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The Eastern Cape: still frontier country for SA media

The Eastern Cape is a province forgotten by many in the media but is alive with the essence of what makes the media powerful, according to Michelle Solomon.

Home to three of South Africa’s oldest newspapers, as well as two boundary-breaking radio stations, the push-pull of the politics of the Eastern Cape is reflected in the dynamics of its media. And while this forgotten province has given rise to some of the country’s most exceptional investigative journalism, its journalists continue to fight for their freedom to write the truth.

Mike Loewe, the former director of the Eastern Cape’s first wire service, the East Cape News Agency, and a seasoned local freelance journalist and civil rights activist, says the political landscape has been the biggest challenge for Eastern Cape journalists. “We are confronted with the ruling party that blows hot and cold on the media,” Loewe said.

“The government itself is factionalised and there are contests for power and corruption.” This heightened political environment stems from the economic marginalisation of the province, according to Loewe.

“Everything’s more tightly contested and more precious,” Loewe says, “and I think it does result in certain behaviours that are selfish to the point of being psychotic, in the political sense.”

The Eastern Cape’s three older newspapers  Grocott’s Mail (Grahamstown), the Daily Dispatch (East London) and The Herald (Port Elizabeth) – report on the province’s various psychoses. Originally founded in the 1800s as advertorials, the newspapers eventually became the Eastern Cape’s watchdogs, working to keep the province honest. And while the efforts of the papers have been celebrated by both national and international journalism communities, more than once their cutting edge journalism has earned them a kick in the teeth from local politicians.

In May last year, at a victory rally after the local government elections, former ANC Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Nceba Faku attempted to incite a crowd to “burn The Herald”. The crowd gathered in front of the Port Elizabeth City Hall, only a few hundred metres from The Herald’s office. The incident sparked media outrage across the country, culminating in a public spat between the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) and the ANC when the latter failed to take action against the offending Faku.

What made Faku’s threats more alarming was the fact that this was not the first time the Port Elizabeth paper was threatened by fire. Former editor Derek Smith says that in the 1990s, shortly after Mandela’s release, there was a call to burn The Herald. Smith explains that a large group of protestors had gathered outside of The Herald’s Port Elizabeth office to protest the newspaper’s editorial stance against township violence in the region.

“They had a lot of newspapers, which they then set fire to in front of the main door,” he says. “One of them tried to throw a burning newspaper into the foyer of the building, but he was stopped.”

Last year’s incident was followed by a meeting in East London between stakeholders of Sanef and the Eastern Cape provincial government. The Herald editor, Heather Robertson, said that while that meeting was mainly “political grandstanding”, the relationship between the two groups improved in the months that followed.

Even the aged Grahamstown community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, has had a run-in with local politicians. In 2008 the Grocott’s Mail filed papers in court against the local Makana municipality for withdrawing council advertising in the newspaper. This followed the publication of a story about an unaccounted R13,7-million missing from the municipal coffers. Former municipal manager, Pravine Naidoo, had ordered the advertising boycott in 2007, accusing Grocott’s Mail of being “anti-transformation”. Grocott’s Mail editor, Steve Lang, joined the newspaper in 2008, in the middle of this hostile boycott. The matter was settled out of court that year.

But in 2011 even the national broadcaster found itself caught in the crossfire, when Makana municipality lodged a complaint with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission South Africa (BCCSA) against the SABC. A large of portion of Grahamstown’s community is forced to use buckets for ablution facilities, an issue investigated by the SABC1 programme Cutting Edge in May last year. The SABC’s investigation apparently coincided with the protests of enraged Grahamstown citizens still subject to the system. The affected residents’ discontent culminated in their tossing the contents of their used buckets into the foyer of City Hall as protest, which Cutting Edge later aired, and apparently upset local politicians. The complaint has yet to appear before the BCCSA.

At Grocott’s, Lang has been subject to his own share of complaints from local politicians. He says his biggest challenge is the language barrier in Grahamstown. “The fact that the majority language in Grahamstown is Xhosa means that you have to deal with much more of a monoculture, whereas in Gauteng you’re dealing with much more multi-cultural situations,” Lang explains.

Robertson, who has been editor of The Herald for a year and was previously at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, echoes this sentiment and says that “the flavour” of the Eastern Cape is uniquely different from that of other provinces. “The culture is different. I would say Gauteng is more sophisticated; less crude. There is a very different understanding of the role of the media than in places like Johannesburg. There is actually a very poor understanding of the role of the media [in the Eastern Cape],” Robertson says.

Despite this, Robertson says that working in the province has re-invigorated her passion for journalism.

“There is so much to report on, there are so many stories that count,” she explains. The Herald won the Vodacom ‘Story of the Year’ award in the online category for its coverage of the failing public healthcare system in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Both Lang and Robertson cite the challenges of trying to report on large, often geographically isolated regions. “We just don’t have the resources,” Robertson said. “We have to rely on the Daily Dispatchreporters in Port Alfred and Grahamstown to cover those areas.”

The 139-year-old Daily Dispatch is based in East London. It was of particular significance during the anti-apartheid struggle in the region and nationally and made world famous because of the friendship between its then editor, Donald Woods, and Black Consciousness Movement leader, Steve Biko. This, as well as the Daily Dispatch’s anti-apartheid editorial and push to hire black journalists, led to Woods’ eventual banning in 1976 and fleeing the country in 1977 after Biko was murdered and when threats against his own family increased.

Avusa Media’s Daily Dispatch has won a series of awards for its investigative journalism and in 2010 and 2011 won the CNN Africa Journalist of the Year Award for online journalism. The newspaper has had a high turnover in editors, appointing five different editors in as many years. Brendan Boyle, the former Parliamentary Bureau Chief of the Sunday Times, was appointed as editor of the Daily Dispatch in August 2011.

While the political challenges that face Eastern Cape newspapers are formidable, the province’s two leading radio stations move from strength to strength. They are AlgoaFM and Umhlobo Wenene. AlgoaFM, owned by the African Media Entertainment group, boasts a listenership of over 700 000. It is also the first radio station outside of Gauteng and the Free State to implement the Dynamic Radio Data System (RDS). This system transmits information about the song and artist being played, as well as the name of the show, directly to a car radio. Additionally, the station boasts a growth in its transmission area, having started transmitting to the Garden Route on 1 December 2011 after a lengthy application process with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa).

South Africa’s second-largest vernacular radio station is also based in the Eastern Cape. Umhlobo Wenene FM broadcasts nationally in isiXhosa. Acting station manager Phumzile Mnci estimates the station’s listenership to be just over four million, but said it was closer to five million before a sudden recent increase in the number of community radio stations in the area.

“There are so many coming up, especially in the metro areas where we had a lot of audiences, and now we are sharing these audiences with the community radio stations. It has become a hindrance,” Mnci explained. He added that, while he was aware of some of the difficulties faced by his print media compatriots, his work and that of Umhlobo Wenene FM was largely unaffected by the politics of the Eastern Cape province.

This province best illuminates the affects of a tumultuous South African history and bears the marks of a chequered history. Still frontier country in many respects, the Eastern Cape and its politics is reflected by and through the older newspapers of the region as the local governments and the media draw their battle lines in a fight for press freedom.

 This story was first published in March 2012 issue of The Media magazine.

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