The strength of the Afrikaans media depends on its readership and this gives the consumer a great deal of power over newspapers.
In November 2007, all across the country, cellphones chime bearing an urgent message, “Don’t buy Rapport on Sunday! Deon Maas is asking that Satanism be recognised as a religion!”
The volk is outraged and the message gains momentum. Retailers are threatened with boycotts if they dare sell the newspaper. Distributors are warned that their vans would be set alight if they dared to transport copies. Rapport is in trouble.
But the rage and anger appeared to be grossly misdirected. Maas, a controversial figure in the Afrikaans community and a columnist – who gained notoriety as an outspoken judge on the TV series, ‘Afrikaans Idols’, had published his column (‘666 is just a number’) the week before. And in it he pleaded for religious tolerance, using Satanism as an ironic example, writing that “others’ ideas should be respected, whether you agree with those ideas or not”. It was risqué, and to many readers, he had gone too far.
“This was huge,” says Tim du Plessis, editor of Rapport at the time. “Our sales dropped by more than 30 000 copies. And yet many of those who boycotted Rapport at the time, had not even read the column. But in situations like these, that becomes completely irrelevant.”
Du Plessis was faced with a tough choice: Back up his columnist or fire Maas to protect the publication’s commercial interests. Reluctantly, he went with the latter. “Rapport is committed to media freedom, free expression of ideas and robust debate. The orchestrated boycott campaign, however, altered the nature of the issue from one of freedom of opinion to one of commercial interests,” Du Plessis wrote at the time.
“It was an incredibly difficult decision that I was widely criticised for. But ultimately, an editor is not the owner of a publication. It comes down to business interests. People were being threatened and we had to protect [them].”
The fact that the boycott had been uninformed didn’t matter. The seed had been planted and a boycott culture had been established. In October 2010, retailer Woolworths was boycotted because it stopped stocking Christian magazines Lig, Finesse and Lééf because they weren’t selling. That same week, those magazines were back on the shelves.
Social media is now the driving force of media boycotts. At the end of June last year, a group called Boikot Naspers was founded on Facebook to “take action against the lies and distortion of the real facts and the media’s disregard of the genocide of our people”. Within days, membership stood at 7 000. In a column titled ‘Burn Rapport!’, Dan Roodt, leader of the Pro-Afrikaanse Aksiegroep (Praag), wrote, “Many people blame the appalling state of our country on FW de Klerk’s betrayal, but Naspers is equally guilty. When it became clear in 2000 that our country was on the wrong path, Naspers continued to publish blatant ANC propaganda with sick lefties like Max du Preez leading the pack.”
The group’s biggest gripe is the issue of farm murders specifically targeting white, Afrikaans-speaking farmers. The campaign’s leaders claim that these murders are racially motivated hate crimes and that Naspers’ Afrikaans publications are turning a blind eye.
This is not true, says Du Plessis, who now heads up Afrikaans titles at Media24. “The Afrikaans papers are almost the only ones reporting on farm murders. But there is simply no evidence that white, Afrikaans-speaking people are specifically being targeted in these attacks. We don’t believe that it is ethnically driven. ”
Professor Johannes Froneman, senior lecturer at North-West University’s School for Communication Studies, shares Du Plessis’ view, saying, “Research by one of my students proved that Beeld gave more coverage to farm murders than any other comparable paper. Other Media24 papers also cover these events extensively. Why would they cover up these despicable deeds?”
But one of the campaign’s main propagators, singer Steve Hofmeyr, disagrees. In June 2013, he claimed that the number of white South Africans killed by black people could “fill a soccer stadium” and that “white Afrikaners are being killed like flies”. On his blog, he claimed that a white farmer was killed “every five days”.
His claims were refuted by Africa Check, which found his ‘statistics’ grossly exaggerated. Hofmeyr retorted saying, “Far more than facts, it is people’s emotions and experiences that matter… So ‘our people die like flies’ is still applicable, emotionally, and does not need to be supported by facts.”
Du Plessis says the Boikot Naspers campaign has, despite its emotional nature, not made a significant impact. “Naspers is not a brand, it’s a company. The boycott is clumsy and not based on facts. Besides, Hofmeyr’s wedding was covered by (Naspers publication) SARIE and he recently wrote a book review for Beeld. One has to question the consistency of something like that. We have not lost any readers or advertisers because of this campaign.”
In February, Beeld ran an article about initiation practices at the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University (nicknamed Puk). It exposed a practice by which first-year students had greeted seniors with a Nazi-esque salute, among other dubious initiation practices. The department of higher education condemned these practices and negative follow-up reporting by Beeld prompted vice-chancellor Dr Theuns Eloff to step down. In a statement, the university council said, “[Council] will not tolerate any infringements of human rights, and regrets the fact that even though policies and procedures are in place at the university, it became evident that offensive practises (sic) did occur and there were indeed violations of human rights.”
Nevertheless, Afrikaans civil rights organisation Solidariteit declared a dispute with Beeld, stating that the newspaper “had compromised the future of the last Afrikaans campus in the north through its editor’s poor judgement”. In an open letter, executive chairman Flip Buys called on readers to stop buying Beeld until the dispute had been resolved. Buys stated that the Afrikaans language and Afrikaans institutions were under threat and that Beeld’s editor had not weighed up the news value against the implications [the reporting] might have for the future of the last predominantly Afrikaans university. The #propuk movement was launched, canvassing for support though social media and a mass SMS campaign.
But according to Froneman, Beeld‘s coverage of this issue was justified, as the university’s leadership failed to act immediately when supplied with proof that [induction] practices prevailed at the Puk campus. “Had they acted in a firm and transparent way, Beeld would not have had a story. So, here again we had a case of the messenger being shot.
“The anti-Beeld feeling was exacerbated by Buys who erroneously linked the criticism of initiation practices to Afrikaans being used as a primary language of instruction on the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU.
“These two issues should be kept apart: all initiation practices on any campus are unacceptable as it impinges on human rights; to deny Afrikaans students tuition in Afrikaans is likewise an infringement of their constitutional rights.”
Du Plessis also doesn’t agree with Buys’s sentiment that Media24 does not support efforts to advance Afrikaans. “If we had to make a list of all the things Afrikaans newspapers and magazines are doing for the Afrikaans community, it would be a long list indeed. Every day, [our titles] are a visible manifestation of a living language.
“However, in the past, we were more political, culturally. In those days, all Afrikaners voted for the same party and belonged to the same church. Today we are in the midst of our own internal diaspora. Our first objective is to publish good papers, because ultimately, that is what attracts readers and advertisers.”
Froneman reckons that boycotting publications is not a reasonable course of action. “Public boycotts can only work if people have real alternatives. In the case of Afrikaans dailies, Afrikaans readers have no alternative in the northern provinces. Of course, some readers may opt for an English paper, but most people prefer to read in their mother tongue,” he says.
“Boycotting Afrikaans publications is mostly an emotive issue,” says Du Plessis. “People are fed up with a number of other problems and use boycotting as a platform to express their general discontent. I find it disheartening that some South Africans feel they can advance their own interests by boycotting the media.”
Follow Riaan Grobler on Twitter @RiaanGrobler
This story was first published in the June 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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