Since 1990, South Africa has been a noisy place.
After decades of censorship – imposed silence over crucial areas of apartheid– the lifting of restrictions on the media led to a cacophony of debate. For the first time in centuries, everyone could be heard, and it was sometimes deafening.
First there were effectively no media laws at all, then the new Constitution, adopted in 1996, explicitly protected freedom of speech and media, excluding only propaganda for war, incitement to violence and hate speech.
The new African National Congress (ANC) government had a positive policy to transform the media and rid it of its apartheid inheritance, encourage diversity and give a media voice to previously excluded communities.
Newspapers went through a difficult time of consolidation, with some going out of business, but then there was a boom in tabloids, making this one of the few countries where newspaper sales went up in the early 21st century. Papers like the Daily Sun created a huge new set of newspaper readers, and gave voice to the working class, a voice which had been absent from mainstream media.
Investigative journalism flourished, with exposés of every controversial aspect of South African life: bad governance, wasteful spending, white collar crime and social conditions. If the test of an effective watchdog media is that crooks and scoundrels sleep restlessly, then the South African newspapers passed with flying colours. No-one was spared: not even the national chief of police and the president’s personal financial adviser, both of whom were sentenced to prison after being exposed in the media.
But media is a contested political area. Democracy not only means freedom of the media, but freedom to criticise, denounce and take issue with the media.
Tough news coverage has brought accusations of unfairness, lack of balance and ethics and invasions of personal dignity and privacy. In a society with a long history of racial inequality, issues of dignity are particularly sensitive. These are not unique to South Africa, but they come against the background of a tense transition to democracy, a media often tainted by apartheid history, the fragility of a new social compact and a young government operating under difficult circumstances.
This has led to intense debate about whether the media exercises enough responsibility along with its rights: in particular, how to balance freedom of speech against the right to dignity. A new secrecy Bill – intended to bring old apartheid law in line with the new constitution – is hotly contested amid accusations that it seeks to cast the net of secrecy too widely. The Bill is currently being debated in parliament.
The ruling ANC has expressed its unhappiness with the newspapers’ system of self-regulation – an ombudsman and a press council – and proposes a statutory appeals tribunal, as recourse for those aggrieved by their treatment at the hands of journalists. They argue that editors have been too reluctant to apologise and correct when they get things wrong.
The tribunal suggestion has increased the volume more than ever, with a host of civil society organisations, legal bodies, political parties, academics and institutions speaking out against it.
That this proposal can be so hotly debated is itself a sign of a vigorous, open and healthily contested democracy. Clearly, South Africans are not going to give up any freedoms lightly. There is going to be a lot of noise around the right to make noise.
- Download South Africa Now in PDF format (2.2 MB), or read selected articles online:
Powering towards a green economy
South Africa plans to build a massive $21.8-billion, 5 000 MW solar park in its semi-desert Northern Cape province as part of an aggressive push to grow its highly industrialised economy without increasing its carbon footprint.
The everyday beauty of Soweto
South African photographer Jodi Bieber has a special ability to bring out the beauty in the ordinary, even the disfigured. On the cover of Time magazine she made a mutilated Afghani girl look beautiful, and in her latest book Soweto she makes everyday township life shine.
Launchpad to a billion consumers
By offering to acquire Massmart for some $4.2-billion, Wal-Mart has joined the parade of global companies looking to South Africa as a springboard into what is increasingly seen as the world’s last great investment frontier.
A trek to the start of time
It will probe the edges of our universe. It will be a virtual time machine, helping scientists explore the origins of galaxies. It’s the Square Kilometre Array, and South Africans are at the heart of its development.
Brewing up a global brand
Miller Lite. Tastes great. Less filling. And brought to you by world-beating South African company SABMiller.
Looking south and east for growth
As the shift in global economic power gains momentum, South Africa’s trade is moving eastwards and southwards in a pattern that both reflects the worldwide trend and helps drive it, writes John Battersby.
More than just a celluloid Mandela
There is a special bond between Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and the man he played in the Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, South African statesman Nelson Mandela.
Africa in the new world order
Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa’s deputy president, looks at how African economies’ resilient performance during the global financial crisis points to the continent’s new place in a changing world.
Mining history for new solutions
Mark Cutifani, CEO of the multinational AngloGold Ashanti mining company, examines why South Africa’s past is key to successfully doing business here in the future.
Turning up the media volume
Since 1990, South Africa has been a noisy place. After decades of apartheid censorship, the lifting of restrictions on the media led to a cacophony of debate. For the first time in centuries, everyone could be heard, and it was sometimes deafening, writes Anton Harber.
A joule of an energy-efficient car
South Africa, which builds BMWs and Mercedes Benzes for the US market, is in the thick of the race to deliver a truly practical – and stylish – electric car. Meet the Joule.
South Africa: Time to believe
The forgiving philosophy of “ubuntu” helps explain how South Africa managed to transcend its turbulent apartheid past and create a unified democracy, writes Simon Barber.
Finding sound real estate investment
South Africa’s post-apartheid transformation and new middle class are fuelling demand for affordable homes. For private equity fund International Housing Solutions, that means opportunity.
My normal, crazy, mixed-up country
South African hit movie White Wedding is now showing in the US to rave reviews. Jann Turner, who directed and jointly wrote and produced the film, writes about the place that inspired it – South Africa.
Bring on the braai
All South Africans love it – including Nobel peace prize-winning Desmond Tutu – and its rich, smoky smell floats over the country every Sunday. Celebrate the braai with our great recipe for making boerewors, traditional South African farmer’s sausage.