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Who’s black, anyway?

I am intrigued by the heated conversations about ‘black media’ in South Africa. Sitting through many of these discussions I find myself silently taking stock of who speaks when terms like ‘black’, ‘press’ and ‘broadcast’ need defining. Often these terms are associated with consumers of print and broadcast media, the end-of-the-line recipients of products determined by suppliers who claim to satiate a desire (demand). It is not the foundational equation of economic theory that is intriguing here, but rather who claims to understand and represent the interests of this vast open market called South African media. The intrigue and suspense is generated from attempting to unravel the power behind this media production and to beg the question: is ‘black’ intrinsic only to the mass that consume information and entertainment, or is it also implicated on the other end of the equation, the end responsible for creating, generating and determining the supply.

Judging by content, television definitely seems to have coloured up to appeal to its broadest consumer base. e.TV and SABC have met the challenge of offering black representations that meet an array of socio-economic experiences and African languages. On the face of it, all looks well for black representation on the consumption end.

But who are the folks creating the content; the production companies, writers and directors who initiate ideas, win tenders and derive economic benefit from meeting the challenge of educating and entertaining black audiences?

A short overview reveals that the power of manufacturing representations still lies in the hands of white production companies, writers and directors. These companies have learnt well the craft of comprehensive field research and creating narratives that appeal to the realities and aspirations of their target (read black) audiences.

The phenomenon is not unique to South Africa. Neo-colonial economies often replace the window dressing in the post-colony while maintaining economic control through subsidiaries and conglomerates.

While the SABC is state subsidised, and government is now black, the task of generating content still falls into the realm of private production companies who are able to present a thoroughly researched brief and have the infra-structure to deliver on time. The infrastructure secured during minority rule dominates the terrain because it maintains the know-how to do comprehensive research and offer what it imagines the market needs.

SO the prevailing problem in asking the question about black media is determining the parameters in the definition constituting blackness. Would films with black actors be considered ‘black cinema’ if the producer/director were not black?

In America, where the market is predominately white but the white market now responds to black cool through rap or hip-hop and black action heroes, the boundaries around blackness are increasingly blurred.

Black feminist theorist bell hooks (she insists her name be cited in smalls) suggests that there are problems with essentialising blackness based on skin colour. Black filmmakers are acutely aware of the importance of meeting market expectations, and often deal with race in a way that is not subversive or does not challenge racial stereotypes. hooks deals with black minority representation in a white majority America and her call for a subversive black aesthetic is a response to the prevailing race and class structures in America. These structures still hold African-Americans outside mainstream representations, therefore the political agenda of keeping this category alive is to ensure sites of resistance to dominant white culture in America.

But what are the implications of translating this observation for South Africa, where blacks are the majority? Moreover, what implications do the variables of political transformation and the burgeoning black bourgeois have in shaping how blackness is defined? Lastly, do the prevailing definitions of blackness account for the developing generation in South Africa growing up less insulated and segregated from different cultures and races?

The definitions of blackness appear to fall short of addressing the socio-political and cultural assimilation of white minorities in South Africa, and in this context do not address the issue of class in defining what is black.

It is never wise to advocate that skin colour be a determinant of who maintains the right to represent what, but it goes without saying that experiences of race often affect the way ideas are represented. In free markets and capitalist economies, it is the astute observer who will deliver on a demand identified in the market, or will create a demand in a niche. More often than not, meeting this demand has little to do with colour but with class and political persuasion.

In South Africa, the black majority is finally in a privileged position to offer a definition of blackness, and yet it seems to be a marginal few who continue to perpetuate these categories. It is time that the nonsequitur of blackness in Africa be refuted and supply and demand be defined in terms of class and gender issues with a long overdue need for representation.

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