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BRICS Spotlight Series: On the Pulse of South Africa

In 2001, investment banking firm Goldman Sachs issued a report predicting global economic power gradually shifting from the G7 nations toward the developing world. Jim O’Neill identified Brazil, Russia, India and China – coined “BRIC” – as countries with enough economic growth to become major players on the world’s industrial power stage. South Africa was later added as a viable power to observe. A decade later, these countries continue to be watched and discussed by the media for their potential. And as the media pay attention to the BRICS group, so do public relations and advertising professionals seeking to enter or strengthen their organizations’ presence in these markets.  As such, the Cision Navigator presents a new four-part monthly series offering insight into the culture and atmosphere that can impact your communications efforts in these nations. Journalists and industry experts share their first-hand experience working in these countries, in addition to advice on hot topics, major industries and the most effective means of pitching and promotion. Whether you’re engaging in business in the BRICS nations or considering an overseas position as a journalist, this series aims to provide you with useful knowledge as you pursue opportunities abroad.


There’s much to be said about the strides of South Africa. Following centuries of colonized rule, the nation was under institutionalized racial segregation known as apartheid up to 1990. As the ruling National Party started to dismantle apartheid legislation, the world watched as political activist Nelson Mandela was historically released after 27 years imprisonment. After the establishment of a non-racial democracy in 1994, Mandela became the country’s first black president and the African National Congress (ANC) became the governing party. But as political revolutions were seen as an enormous triumph, post-apartheid South Africa has met with unemployment, crime, economic disparities and corruption. Like many countries, media in South Africa is perhaps the most important means for reflecting and discussing the political and social climates, and has a notable history within itself.

The political and social upheaval of past decades brought forth a thriving contingent of independent media that openly challenged and held the government to task, but in recent years, a marked response to these views has been woven into media. Broadcasters and newspapers affiliated with the ANC have taken measures to promote what has been deemed “sunshine journalism.” During a recent speech before journalism students, President Jacob Zuma admonished South African media for concentrating on the negative with reports on crime and government failures, and emphasized the importance of patriotic reporting and attractive headlines to help shape the country’s image. The government-funded African News Network (ANN7), launched in August, was lauded by an ANC spokesman as an outlet that would exercise media freedom in an objective manner that supports the country’s thriving democracy. That same month, an executive of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation called for 70 percent of news output to be positive.

This policy has raised questions of editorial independence with many media professionals. Some, such as journalism professor Anton Harber and the Media Monitoring Africa organization, have called for less interference in news reporting and maintained that what constitutes a positive or negative story should be decided by audiences. J. Brooks Spector, who writes for The Daily Maverick and is a commentator for numerous media outlets, has witnessed the relationship between media and the government play out extensively since first arriving to South Africa in the mid-70’s as a U.S. diplomat.

“Historically, media has been fairly politicized and was trusted to be the voice of the oppressed,” he said. “Media still has the same job, but now the government is different. The ANC sees media as somewhat jilted lovers who work hand in hand with liberal organizations.”

Spector thus recognizes the line that esteemed reporters walk. “There’s an expectation among media to be challenged. Reporters have been brought to court for damaging the reputations of officials, which has an inhibiting effect on other journalists, but the reporting was rather courageous. Media is tasked with not being totally neutral, but also not being swayed and maintaining a clear set of principles.”

Given this background, the tide of politics and government – and the social issues that stem from it – carve out a significant slab of media coverage in South Africa. Spector cited unemployment, education and healthcare as topics at the forefront of media discussions. The country’s large-scale economic picture and international relations also make headlines. Since China is South Africa’s largest trading partner, many business publications cover the relationship and the mining and energy news at its core.

Then there’s the lighter side of news. Rebecca L. Webber, a freelance journalist from Boston who has worked in South Africa for more than 10 years, notes technology and travel as industries that have garnered media attention, particularly in Cape Town. Feature stories tend to reflect an international appeal. “Generally speaking, South African papers give a lot more space to international stories than U.S. papers do,” said Webber. “A fair amount of those are wire stories and can thus include items such as international celebrity news.”

The question of how news is disseminated in South Africa depends on the medium and access. While hard news found in major dailies is for the most part available online, Webber advised that the same does not ring true for niche media. “Online publications do not have as deep a penetration in South Africa as in the states. A number of the big glossy magazines do not put their content online the way that their sister magazines in America do.” Spector has observed that the average person gets his or her news from radio even more than TV, but he stills sees online radio “getting big” in the next three to four years, and listens to several channels online himself.

In its annual report on global entertainment and media outlooks, PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted South Africa’s markets to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.9 percent within five years, one of the highest rates in the world. Because a significant number of South Africans lack Internet access, print media and radio are still the platforms that are most capable of reaching a large audience, especially in advertising. However, the report foresees online access expanding and an exponential increase in smart devices that will fuel media growth.

Indeed, the digital landscape in South Africa is fertile given the demand for mobile phones. With half of the South African population living below the poverty line, known locally as the base of pyramid, more than 75 percent of low-income earners own a cell phone. Because cell phone use and data transfer data costs run relatively high, data applications aren’t regularly used—with the huge exception of Mxit.

A locally developed free instant messaging service, Mxit is South Africa’s largest social network, appealing to the masses not only for its cost effectiveness but for its activism. Mxit has been highly targeted to engage young voters in the 2014 general elections, and the network recently launched apps to provide resources and support for rape victims and counseling for people living with HIV. With an estimated seven million active monthly users, it undoubtedly serves as a leading platform for important discussions and empowerment – even more than Twitter or Facebook – for a significant number of South Africans.

For those considering journalism positions in South Africa, Webber offered advice pertaining to readership. “The main difference when writing about South Africa is that you have to unpack things a lot more for a U.S. audience. You can’t assume too much prior knowledge in terms of geography, history, public figures, etc.,” she said. “When I’m writing for a South African audience, I can dive in more quickly. Of course South African publications prefer UK usage, and there is different slang. But generally I use the same reporting principles, structures and voice. Narrative nonfiction remains more popular in the US; newspapers in South Africa tend more towards the traditional pyramid structure.”

For all its post-apartheid ills, South Africa remains under a global lens for its development potential. As the country’s government and social spheres spin, the media serves as the ever-present mirror of development. As a work in progress itself, the media industry holds promise as the nation holds promise. Whatever lies on the horizon for South Africa, media will undoubtedly continue to be a key player and force as the nation’s future unfolds.

This is the fourth in a five part series on media perspectives in the BRICS nations. To read the previous installments, click below:

Part One: Near Sights on the Far East
Part Two: Treading the Digital Tides in Brazil
Part Three: Subcontinent, Super Potential

Contact Information

Rebecca L. Webber, Freelance Journalist

J. Brooks Spector, Daily Maverick

About Allison Richard

Allison Richard writes features and leads international content for Cision Blog. She oversees east Asian media for the research department, which suits her perfectly as she loves languages and culture. She also likes yoga, useless trivia, painting and comedy, in no particular order. Follow her on Twitter at @AllieTimes.

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