The media targeting the Indian population in South Africa is not going anywhere, despite some saying it is outdated in a democratic country, writes Yogin Devan.
The circulation figures of the Indian media in South Africa are as mystifying as the gravity-defying Indian rope trick. As the mainstream newspaper circulation tally tells a sorry tale, Indian-targeted media holds its own and bucks the negative trend.
The POST newspaper has grown in the first quarter of 2014 from 44 984 to 45 503. In May 2014, Lotus FM’s year-on-year listenership saw a growth of nearly 5%. The Rising Sun stable of community newspapers, which circulate in predominantly Indian areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, are said to be growing by at least 10% annually.
Twenty years into a democratic South Africa that saw blood, sweat and tears shed to attain non-racialism, is there a place for media aimed at a particular race group? And if so, what stabilises its circulation?
The answer to this lies deeper than race, and rather in lifestyle, the emotional bond that a historically immigrant group has with its motherland, and the fears associated with minority groups.
South Africa’s Constitution safeguards diversity by recognising the linguistic and cultural differences of the people. Thus, having niche publications that cover the issues of a specific community is not tantamount to editorial racism. It is a reflection of a nation’s diversity.
Cultural authenticity and the forces of tradition and heritage need not be sacrificed at the altar of modernity or political correctness.
I have often said that for as long as tiny backyards in Chatsworth and Phoenix boast dhania (coriander), methi (fenugreek) and pudheena (mint) patches, for as long as chutney doesn’t refer only to a sauce Mrs Balls perfected, and for as long as the term ‘gravy soakers’ is used to describe potatoes for the curry pot and not corrupt government officials, there will be a place for newspapers for those of Indian descent.
Just over six decades ago, three weeklies came into being: The Leader, The Graphic and Golden City Post, the latter being the forerunner of POST newspaper.
Then, in the mid-1980s, astute bean counters at the Sunday Times, which was still very Johannesburg-based, realised that a quick way to increase circulation figures in KwaZulu-Natal was to launch a section dedicated to greater Durban’s large Indian community. Thus the Extra was born.
The liberal Tribune was initially loath to publish an ethnic section. However, with its own circulation under threat from the Extra, the Sunday Tribune was forced to launch The Herald.
Meanwhile, the POST kept its finger tightly on the pulse of the community by publishing editorial and advertising of relevance to those of Indian descent. Today it is the largest-circulating independent newspaper in this genre.
In 1994, to coincide with the dawning of democracy, the Sunday Tribune closed down The Herald, proclaiming it was now “one paper for one people”. Within months, The Herald was brought back when sales of the Sunday Tribune plummeted because Indian readers could no longer find pages that appealed to their religious, cultural and social sensitivities.
Yasantha Naidoo, editor of the Extra, says, “Ethnic media in South Africa is probably how President Jacob Zuma feels about Thuli Madonsela and the Nkandla report… a destabilising platform and a thorn in the side of our post-94 rainbow nation.
“The truth, however, is that the world over, there is a strong argument for the relevance and popularity of such platforms.”
Citing the success of the Zulu, middle-class newspaper Isolezwe, which has a loyal and growing readership because of this niche market, she says Extra owed its sustained existence to “our ability to understand and connect with an audience that has distinct cultural, linguistic and social differences”.
“The issues of homogeneity and race in the case of Indian publications are often regarded as politically distasteful. Yet experience shows that the Indian community – while largely identifying themselves as South African – regard their social and cultural differences as key influencers in their media choice.
“Indian readers want to read about the mango pickle aunty who went on to establish a multi-million business or the Chatsworth-born IT student who is now working at Nasa,” says Naidoo.
“However, I believe that as long as South Africans of Indian descent continue to make news around the country and the world, publications like the Extra, POST and Tribune Herald will continue to entertain, educate and inform our children’s children,” she says.
The new editor of the POST, Yogas Nair, says the title must be doing something right to have survived six decades as an independent publication that continues to grow with its focus on niched content.
“The biggest reason for POST’s success has got to be its ability to tune into the Indian market and cater for its needs.”
Nair says the newspaper has loyal readers “because we deliver what they want”.
Rising Sun Group CEO Vijay Maharaj says his free community newspapers meet a need that no other medium can easily meet by providing local news and shopping information. “It’s not only about editorial, but also shopping information and editorial relevance,” he says.
Jyoti Mistry, head of film and television at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Arts, says that while Indian youth are being convinced about the importance of returning to their cultural roots to find their identities through Lotus FM and SABC2’s weekly Indian offering Eastern Mosaic, the agenda implicit in these formats inspired middle class values and spending.
“Even though a significant section of the Indian population is poverty stricken and unemployed, none of the present media formats target markets below LSM 7.
“The myth of all Indians with wealthy lifestyles is perpetuated in Eastern Mosaic, with its offering of Bollywood film stars, exotic travel destinations, and food and fashion extravaganzas.”
Mistry has a sense that the interests of the younger generation of Indians are not being met by the content targeted at them.
“As long as the local Indian community remains uninvolved and uninterested in the representations fed to them, the Indian community has no one but themselves to blame for the identity crisis and uninspired local content. Identity is not divine intervention from Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of knowledge), but generated by an active engagement in arts, culture and the media,” says Mistry.
Advocate Robin Sewlal, associate director of journalism at the Durban University of Technology, says South Africans of Indian origin have long recognised and appreciated the value of the mainstream media.
“It has not been lost on this population group that the media wields awesome power and provides a platform for thoughts, views and opinions to be exchanged, sometimes in a robust and uncompromising manner.
Traditionally, education has played a pivotal role in the Indian community, says Sewlal.
“Notwithstanding a plethora of challenges, parents never neglected to ensure their children received the best education available. The net effect has been a higher rate of literacy within the community and this has fostered an understanding and a passion for the media.
“The double-bonus of the media is that not only does the audience stay abreast of developments but the media itself has become valuable in providing content that contributes to enhancing the literacy level in society.”
Sewlal says the Indian community in a multi-cultural country strives to keep its identity. “The Indian media has given its audiences a deep sense of pride, self-esteem and belonging.
“It also helps readers, listeners and viewers reflect on their growth and development. Stories have sought to inspire the community by promoting and advancing its widespread interests.”
Sewlal adds that Indian media has helped audiences embrace democracy and add value to society in accordance with the principles of ubuntu. “The history of caring and sharing in the community is well-documented.”
Yogin Devan is former news editor of the Sunday Tribune, director of Meropa Communications, and a media consultant and social commentator.
This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Advocate Robin Sewlal
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