It’s difficult to say exactly what is amiss with South African culture; perhaps it’s worth looking at the communicators of culture, starting with the media.
The television and radio are abysmal, at least in terms of indigenous action. Yes, there are occasional TV programmes which are not wholly beneath contempt, but these are invariably bought from elsewhere and embody the implication that foreigners and foreign practices are necessarily to be slavishly imitated rather than critiqued — and that nothing African is of any interest except when filtered through white and Western consciousness. The TV is also an incessant generator of subservience to consumerism and to the power of wealth.
But what of the radio? Apart from playing lousy music to pass the time, the principal feature of the radio is talk shows — in which the commentators are almost invariably incapable of providing any reliable information on anything, so depend instead on the messages of their listeners. Whether these are sieved or not is hard to tell, but if they are not, then the majority of South African radio listeners are extraordinarily ignorant, bigoted and almost incapable of logical analysis of situations. However, these listeners are listening to programmes which are almost comically devoted to capitalist propaganda, within which nothing, from the sports programmes through the programmes condemning white racism and black corruption, to the “economic news” provided by corporate propagandists, is not framed within a plutocratic capitalist and consumerist milieu.
One by one, the holdovers of the former liberal SABC of the 1990s have been silenced, and now all is an omnipresent worship of the Almighty Dollar, broken only by an omnipresent worship of the wisdom of Western media’s perspective on the South in general and Africa in particular, and, of course, of the British Royal Family. Where there are exceptions, as with the occasional reportage (borrowed from al-Jazeera, usually) of Israeli crimes, these exist largely because the South African government has decided to take a stand for publicity purposes. Quite often, however, the radio decided to condemn the South African government’s stance — presumably because someone powerful has advised the corporate toadies of the SABC Board to do so.
It isn’t, perhaps, such a gigantic change; sponsored radio is necessarily under someone’s thumb. The SABC is far thinner than the BBC, but probably allows a little more real debate than the BBC does (partly because the BBC is so well-funded that it can afford to fill the space with paid propagandists wall to wall). But still, it’s hard to ignore the potential which radio displayed once upon a time, and compare that with the way in which that potential has been pissed away in the last decade and a half.
As for the newspapers — well! Or rather, not well at all. One of their main features is their unanimity in their propaganda. They have been universal in their support for particular factions of the ANC (those which are most likely to serve the interests of their owners, naturally), in their support also for individuals likely to disrupt the ANC, in their support for the DA’s leadership, in their support for established big business as opposed to upstarts like the Gupta family, and so on. They have been universal in their provision of mindless nostrums for the trivial problems of society (or rather, for the trivial symptoms of the deep-rooted real problems of society) while they have been universal in their declaration that all problems will be solved by handing the matter over to big business and to its agents throughout government.
Part of the problem is obviously the structure of ownership. Most of the former Times Media papers are owned by Blackstar Tiso, which despite its name is a white-owned conglomerate headed by a former financier named Bonamour. Most of the former Independent Media papers are owned by Iqbal Surve, a corporate operator who is particularly unscrupulous in hyping his financial projects through his newspapers. Most of the old Afrikaans press are owned by Media24, which is a subsidiary of a financial body heavily invested in a Chinese Internet marketing operation, 10 Cent. The Mail and Guardian, which is probably the nearest thing to a “quality” newspaper in South Africa, was owned by a shadowy company controlled by a man named Ncube, who had previously run the British political propaganda operations in Zimbabwe (which arouses obvious suspicions). Now it has been bought by a Trust which is controlled by two American billionaires, Soros and Omidyar, and its journalist-training operations are controlled by Soros’ “Open Society Foundation” (that secretive body devoted to U.S. domination).
The common feature to all these media operations seems to be finance capital; all the South African newspapers are thus run by and on behalf of financiers, who are obviously concerned with maximising their return on investment by turning their operations into propaganda. In addition, although the three white-run media groups are extremely hostile to Surve’s group, and although Media24 has a decidedly more old-apartheid flavour than the other three, on the whole the four bodies are almost interchangeable in their ideology and general values — and all are mainly concerned, as good corporate operators should be, with cost-cutting, as a result of which they are necessarily spending less on journalism and more on cheap sensationalism and prettification.
Another by-product of this corporatisation is that virtually all South African towns are now one-newspaper towns; Cape Town supposedly has two newspapers but they contain exactly the same stories printed on differently-shaped paper, while East London and Port Elizabeth are two towns which possess essentially one paper (since the Herald and the Despatch draw on the same resources and are printed on the same press). The absence of any meaningful competition naturally degrades quality of production as well as the substance of debate.
These are all, of course, for-profit operations, and the major political parties are also for-profit projects, focussing mainly on enriching themselves via their sponsors and on garnering votes through which political power may be acquired and used to gain positions from which tenders may be issued and thus sponsors be rewarded. In other words, not much may be expected from the major political parties, and their utterances add nothing positive to public debate. Next to the radio and television commentators and the print journalists, politicians appear both pathetic and disgraceful, barely capable of expressing themselves in order to fool the public into deeming them worth voting for. As a result the propaganda agencies have to do the work for them, which the politicians seem to accept, so that laughable figures like De Lille and Maimane in the DA, or nauseating figures like Ramaphosa and Mantashe in the ANC, are elevated to a stardom which the media can easily withdraw when it chooses to do so — displaying the supremacy of capital over democracy.
Supposedly not for profit, and the last remaining potential source of cultural enrichment, would be the social commentators of the “new social movements” in the street and the analysts based in the foundations and the universities. When one looks at these commentators and analysts, however, one finds that their conclusions and disturbingly identical to the conclusions of the journalists — that is, they have not attempted to develop any original ideas distinguishing them from people who are under the control of the corporate sector. Moreover, although some of the older ones (invariably ones who were operating before 1994) are still capable of packaging the stale corporate ideas in relatively fresh forms, the bulk of the younger ones offer nothing which is not available in newspaper editorials.
The reason becomes obvious when one looks at how they maintain their positions. The “non-governmental organisations”, lacking any popular support, are obliged to survive through corporate sponsorship. This means that those at the top have been able to garner large salaries which can only be maintained through continued sponsorship. Therefore the organisations have to focus their attention on whatever the corporations want them to focus on — and if they step out of line, or if the corporations feel they should be reined in, they are easily controllable, as Equal Education has discovered with the recent propaganda blasts against it over the sexual harassment commited by its activists (which has always been there, since Equal Education, like Section27, is a corporate-funded front for the residue of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency which was a nightmare of sexual exploitation and predation). Exactly the same is true of the foundations, many of which are one-man-bands set up to pursue single issues which corporations feel embarrassed to pursue openly, like the immiseration of the poor and the furthering of neocolonialism.
As for the universities, they have become pathetic spaces where half-trained overpromoted intellectuals vie with overqualified and resentful professionals for the scraps of wealth still cast under the table by the corporate bosses who sponsor the universities. Such people have neither the time nor the inclination to do real research, and if they did it, they would be unlikely to find any means of accessing the public with their results. A small handful of invariably corporate-funded “professors” have been created to sustain the illusion that anyone is listening to anything that university intellectuals say, or that those intellectuals have anything to say worth hearing — these “professors” repeat exactly what everybody else is saying, however, so nobody takes them seriously, and only the corporate propagandists even pretend to do so.
So the system is rigged. The only hope, as usual, lies in the proles, among the singers and writers who generate material which the public might actually take seriously as social commentary. Unfortunately, the South African music industry is entirely devoted to making money to the exclusion of any other consideration, and so very little South African music is anything more than endless stale repetitions of American models, whether rappers, folk singers or rockers. Black South African music is if anything more embarrassingly devoid of originality than the white music, embarrassingly because of the enormous wealth of potential material.
As for novels, there is again very little which is not derived from foreign models. Admittedly a few, like Moxyland, show a certain originality in their derivation; others, like Unimportance, show a certain commitment to some kind of representation of the real world. However, even these texts are often one-offs which are followed by an increasing commitment to First World tastes and an increasing flight from South Africa. (Arguably South Africa’s greatest living novelist, Michiel Heyns, has wandered far afield from his original commitment to establishing a genuine South African gay novel and has become, via his blind adoration for Henry James, a kind of rootless homosexual cosmopolitan.)
Which leaves only poetry for a representative of South African culture. And poetry is pretty much a culture of individuals, and is hardly noticed except by other poets. Most South African poets may comment extensively about the world around them, but the impact they make is negligible and, indeed, many of them are almost as derivative as the novelists.
The absence of a South African culture — apart from the traditions of the past and a few minor attributes generated by the clash between these traditions and the neoliberal commercialisation of society — is thus striking. We may speculate as to why this should be the case, why South Africa has abandoned all pursuit of such developments. But it is impossible to deny that it is the case.