Ylva Rodny-Gumede, Colin Chasi, Zubeida Jaffer and Mvuzo Ponono
There is no doubt that in the 21st century, journalism is undergoing radical and fundamental change. Journalism worldwide is adapting to an ever changing digital and social media environment with competing forms of information dissemination, and stricter if not harsher economic conditions. In South Africa, questions regarding whether journalism will survive this time of flux are often coupled with further enquiry around the role of journalism in a changing socio-political landscape. These debates are often characterised by renewed and amplified calls for a decolonisation of news media.
These calls are not new. However, at the birth of South Africa’s democracy in 1994 they slipped into the background, as the word “transformation” became the dominant focus of the discourse. There was no widespread effort to place the issue of “transformation” into the historical context of decolonisation and what the relationship was between the two.
Since the emergence of the #RhodesMustFall student movement there has been renewed interest in South Africa on questions to do with decolonisation. The decolonisation debates that were catalysed by the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa have established their new narratives that distinguish this moment from the transformation discourse that was mainstreamed in the early 1990s.
Where the transformation discourse appeared to take cues from notions of South African exceptionalism, thus treating apartheid as distinct from wider colonial experiences, the renewed focus on decolonisation finds its grounding in reading apartheid as an extension and expression of colonialism, a colonialism at once both refined and denied by the South African Nationalist Party. Thus, the call for decolonisation is not one of only breaking down the legacy of apartheid, but of ending colonialism and its resultant indignities.
Journalism is central to democratic processes and plays an important role as disseminator of information, formation of public opinion and the scrutiny of power. This said, current debates around journalism and news dissemination are centred around a crisis of journalism. Where some see journalism in free fall and whose fundamental values can no longer be upheld. Others see, and welcome, a debate that questions the hegemonic role of journalism, particularly as it pertains to the news media’s role in upholding the status quo, discursive practices, representations and ideology.
In spite of the history and the often bad reputation, individual journalists and media outlets have defended the autonomy of news media and have vigorously championed for an independent media system free of government oversight. The good to have come from an independent media system cannot be overlooked, as journalism has been a steady force in keeping an eye on abuse of power. Media houses and individual journalists, often at a great price to their own safety as well as their careers, have played a leading role in shaping post-apartheid South Africa. Thus, the role of the news media in this sense has often been ambiguous. Various chapters in the book explore these issues in more detail: the call for a media system that is inward looking but also free to fulfil its mandate as watchdog. The aim with this book is to understand journalism from a broad historical and social science perspective. It is also to question the idea of professional journalism, which wields much influence over societal discourse, legitimately representing the public in a country with a history of disparity. This is to understand that journalism has never been a fully cohesive model of self-regulation, especially in the context of South Africa, where the news media, as throughout the post-colony, has often served as an extension of colonial administrative power. This need to preserve independence whilst avoiding an alignment with the hegemonic powers deserves further scrutiny.
The book argues that journalism and its education, a core sphere for the study of communication and media practices, is an arena that can be served better by reflection on decolonisation, and an adoption of its core values. The decolonisation agenda calls institutional cultures into question. It demands access to education by challenging limitations to access that are posed by economic and other structural injustices. It demands curricula reform in how teaching and learning are conducted, including, but not limited to, assessment practices. As a radical demand for democracy, it speaks for freedom of expression, understanding that colonialism conduces to the silencing of those it oppresses.
The study of journalism is, after all, a theatre for understanding how people get to know who they are, or at least it presents grounds for understanding how people are estranged from each other. From this vantage point, scholarship on journalism should vitally engage with patterns by which social orders are brought into play to suit the powerful, those who, colonialism and its legacies, casts in the role of what Biko called “the perpetual teacher”.