Robert B. Horwitz. Communication and Democratic Reform in South Africa. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xx + 409 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-79166-3.
Reviewed by Keyan Tomaselli (Professor of Culture, Communication and Media Studies, University of Natal, Durban)
Published on H-SAfrica (April, 2003)
This well written study locates its analysis of media during and after apartheid within a political economy framework. It explains political changes from apartheid to beyond, the role of the media in these changes, and the struggles within media institutions with regard to shaping that change. The entire communications sector is considered, not just specific industries within it.
Horwitz eschews the usual U.S. race-based analysis which tends to exclude politics, economics, social formation, and structuration. In fact, Horwitz's analysis reflects the dominant, ascendant, internal South African left-wing structural explanation of the period, one that did not always sit well with the ANC in exile. This historical materialist analysis, which enables Horwitz's own explanations, plays up the role of capital in oppression, and does not reduce the terrain to beguiling and simplistic sound bytes about racial conflict through which the international media made sense of the struggle during apartheid.
Discussion of the shift from John Vorster's dogmatic apartheid of the 1970s to the initiation of reform under P. W. Botha after 1979, backgrounds the fractures which were to be unleashed in the South African political economy in the 1980s. During this period, the alternative press and internal opponents of apartheid inserted themselves into the mainstream media landscape. These movements were later to cohere into the United Democratic Front and the Mass Democratic Movement, from which the bulk of Horwitz's academic, activist and individual sources are drawn. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 deal in considerable detail with the complex political processes of reform in broadcasting, telecommunications, the government information service, and state responses to growing resistance. The shift into a "market" economy as a prime political strategy by the apartheid government of the late 1980s, a dynamic which continued into the 1990s, formed a key set of debates, and these are discussed in detail. The last chapter deals with the emergent project in black economic empowerment. By late 1996, black-dominated union pension capital had bought into, and taken over, one of the major press groups in what was then the largest cash deal in South African history.
This accessible, explanatory, and most importantly to South African readers, recognizable history of apartheid and the media is written in an insightful way which can be understood by both the novice and the advanced student of South African politics, history, and media. Further detail is provided in copious footnotes.
Overarching studies of the South African media during and after apartheid are rare. Previous books have mainly concentrated on the press, broadcasting, telecommunications, and so on, without much attempt to bring these three sites into a single conceptual framework or explanation. Apart from Dave Kaplan's early analyses, telecommunications studies certainly was the poor cousin of both economics and communication studies, while the social impacts of telecommunications itself were most likely studied in electronic engineering departments. Horwitz's work in this book and in the South African journal, Communicatio, helps to stimulate more systematic critical analysis of the telecommunications sector in South African communication studies.
Four books on which Horwitz relies quite heavily for his historical analysis include the James Currey/Anthropos/Lake View Press series, Studies on the Southern African Media, which deal with the press, broadcasting, and the alternative press during apartheid, and media policy debates of the 1990s. Horwitz's own political economy analysis fits well with these much more situationally detailed and genre-specific analyses. He simultaneously threads these narratives into the 1990s, inserting into them the post-1990s debates around issues of regulation, deregulation, and privatisation, as they were occurring internationally at the time. To some extent, then, Horwitz's study updates this earlier work, but in a more inclusive, holistic manner, although his invocation of media theory is much more muted.
The conditions immediately after the unbanning of the liberation movements in February 1990 provided Horwitz the opportunity for a kind of "before and after" study, although the "after" in this case refers mainly to the immediate post-apartheid transition between 1990 and about 1996. The impulses for change continued well into the new millennium. Some of the shifts in attitude by sections of the ANC, the state, and the government, throw into relief Horwitz's sometimes idealist assumptions about the supposedly benign nature of ANC policy relating to the emergent public sphere. This sphere has been increasingly subjected to hardening government attitudes towards the media, and the SABC in particular. One problem of being part of and writing about the same processes is that one sometimes takes for granted surface appearances from intimate sources regarding what is actually happening, rather than also being alert to what could, and does in fact, happen.
Even for a work as detailed and as descriptive as this book is, it occasionally is remiss in not providing additional readings on particular moments and organisations, the most glaring case being that of the Bureau for Information, in the late 1980s. The two pages offered here ignore the extensive research that was done on this institution, and it therefore underplays the Bureau's importance in managing (rather than controlling) news during the dying days of apartheid.
Horwitz does not really problematise his position as an American researcher working on telecommunication issues in South Africa, a position which saw him being invited to serve on the state's telecommunications policy planning committee. What he has picked up, more often than not, is local, constituency-specific nuance, local difference, and the texture of mainly left-wing--UDF/MDM-centered--local struggles. By failing to systematically engage and analyze the conventional, conservative, or indeed, right-wing literature on the transition, Horwitz favors an albeit determining trajectory, while backgrounding the sometimes extraordinary struggles being conducted by constituencies not of the left, but which were responding to this analysis. This is not to say that Horwitz is unaware of them. But some description of the struggles after 1999 going on inside the very media institutions on which he comments from his left-wing position might have added a dimension as intriguing as those which he has uncovered. This certainly would have tempered his naivety on the left's early and often regressive slide into demands for an uncritical developmental media, state control, and a creeping authoritarianism which makes itself more evident every day. Struggle is never over, democracy is never complete, policy is always an instrument of the state, and the way these play out in South Africa is no different from anywhere else.
In sum, Communication and Democratic Reform in South Africa is exceptionally well written, offering a highly engaging dramatic narrative, one in which the author briefly locates his own important contribution to the post-apartheid transition. Horwitz's book is the best longitudinal overview available on the South African media in general. It is by far the most compelling analysis written by an international scholar on the topic, and it pays its dues to prior published local research, much of which underpins his historical narrative.
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Keyan Tomaselli. Review of Horwitz, Robert B., Communication and Democratic Reform in South Africa.
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