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Systems of Governance

Soft Power South African Style

Sean Jacobs mediates the tensions between local pleasure, global capital and cultural imperialism through the desirous and politicised spectacle of satellite television.

They say you can’t choose your family. Across the continent, in Africa, people have little choice over their satellite television provider. It’s almost as if DStv comes with the house; as long as you are prepared to pay extra for it, and as long as you can afford it.

Public television is underfunded, unimaginative (mostly due to political interference), weak or non-existent. In a few countries, public television only arrived a few years ago, and by the time it made an appearance it had already been made obsolete by DStv’s market dominance. Take Botswana’s national television service (BTV): the station delivers a mere eight hours of local and international programming on weekdays, and 10 hours on weekends. The channel’s content is a mix of the religious programming, the B-grade and the prime-time American schlock, such as Dr Phil and The Bold and Beautiful. These are no match for DStv.

We don’t have the luxury of online television services yet; low bandwidth means no on-demand services. On top of it, the company behind DStv, MultiChoice Africa, is buying up all the popular, home-grown content it can – like Nollywood films for which they’ve created a specialised channel. Most African football fans, especially those in anglophone countries, learn about football – European football, that is – through Multichoice’s SuperSport channels. SuperSport is single-handedly responsible for burgeoning Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea fan-bases on the continent. (In other countries, that would be the job of Al Jazeera’s sports channels or television stations beamed in from France). Even local leagues, long subject to dodgy broadcasts by local stations, are now being bought up by SuperSport.

It is therefore no surprise that Koos Bekker, the longtime Chief Executive Officer of Naspers, the company that owns MutliChoice Africa, is bullish about his prospects on the continent: ‘The rest of Africa might be more buoyant than South Africa,’ he told an interviewer from business network, ABN, last year.

Few people pause to remember MultiChoice Africa’s dubious beginnings in Nasionale Pers, since abbreviated to Naspers, a corporation that effectively acted as the media mouthpiece of Apartheid and Afrikaner Nationalism for at least 80 years, and shied away from openly challenging it. Fewer still consider the irony of this self-same corporation now ruling the African continent’s television screens, and expanding its online business further to Russia, China, Brazil, India and Eastern Europe.

M-Net, the South African business of MultiChoice and the name of the company before the launch of satellite television in South Africa, has its roots in late Apartheid, specifically in a period in the mid-1980s characterised by ‘reform’: essentially, public announcements of conciliation by the state, even as it enforced more police repression of the massive popular unrest that was unfolding on the streets. The state broadcaster (then the only licensed broadcast television in South Africa) had begun carrying television commercials. This decision bit into the revenues of the six biggest (and white, English and Afrikaans) print media companies in the country, and they were quick to complain to government.

The strongest of these companies was Nasionale Pers, and it is no coincidence that it won the right to introduce paid private television to South Africa. Of course there was a ‘bidding process’, but as the journalist Anton Harber wrote recently in a fawning profile of Bekker, Nasionale Pers’ connections to the ruling party were strong enough to clinch the deal. It was an open secret that, in return, the Apartheid regime demanded one thing only – that M-Net would not broadcast news. M-Net launched in October 1996. Subscribers to the service had to buy decoders (Bekker was copying the American cable TV system). They aimed to sell about 9,000 decoders a month, but only had about 500 subscribers at the channel’s launch. Initially, the company almost went bankrupt, but within two years it turned itself around and delivered a healthy profit to its shareholders. What followed was a nearly 20-year monopoly, which Harber correctly refers to as a ‘licensed monopoly’. In other words, nothing more or less than straightforward protectionism.

Right from the start, M-Net showcased a mix of sketchy American films (the British Actors’ Union forbid its members from selling their art to Apartheid South Africa) and run-of-the-mill television programming (soaps and variety concerts). After a while, to help M-Net gain subscribers, the government legislated an ‘open time’ window (a free-to-air 5pm to 7pm slot every night for M-Net to advertise its wares.). M-Net would gradually add live sports broadcasts to its offerings. These would be mainly ‘white’ sports – golf, cricket, rugby and more rugby. Over time it would introduce English football and it’s own South African brand of soap opera (remember Egoli?).

As South Africa made the transition from legal and political Apartheid to liberal democracy, M-Net convinced the government that it should be in charge of introducing satellite television to the country. Thus, in 1995, DStv was born. By the year 2000, MultiChoice and DStv had expanded service to the rest of the continent, with ‘bouquets’ (‘bundles’ in the North American market) for its Portuguese-speaking customers and niche movie channels catering to regional tastes.

With South Africa’s TV market plateauing, MultiChoice is keenly aware of the potential that the wider African market represents for its product and, in response, creates and markets a variety of channels and programmes aimed at audiences across the continent. Among these are MTV Base, an African version of the US music television channel MTV, Channel O, another music channel run out of Johannesburg and Africa Magic a satellite channel that features Nollywood films. There are also the continental versions of reality shows like Project Fame, in which contestants compete for recording contracts, and Face of Africa, in which the first prize is a modelling contract in North America or Western Europe.

Today, MultiChoice has nearly 58 million subscribers in 48 countries on the continent. Of course, DStv now carries all the most popular ‘global’ news channels: BBC World Service, CNN and Al Jazeera, as well as those angling for a global remit: Russia Today and China Central Television (CCTV). But the closest it comes to producing news programming itself is through the M-Net current affairs show, Carte Blanche, which, until recently, was anchored by white South Africans and similar to Sky News in its tone. When not focusing on the latest manufactured outburst from the white suburbs of South African cities, it slaps an introduction onto a re-packaged show from networks in Australia and the US.

M-Net and DStv certainly know how to move with the times. They have conveniently tapped into, and benefit from, South Africa’s new-found hegemony on the continent. They are as much a part of what’s represented by that Nando’s burger you eat in Dakar, that Vodacom cellphone contract in Lagos, or the Shoprite you visit in a gated community in Dar-es-Salam or Maputo. In effect, they are part and parcel of South African soft power politics – that place where the ambitions of the South African state and South African capital neatly, some might argue deliberately, coincide.


In terms of ‘global competitiveness’ (as measured by the World Economic Forum), South Africa is consistently the highest-ranked country on the continent. South African businesses dominate regional markets (especially in telecoms and retail) in Southern and East Africa, and hold their own in others (construction, banking and mining) against better organized and/or financed rivals from the US, Brazil, Western Europe and China.

Since the advent of broad-based democracy in the country, African markets have opened up for South African business on an unprecedented scale. This has not been lost on the South African state, which continues to develop a leading role for itself – from Thabo Mbeki’s Nepad initiative, his African Renaissance rhetoric and hosting of the African Parliament, to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (a former wife to the current president), who has recently taken up the position of Secretary-General of the African Union. And successive United States governments have considered South South Africa the continental leader; former president George W Bush once referred to former president Mbeki as his ‘point man in Africa’.

Moreover, South African administrations have underwriten and actively promoted South African schemes on the continent through the ‘Proudly South African’ campaign, which is coordinated through an International Marketing Council (IMC) situated in the Office of the President. The IMC publicly links nationalism with consumption through slick and targeted advertising. In this way, a brand identity has been established, through which investment is sought (think of all those ‘Alive with Possibility’ ads). Separately, a statutory body, the Industrial Development Corporation (or IDC, first established to preserve and promote white ‘self-government’ in 1940) underwrites the expansion of South African capital into the rest of the continent. A very public secret about the Oscar-nominated film, Hotel Rwanda (a fictionalized account of the 1994 genocide in the central African country) is that it was financed by the South African government through the IDC.

Yet, some say Chinese state firms are now wiping out whatever comparative advantage South Africa enjoyed in markets to its north. This is certainly clear in terms of mining and infrastructure development. But looking at solely at China’s economic power does not tell the full story of globalisation in Africa. A review of the production of popular culture on the continent provides something closer to that.

Entertainment has not only provided South Africa’s media industry the opportunity to export the country’s cultural products to the rest of the continent, but also to act as the conduit for exporting discourses of aspiration, continental union and, unintentionally or not, progressive identity politics (especially around sexuality and individual rights). Thus, the regional globalisation strategies of South African media capital create new identities or aspirations while co-opting existing cultural products and circuits.

The Cameroon-born, South Africa-based cultural theorist, Achille Mbembe, in a now legendary article written in 2000, made a strong argument that the old schemas by which we represent and understand political and cultural change in Africa – and by which Africa is presented as being on the margins of global cultural and economic processes – do not, and cannot, capture the continent’s complexity and development. Mbembe was referring to colonial boundaries (French, British and Portuguese, among others) and regional demarcations (North and Sub-Saharan Africa) that, in his reading, have become outdated and obsolete. Mbembe pointed to the emergence of ‘new forms of territoriality and unexpected forms of locality’ in which ‘new internal and external actors, organised into networks and nuclei, claim rights over these territories’.

Mbembe singled out a select group of the continent’s capital cities and major commercial hubs as cultural centres, where, he said, ‘a new African urban civilisation is emerging’. For Mbembe, their residents represent a ‘new [African] urbanity’. The cities included in this category are Cairo, Kinshasa, Casablanca, Nairobi, Lagos, Douala, Dakar, Abidjan, and, crucially, Johannesburg. Furthermore, writes Mbember: ‘This new urbanity, creole and cosmopolitan, is characterised by combination and mixture in clothing, music, and advertising as well as in practices of consumption in general.’

To underscore the relative importance of Johannesburg in relation to these other cities, Mbembe (along with his partner, the South African scholar Sarah Nuttall) later edited a special issue of the journal, Public Culture (published in October 2004) to investigate Johannesburg’s status as an ‘African Metropolis’. Though some of Mbembe’s arguments about Johannesburg have been contested since, two of his assertions are worth re-emphasising here: first, the emergence of what he terms ‘cultural and symbolic territorialities’ and, second, South Africa surfacing as a major ‘territorial figure’.

In Mbembe’s conception, South African corporations vie with North African states. as well as other non-African actors. for control over resource extraction in a number of weaker states and territories (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, countries in the Sahel). In addition, South African businesses dominate the country’s economic relations with its Southern Africa neighbours (Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique, to name a few) to the extent that these countries ‘are well on their way to becoming South African provinces’, if they are not already so.

Mbembe concedes that South Africa’s growing influence is subject to global financial fluctuations, that its ‘position on the continent is still highly ambiguous, and [that] the terms on which it can be reintegrated into the continent remain unclear’. Crucially, he emphasises: ‘South Africa’s political, diplomatic, and cultural influence is far greater than economic power, which itself remains very relative.’ Mbembe may be right. South Africa’s intent to play a larger political role – through peacekeeping or domination of key continental institutions, like the AU – face some resistance or are derailed by its own diplomatic failures (Sani Abacha’s murder of Ken Saro Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders in 1995 despite Mandela’s pleading – or subsequent failed peace initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. It is telling that it was the French who intervened in Mali while the African Union dallied).

Mbembe is not the first to acknowledge to the growing cultural, political and economic importance of Johannesburg and South Africa in the affairs of the continent. The South African state actively promotes such a vision, as does its multinational corporations, as does the city of Johannesburg, and its intellectual and cultural elites,. In fact, in the aftermath of Apartheid, Johannesburg quickly eclipsed previous regional hubs, such as Nairobi and Harare, to become the base for multinational media and other private business concerns.

It is clear that South African capital has understood that soft power has a hard edge, and is useful to secure the state as a regional hegemon. With South Africa’s establishment as a centre for business and media, satellite television emerged as a platform for spreading not only the country’s cultural exports, but also localized, national and regional adaptations for a diverse and expanding audience.

But as they continue their long march across the continent, South African corporations are not always welcomed with open arms. Indeed, in a number of countries, they are considered ‘new imperialists’, ‘sub-imperialists’ or derided as ‘semi-peripheral’. Jeff Radebe, the current Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, admitted as much when he told journalists: ‘There are strong perceptions that many South African companies working elsewhere in Africa come across as arrogant, disrespectful, aloof and careless in their attitude towards local business communities, work seekers and even governments.’

There are many reasons for this less-than-warm reception. Chief among them are accusations of disregard for local workforces and allegations of corruption. South African retailers who have opened shopping malls in countries to the north are often criticised for contributing to de-industrialisation and for undercutting the value of local products by sourcing cheaper goods from  producers at home. More controversially, South African mining interests abroad have become embroiled in allegations of looting local mineral assets, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Tanzania, where more than 150 South African firms have entered the country since 1994, and with virtually every major South African firm operating there, the presence of South Africans remain a contentious issue. Objections include their role in the rapid privatisation of nearly 400 state-run institutions, including Tanzania’s largest banking chain, its national airline and national brewery; control of new industries (cell phones service providers, private television stations); the dumping of cheap South African goods on Tanzanian markets by Shoprite, a supermarket chain now present in a number of SADC countries; and the domination of extractive industries (gold, gemstones) on very favourable, concessions.


According to Richard Schroeder, a geographer who has studied South African investment in Tanzania (and who wrote a book, Africa Apartheid, on the subject), what irks ordinary Tanzanians most is the role and behaviour of the white South African representatives of these firms, who are often accused of importing racism from home. This includes establishing exclusive schools, social clubs and resorting to the use of violence against Tanzanian labourers. Schroeder describes their behaviour in one instance:

In the gemstone sector, hundreds of small-scale miners were forcibly removed from the       core of a lucrative tanzanite mining site in the mid-1990s, clearing the way for   acquisition by a South African mining firm. In the ensuing decade, South African            security personnel at the mine were implicated in numerous shooting incidents, which   resulted in several fatalities and the wounding of dozens of small scale miner            “trespassers”. The corporate miners later established an exclusive tanzanite brand, which was then used to discredit unbranded gems (like those produced by the small scale sector) as potentially illegal and unreliable.”

But South Africans do not have rein absolutely free on the continent. More recently, the hegemony of the ‘old World’ (Europe) and North American interests have been challenged by the increasing presence of China on the continent, and African countries’ growing relationships with Asian countries in general. The World Bank summarised China’s growing influence in 2007: Since 2000 there has been a massive increase in trade and investment flows between [sub-Saharan] Africa and Asia. Today, Asia receives about 27 percent of Africa’s exports, in contrast to only about 14 percent in 2000. This volume of trade is now almost on par with Africa’s exports to the United States and the European Union (EU) – Africa’s traditional trading partners; in fact, the EU’s share of African exports has halved over the period 2000-05.

In October 2007, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (one of the ‘Big Four’ state-owned banks), in what was its largest foreign investment in an African enterprise, announced an investment of US$5,4 billion to purchase a stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank, the largest commercial bank on the continent.

As Europe and the US de-industrialise, Asia, and China particularly, have become, like South Africa, exporters of both low- and middle-range industrial goods. Chinese manufacturers produce these goods with much larger and lower-cost labour reserves. Increasingly, South African firms – while still relatively competitive in the mining sector – are facing strong competition from the Chinese in retail trade and financial and banking investment.  To be sure, South African capital is acutely aware of its limitations. In fact, South African corporations are banking on cultural exports to compete for markets and remain competitive with the Chinese.

Big Brother Africa, and a host of continental reality television shows that followed in its wake (Project Fame, Face of Africa, The Apprentice Africa and several more), amount to attempts by MultiChoice to secure a greater share of the television market in Africa. Does China’s presence seriously challenge South Africa’s strategy to combine capitalist and cultural expansion? Probably not.

There are a number of reasons why not. First, Chinese investment is focused in construction, the export of cheap commodities and resource extraction (through mining). Cultural relations hardly forms a part of this investment strategy. One criticism of Chinese workers and investors in Africa is that they keep to themselves in compounds. (Some would argue that behaviour of white South African expatriates in Tanzania amounts to much the same thing.) Second, as far as media is concerned, Chinese television does not see African television markets as desirable. While China went ahead with an international news channel (with some cultural programming) to promote China overseas, that channel does not have a strategy for Africa. (In contrast, CCTV launched an Arabic language channel in mid-2009.) Instead, CCTV 9 (China’s international news channel) is aimed at Chinese expatriates (it reaches 30 million Chinese living overseas via satellite and broadcasts in English, Spanish and French) and the presentation of programme content is very formal (it copies the news studio format of most major American and European broadcasts).

The CCTV’s status as an instrument of the state and its adherence to the ruling party’s views of China, means – in contrast to the South African MultiChoice – that its news and programming is heavily censored, and, according to the BBC, ‘packaged largely to show the country’s happy, harmonious moments, to inspire pride in the people, and, if necessary, unify them against a common enemy’. Chinese investors work closely with African governments, many of which are repressive, socially conservative and do not take easily to criticism. The kind of politics that Big Brother Africa encourages – conflict, the questioning of authority, individual freedom, etcetera – is hardly in sync with CCTV’s values. The Chinese network also bans ‘Western programming’ during prime time. (That said, MultiChoice also works out deals with governments – in Namibia for example, the largest local shareholder in MultiChoice is the investment arm of the ruling party.)

Interestingly, China has begun tweaking its continental aspirations, greatly expanding CCTV offices in Nairobi for instance, and producing English-language television shows. They work with A24, a TV production company owned by the son of legendary cameraman Mohammed Amin. (That company, ironically, gives lots of work to South African production companies, looking for other sources of work given declining commissions back home). Currently, there are 25 Confucius institutes in 18 countries focused on improving higher education opportunities and promoting cultural exchange.

While these developments point towards an embrace of the soft power model, for China to effectively engage in the cultural sphere it will have to overcome the perception of being just the latest exploiter in a region long used to exploiters. Until then, and for now, it would seem that South African soft power is here to stay.

Chronic + Chronic BooksThis piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.


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