Sean Jacobs is founder and editor of Africa is a Country, a site of
criticism, analysis and new writing. He is also associate professor of
international affairs at The New School. He is a Ford Foundation
#AfricaNoFilter Fellow and author of ‘Media in Postapartheid South
Africa: Postcolonial Politics in the Age of Globalization’ (Indiana
University Press, 2019)


SACOMM 2019 – Opening Address: Cape Town, August 28, 2019.

Let me start by thanking the executive committee of the South African Communications Association and the local organizing committee for inviting me and tasking me to give the first keynote. It is an honor. 

I especially want to thank Herman Wasserman for the invite. Herman and I have been close friends for over 25 years and have collaborated, debated and exchanged ideas since then. Let me also thank Fatima Sabban for making my travel arrangements. 

Cape Town is where I was born and grew up.  Not far from here. First in Lotus River briefly and then for the bulk of my childhood in Ottery township. If you’re not familiar with Cape Town, that’s on the southeastern side of the peninsula. After high school, I studied here at the University of Cape Town where I completed a BA degree in Political Studies and Afrikaans en Nederlands before I moved onto journalism, political research and graduate school. Crucially, it was here at UCT that my research interests in the politics of media as well as my career as a researcher, writer and journalist, first started. 

It was as a student journalist at “Varsity” newspaper that I began my induction into the workings of media. I actually looked at the conference program and could not help noticing that another Varsity alum from that time, Martina Della Togna, is also here.  

In any case, that time at UCT was a precarious but also exciting time for politics and media. Apartheid was on its last legs. We lived in a world of intense state censorship.  It was a violent and uncertain time but it also coincided with the emergence of what became known as “the alternative press.”   Titles like New Nation, SouthThe Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad and magazines of ideas like Die Suid-Afrikaan, Work in Progress and the South African Labour Bulletin, charted a new way of doing journalism building on and expanding the work of Drum, leftwing newspaper The Guardian, The World and the Rand Daily Mail before them. 

For the young among us here, this was a series of weekly newspapers that published exposés of apartheid’s death squads and the regime’s futile attempts at reform, but also chronicled the energies of popular movements and producing illuminating opinion writing. One of the most important lessons I took away from that time was that political commitments and not profit, can drive media work. The idea was to mobilize and inform people; to win, in Antonio Gramsci’s terms, the war of position. It will come as no surprise that those experiences profoundly informed my media practice, something I have attempted to put into practice in my career as a reporter, doing media work at the former IDASA and, finally, founding and editing the website Africa is a Country. I am happy to report that this year Africa is a Country celebrates its tenth year of publishing opinion and analysis.  My time at UCT also had a profound effect on my scholarship; eventually influencing the writing of the book, “Media in Postapartheid South Africa: Postcolonial Politics in the Age of Globalization,” which was published by Indiana University Press on May Day and the South African edition by Wits University Press this year.

But enough of all that, including the shameless self-promotion at the end. Let me get to what I am doing here.  

A quick disclaimer about the title I chose for my talk here this morning. “What is to be done?” 

This is of course a reference to the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin’s pamphlet, “What is to be done? Burning Questions of Our Movement.” Lenin wrote “What is to be done” in 1901 and 1902. Later that same year it was published as a little book in Germany.

As for what was in the pamphlet: “What is to be done” was about how to achieve socialist revolution in feudal, violent, unequal Russia. Lenin argued that three elements would ensure victory and fundamental political change: one, developing a revolutionary theory of change, two, critically examining the limits of social democracy and, three, building a political movement, what he called a vanguard party, one driven and led by a dedicated group of activists.

Of course, this is not a party conference and we’re not here to start a political movement, though some amongst us would like to.  But I have always admired Lenin’s pamphlet for its inventiveness, originality and gumption. Most importantly, it also contains Lenin’s injunction to be critical, being theoretically sound, making sense of the moment and responding to it, and to be imaginative. Things hopefully of more value to us as researchers and scholars.  It is what that spirit that I come here. 

We gather here as South Africa is 25 years old as a democratic country. In the big scheme of things: that is a 25 year experiment with democratic system of government after nearly 350 years of forms of white domination: slavery, colonialism and apartheid.  There have been achievements. One of the most admired constitutions in the world, a robust democracy and institutions (especially its courts).  But South Africans coping with massive inequality, random violence in poor townships, who are unemployed or who have relatives who are victims of the criminal justice system, especially police neglect and brutality or abandoned in the prison system, have no time for the long view or platitudes. 

 Crucially, we are witnessing the beginnings – if we’re not already far into it – of postnationalist politics. Basically that the ANC’s national liberation politics has run its course. 

Another transition in political life globally, the move to the popular, to culture, is also observed in South Africa. As media scholar Ron Krabill and I, drawing on public deliberation theory, argued elsewhere about postapartheid South African politics: the larger context for the growing role of media in political processes, is the decline of mass political parties and social movements. Key characteristics of new politics include that political debate become tied to election cycles. As for the language of politics, it is conducted mostly on television in a code penetrable to political elites (especially political journalists, political party operatives) and excluding ordinary people in the process.  We also witness that more indirect forms of politics like civil society and social movement organizations replace old-style political parties.  Media substitute for and resemble the public sphere to a large degree. The day-to-day restructuring of social and political life is given some sense of collective shape and meaning through mass media.  Politics more and more reflect the style of entertainment. More specifically, that media characterized as “news” or as “news analysis” media decline in impact relative to popular entertainment media in shaping popular opinion; the latter includes soap operas, reality television and advertising.

Another focus is social media’s role in politics. Though television has made powerful forays into political and cultural life in South Africa and Africa, it is in the social media frontier where, as the late writer and social commentator Binyavanga Wainaina suggests, a new African intellectual history will be written. In South Africa, like elsewhere on the continent and in the developing world, struggles over political meaning between key political actors increasingly play out online. Political identity, long the preserve of the state or political elites, is increasingly the domain of popular cultural figures and popular media. Social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook (and Facebook Live) have become integral to the communication strategies of social movements and political parties. South Africa is no different. 

Media is available everywhere: on phones, on television and radio sets, and, even now, still in print. The choices made by media powers (whether editors, writers, advertisers or the state itself), help to configure, define and limit who the “people” know themselves to be. But, of course “the people” now also make their own media. And increasingly it is social media driven by public debates and desires that is most influential in shaping not just South African society, but political identities elsewhere on the continent.  

One major feature specific to South Africa has been its exceptionalism.

For much of its history, South Africa has been treated as an “exceptional” country, both by scholars, analysts and activists (whether those rationalizing apartheid or those struggling to imagine an alternative vision of the nation).  On the surface, exceptionalism made sense: The country was the last holdout among the 20th century’s racial and colonial states; further, its liberation movement took place after an international consensus on human rights and non-racism had already emerged–at least at a rhetorical level. Add to all this, there was the myth of the rainbow nation, the singular and outsized celebrity and legend of Nelson Mandela, and the much-touted reconciliatory nature of South Africa’s transition to democracy. Together, these factors contribute to the view of South Africa as an exceptional nation.  

No other event marks that break with South African exceptionalism more than August 16, 2012. It is probably a coincidence that we gather here 7 years to the month after those fateful events. I won’t rehash those events here, except to argue that with Marikana, South Africa became essentially a “normal” democratic country dealing with issues that, however extreme they sometimes appear, are not actually so unique: economic inequality, labor rights abuses, endemic racism, white supremacy, corporate irresponsibility. These are not South African issues, they’re democratic issues. 

It becomes clear that South Africa exemplify phenomena that were and are globally commonplace: Apartheid as a form of colonialism; an “elite” political transition (with its “government of national unity,” truth commission as typical) similar to transitions elsewhere in Latin America and Southeast Asia; and the adoption of neoliberal economic policy. In addition, the growing clout of multinational corporations and the privatization of key public services (remember the struggles over privatization of water and electricity services in the early 2000s?) are, similarly, part of a broad, general global story. The same story could be told about South Africa’s media, especially the emergence of a liberal media environment, and the turn to the popular (social media, reality TV, celebrity, Fake news, Twitter, advertising, etcetera).

But it was Marikana that clearly exposed that myth of exceptionalism. 

At the time and since then many of the mainstream op-eds and editorials have attempted then and since then to make sense of the violence by interpreting it, and South Africa, in a way that emphasizes the country’s particular history, rather than considering the ways in which the killings at Marikana speak to larger international trends. The narrative of South African exceptionalism has limited our analysis of this massacre by making it difficult to see it as anything other than further evidence of the  failure and disappointment of South African liberation. Yet Marikana is bigger than South Africa. That’s not to bash those particular writers or outlets, of course, but to note the tendency to perceive South Africa in the specific, limiting context of apartheid and its aftermath.

As historian Dan Magaziner and I wrote at the time of the massacre, what can we learn from the dead in the dust in Marikana? Maybe the lessons are not so much about fulfilling the promise of post-apartheid as they are the less particular but even more daunting challenges of poverty and inequality, those faced by the entire international community. It was a great day when South Africa ended apartheid and joined the community of democratic nations, but that community has problems of its own.

Rather than judge South Africa in the wake of this 21st century Sharpeville, we as researchers ought to ask what kind of community post-apartheid South Africa has joined.

What is occurring then is something akin to what is happening in the United States, Brazil or even Kenya or Tanzania. 

Basically, we are witnessing a profound crisis of democracy, but also media’s role in that crisis. The best outline of what has happened to media’s role in politics, have been the documentaries, “The Great Hack,” about Cambridge Analytica’s impact on US electoral politics, and “The Edge of Democracy,” about the deep political crisis in Brazil. 

The most accessible synopsis, outside academia, of this crisis was articulated—with some hyperbole—by journalist Richard Poplak in The Daily Maverick, one of the media outlets associated with South Africa’s new media ecosystem: AND I QUOTE: “First, the gilded-age-level distinction between rich and poor has become so extreme that our societies are no longer sustainable. Second, power accrues solely to the wealthy and/or their corporate benefactors, resulting in electoral processes that launder front companies into office. Third, modern technocratic states are staggeringly complex machines which are by design distancing and alienating — citizens no longer feel empowered or able to influence their own lives. Fourth, retail politics demands that the divisions inherent in any group of people — race, religion, gender, sexuality, class — are relentlessly exploited for gain at the market place, i.e polls. [And] Fifth, that exploitation has become weaponised, initially by cable news and now by social media, resulting in iron-clad — if entirely empty — tribal standoffs between “right” and “left”, with their competing and inviolable ‘truths’.”

It is perhaps the latter characterization that should exercise scholars here. South African historian Ben Fogel, who lives and works on Brazil, and was an eye witness to events there over the last 3 years or so,  recently outlined the media world we have inherited to go along with this politics in South Africa. As he writes, it consists of “Bell Pottinger, and other assorted clandestine operators who created havoc in our public debate through legions of bots, failed columnists and disgraced politicians.” Fogel continues, “[p]erhaps one of the greatest casualties of the Zuma era has been truth itself. Wild claims, disinformation and fake news are normalized to such an extent that the former president calling a minister he himself appointed ‘an apartheid spy’ is met with a shrug and then regurgitated as a ‘revelation’ rather than a wild accusation by an, at times, disturbingly pliant media. Contrary to narratives of a self-correcting ‘public sphere,’ there are no or very few consequences for blatant lies emanating from the mouths of sullied politicians and it seems that, more often than not, a not-insignificant section of society will believe you.” As Fogel writes, “This is no accident; it is a consequence of long-term, deliberate and ongoing disinformation campaigns that are more widespread than those peddled by Bell Pottinger.” The real danger of the disinformation campaigns, is that they “… undermine the foundations of democracy, closing possibilities for public engagement through this civic action itself, not because media lies or disinformation have not been with us in ages past, but precisely because it takes advantage of understandable scepticism that exists among the South African people.” 

Fogel concludes that social media and public dialogue in South Africa are increasingly characterized by the rise of mysterious new think-tanks and foundations with even more mysterious funders and organized trolling campaigns against journalists and other public figures (often spurred on by politicians).  [Last week the billionaire American David Koch died. Koch fronted a number of rightwing American political movements and media, from the Tea Party to.  These groups influenced public discourse about American politics for the last decade or so. Koch’s tentacles, not surprisingly, extends to South Africa, via the Cato Institute funded soirees, and directly and indirectly to organizations like African Liberty Forum, the non-starter Capitalist Party of South Africa, the Free Market Foundation, Independent Entrepreneurship Group, Progress SA, the SAIRR and Students for Liberty.  In addition, organizations like Afriforum and Black First Land First are granted “time as respectable commentators … by traditional media.”  

It has been astonishing to see how the issues of ordinary people, especially workers, have been reduced to disruption and as violence. Marikana’s striking workers became drunk on muti, There is little about class in what we study, what we interrogate about South African conditions for workers, for black workers. Group already empowered, in spaces like university classrooms or professors in tenure processes, take up all our attentions.  This is all fine and necessary. South African higher education institutions need decolonization. And UCT especially. Nevertheless, no can deny that the concerns of students and professors have dominated media debates and deliberations about citizenship, public goods and rights to the detriment of other sections in South Africa.  

If Marikana exposed the ordinariness of South Africa’s democratic transition, then one stubborn feature of South Africa’s exceptionalism that persists is how it relates to the rest of the African continent. And it is no insult to note that we as scholars are also guilty of this. 

South Africa has long been viewed as separate from the rest of the African continent. Despite appearances, however, South Africa’s economic history and its political struggle have always been closely intertwined with the rest of the continent; a process intensified after apartheid. Via the migrant labor system, armed occupations of Namibia, southern Angola, and sending death squads and special forces in Angola, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe, to murder its political opponents. Although the country was until recently isolated from the rest of the continent and operated as a racist dictatorship, more recently it has emerged in the past twenty years as a major territorial, economic, political and media powerhouse on the African continent. South Africa now inhabits an intermediary position as simultaneously a regional superpower and a link between “the world,” its neighbors and the region. South African businesses dominate economic relations with immediate neighbors, and in the Southern African region. The anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff refer to postapartheid South Africa as the “America of Africa.”  Although there is a long tradition of scholarship about South African capitalist and military expansion and engagement with the rest of the continent — dating back to the mining industry of the 19th century and continuing during apartheid and the Cold War –fewer works have paid attention to the cultural and specifically media elements of South Africa’s expansion into the continent. South Africa’s postapartheid media elites and corporations shape consumption patterns, continental political identities and understandings of political citizenship elsewhere in the continent in key ways. We need work on that. 

For most South Africans, however, their interactions with other Africans is refracted via xenophobia.  Since the end of apartheid, groups of South Africans have exacted xenophobic violence against other African nationals. Outsiders are typically shocked, since this behavior appears at odds with the country’s marketing of itself as a “rainbow nation” and with the ruling African National Congress’ long history of Pan-Africanism.

The attackers, like the victims, are usually poor and black. Explanations for this violence usually center on people’s unhappiness over the slow pace of racial reconciliation, enduring unemployment and lack of opportunity. Poor black South Africans, the explanations go, strike at those closest to them: migrants from elsewhere in Africa who live next door to them.

However, for that simmering resentment to turn violent, it requires organization and sanction from official sources such as political leaders and popular authorities. And there’s plenty of that to go around. 

Yet more than anything else, the periodic xenophobic violence strikes at what is at the heart of post-apartheid South African identity. For all the talk of hospitality and “ubuntu,” xenophobic violence is a reflection of how most South Africans understand the boundaries of “South African-ness.” 

As writer and commentator Sisonke Msimang suggests, ironically, what binds black and white South Africans together is a kinship based on their shared experience of colonialism and apartheid. “Foreigners are foreign precisely because they cannot understand the pain of apartheid, because most South Africans now claim to have been victims of the system. Whether white or black, the trauma of living through apartheid is seen as such a defining experience that it becomes exclusionary; it has made a nation of us.”

One implication of this notion of nationhood, is that if you come from another African country, you can never become fully South African, even if you become a citizen.

For black South Africans the anti-apartheid project was framed in the first instance in nationalist terms. That struggle promised its followers liberation from the poverty, racism, exclusion and inequality that they were experiencing. Yet, most black South Africans have experienced nothing of the sort since 1994. All that their political leaders can offer them now is chauvinism.

This is a postcolonial problem and South Africa is not exceptional. Recall the mass expulsions between Nigeria and Ghana of emigrants from both countries in the 1980s, Uganda’s ejection of Asians in the early 1970s, postindependence Zimbabwe’s periodic debates about Zimbabweans with Malawian family, the struggle over Ivoirite that broke Cote d’Ivoire apart for a while or the way the Kenyan state has marginalized its ethnic Somali citizens since independence. The specifics in South Africa may be different, but the ways in which we respond follow a same pattern. The problems of South Africa since 1994 are rooted in its unsatisfactory political settlement, in which the enormity of the problems it inherited is papered over by feel-good politics and the neoliberal course it has embarked on since. But like many other African states, we choose instead to discharge our anger on easy scapegoats: those we deem foreigners.

The same politics drives the nativism and forms of rabid nationalism that has become a feature of South African politics, whether the barely veiled white supremacist claims of AfriForum (with its links to the alt-right in both Europe and the United States) to Helen Zille’s unabashed defense of colonialism. But reactionary nationalism also extends to black South Africans, whether the claims to authenticity by “Khoisan” activists, Zulu nationalism in and without the ANC, or the EFF’s employment of anti-Indian stereotypes against political opponents.

Suren Pillay, political scientist and anthropologist at the University of the Western Cape, writing about postapartheid identity politics, has argued that many scholars shaped by antiapartheid activist traditions will have to wrestle with difference. “Under apartheid, resistance movements emphasized our sameness over our differences. Apartheid left many progressives with a deep anxiety towards acknowledging difference of any kind. The reaction is almost knee-jerk and immediate amongst many of us to denounce those who wish to see themselves in anything but the race-blindness that a certain variant of non-racialism holds onto regardless of changing political context.  Whatever the motivations of political elites [mobilizing ethnic identities], these are legacies that we have to contend with, more so because their effects are not just symbolic; they are also material.”

Pillay continues, “manifestations of racism [that originate among Indians, coloureds and Africans in South Africa] are less causes of a problem than they are consequences of a colonial past. And we need to attend to making more popular and public how that past has brought us to where we are at, and how history has been written to produce a past that has shaped how many of us think about ourselves and think of others. Colonial history produced an understanding of the past that suited settler logics, that politicized the question of indigeneity, and also politicized cultural difference by attaching land and resources to it.”

Pillay, a former student of Mahmood Mamdani, argues that “[a]mong the lessons of the continental experience has been that we need both a new concept of justice, and a new concept of difference. We need a concept of justice that is not simply about reversing the logic of colonialism. That means breaking with the reactive logic that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. We also need a concept of difference that does not use one’s past to decide if one belongs and has a political future. A difference that allows us to embrace the multiple historical routes through which all find ourselves in this particular settler colonial society—as locals, as descendants of slaves, of indentured laborers, of traders, exiles and refugees or those who came here looking to make a better life. It also has to be a pan-African concept of difference that remains open to inviting new migrants to becoming citizens as well. The challenge is to imagine a future with difference, with economic justice, but without racism.”

In 2012, Paradigm Publishers published a little book “Theory from the South. Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa” written by the South African anthropologists, Jean and John Comaroff.  In the book’s introduction, they wrote that: “What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large?” They proposed taking Africa as their “point of departure” to make more global claims about modernity “… given the unpredictable, under-determined dialectic of capitalism-and- modernity in the here and now, [Africa] is the first to feel the effects of world-historical forces, the south in which radically new assemblages of capital and labor are taking shape, thus to prefigure the future of the global north.”

 At some point that became a cliché. But there’s something there. 

It is welcoming sign that media scholarship on African media is to some degree going beyond a focus on what is broadly termed “media development;” that is the focus on what is lacking in African media or African public spheres, or how much “catching up” there is to do terms of technology, access or resources, as well as debates about freedom of expression, democracy and press freedom. As a number of scholars have pointed out, while useful for the funding agendas of western agencies, these approaches and data mean little for or don’t tell us much about African media and audiences.  The social theorist, Achille Mbembe, for example, notes that QUOTE “we now feel we know nearly everything that African states, societies and economies are not, we still know absolutely nothing about what they actually are” UNQUOTE. To expand our scholarly enquiry, require a break with normative, instrumental frameworks to more descriptive and analytical approaches. It also requires breaking with glib celebrations of creativity and inventiveness of “the local,” to confront questions of power, especially of neoliberalism. So, the focus of our work should be on what is there: what content gets produced, how it is produced and the politics that flow from those processes. For me at least, it means to take popular media seriously.  

Let me end with references to sociologists Michael Buroway and Paul Gilroy, both who have engaged with South Africa’s political economy and cultural politics. 

Exceptionalism aside, South Africa is an ideal case from which to understand media’s place in postcolonial politics. The country’s history of slavery, mining capitalism, legalized racial oppression, popular movements and trade union traditions, it’s evolving democracy, the self-confidence of its new (and evolving) elites, and the place of South African media corporations as regional globalizers on the rest of the African continent, have rendered it, in Michael Burawoy’s words, “a country buffeted by global storms—the perfect place from which to study… the terrain forged between globalization and localism.”

For a long time, most third world societies and media systems, were deemed to be receptacles and carbon copies of northern cultural products and ideas. For the most part, that idea have been thoroughly debunked; except when it comes to African cultural production. However, more recently a number of theorists have challenged the general outlines of the former approach. It has become clear that Africa is a useful place from where to study rampant globalization, neoliberal reform and the limits and potential of liberal democracy. 

Rather than acting mostly as amplifiers of social conflict and politics–as they do in traditional First World markets–media in postcolonial, including African, societies have emerged as the “authoritative cultural archive.” Television, radio, digital culture, print journalism, sound culture and social media dominate our political and social lives. Media are how most people learn about globalization, scandal, consumption or politics.  Media are the vehicles through which the past and present are mobilized and, crucially, through which a range of new regional or “middle” powers attempt to increase their influences. Prominent among these “middle powers” are Qatar’s various Al Jazeera channels, the pan-South American Telesur news service, the export of Brazilian or Turkish soap operas to the Arab world or Lusophone African states, or Mexico’s various private television firms that broadcast in and control Latino markets in the United States. South Africa’s media corporations like MultiChoice can also be counted among these. So that Jamaicans watch South African soap operas like Generations; the American cable channel, Africa TV, is mostly a bouquet of South African productions (including morning shows); and Nigerians can watch Nollywood “on-demand” on satellite television services run by MultiChoice.

In the early 2000s, Paul Gilroy suggested South Africa “and its lessons” as “the best hope for a politically realigned world.” Gilroy made the following plea: “It is my hope that, not Europe and the North Atlantic, but the post-colonial world in general, and South Africa in particular, will in due course, generate an opposed and yet equivalent sense of what our networked world might be and become.” I still hold out hope – not in an exceptionalist spirit – that we will achieve that. 

Thank you.