What’s wrong with the alternative media in South Africa?

Does the South African alternative media justifiably deserve the label “alternative”? Take for instance the two popular media outlets that can be described as alternative: Chimurenga and Laugh It Off (LIO). What is alternative about Chimurenga and LIO? Put differently, do these media outlets deserve the reputation of being “independent” that they seem to have?

Both outlets do not carry adverts. The one, LIO, claims to be the vehicle for South African youth culture, and the other, Chimurenga, has a Pan-Africanist slant.

Michael Albert, co-founder and the editor of Znet, writes that “Being alternative can’t just mean that the institution’s editorial focus is on this or that topical area. Being alternative as an institution must have to do with how the institution is organized and works.”

For example, if a mainstream newspaper like the Sunday Times were to suddenly drop all the corporate adverts it carries, and become a vehicle for South African youth culture, or become a platform to voice Pan-Africanist views, that wouldn’t make the Sunday Times an alternative media outlet. To become alternative, the Sunday Times would have to do away with the hierarchical structure that reinforces society’s way of decision-making.
To deserve the reputation of being independent, the Sunday Times would have to fight against reproducing oppressive social relations. To be an independent institution, the Sunday Times would have to pay careful attention to its division of labour, with the aim to subvert the gender and racial roles which make South Africa the society it is today.

So, when we refer to Chimurenga and LIO as alternative or independent media outlets, are we talking about the alternativeness or independence described above? Or are we referring to the editorial focus of these two media outlets?

It would be interesting to know if LIO has a radical affirmative action programme or training. Just like it would be fascinating to know how decisions are made at Chimurenga. As well as how different levels of remunerations (if there are any) are justified, at both media outlets.

If both media outlets are managed like a factory, as far as gender and racial roles are concerned, then why call these media outlets alternative or even independent? If both media outlets justify different levels of remuneration based on the same division of labour and hierarchical structure that factories operate on, then why call these media outlets independent or even alternative?

Is there anything alternative about such media outlets? What are they independent of?

Sure, both media outlets have different editorial focus than what South African mainstream media offers; but is that enough for a media outlet to present itself as alternative or independent? To want to be independent or alternative presupposes that one perceives a certain oppressive bias in the status quo – an oppressive bias that champions one way of looking or doing things over others.

So, it follows that, an independent way of perceiving reality, goes hand-in-hand with the alternative way of doing things, which in this case would mean an alternative way of organizing one’s media outlet. To solely have a different editorial content than the rest is not sufficient to make any media outlet alternative or independent. That is if we are serious about our ideas, and if language still has any meaning.

Editorial Content

Given that both Chimurenga and LIO present themselves as being progressive in their politics, it would be worthwhile to interrogate how sensitive these outlets are in matters of class, sexuality and race.

Laugh It Off prides itself for being the vehicle for South African youth culture. LIO makes it a point to include diverse views of opinions in their book; something that should be applauded.

However, despite the diversity of opinion, the questions raised and the problems that are discussed are issues related to the middle class of the South African society. Something which automatically makes LIO not the vehicle for South African youth culture, but a propaganda machine for South African privileged youth.

Take for example, the latest issue of LIO, on page 22 there is an article entitled “When being Gay does not matter anymore”. In that article the author discusses how wonderful it is to be a gay person living in Green Point, Cape Town

He writes that “…Being Gay doesn’t matter anymore, …Think about it: I can go for dinner and drinks with other gay men at Café Manhattan and no one cares that we are touchy-feely with each other. I can have a romantic dinner with my boyfriend in any restaurant we feel like and no one cares that I’m holding his hand. I can go out for steak and chips at a sports pub with my stepfather… drink beer… and no one will know, or maybe even care, that I would much rather look at the dark-haired barman than the blonde waitress with the big boobs.”

Needless to say, this is a white, middle class perspective presented as reality for every gay person. The Green Point area the auhor is talking about is the same area where a black gay man was turned away (with his white partner) from a nightclub simply because he was too black for the establishment. This incident happened last year, not ten years ago.

It is a pity that the author does not make it clear that the Green Point he is talking about is the neighbourhood where rich, white gay men and women live. And that in Cape Town, most black gay men and women live in poverty-stricken townships; and for them to be openly gay means social exclusion.

The author paints a picture of a blonde woman to conceptually invoke the image of an accepted beautiful woman. He applies the same logic when referring to the “dark-haired barman”. I mean, really, how many barmen of colour with blonde hair do you know?

Interestingly enough, on page 12, there is an article that attempts to grapple with issues of blackness. The article is entitled “What makes you black, when it matters most?”, and is written by Zanele Nyingwa.

Nyingwa writes that it took a “stunted, heavy-breathing Xhosa man” to wake her up to issues of blackness. This is, she says, after 18 years of waking “to the same old shit”, and lying in bed. Apparently, this Xhosa man, wish a “big ass”, woke her up by asking her: “Why is it that you black girls in this university are more white than these white girls in that university…?

First and Foremost, for Nyingwa to be confronted with issues of race when only at the age of 18, one wonders which world Nyingwa grew up in? One wonders if she grew up in the still racially segregated (socially and geographically) South Africa. Further, why the need to conjure up stereotypes to describe the Xhosa man?

As one further reads the article, it becomes clear that this is not the reality of the black majority who live in poverty-stricken townships, and who have to confront racism on the daily basis as a matter of survival.

The journal, Chimurenga, tends to be a bit sophisticated in its analysis of race matters, compared to LIO at least. However, just like LIO, their class analysis is not exceptionally profound. Take for instance, the volume 6 of Chimurenga. There is an article in it that discusses Kenyan politics. The article entitled “who invented truth”, is written by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Wainaina writes that: “I wonder sometimes, whether the main problem with the educated classes of our continent is simply this: we want our continent resolved in our own lifetimes. So we contort, and twist ideas around… create whole new disciplines… when maybe all that is required of us is to document, to simply document our times if we are writers….”

Wainaina is clear from the onset that he is discussing issues relating to the middle class, if not upper class. The curious aspect about Wainaina’s thinking is that he does not question how “educated classes” are created in African societies. Nowhere does Wainaina make the connection between the creation of “educated classes” of African societies with the poverty that they co-exist with. On the contrary, Wainaina simply accepts the “educated classes” as a fact of life.

Witness Wainaina talk about a formation of society: “A young nation is bad novel: contrived, trying to push an agenda that cannot persuade readers, trying to impose a tight structure that excludes all reality.”

This does not make sense. A nation, whether young or old, is nothing like a novel, whether good or bad. A nation’s story – whether young or old, always focuses on its social evolution, with all members of the society as protagonists. Even if we were to accept the analogy of a bad novel, we would first have to answer the question: bad novel according to whom?

Further, what agenda cannot persuade which readers? And we would have to define the “tight structure that excludes all reality” and make it clear whose reality we are referring to. The educated classes or the impoverished many?

In the same volume, Chimurenga published an exchange between yours truly and the co-founder of Laugh It Off, Justin nurse. Today I regret giving Chimurenga the permission to publish that exchange. In that exchange I come across as a hired gun that does the dirty job for Chimurenga by handling LIO – the rivalry of Chimurenga.

I reject this misrepresentation, whether done consciously or not. I champion solidarity, not competition.

When I wrote to Nurse I wrote to him because I was sincerely interested in getting to know more about his company. I respect him as a person, and admire what his company is trying to do – with all its limitations.

By the same logic, I respect the founders and editors of Chimurenga and admire what they are trying to do – with all their limitations.

I therefore submit this article as a constructive criticism for both media outlets.