Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

Media matters in South Africa

Review of: Jeanne Prinsloo and Costas Criticos (eds.), Media Matters in South Africa (Media Resource Centre, Department of Education, University of Natal, Durban 1991).

Barrie McMahon and Robyn Quin

History's lesson is that oppressive regimes have been adept users of the mass media. It has not, of course, been in the interests of such regimes to invite criticism of the media. The technological and production initiatives that occurred in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy are the most striking examples; instances that both spawned, and added weight to the Althusserian proposition that the media is an ideological state apparatus. More recent critical theory suggests that the relationship between media, government and culture is more complex than that posited by Althusser, particularly in the recent emphasis given to the capacity of audiences to make their meanings from texts.

Recent sophistications however, do not appear to discredit Althusser's positioning of the media as an ideological state apparatus. It would appear that for media criticism to flourish, the necessary factors are an economy that can afford to devote resources to criticism rather than survival, and a political climate that at least tolerates, if not encourages, such fundamental criticism.

Media education and criticism is unduly practiced in the resource-rich and comparatively tolerant regimes of Western Europe, Canada and Australia. At the secondary school level, there is evidence of the beginnings of media criticism in the Philippines and India, where shifts in the economic and/or political climates have occurred. However, the development of media criticism in schools in the United States of America has been slow. Although the US certainly has had the economic surplus to afford media criticism, it did not seem to have the will to analyse its media empires. At the tertiary level, the focus still tends to be upon the medium of communication rather than upon the relationship between media and culture. At school level, the few pioneers have not been in a position to develop their criticism in any systematic way. A separate issue for investigation at another time is the question of whose interests are being served by the absence of widespread, media criticism in the USA.

These points are relevant to Media Matters in South Africa, a publication emerging from the conference "Developing Media Education in the 1990's", held in Durban in September 1990. As with any publication of this type, the book offers an opportunity to gain new insights from the very diverse range of papers. It can also be read as a signpost to the issues and themes that are emerging in South African education. Given its origins however, there is the potential for additional uses. This is a snapshot of the state of media education at a critical moment in the history of South Africa. As such, there is the potential to ask questions about the forces at play in the definition of media study in that country, and consequently to identify any potential capacity that media criticism may have to interrogate the relationship between media, government and culture.

The structure of the book assists in the above analysis. The defined parts are a definition of media education as "an engagement, over a long period, with all forms of media representations." (Bob Ferguson of the University of London). There follows a description of the current activity in South Africa, the pedagogy, the critical tools in use, training and empowerment and finally some examples of the practices in operation.

The earlier sections suggest that media education does have a history in South Africa, stretching back into the 1970s. What is not apparent without firsthand knowledge of the structures and purposes, is the extent to which these early ventures were criticising or supporting their superstructures. By the late 1980s, there appears to be a blossoming of initiatives in the various South African education systems. There seems to be some commonality of texts used for criticism but it is not clear as to how they were used or by whom. There are frequent appearances of presumably "worthy" films such as Chariots of Fire but it is not clear whether they were used as models for "correct" behaviour and "quality" film-making, or whether their underpinning ideologies were being questioned. Certainly in the latter part of the book, this issue is raised in some of the papers, implying that the level of classroom criticism may have been at the technical and aesthetic level. It is also difficult for an outsider to gauge

the extent to which media criticism penetrated into the education systems during this period and in particular the extent to which the country's racial lines were crossed.

Perhaps the most stimulating papers in the collection are from those outside the formal education system. The SACHED Collective (an independent, non-profit making, trust producing educational publications and running educational programs) for example, addresses the political context for media education between 1986 and 1991. It is argued that in this period of Emergency clamp-down and vicious media gags, the artists were spurred to grasp artistic space for voicing political ideals. The argument is extended to assert that now a new space is being won for media education, emphasising the changing relationship between formal and informal education. The Collective's observation is that "teachers have ceased to monopolise the mediation transmission of content". If this is the case, then Chariots of Fire may cease to be a teacher's transmission of what represents good taste.

Other contributors also address media texts and contexts from an ideological perspective. Alexander Johnston, for example, questions the ideological function of the family in three films about South Africa: A World Apart, A Dry White Season and Cry Freedom. The paper illustrates the value of the publication for learning both about media criticism, and about the state of media criticism in South Africa. It has both scholastic rigour and a sharp, ideological focus.

Perhaps the most encouraging signs of the interaction between media criticism and political change are contained in the latter sections of the publication, the papers which give attention to action that is occurring and can occur. Papers provide illustrations of media training and education programs for all sectors of society, but in particular those for whom power has previously been denied. Ann McKay's paper "Teaching Media Awareness to Anti-Apartheid Groups" is one such example. She describes the activities of the Durban Media Trainer's Group, a collective of people representing local media organisations, who are committed to improving the media skills of anti-apartheid, media workers.

This latter section has the effect of drawing together the various theoretical and pedagogical perspectives apparent in the earlier part of the publication. As a narrative within the text, the latter examples provide the coherence and purpose for earlier exploration of the issues. As evidence of interaction between media education and the larger political agendas, there is cause for optimism. Whereas there may be gloom regarding the potential for the United States to criticise its own media and consequently its own culture, South Africa appears to be in the process of doing so, and well poised to accelerate the process.

The publication is highly recommended, not only as an insight into media matters in South Africa, but also as a model of purposefulness and outcomes-driven agendas for all such publications to follow.

New: 3 December, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015