Beyond the ‘New’ and the ‘News’ – The Mediation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is a state-owned enterprise (SOE) running (currently, in 2020) four television channels and18 radio stations with a varying number of fixed contract employees/freelancers. It was originally modeled on the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1936, notwithstanding differences in relating to broadcasting, based on national history, demographic composition and power relations (Rosenthal 1974). When the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power in 1947, leading members of the aligned secret society ‘Afrikaner Broederbond’ entered the top management and governed the corporation until the 1990s (Strydom and Wilkins 1979; Serfontein 1979) and, in the middle ranges, government anthropologists guided the programming for the ‘Black’ population. When the National Party incrementally lost/gave up power, ideas and symbols of ‘newness’ were established. The SABC thus symbolized, (re-)presented and practiced ‘Apartheid’ as much as ‘change’ in the transition period, which some of my interlocutors remember as a “honeymoon” of investigative journalism. Nowadays observers perpetually diagnose the situation as one of financial as well as moral crisis (Daniels 2020, Orgeret 2009, Louw and Milton 2012).

Her two year project is funded by the DFG, see

Previously, on the one hand, the SABC was deemed to be the ‘mouthpiece’ of the National Party government advocating apartheid (Tomaselli et al. 1989). Yet, on the other hand, not least extreme right-wing critics interpreted particularly its news commentary in the late 1970s and 1980s as the vehicle through which the National Party advocated and legitimized the departure of ‘classic’ apartheid principles (Bothma 1988). The problematization I intend, thus centers on the ambiguities within the “corporate identity” and the variety of mediations this public entity offers. Mediation, as a key concept, links technologies, institutions, spaces and materialities (Boyer 2012: 384). Which (not) intended consequences did technological change mediate and which practices emerged?

I assume that past is not merely represented or imagined but practiced. In my research project I therefore take a practice theoretical perspective on the corporation and those affected by it and consider the relationship between technological and social change through media practices (Bräuchler and Postill 2010). I empirically focus on the mundane daily happenings and their narrativization within the corporation’s workflow in order to re-/construct a broadcast dispositif, the ‘answer’ institutionalized broadcasting gave and gives to problematic situation(s) in South Africa. For this objective, I scrutinize the present as well as the period from the introduction of television in 1976 – the same year the events in Soweto heralded the escalation of resistance dynamics – until the early 1990s and I focus the works and lives of technicians, (news) journalists and drama producers, in particular. The analysis shall support a theorization of the link between subjectivities and objectifications, events, discourse, and practice (cf. Bührmann and Schneider 2008).

My research questions the dominant narrative of social change and ‘newness’ of post-Apartheid South Africa in order identify the very terms of description. It is to offer a more robust understanding of the past and current SABC and its employees’ conceptions of themselves and the corporation. Moreover, the research addresses the fractured relationship between journalism and anthropology (Hannerz 2005, Bird 2010) and the conditions for the production, mediation and reception of ‘newness’ and ‘news’.

Three methods pave the way for the research:

  1. co-constructed biographic interviews between current and former employees and myself in tandem with the selection and analysis of (auto-)biographic materials of the same group of persons;
  2. archival research within and about the SABC and South African journalism;
  3. “interface ethnography” (Ortner 2010), hence participant observation in the life worlds of former/current employees as well as in the various accessible areas of the SABC, such as archives, guided tours, public events.

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Boyer, Dominic (2012): From media anthropology to the anthropology of mediation. In: The Sage handbook of social anthropology, S. 411–422.

Bräuchler, Birgit; Postill, John (Hg.) (2010): Theorising media and practice. New York: Berghahn Books.

Bührmann, Andrea D.; Schneider, Werner (2008): Vom Diskurs zum Dispositiv. Eine Einführung in die Dispositivanalyse. Bielefeld: transcript (Sozialtheorie : Intro).

Daniels, Glenda (2020): Power and loss in South African journalism. News in the age of social media. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf (20]05): Foreign news. Exploring the world of foreign correspondents. Nachdr. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press (The Lewis Henry Morgan lectures, 2000).

Louw, P. Eric; Milton, Viola (2012): New voices over the air. The transformation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in a changing South Africa. New York, NY: Hampton Press.

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Orgeret, Kristin Skare (2009): Television news. The South African post-apartheid experience : continuity and change in the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). Saarbrücken: Vdm Verlag Dr. Müller.

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Teer-Tomaselli, Ruth; Tomaselli, Keyan G.; Muller, Johan (1989): Currents of power. State broadcasting in South Africa. Bellville, South Africa: Anthropos (Addressing the nation).

Wilkins, Ivor; Strydom, Hans (1980 [1978]): The super-Afrikaners. Johannesburg: Ball.