled his lavish and reckless lifestyle. (Incidentally, Mandela was also implicated in the auditor’s report — in 2005 he allegedly made a once-off donation to Zuma to settle his debts.

Reports over the weekend of Madiba’s latest bout of illness to some extent diverted attention away from this latest installment in what has been a very depressing political year (and cynics may say that the current government wouldn’t mind some diversion right now), but it also reminded us that there was a time when South Africa had a president that inspired us and gave us hope.  It also resurrects an earlier rightwing discourse and urban myths peddled on racist blogs about what would supposedly befall whites “when Mandela goes.”  That Mandela has not been a factor in South African politics for more than a decade does not matter in these debates.

Balancing press freedom and privacy

This is the background against which the ethics of covering Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization has to be considered  Of course the free flow of information is important in a democratic environment. In times of crisis, government communication agencies must ensure that citizens have the latest information so as to prevent unfounded panic and scare-mongering. But they should also avoid creating a false sense of security by hermetically sealing off the sources of information.

A news environment without good communication flow becomes stuffy and dark – an ideal place for the fungi of rumor, speculation and gossip to flourish. One could argue that when journalists are deprived of information, they are more likely to engage in stunts like the prank phone call two Australian DJs made to the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge is being treated that resulted in the tragic suicide of the nurse who inadvertently divulged information to the radio station. Keeping a tight lid on information, or creating a punitive atmosphere where whistle-blowers or newspaper sources fear retribution, is sure to attract paparazzi and sensation-seekers.

But if an event like Mandela’s illness poses challenges for government communicators, it also demands of journalists to reflect on the ethics of reporting sickness, death and tragedies. Although the wellbeing of a public figure is a matter of public concern, even public figures and celebrities have a right to privacy at times. It is a standard proviso in media ethical codes that this right to privacy can only be overridden by a legitimate public interest. And this is exactly where things get murkier. What is the difference between public interest and public curiosity? Which section of the fragmented South African and global public are we talking about? And can we even attempt gatekeeping in a postmodern age where information takes on a viral life of its own online? The complexity of these questions should not prevent us from asking them, or grappling with them in a systematic fashion. The ‘public interest’ defence should not become a convenient hiding place. It is more difficult to argue that the intimate details of a former head of state’s health condition are in the public interest – vital for the wellbeing of the citizenry – than is the case with serving politicians.

This is why the publication of the controversial former minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s health records some years ago posed a trickier dilemma, as these pertained directly to her fitness for public office.  The debate then was about whether exposing her alcoholism and apparent jumping of the queue for a liver transplant was a matter for the public interest — even if this meant publishing details from her confidential health records that unlawfully came into the possession of the newspaper.

This is not the case with former president Mandela. The public — locally and internationally — are concerned, and the media can play an important role to console them and keep them informed. But journalists do have to ask themselves how much information is needed, if camping outside hospitals is something we expect of vigilant  watchdogs or whether that is something hungry vultures are more likely to do.  At a time when many are concerned about the health of South African democracy, there may be more meaningful ways to engage with what Mandela’s eventual passing might mean for the country than anxiously waiting to be first to break the news.  The worst approach would be to use the efficacy or otherwise of updates about Mandela as a convenient  stick with which to hit the current government.

Threats to editorial independence in Africa today

Threats to editorial independence in Africa

Herman Wasserman

Talk to course participants on Essentials of Broadcast Management Management, Sol Plaatje Institute for Broadcast Management, Grahamstown, 25 April 2013

I was asked to reflect on the topic of ‘Threats to editorial independence in Africa’. Knowing that you are all media practitioners, I have to avoid the immediate danger that you will view this as a perspective from an academic ensconced in an ivory tower, and therefore disregard my comments as irrelevant. But, sometimes viewing things from a distance can bring some clarity.

On the other hand, journalism and the academy have in common the commitment to dialogue, discovery and criticism, so I hope that my remarks tonight can be the start of ongoing discussion and exchange of opinion.

I would like to break down the title of my talk into three questions:

First, what do we mean by ‘independence’?

Secondly, what makes Africa  different as a context where we ask this question?

And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, what are the threats facing editorial independence?

So let us start with ‘independence’.  The notion that journalists should not be beholden to outside interests is an established one in journalism ethics. Consider for instance the section on ‘Independence and conflicts of interest’ in the South African Press Council’s code. It states:

3.1 The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non- professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided,as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.

3.2 Journalists shall not accept a bribe, gift or any other benefit where this is intended or likely to influence coverage.

3.3 The press shall indicate clearly when an outside organisation has contributed to the cost of newsgathering.

3.4 Editorial material shall be kept clearly distinct from advertising.

The Broadcasting Complaints Commission, in an earlier version of their code, took over the formulation of the BBC’s code of conduct that required journalists to report the news ‘with due impartiality’. The ‘due’ suggests that complete impartiality and independence is never really possible.

These stipulations in media ethical codes indicate that society expects of its journalists to speak on behalf of the public interest, not their own interests  – be these financial, political or personal – or the interests of some other party. We do not want journalists to write praise songs for companies in which they own shares, or have a relationship with a politician they report about, etc. (This is the basis for the – in all likelihood spurious – accusation of the minister of Communications against the Sunday Times’ Mzilikazi waAfrika that his reporting was influenced by supposed business interests in China).

Independence as an ethical value is closely linked to the liberal view of journalism in a democracy – the expectation is that journalism brings an independent perspective on political and social affairs and provides a disinterested check and balance on power – the so-called Fourth Estate.

Why is this so important? Because the assumption is that we can trust an independent media, as they have nothing to hide – they have our interests at heart. Not their own interests, not that of politicians, big business or their family or friends. Ours.

From this perspective, independent self-regulation by the media, or co-regulation between the media and representatives of the public (the current system for press regulation in South Africa), is seen as preferable to statutory regulation that would compromise the media’s independence.

But, as with all ethical concepts, there exists differences of opinion about how widely this concept should apply, and what exactly it means. In the first instance, many media are big businesses themselves, and most certainly also have their own interests to think of. We can however expect of media to be responsible for not letting their own interests stand in the way of the public’s interests. But of course the media sometimes lets us down – the recent phone-hacking scandal in the UK is an illustration of how the media’s own commercial interests can even lead it to harm ordinary people.

It is not always easy to decide what ‘independence’ means in practical journalistic situations. Does independence mean, for instance, that journalists should never have any political views? That they should never be involved in any community organization? That they should not take a position on matters?

I would argue that a journalist without an opinion is not a good journalist. Journalists with no view on the matters that they report on, not only produce boring journalism, but also have a limited chance of effecting social change.  The mantra of ‘objectivity’ should not mean never taking a stance, or never becoming emotionally involved. It would be immoral and inhuman to report on a massacre without allowing yourself an emotional response, or reporting on a or a genocide by balancing both sides as equal.

But the kind of independence we need to insist upon from journalists in Africa is the kind that ensures that news is reported in the interest of the public – not the interests of politicians, big business, or even the media themselves.  Independence is however not the same as an editorial authoritarianism that refuses to answer to anyone outside the newsroom – journalists and editors remain responsible to the public (which, by the way, is a much broader concept than the ‘audience’ or the ‘market’ – but I’ll return to that point later).

So when we talk about ‘independence’, it is important that we ask: ‘independence from whom’? We should also be clear about what independence is not:

Independence does not mean arrogance – not listening to criticism or corrections from others.

Independences does not mean that journalism is a value-free exercise or that journalists do not have to justify their actions – the claims that ‘we are just holding up a mirror to society’ or ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ are mostly poor excuses to avoid self-reflection by journalists.

Independence does also not mean aloofness – journalists should remain rooed in communities, should remain committed to the public interest, even if that concept is difficult to define especially in a fragmented and unequal society such as South Africa. When journalists start thinking of themselves as an elite at a remove from the everyday lives of ordinary people, journalism is in trouble.

To come to our second question – what makes Africa different as a context for independent journalism?

While the notion of independence is one that can be found in journalistic codes around the world, there are some specific conditions in African countries that gives the question of independence added dimensions.

For one, an independent media as a watchdog of democracy is not an idea appreciated in many African countries. We know that journalists around the continent are still being harassed, imprisoned and even killed for daring to have an independent voice.  Even in those African countries where freedom of the press is constitutionally protected, reality does not always meet the ideal. Several countries have insult laws in place that prohibit criticism of the president; and even in countries that do not have such formal laws in place, prevailing cultural attitudes of respect towards elders are often used in an attempt to muzzle media criticism of political leaders.  But we should also guard against essentialising and homogenizing ‘Africa’ Some countries like Ghana, self-regulation of the media is better developed than in others. Different countries in Africa are also in different stages of the developmental trajectory – in some, democracy is reasonably well established, others are still in transition to democracy, and in others democracy is yet to arrive.  So it is impossible to talk about media independence ‘in Africa’ in general terms  – we have to acknowledge the specifics of the situation in various countries.

The media in African countries also operate against the historical background of colonialism and post-colonialism, that firstly created rifts in society between elites and the rest of the population, which are still mirrored in the media landscapes in many African countries today; and secondly often created expectations that the media should support the post-colonial developmental state, rather than act as its adversary.  These inheritances make it difficult for the media to be truly independent – there is the danger that it would continue to view the world from the perspective of a narrow, elite section of society instead of giving voice to the masses; and is often branded as unpatriotic or disloyal when they criticize the government.

The colonial legacy of divide-and-rule can also still be felt in Africa. In certain African countries, journalists’ ethnic loyalties also come into tension with their stated aim of remaining professional and independent.  A recent PhD study here at Rhodes by Jacinta Maweu demonstrated how ethnic loyalties impact on the ethical decision-making of journalists working for the Nation Group in Kenya. She found that ethnicity often acts as a type of ‘filter’ that determines what gets published or not.

Apart from the inherited legacy of colonialism, Africa is also located within new global networks of power, in which it is often on the margins of a globalized economy (even while The Economist is celebrating ‘Africa Rising’, it is rising from a very low baseline). Compared to North America and Europe, Africans are still by and large on the underside of the global digital divide, even when there is spectacular growth in some areas of digital media and especially mobile telephones. Asymmetries in access to the media are amplified internally, with disparities between media-rich and media-poor. What does this have to do with media independence?  This – that if the media in highly unequal societies is dependent on the support of a specific section of that society, usually the commercially lucrative one that advertisers are interested in, it makes it difficult for them to cover stories that might not be of direct interest to their primary market.

Or, media can be run in an unsustainable manner that makes them over-dependent on government or donor funding, which again undermines their independence to make independent choices.

This of course is basic commercial logic – but it prompts us to ask the question again about what we mean by an independent media – independent from whom? And, perhaps more importantly, dependent on whom?

This brings us to the third and last part of our question that completes the topic that this talk was meant to be about: what are the threats facing editorial independence in Africa today?

That there are political threats to media freedom and editorial independence around the continent is well-known, but it is worth restating. The Protection of State Information Bill debated in the South African parliament today shows that these threats continue to develop even in countries that pride themselves for their protection of media freedom.

But we should see the threats to media independence more widely than just in the political sphere.

Social and material conditions in many African countries make it difficult for the media to act as independently as they might want to. Journalists are often not well-paid, which means that they succumb to pressures of ‘brown envelope journalism’, where they accept gifts or bribes from sources to supplement their income. This is a clear and widespread example of how economic independence is equally as important as political independence.

Commercial interests can also threaten editorial independence in other ways. The notion of media independence is held up as an ethical principle because it enables the media to act as a check on power on behalf of the public – to afflict the comfortable in the public interest. But when media become so beholden to their specific interest groups, when they confuse serving the public interest with serving up what interests their market, then commercial pressures can become a real threat to independence in the true sense of the word.

In African countries these commercial pressures are exacerbated by the internal inequalities within countries, the demarcation of markets in ethnic terms, and the fierce competition with global media formats that are increasingly available to African audiences.

This is therefore an appeal to you as media managers, to consider how the structures and processes that you put in place in your newsrooms can support or undermine editorial independence in the wider, fuller sense of the word.

So to conclude – to contribute to robust, dynamic African media that can contribute to social change, we need to see editorial independence not only as an individual matter, but a systemic one, one which asks not only for commitment by individual journalists, but requires a holistic response from journalists, editors and media managers alike. This is the challenge I will leave you with tonight.

China and South Africa: Partners in cautious optimism

(Copy of article published in China Daily, 16 January 2013)

The formal invitation extended to South Africa by China late in 2010 to join the BRIC formation of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is a confirmation of the growing economic ties between China and South Africa.

The expanded trade between these two countries is seen by many as an opportunity for South Africa to meet its development needs. For China, the interest in South Africa as an emerging market forms part of its growing interest in Africa for resources, markets and diplomatic support. But this involvement has not been unequivocally welcomed.

While, for some, China’s growing concern in Africa is seen as an opportunity for the continent to grow its economies and become a stronger presence in international markets, others are concerned that the economic boost China brings to the African continent comes with too high a price tag.

Some of these critics go as far as to say that China’s involvement in Africa constitutes a new type of imperialism and a “scramble for Africa”.

The relationship between China and Africa goes back a long time. When examining current Sino-African relationships within a new global world order, it would therefore be useful to avoid simplistic oppositions and caricatures, and opt for a historically informed view of the ongoing complex dynamics marking the relationship between these two regions.

The first instance of “Sino-African contact” can be traced back to 1415, when Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) visited more than 30 countries in Africa. Official relations between Africa and China in contemporary times can be seen to start in 1955 with the first Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, aimed at promoting economic and cultural cooperation.

The development of China-Africa relations in the 21st century gained impetus when China started looking for new sources of energy and natural resources to sustain its rapid economic growth. In 2010, China became the continent’s largest trade partner, making up 10.4 percent of Africa’s total trade, representing a tenfold increase over the previous decade.

This growing involvement led to questions as to how China’s renewed interest in Africa should be viewed – as a benign partner or as a threat for local economic interests and political values? It has become commonplace to hear oppositions like “partner or predator”, “friend or foe”, “partner or colonizer” used when the implications of China’s involvement in Africa are discussed.

South Africa’s relationship with China can be understood both as part of South Africa’s global repositioning in the post-apartheid era and the country’s emergence as a regional power, and as part of a broader geopolitical realignment that involves the “Rise of the Rest” in Fareed Zakaria’s terms.

The formal diplomatic relationship between South Africa and China was initiated shortly after South Africa’s formal transition to democracy, restoring ties that were broken during the apartheid years. This paved the way for an evolving relationship between the two countries.

The bilateral understanding between China and South Africa has now been extended to the new BRICS alignment of emerging countries.

But the usefulness of this grouping to describe the changing international relations has been debated. Some pundits have called for a broadening of the group to include Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. Others have pointed out that the political and economic systems of the various BRICS countries differ vastly.

Several commentators have remarked on the relative smallness of South Africa’s economy in relation to its partners in the group, and yet others have emphasized that the economic basis of the categorization does not necessarily provide a basis for analysis of the ways in which social and cultural dynamics are being shaped by these new global shifts.

It has also been remarked that the neat acronym of BRICS suggests a collaboration of emerging economies that might still turn into fierce competition for resources.

However, regardless of how one views the similarities and coherence between these countries, the emergence of this grouping constitutes a challenge to the existing world order and signals the desire of the global South to reshape international relations on their terms.

China’s role in post-apartheid South Africa is marked by historical legacies, and contemporary political and economic power relations. Whether viewed as a positive engagement or a negative impact, the size and impact of this engagement cannot be ignored. It can therefore be assumed that the relationship between these two countries would enjoy significant media coverage. The question is how this relationship would be portrayed.

Western reportage about China’s involvement in Africa has often been characterized by fearmongering or a paternalism that emphasizes the threat China poses to African countries. It is not difficult to find examples of Orientalist stereotypes in many Western media discourses.

While media coverage of the China relationship in South African media also sometimes displays a lack of nuance or simplistic stereotyping, systematic content analyses over the past three years carried out by research company Media Tenor have found that contrary to what may be expected, the South African media have not been overly negative in their reporting.

Media coverage has started out by displaying a carefully optimistic attitude toward China’s involvement, and in the past two years coverage has become more favorable.

China is considered a newsworthy story both in general and business news, and the majority of reports focus on economic aspects, such as the market position of China, mergers and economic cooperation, general economic issues, companies and economic policy, China’s situation in the global economy, economic regulations, executives and management. Little attention is paid to the social dimensions of the closer interaction between China and South Africa.

The analysis suggests that coverage of China in South Africa is more balanced than one might have expected. Instead of portraying China either as a savior or close partner for African states, or as an exploitative neo-colonial predator, coverage seemed fairly balanced. What is more, China consistently receives considerably more coverage in total than the other BRICS countries.

When coverage of South Africa by the Chinese media is considered, the picture is however more negative, with concerns being expressed about crime and the economic situation.

These analyses suggest that overall a more balanced view of China is emerging in the South African media. Individual reports may still display stereotypes or superficial attitudes, but when considered on the whole and across a range of media platforms, China is not represented in either a starkly positive or starkly negative light.

It would seem that a cautiously optimistic attitude characterizes South African media coverage. What is clear from the volume of coverage of China is that the relationship between South Africa and China, strengthened by their membership of BRICS, will increasingly become media-driven.

The impact and importance of the media in how the future of this relationship unfolds is likely to increase with the presence of Chinese media on the continent, namely Xinhua News Agency, CCTV and this newspaper, China Daily. These will add to the diversity of perspectives on China-Africa and in all likelihood further intensify the media discourses around the new geopolitics of which this relationship forms part.

Beyond the tired stereotypes of China

Colum in China Daily 22 February

In recent years, China has dramatically increased its economic involvement in Africa. The growth of this economic engagement has become so significant that China is now the continent’s largest trade partner. In 2010, trade with China made up 10.4 percent of Africa’s total trade, a ten-fold increase over the previous decade.

This steep rise in Sino-African relations has not been without controversy. Critics have asked whether China’s interest in Africa should be seen as a benign boost for the continent’s economies, or as a threat to its industries. Questions also extend into the political realm – how will China’s economic involvement impact on policymaking and democratic culture in African countries?

These are complex questions, not least because Africa is a diverse continent with a diverse range of political cultures, social histories and economic policies. Unfortunately these complexities are often lost in popular discourses that portray Sino-African relations in panicked tones and in simplistic oppositions (China as “friend or foe”, “partner or predator”) rather than careful nuance. What is becoming clear, however, is that the engagement between China and South Africa will increasingly be a mediated one.

Some observers have noted that China’s increased investment in Africa may be seen as a way to influence opinion on the continent and present a positive image of China to counteract negative stereotyping and fear-mongering in the African media.

Examples of China’s media presence on the continent include the 2010 launch of the state broadcaster, China Central Television in Nairobi, Kenya. This presence makes it possible for CCTV news reports to be broadcast across the continent. There is also a China Daily bureau in Nairobi, which has extended the newspaper’s reach to English-language readers in major African centers, as well as online.

The state news agency Xinhua has been present on the continent since the 1980s, but in 2011 it launched a mobile application that makes its news service available to the continent’s millions of mobile phone users. Xinhua’s English channel CNC World is now also being broadcast to subscribers via the digital satellite television platform DStv, after the South Africa-based company MIH agreed to carry it on its African networks.

Exchange programs for media groups and journalists to visit China and vice versa are also seen as a way to further extend its cultural influence. The South African media company Naspers is also benefiting greatly from its investment in the media platform Tencent in China. Media outlets are therefore part and parcel of the flow and counterflow of capital between Africa and China.

The response to China’s efforts to create a positive image on the African continent will also differ across countries and regions. In countries with a healthy, democratic culture of debate and a free press, it can be expected that China’s engagement with Africa will continue to be debated. For instance, recent studies have shown that China’s presence in Africa is high on the news agenda in South Africa. China receives the most coverage of all the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries in the South African media. Over the past few years, the South African media’s coverage of China has also been shown as not being overly negative, but on the whole quite balanced – a stance that can be described as cautious optimism.

Of course, critical media debates are not the same as xenophobic stereotyping. Although studies suggest that the South African media on the whole seem to strive to find a balanced view of China’s involvement on the continent, stereotyping and fear-mongering are not completely absent. But what is interesting is that these stereotypical representations are also being challenged by South African journalists.

A recent report in the investigative magazine Noseweek titled “Howzit China” engaged in rather crude stereotyping and generalizations of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa. It argued that Chinese shops have “popped up” in every town in the country and amount to a “largely unlawful enterprise that threatens to destroy local commerce and cost the taxman billions”. The xenophobia is familiar: foreigners are here to steal our jobs, Chinese are dishonest and are smuggling their way into the country and defrauding our government of its tax revenue.

Soon after the Noseweek article appeared, journalists Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak wrote a response in the online news site Daily Maverick, pointing out the generalizations, factual errors and xenophobic stereotyping with which the Noseweek article is riddled. Calling the Noseweek article a “new low for South African journalism”, Bloom and Poplak draw on their own investigative fieldwork to counter its claims. They also point out the dangers of such xenophobic reporting and remind readers of attacks on migrants in South Africa in recent years.

The exchange between these journalists makes for fascinating reading because they emphasize the need for a nuanced, factually accurate and well-informed debate about the implications of China’s presence in Africa. Broad generalizations and stereotypes are just not good enough in a context where the media should be relied upon to explain the complexities of Sino-African engagement in a changing global landscape.

This does not mean that journalists should be uncritical of this engagement – but that such criticism should be informed and measured. There is a great need for journalists to spend time on the ground, in communities, to see for themselves how China’s presence in Africa is shaping social, cultural, political and economic dynamics.

What is becoming clear is that the media will increasingly be a central space where battles for representation, struggles for perception and jostling for influence over audiences will take place.


Media coverage of BRICS summit in Durban



(Column in The Star, 26 March 2013)

There is little doubt that South Africa as host country of the upcoming summit of the BRICS countries, to be held in Durban from 26-27 March, will grasp the opportunity to project itself as an emerging economy and take pride in its association of this prestigious club.

Big international events like these provide a strategic platform to boost the country’s international image, and the summit will be a shiny affair. It has already been reported that hosting the summit will cost the city’s ratepayers an estimated R10 million. These costs will include banners, flags and branding material to impress visitors to the city. South African minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, under whose tenure the country acceded to the BRICS group, holds the view that the country’s membership of BRICS is a foundation not only for its own growth, but for economic regeneration of the continent as a whole.

But despite what is an obvious opportunity for South Africa to bask in the glory of its partners in an economic alignment that signals major shifts in geopolitical power, its membership of the BRICS club, and the BRICS alignment itself, is not without controversy. Critics have pointed to the fact that South Africa’s economy is tiny in comparison with other BRICS partners, especially that of China. Despite being the economic leader on the continent, some argue that countries like Mexico, South Korea, Turkey and Indonesia would be more deserving of a place in the alignment than South Africa. Furthermore, the huge internal inequalities in South Africa militate against a hasty celebration of its economic growth path and sustainability, and for some observers the BRICS summit will be unlikely to provide any tangible outcomes in this regard. 

The BRICS alignment itself has also been viewed with skepticism. Critics point to the disparities in economic size and growth between the partners, the vast differences in their political and economic systems, and the frictions within this group that may be masked by the grouping together in a ‘catchy acronym’ of emerging states, but may be likely to increase rather than go away. For Africa however the BRICS alignment may have far-reaching implications. In a recent paper, a leading expert in international relations, professor Ian Taylor from St Andrews University in Scotland, forecast that the interaction of the BRICS countries with Africa is likely to be a ‘major aspect of the continent’s international relations for the foreseeable future’. This interaction, Taylor warns may free Africa from older, post-colonial relationships with Europe and the United States, but if appropriate development policies are not developed, the continent’s dependency on external powers may just be diversified rather than improved.

Already we can see how this increased interaction between Africa and its different BRICS partners is playing out in the media sector. Recent studies of media content in South Africa have shown a preference for India and China when it comes to coverage of BRICS countries, with China dominating coverage. This may be because the relationship between Africa and China has not only been the one with the most impact (China being the biggest country trade partner of Africa) but also the most controversial. The motives behind China’s involvement on the continent have often been questioned – for instance whether the investment should be seen as a new form of cultural imperialism or exercise in ‘soft power’ – and the extent to which it will influence domestic and foreign policy in its beneficiary countries. Content analyses of media coverage over recent years have shown that the South African media has a cautiously optimistic attitude towards China’s involvement. Although xenophobic and simplistic stories denouncing Chinese investment still do appear, leading to vigorous debate  (for instance a recent stand-off between Noseweek and Daily Maverick when the latter accused the former of publishing a xenophobic and uninformed piece on Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa) , coverage on the whole can be seen to be balanced.

Some observers have argued that China’s increased media presence in Africa (CCTV, Xinhua and China Daily are all widely accessible in various African countries) may be seen as a way to influence opinions on the continent and present a positive image of China to counteract negative stereotyping and fear-mongering in African media. 

Findings from a recent questionnaire sent to senior journalists and editors at influential South African media (including major newspapers like Business Day, Mail & Guardian, The Star, New Age and City Press as well as the broadcasters SABC, and CNBC) suggest a similar cautiously optimistic view of the BRICS alignment.  Most editors think that South Africa’s inclusion in the BRICS alignment is a positive development, as it gives the country a seat at the ‘big table’ of emerging powers, although editors are not blind to the fact that South Africa does not ‘belong’ in the BRICS group on the strength of its economy. When asked which of the countries in the BRICS group are the most important to cover, editors show a clear preference for China, with some highlighting Brazil and India as well.  On the whole, the relationship between South Africa and China is viewed circumspectly by editors. One respondent pointed to the fact that both “yellow peril” discourses as well as “boosterism”  approaches might miss what is really happening. Several editors report that their view of China has changed over time. One response captures this ambivalence neatly: “My views have changed from suspicion to seeing China as a pragmatic actor working in different ways with better results and growing its economy. I don’t think China is trying to colonize Africa. China needs Africa. (It is a) multi-facetted country (that has) changed a lot in last 20 years and holds lessons, (China) is not a benign force coming into the country. (It) has self-interest at heart. (But) SA has to do the same.”

Asked what aspects of the relationship between South Africa and its BRICS counterparts would be of most interest to their readers, there is a clear preference for trade, industry and business topics. But editors also see their readers as being interested in the domestic political dimensions of the relationship – the ANC’s “fascination with China”, for example – and in larger geopolitical issues, such as how the relationship will influence South Africa’s positions at the UN.

Editors largely agree that while BRICS is not a partnership of equals, there are benefits for South Africa from membership. But there are also several points on which the editors disagree, such as whether the benefits for South Africa from its membership of the BRICS group will be primarily political or economic. The debate about the role that South Africa – the ‘adopted child’ of the BRICS group, as one journalist put it – will play in the BRICS group seems to have only started. The upcoming summit in Durban will provide further impetus to this evolving debate.

Marikana and the ethics of listening


Peter Alexander, speaking at a Rhodes University humanities seminar today, accused the media of ‘letting us down’ in its reporting of the Marikana massacre. Alexander, speaking about his research contained in the book Marikana: A view from the mountain and a case to answer, said the media’s first response to the massacre was financial: ‘What does this mean for the Rand?’. He said the media’s reporting of the massacre, as well as the current Farlam Commission of Inquiry, tended to be episodic rather than analytical. ‘This leaves a space that should be filled by social scientists’, Alexander said. He said the massacre was a turning point in history, marking the end of the immediate post-apartheid period, and will likely have far-reaching consequences, for instance increased militancy by trade unions. Nic Dawes, editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper (which gave Alexander’s book an unfavourable review) responded tersely to Alexander’s comments on Twitter:


In my inaugural address last year, I spoke about the media’s reporting on the massacre which, especially initially, tended to favour official viewpoints and did not listen to the stories of the mineworkers themselves. This lecture, ‘Journalism in a new democracy: The ethics of listening’ has now been published in the journal Communicatio and can be downloaded for free for a limited period.The original lecture can be accessed (open access) here.

Mobile phones in Africa: borders and horizons

Remarks offered in response to papers presented at the conference ‘Mobile Africa Revisited’ at the Afrika Studiecentrum, Leiden, Netherlands, February 2013






We often open newspapers to see colourful graphs on the newest figures about access and spread of mobile telephones in Africa. These figures are then usually celebrated as a positive development that promises to do everything from deepening democracy to contributing to social and economic development. (Even the Economist and Time Magazine have recently brought themselves to proclaim that ‘Africa is Rising’!)

But this research project has told us that to understand mobility and technology in Africa we have to be attentive to the complex and often contradictory intersections between access and use, mobility and stasis, connectivity and regulation.  This project has therefore wisely sought to strike a balance between questions of access and impact on the one hand, and appropriation and adaptation on the other.

The concept of the border that Heather Horst mentioned in her keynote speech is a very useful one to capture the contradictions and complexities of mobility and technology in Africa. A border namely suggests the imposition of divisions, of material inequalities, of distance, of conflict. But it also evokes images of movement, of new opportunities, of alluring horizons. The border is the place where people clash, but where they also negotiate; a space where they leave loved ones behind, but then  go on and make new connections. The border is a place where people become numbers, where they are reduced to visas and passport stamps – where they are processed with great effect. But it is also the place where people embrace, kiss, say hallo and say goodbye – a place of intense affect.

The border, therefore, is a place of transmission and transgression. Let me explain what I mean by these two terms, transmission and transgression.

In various papers at this conference we heard how mobile phones facilitate the entry of people in new countries and regions, gave them information needed to stay safe during conflict situations, to mobilize themselves as activists in political and social protest. Hans-Peter Hahn also pointed critically to the euphoric discourse of ICT4D approaches that promise economic and developmental opportunities to Africans if only they can get better access to information. (Maybe one aspect that could have received more attention is how mobiles also enable people to interact with mainstream media, uploading information to news sites, empowering them to produce news rather than just consuming it, and creating alternative public spheres) This is the moment of transmission in mobile phones.

But we also heard how mobile phones helped those who crossed the border keep in touch with those they left behind, how phones can serve as repositories of memory, reminding them of the faces and voices of those back home, help migrants negotiate the vagaries of new systems and rules, undermine hierarchies, and provide those left behind with symbols of identity and a connection between the local village to global modernity (Hahn). These are the kinds of uses of mobile phones that  we can call the moment of transgression. And although the dominant view of the transgression facilitated through mobile phones might be a positive one, we have also been reminded at this conference of the negative aspects – mobile phones can assist people in transgressing laws when they aid criminal activity (Hahn), or when they spread hate speech messages in times of conflict (Maloney), or when these phones assist state surveillance (Sali) or amplify social and material inequalities. And in recent times there has also been allegations of mobile phone companies themselves being complicit in illegal activities (MTN in Iran). The exploitative rates by these companies in African countries may also be seen as daylight robbery of another kind.

And while transgressing borders may bring the initial euphoria of freedom, there is often a high emotional price to pay. (Henrietta Nyamnjoh’s paper dealt with this in detail). Once one border has been crossed, others appear, or the borders are re-affirmed in new ways. The Cameroonian migrant Michael in yesterday’s moving film embodied the sadness and longing that might be momentarily relieved by mobile communication, but also, paradoxically, intensified by the reminder that they are out of reach. In paper after paper presented at this conference, from Haiti to Angola, from Cameroon to Chad, we heard that mobility means yearning back while looking forward. Heather Horst referred to this dual process as ‘embordering’ and ‘dis-embordering’. Mobility can lead one into limbo, a state of in-betweenness. Perhaps to an extent we can also see migrants not only connecting with the homeland, but also (re)constructing the ‘imaginary homeland’ in Salman Rushdie’s words. Social networks like Facebook present migrants with opportunities for identity construction in a third space (as we’ve seen in Imke Goossen’s paper). In Michael’s words: I am not in Africa anymore but I am not yet in Europe either.

So mobile technologies can facilitate transmission and transgression. A lot of debate here and in the literature focused on whether to emphasize  transmission or transgression – on ownership or usage; on control or appropriation; on regulation or domestication. In other words – do we privilege the structural or the social?

But in discussing this distinction, the notion of a border as a metaphor for mobility and technology again comes in useful.

So here is my thesis:

The idea of the border invites us to think about different dimensions at once  – the border is something that cannot be thought of as an either/or, but can only be thought of as both/and – a border always has two sides, it divides at the same time as it connects, it includes and it excludes. So our study of mobile phones should similarly seek to understand these technologies as contact zones – mobile phones are sites of connection and contestation. We cannot think the one side without thinking the other. In thinking through these various moments of mobile communications, we would benefit from not only taking a comparative view, but also a historical one. As we heard in several papers on the history of communications in Africa (from Walter Nkwi’s paper on letter writing in Cameroon to Charlotte Connelly’s discussion of the difficult politics of capturing history in a museum) , borders come into being through historical processes, and understanding those histories could also give us a better grasp on contemporary developments. And while we study the empirical use of mobile phones, we should remain attentive to the various discourses around mobile phones – not only how people talk with mobile phones, but also how they talk about them (as Hans Peter Hahn pointed out). Academic discourse on the mobile phones should also be interrogated in this way – how people talk about mobile phones (e.g. ICT4D) might display broader attitudes towards Africa itself.

These contradictions remain at the heart of discussions of mobile technology and have often divided observers into two camps of cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists, who respectively accuse each other of over-estimating or underplaying the transgressive political power of mobile technologies. But from what we have learned from the field thus far, to which this project has contributed in no small way, we have to accept and embrace these contradictions and dualities. Complexity and ambivalence, rather than simplistic euphoria, might just be a good passport with which to approach the mobile borderland.



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