Joel Netshitenzhe - African Renaissance Conference Session 6

28 September 1998

28 September 1998

The media in the African Renaissance

I. Introduction

It was required that the presentation should be on the complex issue: Africa’s media in the global community - past, present and future. The topic is quite involved and requires the kind of detail that would be out of keeping with the generic nature of the Conference. It would be a travesty of the objectives of this Conference, and the very stage of discourse on the issue of the African Renaissance, if we were to veer into the woods and get mesmerised by the magnificent detail of the individual trees, at the expense of appreciating the category of the forest itself.

In time, it will be necessary to exchange researched views on the detail of media and communication policy on the continent; the history of Africa’s media and the circumstances that have spawned current realities; the trends in structures of ownership and their implications; the levels of technical media of communication; and how this state of affairs relates to the global community.

This brief and general input seeks merely to identify the pointers. And much more emphasis is placed on the content of the message in the renaissance paradigm. A good part of the discussion will be on the interrogation of the very concept of the African renaissance: is it a "feel-good" phenomenon spiced from time to time with a beautiful speech by the Deputy President; is it a collection of cross-border projects; is it, to paraphrase the activists of yesteryear, a way of life - an attitude of mind!

Especially with regard to the media, these are the issues that we need to grapple with at this stage. For, in the final analysis, how we report on the renaissance; how we assess its progress or lack of it; our understanding of the vision, philosophy and programme of the renaissance, will impact not only on how we carry out our day-to-day work, but also on the mass of the African people who are at the receiving end of our wisdom or lack of it.

II. Media in the current global conjuncture

If there were any doubts about the existence of the global village, the current turmoil in the world markets has brought out in bold relief the profound interdependence that has come to characterise both economic relations and global discourse. A certain President of dubious sobriety in a far away country resolves to challenge the majority in an elected parliament in the appointment of a cabinet and on policy issues, and a house of a South African citizen, who is saddled with interest rates that have shot through the roof, has to be repossessed as a result.

This shrinking of time and space in global affairs would not have been possible without a communications revolution. As the demands of world trade and capital flows precipitated the need for speedier communication means, so has the autonomous qualitative leaps in information technology fed the process of globalisation. Everyone is punished for everyone else’s sins; but of course, the market so dictates that the benefits of virtue are enjoyed by a few.

In a sense, technology has created the possibility of world freedom of information and freedom of expression. Islands of self-indulgence are well-nigh impossible save through the Taliban option. There is essentially nothing wrong with this. In fact, as part of the development of world productive forces, there is everything correct with the right of people to access information that they need for education, development and entertainment.

One of the greatest advantages of the communications super-highway is that information about at least the wrongs that we commit to one another, and the crises that our inter-relations cause, can no longer be swept under the carpet. The ease of multifaceted global interaction goes with responsibility. If the mighty who can bankrupt economies at the push of a button gain trillions in their escapades, when they beggar whole regions and consequently the world, we are all forced to sit up and question the international policy framework that guides capital flows. And the Bretton Woods "holy of holies" are at last questioned. If as Africans we starve children to bones, so debilitated that they cannot fend off flies from their eyes and noses, simply because they are of a different religion or race, we cannot hide this from the world: we are either shamed into collective action or forced to carry an embarrassed conscience wherever we go.

The question, however, is: what main content courses through the global communications arteries; what are the hearts and minds of the consumers fed; what agenda is pursued - consciously and sub-consciously! The answer is simple: the agenda of the most powerful - militarily, politically and economically. Thus most Africans with access to global information will rattle the latest details of yet another President’s escapades of the mundane kind; we will know of Kenya and Tanzania when Americans are targeted and when the FBI descends on the "dark continent" - not about these countries’ growth rates, or their education policies, or the main issues of debate in their parliaments.

As a result, a utility that contains within it the potential to fundamentally transform the human condition for the better is utilised as a pastime of a tiny minority. One of the immediate challenges that arises from this, in the context of the African renaissance, is how - to borrow an overused phrase - we can leapfrog various stages of development to hitch onto the communications highway in our own interest. And the interest that we refer to is the promotion of socio-economic development: education, health, involving communities in development, facilitating internal and external trade, promoting collective self-determination and human rights, etc.

The recent Africa Telecom Conference created the platform for great advances in the development of African telecommunications. Yet we might require to initiate further discussion about more than just the technology of communication, but its content. This is the first proposal that one wishes to make: we need further interaction on continental experiences in development information, and together to set the agenda of the content of such communication on the continent. There is a wealth of experience in many African countries; but it is not sufficiently shared, and each one of us wishes to invent the wheel.

III. Drivers of the African Renaissance

The premise from which one moves, therefore, seeks to bring to the fore the interests of those most in need of information; those to whom information for development can be a matter of life and death. This is because, in dealing with media and the renaissance, our methodology should derive from an appreciation that the driver of this renewal is and should be the people themselves. They are the motive force without whom talk of an African renaissance will be sheer rhetoric on the lips of a self-indulgent elite.

Who are these "people"! They are the peasants, workers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, artists, traditional healers, professionals, religious leaders and others. They are made up of various nationalities within and across boundaries. In my opinion, there is no abstract African, imbued with a mythical virtue called "ubuntu". We are made up of classes and strata, nationalities, religious affiliations that have absorbed virtually everything from the globe, races, gender and age and other differences.

These attributes do lend themselves to social contradictions. An African entrepreneur and a worker are bound to fight over wages and working conditions, and perhaps even about socio-economic systems. An African Moslem and a Christian are not expected to relate to one another much differently from those in other parts of the globe. Women of Africa have all the right - and the power - to demand their place in the African sun. Nations and nationalities are tempted to pursue a narrow sectoral agenda.

Aggravating these contradictions in Africa is the fact that nations were formed artificially by the carving knives of the European surveyor in the boardrooms of Berlin when the conquerors had tired of shedding blood over us. Class formation was distorted by the colonial system, often creating the kind of extremes that even the "metropoles" - in whose image we were made - do not have. Because of a class formation that had not matured at the point of independence, new trends set in, such as using political office as a personal ladder out of poverty, with the attendant temptation to be corrupt, to desperately cling to political office for economic sustenance, to be enticed to become cronies of the former colonial or other masters.

As such, the tendency towards conflict is not a uniquely African phenomenon. There will always be the danger of social upheaval, conflict and wars among nationalities and nations, among class, religious, gender and other groups. The overriding question is how these centrifugal tendencies are managed to attain the collective interest. In other words, a successful African Renaissance project does not mean that Africans will cease to have narrow sectional interests.

The conflictual expression of these interests should not frighten us; lead us to throw up our hands in exasperation and pronounce dead the idea of an African Renaissance. Rather we should together seek to understand the causes of conflict, and act in a new and decisive way in search of lasting solutions. If anything, one of the overriding characteristics of the current period is the decisive manner in which Africans have started to find solutions to such conflict: Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho… these are not bad omens against an imagined heavenly renaissance. They are the rough patches on the path to renewal, now being better negotiated by the travellers.

Our capacity to resolve these conflicts - both internal and international - will have lasting meaning if we fully appreciate their causes. Above all, we should always seek that common thread which ties these variety of classes, religions, nationalities and other categories together; that common interest which makes a joint endeavour for renewal potentially a shared commitment. Be it for better and more legitimate conditions to make profit or for sheer survival, most of us wish to see Africa, among others:

  • uplifted from being at the lowest rung of human development;
  • liberated form the crippling debt burden;
  • enjoying the kind of internal and external trade that improves its comparative advantage and creates new possibilities;
  • affording its children and population quality education, health care and housing;
  • allowing the creative spirit of its artists, natural scientists, philosophers, and others to have free reign;
  • ensuring that its population enjoys democracy, a culture of sharing ideas, freely expressing views and enjoying other basic human rights.

Now, there will be a minority to whom these objectives may be a threat. If the individual or group thrives on the subjugation of others, if the condition for their positions of power is tyranny, if they are leeches who prey on the public purse through corruption, if they are agents of someone else but their own people, this minority will seek to undermine the renaissance. Thus, an element of the African renaissance has to be a rebellion against the relations which negate its objectives. And when such rebellion plays itself out, it is not the death-knell of, but a necessary condition for, the renaissance.

The gist of the second proposal that I would therefore like to make is that African intellectuals, the media and others should start a serious discussion about the various elements of the renaissance and the overriding consensus that should bind and inspire this social movement. This is not as easy as it may seem. On the one hand, there may be little that separates people on the issues of development, but what in actual practice do governments and various classes and strata do to attain it! We may agree on collective national self-determination, but what are the concrete expressions of democracy and human rights! What kind of broad front should be formed to pursue the African renaissance: do we exclude others because they may differ with us on some of the fundamental questions, or do we work with them on issues where there is agreement!

IV. Traders in ideas

It follows from the above that the African Renaissance is a continental initiative that should find expression in a united continental resolve and programme. But it must, by definition, also play itself out within countries, among sectors, and within the individual African him-/herself. One sector which, because of its work, transcends virtually all these divides are "the traders in ideas". The media forms an important part of this stratum.

Perhaps it is critical to underline, on a broader plane, that the middle strata, all over the continent, have been the most immediate and visible beneficiaries of the post-colonial transformation. Except where extreme, ludicrous policies were pursued to suppress them, the act of independence opened up possibilities for these strata to become the expression of the national aspirations for development and collective self-determination. This was attained within the context of being part of the emergent ruling blocs or in opposition or revolt against them.

The major battle that had to be waged all these years, particularly with regard to the media - and becomes even more central in the context of the Africa renaissance - is one of shifting paradigms. As the new started to take shape, old ideas asserted themselves with greater force. But there have been instances in which, in the struggle against these old ideas, we gradually started to ignore the beam in our own eye. The African renaissance is meant, among others, to undo this: to acknowledge the opposition to our self-determination, but also to reverse the tendency to portray ourselves as hapless victims of plots by powerful foreign forces.

Critical in this regard is the balance that needs to be struck between media as a public utility and the position of many establishments as commercial undertakings. It is not unusual in those areas where the commercial establishments are developed, that journalists view their role not as public interest professionals with profound responsibility for the direction that our countries take. Rather some see it as a mere stepping stone to public relations work: the value system is to make money and advance oneself on the ladder of material benefits. A related issue, which is common in South Africa, for instance, is that few black professionals accept public service because of minimal pecuniary gains compared to the private sector: few students want to be lecturers and professors; few doctors want to do primary health work; few legal practitioners are prepared to serve as judges…

There is nothing essentially untoward in surviving and advancing in the market-place. But it is critical, especially for the media, to ensure that the ideas and values which inspired the forces that brought about liberation become the dominant ideas in each of our countries and on the continent as a whole. African journalists, whatever their political affiliation, should become passionate advocates of Africa’s renewal. I would therefore make yet another proposal: that the media fraternity should have a discussion on this issue, and this should include harmonising the training of cadet journalists at least to appreciate the interests of the continent and how to promote them.

At a broader level of the intellectual environment, one simply needs to examine the "expert comments" on the Lesotho crisis, to cower in shame: not a single black African called upon to give views - either because of the attitude of the media or perhaps because those in a position to do so, have not established themselves as authorities on profoundly African matters. The latter is raised because often we complain of discrimination; yet we are not seen and heard in the market-place of ideas giving proactive leadership on issues. One hopes that this Conference will help speed up the process of setting up truly African institutes or "think-tanks" - truly African because they have the interest of Africa at heart.

V. Media and property relations

All these matters cannot be attended to without a reflection, among African intellectuals, journalists and others, around the vexed question of property relations in the media industry. Of course structures of ownership in this industry do in many of respects mirror relations in other areas.

On the one hand, there was a skewed colonial capitalism with enterprises owned by huge foreign monopolies. On the other, at the advent of independence, elements of this remained in place; or especially with the media, the state took over media houses or set up new ones. In some instances, foreign ownership was transformed into local ownership by powerful forces with close links to the ruling blocs. In recent years, there has been the emergence of "independent" publications, many earning this mantle simply because the orientation is to oppose everything the government of the day does.

This area requires rational investigation unmediated by the emotions that go with political affiliation. Among the elements of consensus that we should seek in this regard is the principle of as much diversity of ownership as possible. This means among others encouraging African entrepreneurs to take an interest in the media industry. It means convincing and struggling to ensure that the powers-that-be appreciate that a free exchange of views is in the interest of sustainable development. It also means a maturity in the journalism profession to objectively and dispassionately reflect reality and promote the true interests of individual countries and the continent as a whole.

The PANA privatisation initiative is one indicator that a new paradigm is emerging on the continent on this issue - not with regard to privatisation per se, for it is not the panacea to all ills, but on the important principle that the determination of news content and analysis can be undertaken independent of governments and still serve the interests of the continent. Much interest has been expressed regarding the latest initiative of the SABC to start continent-wide news and entertainment channels. Definitely a step in the right direction: but of course questions remain about their reach given that these will be pay channels; and related to this, whether the PANA initiative, hand-in-hand with the SABC and other national broadcasters can in time venture into the airwaves.

However, diversity means more than just private or public ownership of media institutions. In fact, in respect of all other industries, the question needs to be posed about encouraging what can be referred to as "social capital". Scores of millions of Africans are savers; they contribute billions of Rands worth of savings in large financial institutions and sometimes in small community initiatives. Yet little interest among economists and the media is paid towards unravelling this myriad of ownership and examining how it can be utilised to promote the interest of these savers, many of whom belong to the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Further, the question of community media needs to be pursued on a continent-wide basis. Needless to say, it is in the profound interest of communities, especially in rural and other disadvantaged areas, to have means of communication, among others for purposes of development; and to become part of national discourse and international information flows. As such, in addition to the need to examine broadly the question of forms of ownership, and how to take the PANA and SABC initiatives to a higher plane, another proposal that one wishes to make is that a campaign needs to be launched across the continent to promote the development of community media.

VI. Conclusion - Some reflections on international perceptions

One of the major questions regarding the African Renaissance is the issue of international perceptions of the continent. Much has been said about disabusing the world of the malaise of Afro-pessimism; interacting with all kinds of international forces including the media so they appreciate the moment of opportunity that Africa has reached at the turn of the new millennium. Many of the journalists and analysts in the international media are African. And it is not seldom that some among them revel in undercutting this search for a new continental identity. Many of these are foreign journalists based in our countries; and deliberate integrated strategies have to be worked out to ensure that the message gets through.

But does this really matter? At one level it is crucial. In The Sunday Independent of 27 September 1998, Sam Kiley of The Times (London) writes:

"Africa, now in its dark age, most certainly is a basket case. President Mandela’s dreams of an "African Renaissance" and its supporters are involved in a mass act of self-delusion. The "New breed" of African leaders I thought I had found two years ago have proved as idiotic and incompetent as their predecessors".

Perhaps the immediate anger of having been wounded in Maseru; but certainly a case of someone who needs to understand that historical movements such as the African Renaissance are more than the sensation of the week’s story.

But perhaps Africa also needs to guard against reducing itself to a "beauty queen" on a catwalk, intent on impressing judges! There is a great deal of this in the current world. Given market fluctuations and the fickleness of short-term investors, a tendency sets in for us not to be ourselves but to look over our shoulders all the time: what will the European and American investors say! In South Africa, this sub-consciously translates into: what will the whites say! And of course, having pronounced them Gods, they will mete out judgement and punishment that we deserve in our self-flagellation. We will be punished even when we do what we assume the Gods believe is right.

This is not to say the markets and whoever else do not matter - and their weaknesses are at last being properly interrogated on a global scale. But what is critical for the African Renaissance is that our primary concern should be what we do among ourselves and to ourselves. Africa needs to put in place massive programmes for its renewal - economic, political, social and intellectual. It needs to accept its weaknesses to itself and set out collectively to correct them. It needs to communicate with itself first and foremost. Is the universal saying not true that God helps those who help themselves!

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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