The Afrikaans media’s potential growth depends on how widely and effectively the language is used and on the quality of content it delivers. Glenda Nevill finds out where it can grow and what threatens this.
Since the end of apartheid, Afrikaans has been increasingly viewed and treated as a minority language in South Africa, according to Dr Gabriël J. Botma, senior lecturer in the journalism department at Stellenbosch University. He believes English has become the lingua franca of the media and what prevents Afrikaans from being just one of the other 10 official languages (excluding English) is its commercial and entrenched institutionalised power.
In March, the SABC scrapped its Afrikaans news offering on its 24-hour news channel. It stopped vernacular broadcasts too, and now broadcasts in English only. The national broadcaster also attempted to move the daily Afrikaans news broadcast on SABC2 to SABC3, which has a smaller footprint and would thus exclude Afrikaans speakers in rural areas from listening to the news in their mother tongue. Consumer reaction saw the public broadcaster reverse its decision.
Protests against Afrikaans as the language of instruction at Stellenbosch University initially rocked campus in May this year, and have continued since then. Transformation of the traditionally Afrikaans university’s language policy is now an issue with the Open Stellenbosch group who say they are prejudiced by not being Afrikaans speakers. The video, ‘Luister’, telling the story of how other-than Afrikaans students experienced the life on campus saw the issue land up for discussion in Parliament.
It is incidents such as these that some Afrikaans speakers believe are a threat to the language and, consequently, to the growth opportunities for the Afrikaans media itself.
Botma says the Afrikaans media market, dominated by Media24, depends on the loyalty of Afrikaans speakers and readers to remain commercially viable. He says media in Afrikaans and English, which was “tied to white interests, used to compete on different levels, to the exclusion of other languages and to the interests of black South Africans to a large extent”. It is this that is driving protests on campuses such as Stellenbosch University.
Botma says the popular use of Afrikaans in the media would indicate to optimists that there is no looming crisis. But the pessimistic view is that the downscaling of Afrikaans at higher and tertiary institutions “because it is viewed as a mechanism of exclusion by many black South Africans” means the language as well as the future media market are under threat.
The debate about growth areas for Afrikaans media should be viewed from this perspective, says Botma, “because, while Afrikaans media users are active on all fronts, and Afrikaans media providers are providing to them and profiting from it, the question is whether the future of the Afrikaans media market is ultimately tied to the protection of higher functions of the language”.
But editor of Rapport newspaper, Waldimar Pelser, takes a different view. He believes that as the use of Afrikaans comes under increasing threat on university campuses, “Afrikaans media may become an even more important repository for acclaimed Afrikaans content.” It could, he thinks, even be an opportunity for Afrikaans media.
“There are many highly skilled Afrikaans people in academia or the professions whose use of Afrikaans in their professional lives may diminish. Afrikaans media is a valuable platform for the circulation of their very considered views on matters as wide ranging as politics or science and history,” he says.
Outspoken Afrikaans freelance journalist, Herman Lategan, says it is Afrikaans readers themselves who are the biggest threat to the sector. “ They are hardly loyal, perpetually bitching and moaning about the state of the Afrikaans media, which will, through their own stinginess, disappear. Poof! Print will be the first to fold, online will drift in a sea of meaningless drivel for a while,” predicts Lategan.
“They hanker after something like The Daily Maverick, but it won’t work in Afrikaans. Nobody [no company] will pay for its free business model. There is Litnet, but they hardly pay writers, so you have mostly academics who need exposure writing for them, and it’s suffice to say that academic writing is hardly interesting. Afrikaners love reading everything for free online – Hello? Who pays for the information, writing, layout and photos? –, and even if they have to pay a paltry amount, the incessant nagging is neverending.”
Pelser is not convinced the sector is threatened and believes Afrikaans-speaking writers are producing excellent journalism. “The opportunity is to serve the Afrikaans market at all sustainable price points: Relatively expensive media products sold in smallish quantities to the well-heeled, and low unit price mass market tabloids. The market can carry both, I believe. Online has the potential of reaching a mass audience at an even lower price, although there is a risk that Afrikaans online platforms would attempt to be all things to all people and make no-one really happy,” he says.
The magazine market, says Caxton Magazines’ Anton Botes, “remains buoyant and stable – it’s a very focused market that tends to be affluent and educated. Afrikaans art festivals and concerts are proliferating, the music industry is booming, and Afrikaans book publishing remains a viable industry”.
Martie Pansegrouw, editor of rooi rose, believes digital publishing and social media remain areas for growth and will accelerate. “As the top-selling women’s interest magazine in the country, rooi rose strives to give our readers original content created specifically for their interests. We base our content on research by Caxton’s insights team as well as our own direct monthly feedback from our Lesersforum. This enables us to have our fingers firmly on the pulse of the reader and to know exactly what they are looking for. Our digital edition is showing steady growth. We also ensure we produce great original online content to engage with our audience across all the platforms,” she says.
Pansegrouw says good content will always be the point of difference, whether printed or online. “rooi rose’s current readership exceeds 600 000 (AMPS 2015) and is a true reflection of the full spectrum of the Afrikaans community, while Caxton Magazines’ weekly magazine, Vrouekeur, has total monthly sales of more than 260 000 (ABC 2015 Jan–March), showing that relevant editorial is always key,” she says. “While readers may be increasingly time-poor, online communication allows us to connect directly and immediately with them, ensuring that we give them what they want.”
Pelser points to the runaway success of Kuier magazine, aimed at coloured readers mostly in the Western Cape, as being indicative of “quite strong growth in spending on Afrikaans media by consumers, as more products position themselves at a higher price point and target smaller, niche markets”.
Clearly, content is the crux. “Papers and magazines that invest in high-quality content, be it from freelancers or permanent staff, still carry some of the best, if not the best, journalism in the country,” says Pelser. “Rapport’s weekly supplement Weekliks, loosely modelled on The Guardian’s G2, carries 16 pages of comment, analysis and book reviews each week and I believe the quality is at least on par with the best of English media.”
Botma says if the future of Afrikaans media is tied to its use in academic institutions, its “higher functions”, then “aspects of media production and use in Afrikaans could face serious challenges in the long run. It is very difficult to predict if and how such a scenario will play out, and how the media will be affected”, he says.
“But the history of media production and use in Afrikaans shows that ideological and commercial interests were often in cahoots, even if one seemed to dominate the other at certain junctures. The lesson is that the current emphasis on the commercial value of the language (alone) might be replaced by ideological support if and when the language should indeed experience a serious loss in general functions,” he says. “But in the short and medium term, the Afrikaans media market will in all probability remain vibrant, and this trend will continue to please investors and advertisers, and advantage many media users.”
Lategan is not convinced. “The really discerning Afrikaans reader is an anomaly. Where are they? Why did they not support the so-called heavyweight intellectual publications? I am afraid that the future is bleak. Online will survive, but it won’t be interesting narrative journalism, or creative non-fiction. It will simply be videos, opinions and facts. For good, solid writing, the few Afrikaans readers will have to shift to English, and then mostly overseas, to online publications such as the New Yorker, the Spectator, and so forth,” he says.
Pelser says Afrikaans media “has legs” and will keep going. “It will inevitably adapt to changing tastes and especially market pressures. But I believe many Afrikaans journalists will continue, with market support, to pursue excellence in journalism and then remark, almost as an aside, ‘Oh, I just did that in Afrikaans!’”
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