Journalists on Journalism

South Africa: Getting the Message

This article appeared in the December 2001 World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 12)

Despite having to reach a multicultural community, with 11 official languages, the media industry in South Africa remains one of the most diverse and best-developed in Africa.

Getting the message across still remains one of the biggest challenges to the South African media, a situation not easily solved, with newspaper-circulation figures on the decline. Considering that large companies are spending less on printed press advertising (attributed mainly to the introduction of television in 1976) brings into question the financial viability of newspapers.

The problem, however, runs much deeper than this. Population demographics and media-usage patterns are having a marked negative impact on the printed press. With the white population reaching zero growth and the fact that the emerging black market for historical/ideological reasons does not read Afrikaans, the Afrikaans newspapers are finding it difficult to increase and attract new readership.

While the English newspapers are in a slightly better position, most have not succeeded in drawing black readership, primarily, it is believed, because the majority of the black population has never developed a culture for reading. Only 36 percent of South Africans make use of print media as a source of information-many opting for radio and television.

Apart from launching new titles and streamlining existing publications, the decline in newspaper readership can probably be stemmed by developing a stable political environment, a stable education system, and an effective communication system in the country. This may see black readership increase, that is if competitive media such as TV, radio, and the Internet do not become the preferred information source of future generations.

The importance of radio as a communication medium in South Africa, on the other hand, is clearly reflected in the number of radio receivers per 1,000 inhabitants, the highest ratio in Africa (only 96 in Kenya and 89 in Zimbabwe). Public broadcasting in South Africa falls mainly in the domain of the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), serving the various cultural and language groups in the country. The SABC controls 19 radio stations, attracting 20 million listeners daily. Radio News produces 2,000 news programs a week with a combined airtime of close to 300 hours. The SABC’s television service consists of three channels broadcasting in the 11 official languages and attracting a daily audience of about 12 million viewers.