The Afrikaans print media is mostly owned and run by Naspers (Media24), with rare exceptions. Is this unacceptable or is it the reason the Afrikaans media is still around? Gabriël Botma investigates in a story first published in The Media magazine. It is part of a series on the state of Afrikaans media in South Africa.
A public debate was recently sparked by The Daily Maverick blogger Mandy de Waal’s article ‘Fear and loathing at Beeld’, which was very critical of the way the Afrikaans daily was run. The blog depended largely on anecdotes provided by a few disgruntled (ex-)employees, but made the valid observation that the monopoly of Afrikaans newspapers in the Naspers stable might have negative consequences for the standard of journalism and work opportunities for journalists.
De Waal argued: “Why aren’t Beeld and other Afrikaans news titles owned by Naspers dismantling the fear and loathing engendered among Afrikaans writers who take issue with the paper’s media agenda, but are too afraid to speak out because they’re scared a journalism career in the language they love will be snuffed out if they do?”
About three decades ago, according to media scholar Arnold S. de Beer, there were at least eight Afrikaans dailies – not all belonging to Naspers. Currently, Naspers owns the remaining three mainstream daily regional papers – namely Beeld, Volksblad and Die Burger – as well as the successful newcomer tabloid Son. The same is true for Rapport, the remaining mainstream Afrikaans Sunday paper, and one or two weekend tabloids that are trying to extend their footprint.
It is not easy to establish beyond anecdotal evidence whether “fear and loathing” really characterises Afrikaans newspaper newsrooms, as De Waal rather melodramatically suggests. Admittedly, some Afrikaans editors have been in the news in the last decade for allegedly censoring columnists and contributors, but the same holds true for a few English editors. In my view, De Waal’s blog also rather unfairly singles out Afrikaans newspapers for “dumbing down”, sensationalism and chasing the “bottom line”, while these are trends that are internationally visible in journalism.
Media monopolies are also common. According to communication scholar Denis McQuail, media companies tend to concentrate into monopolies for various reasons – in the main to do with the high risk attached to doing business in a particularly challenging specialised sector. In short, the high cost of production and the high rate of failure mean that larger companies that can cross-subsidise and synergise efforts have the best chance of survival.
In fact, journalism scholar Pedro Diederichs argues that because of the monopoly of Naspers in Afrikaans newspapers, these titles – and Afrikaans journalism in general – have a good survival chance in a hostile 21st century environment. Not only are newspapers experiencing circulation decline internationally, but Afrikaans is facing particular challenges post-1994, when the language lost a large measure of its political protection.
The spectacular failure of a new independent Afrikaans Sunday newspaper entrant, Die Wêreld, in 2005 is often cited as an example of the protection provided by the Naspers monopoly. Of course, the failure of Die Wêreld is probably at least partly due to direct steps Rapport took to fend off the challenge of a newcomer. But also important is the suggestion by Diederichs that even the short-lived competition provided by Die Wêreld improved Rapport as a product.
Thus, no serious media scholar would dare to suggest that monopoly is preferable to competition in a media market. But, because of the specific nature of a media business, one must also guard against positioning competition as the magical cure for all ills. Many studies have pointed to the fact that quality, access and diversity are not necessarily provided by media competition – just as these aspects are not necessarily absent under concentrated, or even monopoly, conditions.
This does not mean that all is well in Afrikaans newspaper journalism. As De Waal suggested on her blog, mainstream Afrikaans newspapers are probably still too focused on (white) middle-class interests. The counter-argument is that white Afrikaners are concentrated among the richest 10% of South African society and deserve a media voice.
Furthermore, the tabloid Son deliberately positions itself towards a lower LSM and so-called ‘coloured’ speakers of Afrikaans. Of course, such an arguably racist, neo-liberal, pluralist perspective does not take into consideration that white Afrikaners are a small minority in a society where the interests and voices of a poor black majority of citizens are largely excluded from media platforms.
The rapid rise of a black middle class calls for mainstream Afrikaans newspapers to reconsider their ‘white’ lenses – even if only to convey a fuller perspective on post-apartheid society to white readers who are currently often bombarded with ‘black-on-white’ crime, government corruption, the negative consequences of black economic empowerment, the threat to Afrikaans, and the importance of sport – particularly rugby – in society.
The continued protest of mainstream Afrikaans newspaper editors against the diminished official role of Afrikaans after 1994 became a driving force – and, arguably, often a negative one – in Afrikaans journalism. At the same time, and somewhat ironically, the commercial potential of Afrikaans media products (including popular music) has been liberated and coincided with the rise of the Internet and Afrikaans content on new and social media.
Although commercial media owners are still struggling to find the most profitable Internet publishing model, it would seem that the end is not near for Afrikaans as a popular media language. Of course, Naspers also has a stake in many new media ventures in Afrikaans, so it would be naïve to suggest that the Internet has seriously affected the company’s monopolistic hold on Afrikaans journalism overnight.
So where does this leave Afrikaans newspaper journalists who long for the good old days of competition? One can be flippant and suggest that they could turn to blogs on the Internet. They could also ‘forsake’ their mother tongue and join the conglomerates of Avusa and Independent, as many Afrikaans journalists frequently do. But then they would probably also discover that in local English journalism they will experience similar ills, although with the option to defect to the (limited) opposition.
In short, Afrikaans newspaper journalism does not have a monopoly on ‘fear and loathing’ – it is the nature of the beast.
One should, therefore, regard the Naspers monopoly in Afrikaans mainstream newspapers as the tip of an iceberg. Just as with many other things related to the compartmentalised Afrikaans ‘niche market’, the dominant English media often link their rather stereotypical explanations to the unfortunate reminiscence of Afrikaner patriarchy and nationalism.
A much larger and more important issue thus remains conveniently submerged – that the current state of Afrikaans language newspaper journalism is inextricably linked to the challenges faced by the South African media and society as a whole. For instance, we have 11 official languages…
**Gabriël Botma lectures in media studies in the Journalism department of Stellenbosch University.