New Books | Media in Postapartheid South Africa

The media provides a window into the transition from a society organised around apartheid and opposition to it to an individualist, capitalist, consumerist and aspirational reality.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Media in Postapartheid South Africa: Postcolonial Politics in the Age of Globalization (Wits University Press, 2020) by Sean Jacobs. 

South African Breweries (SAB) has long dominated the national beer market and is associated with the country’s most popular sports teams. In 2002 SAB acquired the US company Miller Brewing. While one of SAB’s brands, Castle Lager, became South Africa’s most recognisable brand of beer, SABMiller became a multinational corporation, the world’s second largest beer brewer and a global brand. Notwithstanding this expanding profile, much of SABMiller’s branding continued to emphasise its South African roots. 

One of SABMiller’s most popular television commercials first aired in 2004 on the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections. The commercial opens with scenes of crowds across South Africa gathering on streets, on beaches and in fields. The camera zooms in on a crowd that is noticeably diverse in terms of class, race, age and gender. Gradually, each person picks up a stretch of rope from the ground and starts pulling. In the next few fast-cut scenes, viewers note the dramatic effects of the crowds’ collective effort, literally felt around the world. A guard at Buckingham Palace in London feels the earth move under him; a window cleaner on scaffolding in Manhattan shakes. The South Africans are drawing the world toward them. Globally recognisable landmarks like the Statue of Liberty in New York City, Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) in Rio de Janeiro and the Sydney Opera House in Australia are dragged into sighting distance of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. A rousing South African pop song with lyrics in English and Zulu, sung by white pop singer Johnny Clegg, plays in the background. As the crowds admire their handiwork, a voice-over drives the point home: “At the South African Breweries, we have always believed that our country’s most precious asset is its people. And that by harnessing the power of our nation, we can all achieve the extraordinary. The South African Breweries, inspired by a nation.”

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Only a decade earlier, on 27 April 1994, South Africans had voted in their country’s first democratic elections. The elections represented a break with nearly 350 years of colonialism and apartheid. For the bulk of the 20th century, only white people had the right to fully participate in South Africa’s political institutions and governance structures as citizens. The “nation” effectively meant the white nation. Black subjects operated in a separate, unequal world of Bantustans (homelands) and faux citizenship; they had their own “nations”, though, unlike white people, they had no say in how South Africa was governed. White people also controlled television, advertising and newspapers, among other things. 

The liberation movements that fought apartheid imagined a socialist, nonracial vision for South Africa. But that vision was subject to censorship, exile and the shutdown of media outlets that openly identified with anti-apartheid movements. South African brands operated within the bounds of the white-controlled public arena, isolated even further after the early 1980s by cultural sanctions and economic boycotts imposed by Great Britain’s Equity Actors’ Union and some Hollywood producers and actors. 

Since 1994, political discourse has been driven by the imperatives of national unity and public consensus around a singular South African political identity. The SABMiller television commercial distilled that message into an idealised vision of South Africa’s present and its future possibilities. This new political consciousness was not sui generis but rather the outcome of a multipronged set of conscious political projects symbolised and pushed forward by political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki. 

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Mandela especially built a public persona grounded in conciliatory and consensus politics. His legendary appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg brought together a host of these themes. At the time, rugby was still considered a white man’s sport, even though black men’s participation in rugby dates back to the sport’s introduction in the region in the late 19th century. The national team, the Springboks, was associated with white masculinity and was exploited by Afrikaner nationalist ideologues as a reflection of regime strength and white people’s dominance during apartheid. Since the early 1980s, South Africa had been subjected to a sports boycott. Test rugby matches between the Springboks and old rivals like New Zealand’s All Blacks and Great Britain’s Lions were particularly affected, with few nations willing to play in South Africa. In the wake of Mandela’s release and the unbanning of liberation movements in 1990, South Africa was slowly allowed back into test rugby. By the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, many aspects of the game were still overwhelmingly white, including the administration of the game, the audience (primarily only white people could afford tickets) and the makeup of the Springbok team, which had only one black squad member. Nevertheless, the fact that South Africa was chosen to host the Rugby World Cup was seen as the culmination of the normalisation of relations between South Africa and the rest of the world and an endorsement of the political transition. At the start of the 1995 final match between the Springboks and the All Blacks, Mandela dressed in a replica of the SABMiller-sponsored Springbok team shirt and appeared on the field to rally the South African team and (mostly white) fans in the stadium as well as those watching on television. Mandela’s carefully calculated actions were later credited with symbolically doing more than any other political leader to reconcile local white citizens with his presidency and the new South Africa. This series of events later got a Hollywood ending, becoming the basis for a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood that celebrated the Springbok victory and Mandela’s actions as a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness between white and black South Africans.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be remembered for popularising the slogan “rainbow nation” as a catch-all for South African identity. The idea was that South Africa consisted of many colors, living together and building a new country. While criticised for playing down race and class inequalities in favour of South African unity, rainbowism proved particularly effective in shaping journalistic, advertising and branding discourses about the country and its people. Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as president of South Africa, similarly popularised an inclusive African identity for all South Africans under his “African Renaissance” label, which emphasised black renewal and South Africa reconnecting to the African continent. 

Government ministries built the attainment of a singular national consciousness into their policy goals, whether reforming education or housing. So did public commissions like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which dominated media headlines between 1996 and 1998. In such formulations, especially at the TRC, South Africa’s greatest asset was its ability to transcend its seemingly intractable social problems. 

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SABMiller’s marketing campaigns drew heavily on this symbolism and claimed for the company a link to the glorious, patriotic camaraderie associated with the end of apartheid, the country’s transition to liberal democracy, the construction of a rainbow nation and South Africa’s aspirations as a global player. SABMiller’s actual history was deeply intertwined with colonialism and apartheid, including the promotion of segregated drinking cultures and exploitation of cheap labour. However, in its new South African advertising, the company embodied the triumphant and expectant messages of the political transition. Whereas apartheid emphasised divisions, the “new” nation was pulling as one, according to SABMiller. Whereas apartheid symbolised sanctions and isolation, now South Africa – and SABMiller – was part of the world and ready to do business with it. The story of South African unity was so compelling that it was bringing the world together. 

The 2004 SABMiller commercial was good marketing: its brands now dominate over 90% of beer sales in South Africa. But it also highlights the growing importance in South Africa of popular media – such as television commercials, television soap operas, reality television and the internet – in the construction and reconstruction of a new national identity and politics. 

Though South Africa had a well-developed media sphere under apartheid, and commercials were commonplace since at least 1978 (television was only introduced in 1976), the apartheid state worked hard to control what kinds of messages were conveyed by commercials, television dramas or variety shows and what was being reported or discussed on news programmes. This oversight was made easier by the fact that until the late 1980s, the state broadcaster was the only one licensed to provide broadcasting services. Postapartheid, in a free media environment, the state’s control over media processes would weaken and South African broadcasting would witness the addition of private broadcasters, including satellite television. As a result, advertising copywriters, creative directors and the people behind television soap operas and reality shows took on increasingly decisive roles in envisaging the terms of the new South Africa. 

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With the opening of formerly white-controlled, heavily propagandistic media spaces, television commercials, soap operas, reality television and social media became public spaces. There South Africans could reflect on and work through – with varying degrees of resolution – debates, contests and projections about the country. Popular media also become the place where South Africans could publicly define the country’s relation to the rest of the continent and the broader world. In general, in popular media, corporate interests and national political agendas aligned together to construct a mostly neoliberal, uncritically capitalist and consumerist vision of South African social life. But this also created or opened spaces for social movements to shape discourse. In some cases, this could mean that forces that did not celebrate the new dispensation could use the internet to deepen the terms of the new democracy. Others could use it to reject the new South Africa and imagine a segregated future. 

This book explores these various dimensions through a series of case studies. Some examples include moments that illustrate how an alliance between rainbowism and consumer capital drove the new South African narrative in advertisements and soap operas and then exported that vision to the rest of the continent via reality television. Other examples explore the politics of groups who dissent from the postapartheid consensus and as a result seek out alternative media spaces such as the internet. 

In the cases explored in this book, media provide a window to the competing narratives of the vital social transition from a society organised around apartheid and opposition to it to the consumerist, aspirational, capitalist, individualist reality of contemporary South Africa. They offer a way to narrate and analyse the reconstruction of a kind of South African citizenship in the wake of state-sponsored white supremacy and its nationalist, socialist and leftist opposition. We see South African media consolidate and enact the victory of a particular image of what South Africa ought to be. That projected image and the subsequent messaging is then broadcast across Africa as a neo-pan Africanist or commoditised idea of what the continent ought to be and South Africa’s place in it. We also see the emergence of new sites of contestation and resistance to these processes.

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