Les Switzer, Mohamed Adhikari, eds. South Africa's Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation under Apartheid. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. xxii + 505 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-213-1.
Reviewed by Alan G. Cobley (Department of History, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, Barbados)
Published on H-SAfrica (September, 2001)
The Rise and Fall of the Alternative Press in South Africa
The Rise and Fall of the Alternative Press in South Africa
In the preface, this book is described as the third in a trilogy which began twenty-two years ago with the publication of The Black Press in South Africa and Lesotho: A Descriptive Bibliographical Guide, 1836-1976 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979) by Les and Donna Switzer. The second in the trilogy, edited by Les Switzer, was entitled South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). In this latest publication, Switzer is joined by Mohamed Adhikari as co-editor. It opens with an extensive (seventy-five pages) introduction by Switzer which seeks to lay out the framework within which South Africa's 'resistance press' developed. He also discusses the contributions made by organised Black labour, the Black Consciousness movement and the 'Charterist' movement of the 1980s towards the defeat of the apartheid regime. He completes his historical survey with a discussion of the transition 'towards a new South Africa' in the early 1990s. The final section is devoted to an introduction to the other contributions to the collection, and is used by Switzer as a vehicle for a concise but extremely useful historical survey of the 'resistance press' in South Africa, with special reference to the 1980s and early 1990s.
The rest of the book is divided into two unequal sections: Part I contains three chapters, and deals with the period prior to the 1980s, while Part II contains seven chapters, and focuses on the tumultuous decade-and-a-half from 1980 to 1994.
The main weakness in this collection concerns this division. Part I--entitled 'In Transition: From Protest to Resistance' --seems incomplete and lacking in coherence compared to Part II, entitled 'On the Barricades: The Struggle for South Africa'. While the three contributions in Part I are disparate in focus and aim, those in Part II are tightly focused in terms of chronology on the 1980s and early 1990s, and provide a comprehensive overview of the alternative press in these years. It might have made more sense to leave Part II to stand alone as the body of the book, and to expand the list of contributions in Part I so that it could be developed into a separate publication. Having said this however, all three contributions in Part I of the collection are fascinating, and it might seem churlish to question their inclusion here.
In the first article Peter Limb surveys the treatment of African workers in the early African nationalist press between 1900 and 1960. He is interested not only in 'representations' of African workers in a press dominated by the black petty bourgeoisie but also in the extent to which these newspapers acted 'as a legitimate vehicle' for the aspirations of African workers (p. 82). These objectives seem to me to make this paper qualitatively different in intent from the others in the collection, and explain why it sits rather uneasily in this book. He argues that the 'pro-ANC press'--and by extension, the ANC itself--was closer to African workers in the early years than is usually suggested. This is an interesting conclusion but seems to be a bit of stretch given the very imperfect runs of newspapers that Limb had to work with, especially prior to the 1930s. As Limb's own research shows, extant runs of such key publications as The Workers' Herald and Abantu Batho are really quite limited. On the other hand, his conclusion is supported by Bonner's argument made twenty years ago that since the African petty bourgeoisie was 'stunted and repressed' in these years, they were actually much closer to African workers materially and in terms of consciousness than to their white counterparts.
The second contribution from James Zug traces the tumultuous final years of the Guardian newspaper--described by Switzer as 'probably the most significant socialist newspaper in South African history'--from 1960 to 1963. It serves as a taster for Zug's book-length history of the Guardian which is due out this year. Where Limb and Switzer's style is measured and scholarly, Zug writes with real journalistic verve. By focusing on the human aspects of his story he is able successfully to evoke the nerve-jangling, claustrophobic atmosphere endured by the newspaper's editorial staff as they struggled, not only to keep the paper alive in the face of increasing state harassment and repression, but also to provide support in myriad ways for the embryonic clandestine liberation movement. I defy anyone to read this account without feeling a sense of wonder at what was achieved in the face of such heavy odds. On the evidence on this contribution, Zug's book should be well worth reading.
The final contribution in this section from Mbulelo Mzamane and David Howarth is, frankly, a bit of a puzzle. It seems to have wandered in from a different book altogether. Entitled 'Representing Blackness', it contains a very stimulating discussion of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, especially in its literary and cultural manifestations. It also makes a compelling case for the integral importance of the BCM in shaping the resistance movement in South Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s. The benefits of being able to draw on the considered views of one who was deeply immersed in the debates discussed are obvious here; the article is a 'must read' for anyone who has an interest in the intellectual discourses which shaped the BCM in the 1970s. However, this article is not about the role of the 'alternative press' in promoting Black Consciousness, except incidentally, and therefore can be seen as an opportunity lost to put this aspect of the movement in perspective. It would have been interesting, for example, to hear more about the practicalities of putting together the SASO Newsletter and its methods of distribution.
It is only in Part II of the collection that the book's title really begins to make sense. It opens with an excellent article by Jeremy Seekings on the media of the United Democratic Front. Although he summarises some of the key conclusions in his recently published book on the UDF, Seekings pulls off the difficult feat of adding fresh insights and material on the same subject. Seekings demonstrates that the UDF was extremely effective in its use of the media and suggests several reasons for this. One was that the UDF was in many ways a child of the mass media age. From the outset its leadership recognised the critical role of publicity if the organisation were to survive and grow and they were ready to put major resources into this important area of activity: he estimates that '30 to 35 per cent of the UDF's expenditure was spent on publicity between 1983 and 1985' (p. 236). Another reason was that the UDF enjoyed unprecedented access to the mainstream (commercial) white liberal press after 1984, once it had established itself as the only popular mass movement offering a credible non-violent, non-racial alternative to apartheid. One interesting question which remains unanswered in this article concerns the influence of the UDF's political education journal Isiziwe, although its content is discussed extensively. It would be interesting to hear from those who read it rather than those who produced it on this question.
Seekings' contribution is followed with one on the East Cape News Agencies by Franz Kruger, one of its founders and long-time group editors. Writing in the stripped down style you might expect of someone who is used to counting his words, he explains why the agency was formed: 'The region was highly politicized, and there were many stories to tell. But it was very poorly served by the local mainstream media' (p. 263). The validity of this initial perception, which was based as much on journalistic criteria as it was on the demands of political activism, has been proven since the formal ending of apartheid; the ECNA is one of the few alternative media houses which has survived the transition to democracy in South Africa.
The chapter on the Western Cape publication Grassroots by Ineke van Kessel is presented as a moral tale. It paints an unsympathetic picture of a paper which preserved its ideological purity at the cost of any popular appeal (p. 322). The decision to insist from the outset on the 'paramountcy of democracy' in producing the paper made for a very cumbersome editorial process. Moreover, Van Kessel suggests that the perceived need to show solidarity with the struggle and 'to project the unity of the oppressed' meant Grassroots was unable to develop an effective editorial policy 'to deal with conflicts and crises within progressive organisations' (p. 301). Although it targeted the 'Coloured' community, it did so only to promote an idealised 'worker consciousness'. Ultimately it was unable to attract an audience with such overtly politicised fare and, in the words of one contributor, 'became a prisoner of the activists' (quoted p. 317). Van Kessel makes it clear that Grassroots survived as long as it did only because it was able to rely for funds on a group of Protestant churches in the Netherlands; evidently they did not ask too many questions about how their money was being spent.
By contrast, another Western Cape newspaper, South, succeeded to some extent in providing a media voice for the UDF and other progressive forces in the area, whilst making its coverage relevant to the local 'Coloured' community. Mohamed Adhikari tells the story of the newspaper sensitively, dealing especially with its attempt to draw the community into a debate on the meaning of the 'Coloured' identity in the context of the struggle for a non-racial society. Ironically however, this approach did not prevent the marginalisation of the newspaper during the transition to democracy. It folded at the end of 1994, having failed to transform itself into a commercial enterprise, and in the face of a strong political resurgence of the 'Coloured' identity to which it was ideologically opposed.
The contribution by Keyan Tomaselli, as you might expect from one of the leading scholars on the media in South Africa, is based on carefully researched and collated data. This is the article's strength and also its key limitation. Although the article discusses the history and influence of two newspapers, the New Nation and the Sowetan newspapers from their foundation in the early 1980s through to the transition to democracy in the 1990s, the main data used comes from a content survey of the two papers conducted by the Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit at the University of Natal in 1987. It is difficult to form any judgment about the overall contribution of either paper on this basis. However, the evidence does allow Tomaselli to make some useful comparative points about the style and political orientation of the two newspapers. One interesting observation concerns the 'BC position' of the Sowetan, despite it being a commercial publication owned by the (white-controlled) Argus group. Tomaselli suggests that 'an unlikely empathy existed between some white liberals and the BC movement ... because liberals also understood the repression of blacks in terms of race rather than class' (p. 387). The result was an emphasis in the pages of the Sowetan on 'race-over-class reporting' which allowed it to operate comfortably within the Argus stable.
The article in the collection I found most enlightening was that by George Claassen on the Afrikaans alternative press, a subject about which I knew little. He argues that the symbiotic relationship between the Afrikaans language press and the National Party which dated back to the foundation of De Burger in 1915 evolved from a relationship of subservience to one in which alternative 'verligte' views were articulated during the 1980s. Claassen believes that although the left-wing Afrikaans alternative press did not survive beyond the transition to democracy, it should be credited with playing a part in breaking down the 'laager' mentality which had sustained apartheid for so many years. He also suggests that Vrye Weekblad, with its use of leading Afrikaner literary figures as contributors, its playful and innovative use of the Afrikaans language in headlines, and its vibrant coverage of such previously under-represented areas of culture as township jazz, had the effect of sparking a much needed progressive Afrikaner cultural renaissance which continues to the present day.
The final article in the collection is by Christopher Merrett and Christopher Saunders and considers the role of what they describe as the 'flagship' of the alternative press, the Weekly Mail, from its inception in 1984 to 1994. The article interweaves comments from members of the newspaper's staff with content analysis to build up a picture of the paper's editorial policy and its reporting during these years. They suggest that in the 1980s the newspaper's prime importance lay 'in giving its largely white readers an idea of what was happening in the black townships, of what blacks were thinking and how they were suffering' (p. 476). Given this orientation, I cannot resist asking how many black journalists and activists of the period would have recognised the Weekly Mail as their 'flagship'. This point notwithstanding, the newspaper must be credited with challenging government restrictions repeatedly as it sought week by week to expose the repressive nature of the apartheid regime. It also succeeded in establishing itself as the first 'commercial' left wing weekly in South Africa's history. The authors conclude that 'the Weekly Mail not only worked for a new democratic order; it helped, in a small way, to bring it about' (p. 481).
If Switzer was a lonely pioneer when he began writing about the history of the press in South Africa in the 1970s, he has no lack of company now, as the list of contributors to this collection makes clear. This book is testimony to the emergence of media studies over the past decade as an important sub-discipline in South African historiography, and will be welcomed by all those who have an interest in the press in South Africa in the final years of the apartheid era. One further note: among the many issues touched upon in this collection, I found the occasional mentions of the influence of community radio particularly tantalising. It is to be hoped that future work will address in more detail the influence of this and other types of media on political discourses and popular consciousness in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era, so that the work of the 'alternative press' in these years can be seen from the broadest possible perspective.
. Philip Bonner, 'The Transvaal Native Congress, 1917-1920: the radicalisation of the black petty bourgeoisie on the Rand', pp. 270-313 in Shula Marks and Richard Rathbone, eds., Industrialisation and Social Change in South Africa. African class formation, culture and consciousness 1870-1930 (London and New York: Longman, 1982).
. James Zug, Striking the Anvil: A History of the Guardian/New Age Newspaper (East Lansing and Capetown: Michigan State University Press and Mayibuye Centre/Robben Island Museum, forthcoming, 2001).
. Jeremy Seekings, The UDF. A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa 1983-1991 (Cape Town, Oxford and Athens, Ohio: David Philip, James Currey and Ohio University Press, 2000).
. Other works by Tomaselli include: K.G. Tomaselli, R.E. Tomaselli and J. Muller, eds., The Press in South Africa (London: James Currey, 1987); K.G. Tomaselli, The Cinema of Apartheid. Race and Class in South African Film (London: Routledge, 1989); K.G. Tomaselli and P.E. Louw, eds., The Alternative Press in South Africa (London: James Currey, 1991).
. Presumably Claassen will elaborate on this thesis in his book on the mainstream Afrikaans press entitled Quisling or Herald? Perspectives on the Afrikaans Press under Apartheid, which is said to be scheduled for publication this year.
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Alan G. Cobley. Review of Switzer, Les; Adhikari, Mohamed, eds., South Africa's Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation under Apartheid.
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