The Political Economy of South African Media

There are some that criticize political economy approaches to understanding media as top-down, conspiracy theories. But when today it came to light that a consortium associated with the Mbeki political camp is involved with a bid to take over Johnnic Communications, owner of, amongst others, the South African Sunday Times, one cannot but observe that politics and economy are inextricably linked. The Sunday Times, under the editorship of Mondli Makhanya (pictured), has been a thorn in the side of the Mbeki government over the past few years. The latest example of the tension developing between the newspaper and the government was the controversial (and to my mind ethically rather dodgy, to say the least) publication of the medical records of the current Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. One is therefore tempted to see in this bid an attempt to co-opt what has become one of the (notoriously sensitive) Mbeki government’s fiercest critics. One can expect the media to display outrage about this move to incorporate dissent (the first, predictable, comparison with apartheid has already been made). But isn’t this market-led ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ part of the deal that the South African media has been clamouring for persistently over the last number of years? In a democracy where freedom of speech is Constitutionally guaranteed, you cannot close down newspapers willy-nilly. But the market can silence and marginalise voices. If a diversity of perspectives, a broad-based public sphere and wide participation from the citizenry is so important (such as it should be), why have most of the significant attempts to broaden the mediated public sphere in the post-apartheid era come from the government itself? One thinks here of the Media Diversity and Development Agency, for instance, which, when established, was met with accusations of ‘government interference’ by the mainstream commercial media in the country. It will be interesting to see where the debate about the attempt to buy Johncom will be going. But a certain proverb about making beds and sleeping in them comes to mind.


Filed under Johncom, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, MDDA, Mondli Makhanya, Sunday Times

3 responses to “The Political Economy of South African Media

  1. Mrs

    The apparent bid to take over Johnnic is going to be a very interesting development, to say the least. What do you think the responsibility of other mainstream commercial media in SA should be at this point (and taking this situation into account?)

  2. Herman

    I think mainstream media could and should remain critical of the development, as long as they remember that they too are big businesses and their owners are not politically neutral either. Government isn’t the only bogeyman in town.

  3. Lesley Cowling

    The critique of critical political economy is that its description of the impact of commercial factors on media is rather deterministic and can be crude … although I know Tawana argues that these theoretical approaches also do take into account the mediation of such commercial impacts in newsroom organisations. I personally have not found such studies, but would be happy to be referred to them. The government critique of the media tends to buy into the cruder arguments about ownership as politically partisan (rather than operating off another kind of ideology), and the bid to buy the ST is operationalised off that understanding. In this case, the twin bogeymen of capitalism and government combine, and this is quite fascinating. I don’t think this is something that critical political economy really accounts for, but I would be interested to hear your views, Herman

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