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Media as soft power

South African media’s presence in most parts of the African continent goes as far back as colonial times (Ziegler and Asante, 1992). South African print media were visible in many parts of the continent, and since they were often linked to colonial mining interests, they were perceived to be an extension ofWestern and South African imperialism. When Zimbabwe gained its independence, the first thing it did was to launch an agency that was to prepare the buying out of South African media in the country (ibid.).

The South African radio services became available in neighbouring countries in 1966, with Radio RS A (The Voice of South Africa) created as the international broadcasting service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) -lasting until 1992, the end of the apartheid era. The service was renamed Channel Africa. Radio stations that were not SABC’s external service were also available in South Africa’s neighbouring countries of Botswana, Namibia (directly controlled by South Africa) and Swaziland. In line with the apartheid government’s strategy of countering activities of the ANC and other movements in the frontline states, SABC radio services were extended in the neighbouring countries for propaganda purposes. Later, SABC TV became a more powerful propaganda tool for the apartheid regime and its signals could be picked up in neighbouring countries. This too gave South Africa a bad name in the continent.

In the early 1990s, South Africa’s commercial broadcasting started growing in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. In 1986, South Africa launched its first private subscription television service, MNet, which later expanded into African broadcast markets. M-Net began as an individual pay-TV channel and it has, however, over the years undergone immense growth, including the launch of its international service into Africa in 1992. The growth into Africa via terrestrial rebroadcast began in Namibia in 1992, with countries such as Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt following (CMNALL-E301, 1999). M-Net is said to have more than 1.23 million subscribers in 41 countries across the continent. The main M-Net channel focuses on films and sport, but also offers general entertainment programmes (CMNALL-E301,1999; South African Yearbook 2001/2). In 1995 M-Net launched the world’s first digital direct-to-home subscriber (DTH) satellite service called DStv, which carried over 30 video channels and 40 audio programmes to the whole of Africa (Jensen, 1999: 183), prompting critics to see it as an extension of South African sub imperialism (Kandjii, 2001).

SABC’s Channel Africa (formerly Radio RSA) radio station funded by the Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation, and launched in the early 1990s is perhaps the only well-planned media-centric means of South African soft power in Africa. Its mission is clear: ‘to support South Africa’s Foreign Policy’ and contribute to the ‘development of Africa, support peace, democracy and good governance through the production and broadcast of innovative, dynamic and stimulating news, current affairs and informal knowledge building content in English and other major African languages’ (Channel Africa, 2018: 1). Apart from broadcasting in English, French and Portuguese, the channel also provides radio programmes in such African languages as Chinyanja, Silozi and Kiswahili.

Continuing with its advance into Africa, in 1998, the SABC, in conjunction with Multichoice Company, launched its two Africa-orientated pay channels: SABC

Africa and Africa2Africa, on the DStv bouquet (Paterson, 1998). These channels aimed to differentiate themselves from other South African and foreign channels broadcasting into African media space. Both Africa2Africa and SABC Africa intended to be leading content providers in Africa, producing entertainment either for Africa, about Africa or by Africa and bring African news to Africa, from Africa. Not only did these channels rise during Mbeki’s presidency, they also shared his philosophy of pan-Africanism and an African renaissance (Ndlovu, 2011).

However, the efforts by South African commercial media to expand their footprint on the continent - and, concomitantly, act as a vehicle for South African ‘soft power’ - seem uncoordinated and accidental. Its strategy seems much more haphazard than that of its BRICS counterpart, China, which has embarked on a concerted effort to penetrate the continent with its media. South Africa’s former colonizer, Britain, has also been more successful at crafting a strategy for media presence across the continent. Each of South Africa’s media houses that advances northwards into the rest of Africa does very much so on its own (unless it provides a platform from which the other can piggyback). South African media’s northward ‘trek’ is normally in search of new media audiences for its products and services other than in pursuit of some predetermined South African-centric ideology. It is therefore questionable whether this media expansion will serve the country’s soft power objectives, or, through its dominant position on the commercial landscape, create perceptions of a regional hegemon that might in fact hinder such efforts.

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