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.

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.

The controversy around China’s aid to Africa


International aid to Africa, and the way it is being reported in the media, remains a controversial topic. When the UK government announced recently  that it would cut off aid to South Africa in 2015, choosing instead to base its future relationship with the country on trade rather than aid, it was met by a furious reaction from the South African government. This step was interpreted by some as related to South Africa’s inclusion in the BRICS group of emerging economies and closer ties to China. The British foreign secretary William Hague said that the country would not ‘continue to give aid to countries that are raising their incomes, that have growing economies’ – which is why Britain had also stopped its aid to India and China before. This announcement reminds one of the debate a few years ago following the publication of the Zambian-born, Oxford-trained economist Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. In her book, Moyo argued that the billions of dollars in international aid  sent from rich countries to African countries are not making a difference to the economic prosperity of the continent. Moyo’s conservative views that favoured global markets – investement and trade –  above aid, have been critized as ‘dead wrong’, naïve  and misinformed. Her positive view of China’s engagement in Africa was also based on the notion that China brings an ‘elixir’ of job opportunities, investment and trade that would transform African countries.

The distinction between trade and aid, and how China’s involvement in Africa should be analysed and understood, was again the topic of heated debate recently following  the release of  a report by the organisation AidData on Chinese aid in Africa. This report, which was quickly picked up by global mainstream media like the quality British newspaper The Guardian (who published an impressive interactive story about the report), stated that China had committed $75 billion on aid and development projects in Africa over the last decade. It was heralded as one of the ‘most ambitious attempts’  to see through the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Chinese  government’s financing of development projects. The Guardian saw this as a sign of “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. It was also seen as a challenge to what had up until the release of the report been seen as China’s main reason for involvement in Africa, namely the search for natural resources. However, the report indicates that there are much fewer mining projects than health, education and social infrastructure projects. These projects include initiatives like a malaria prevention centre in Monrovia, Liberia; a National School for Visual Arts in Maputo and an opera house in Algiers. The report also shows that Chinese government support further includes sending doctors and teachers to African countries, Chinese language classes abroad and sport stadiums and concert halls. The Guardian concluded that Beijing’s support for these social and cultural projects, and the relatively small proportion of what would qualify as ‘official development assistance’, have provided evidence to commentators that see China’s involvement in Africa as being underpinned by a stronger geopolitical agenda than the ‘dominant narrative’ had suggested up until now.

The AidData report was however immediately criticized as creating a misleading impression about Chinese development assistance to Africa. Deborah Brautigam, Professor and Director of the  International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University and one of the foremost international scholars on China-Africa relations, slammed the figures in the report. The figures contained in the AidData report were ‘way off’, she said on her blog. The main problem with the AidData figures, according to Brautigam, was the methodology followed to arrive at the conclusion about China’s ‘soft power’ efforts. The AidData report relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing. Brautigam admits that the data might provide a good start for research into Chinese development aid, but even while valuable as an exploratory attempt, the report cannot yet hope to provide any conclusions. “The main problem is that the teams that have been collecting the data and their supervisors simply don’t know enough about China in Africa, or how to check media reports, track down the realities of a project, and dig into the story to find out what really happened. You can start with media reports, but it is highly problematic to stop there,” Brautigam writes.

In subsequent debates around the report – which created quite a stir online, as may be seen in the summary provided by the China-Africa project – it was also pointed out that the AidData report and  the surrounding media discourses do little to shine a light on the non-state engagements between China and Africa that are bound to become much more influential in future. In a recent book chapter in the South African Human Rights Commission’s State of the Nation publication, Yoon Jung Park and Chris Alden distinguish between what they refer to as the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ dimensions of China in South Africa. While the ‘upstairs’ dimension – official ties between South Africa and China, especially within the BRICS formation – is of increasing importance, the ‘downstairs’ dimension of Chinese migrants in the country is bound to intensify whatever official relations exist.  The media usually concentrates on the ‘upstairs’ engagement between states, on the level of political and economic ties, but it is the ‘downstairs’ relations that will shape the way that people experience and view the China-Africa dynamic in years to come. As pointed out by Howard French in a podcast following the AidData controversy, the interpersonal contact between Chinese migrants and Africans are likely to become increasingly important in how the relationship between Africa and China will play out in years to come. The creation of new communities of Chinese migrants in Africa, the everyday interactions between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou and Johannesburg, and how these will change the social landscape of Africa (and also China, as could be seen in a recent documentary on the Dutch broadcaster VPRO), is an area that is worthy of much more media attention.

This column was also published in China Daily, 31 May 2013

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.

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.


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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