Today, no longer able to continue as before, New Frame is taking a break from publishing while we consider options for the way forward.
Launched on 16 August 2018, on the sixth anniversary of the state massacre of striking miners at Marikana, we noted in our first editorial that we would be working in what Frantz Fanon called a “non-viable society, a society to be replaced”. We committed to go beyond the work of witness and take on the work of thinking through possible routes into a viable future, and to do so in conversation with the ferment bubbling in society.
In a moment when deliberate dishonesty had, across the planet, been weaponised by the right, supported by the wealth of the propertied classes, as well as the kleptocratic forces in the ANC, we aimed to reach as closely and carefully as we could towards work grounded in reason and evidence.
Knowing that the monomania of the often Twitter-driven hunt for clicks had done so much damage to the credibility of the media we committed ourselves to set our own measure of what we would count as stories that needed to be told. We resolved to stand apart from the cacophony.
This was not the only luxury that we appropriated for ourselves. We also aimed to give due weight to the value of the word, to work to sculpt prose – word by word and sentence by sentence – into clarity and precision. Understanding that, among many other things, emancipation means the generalisation of access to beauty we tried to take the aesthetic – in word and image seriously. When we began to work in soundscapes we brought the same considerations to the work.
All publications are grounded in some sense of how the world is and how it should be. We aimed to root our work in the values of the best of the traditions of the Left and to give due weight and dignity to the lives and struggles of ordinary people. We were clear that we hoped to reach towards the most empirically and analytically rigorous work that we could achieve from within an open-ended commitment to emancipation. It was, of course, imperative to work to locate that commitment in the African experience of the modern world. Knowing that we would begin our work from Johannesburg we hoped that we would be able to progressively become a more pan-African publication in terms of both reach and orientation.
We were well aware, of course, that in the absence of any viable model for sustainable media funding some of these hopes were a claim on luxuries seldom afforded to journalism.
No easy way forward
Today, weeks away from the tenth anniversary of the Marikana massacre, the crisis of our society is plainly worse than it was when New Frame was launched. In March this year, the World Bank reported that the richest ten per cent of South Africans, often white, own 80% of the country’s wealth. We are an impoverished and violent society presided over by a crass, vicious and predatory economic and political elite. Many of the colonial foundations of our society remain unchallenged. The Euro-American powers that have dominated the planet for more than 500 years are rearming themselves and bristling for war as they sense their coming decline. The emancipatory hopes that once drew millions into motion across South Africa are, for most people, a tattered memory.
Sitting in the dark without electricity as the ice in the winter air settles into our bones we all know that things cannot go on as they are. But the forces appearing in the political space that opens as the credibility of the ANC collapses are frequently authoritarian and often predatory themselves. From Operation Dudula to ActionSA xenophobia – a staple of reaction across much of the planet – festers at the heart of much of this new politics.
In this crisis, the need for a rational public sphere grounded in the apprehension of the equal moral weight and dignity of all people, and the need to explore emancipatory possibilities, could hardly be more urgent.
It is not easy to do this work. There is no commercial model to sustain it. There is no constituency within the public willing and able to fund it at a viable scale. There are no state-managed subsidies, raised by taxation on the big data companies or by other means, and, if there were, we could not trust that they would be managed with democratic aspirations.
When funding for progressive projects and causes is available every rand spent on media is a rand that could be spent on another dimension of the struggle for a more just world, including support for the people on the frontlines of resistance. Media is, in relative terms, very, very expensive.
Donor funding can be invaluable, but it cannot be a sustainable solution. It can incubate a moment, or perhaps build a bridge, but it cannot build institutions that will see out generations.
One part of the structural problems confronted by journalism that is often spoken about, and rightly so, is the capture of the infrastructure of the public sphere by big tech. Another that is less often spoken about is the absence of a well-organised democratic mass politics that could, via subscription or membership fees, create its own media. Many great publications were created in this way in the past.
The challenges faced by any media project that aims to make a modest contribution to the struggle for emancipation exceed the need to make payroll each month. There is much that we have not been able to do, and much that we have not done as well as we should. As deadlines rush into a newsroom it is not always easy to hold off the weight of dominant ideas.
Nonetheless, we are proud of much of the work that we have done, and to have been able to work as part of a wider group of social justice publications, and their committed journalists and editors.
When the space that we have created has allowed a worker on strike, or a community activist on the frontlines of struggle, to appear with dignity, to appear as a person among other people, we have been satisfied with our work. Our work on issues such as xenophobia, political repression, labour and much, much more all stands as a valuable contribution to the public sphere.
We have run important analysis, worked to support the literary culture of our society through a consistent engagement with new books and enriched our collective sense of memory by publishing essays, speeches and more from the archive. We have taken the visual aspect of our work into a realm far beyond any other publication in South Africa. We have run a world-class podcast and similarly excellent sport and culture desks.
In July last year Magnificent Mndebele and Cebelihle Mbuyisa were arrested and tortured in eSwatini while reporting, and reporting superbly, on the uprising against the monarchy. We honoured their courage then and we honour it now.
We have been thrilled that people like Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky and Robin D.G. Kelley have thought it worthwhile to invest their time in interviews with New Frame. We have been delighted to have been able to publish work by people like Achille Mbembe, Paul Gilroy, Lewis Gordon, Pumla Gqola, Sylvia Wynter and so many others. We have known that we are getting something right when we have seen our work moving through a rich diversity of networks, including, in particular, the WhatsApp groups used by grassroots activists and trade unionists.
We have been delighted that a long-held aspiration to publish in multiple languages has come to fruition in recent months, and that we have regularly run articles in a variety of South African languages, as well as Kiswahili. We regret, though, that we have not published more work by grassroots activists and trade unionists.
We have published just under 5 000 articles and podcasts. In a little less than four years, more than five million people have read or listened to our work. By August last year there were just under half a million reads and listens to our articles and podcasts in a month. Those numbers plummeted when Facebook changed its algorithm and, like many independent Left publications elsewhere, even our best work often struggled to find the audience that it deserved. Suddenly an article that would previously have been read by tens of thousands of people was now being read by a few hundred people.
We have been moved by the public statements of support for our work over the years, and at the onset of this crisis for our publication. In an unsolicited public comment Achille Mbembe described New Frame as “one of the most exciting political, intellectual and cultural projects to emerge in Africa” and “arguably the top intellectual media platform on our Continent”.
Sisonke Msimang has written that: “New Frame is one of the most vital voices in the Global South. Its mastery of long-form writing that is both urgent and thoughtful is unparalleled. Most importantly, New Frame does what its name suggests: it provides a necessary new frame for thinking about age-old problems.”
S’bu Zikode recently commented that: “We have seen New Frame journalists taking time and carefully listening to our members in our communities with so much respect and dignity. It is for this reason we refer to New Frame as the people’s media house.”
Today, drawing courage from this sort of affirmation for what we have done, we step back to rethink, and perhaps to retool. We thank each of the many people who have worked with such dedication to bring New Frame this far. For many of us it has been a labour of love.
We hold everyone who works with and in New Frame in our hearts as the uncertainty that lies ahead must be confronted. We will do all that is in our power to find a way for our work to continue.
We’ll meet again, further on up the road.