“South Africans went to the brink of full-out civil war in the 1980s, but decided to go shopping instead.” This description of the transition to democracy — by an unnamed Pan Africanist Congress cadre quoted by Graeme Addison in The Media magazine a while ago — came to mind while watching SABC3’s Media Focus two weeks ago. The programme featured a new SABMiller advert.
Perhaps this programme would not have struck such a cord with me were it not for the one preceding it on another channel, namely one in the SABC2 series History of Political Parties, focusing on the South African Communist Party. It reminded one of the high stakes in the struggle for a fairer distribution of wealth — a dream for which people went to jail and even ran the risk of being sentenced to death for high treason. Economics was hardly a dull topic. It was the stuff dreams were made of.
Then I switched to SABC3, and in the few millimeters between buttons on the remote control, the South African transition transpired. From the black-and-white pictures of Umkhonto weSizwe platoons to the full colour of post-apartheid advertising boardrooms. The SABMiller ad showed teams of “ordinary” South Africans tugging on a giant rope across scenic stretches. To the stirring sounds of the “white Zulu”, Johnny Clegg, they drew the continents closer, until finally Sydney’s opera house and the Statue of Liberty were drifting in Table Bay harbour. The earlier grainy pictures of Sharpeville almost paled in comparison to the multicoloured spectacle.
The ad was a succinct expression of the commodification of South Africa’s transition. The rainbow idea, the warm feeling when we think of the “miracle of 1994”, the shosholozas and the vuvuzelas — it all makes for very good business. SABMiller representative Michael Farr commented that the ad was partly an acknowledgement of the benefits the advent of democracy brought for the company. And, he added, the ad already had an impact — a viewer wrote him to say the ad persuaded his son not to emigrate.
The songs of anti-apartheid protesters heard minutes earlier had become a jingle. The revolution had become an advertisement.
Should one be cynical about this? Perhaps it depends on which side one stood in the recent debates on the pages of this newspaper about the African National Congress’s “selling out” and the intellectual left’s response. One should not forget that between the eras represented by the respective TV programmes, economic realities have changed considerably. One could celebrate, as the VW Bug billboard did so smugly, that “capitalism won” (although “capitalism conquered” would be more accurate), one could resign to the idea that “there is no alternative” and play the global neo-liberal game, or one can try to resist in one of a variety of ways. Whether the ANC’s adoption of the growth, employment and redistribution strategy was the wrong choice between these alternatives or not, the SABMiller ad was an indication of how the playing field has changed. Power, and resistance against it, is not located primarily in the nation state anymore, but is distributed in much more complex ways. Power is now calculated globally on the nexus of politics, economics and the media. Where these three discourses meet, one finds the epicentre of contemporary hegemony. Put simply — in today’s sound-bite-ruled universe, in the glow of television screens, power belongs to those who succeed in linking political power with economic power, and this linkage is established via the media. You cannot start a revolution if you cannot sell it too. And how can you sell something without taking out an ad?
Crucially, however, not everyone has equal access to this market-place of ideas. The information society charges admission. That is why an advertisement like SABMiller’s is not merely an attempt to make a few bucks from consumer patriotism. In one of the most unequal countries in the world, a commercial invoking the political transition is also a form of power. It confirms that they who have the economic power, also have the claim to the trademark of being Proudly New South African.
Therefore, when President Thabo Mbeki and Tony Leon argue about communitarianism versus individualism, the state versus the market, the media cannot claim to be a neutral barometer merely registering hot air. The media are firmly enmeshed in this triangulation of politics, economics and information. How these debates are framed, show up the media’s own positioning.
The SABMiller advertisement is, as Jeremy Maggs typified it, warm and fuzzy. But the media should not forget about the millions of South Africans who do not feel so warm and fuzzy right now (not referring to disgruntled potential émigrés). In the SABMiller ad continents are drawn closer. If the media want to question power relations rather than merely enforcing them, they should also draw closer those on the other side of the information divide — the homeless, the jobless, the landless.
This does not mean advertisements should stop communicating feel-good messages or should depress rather than inspire. But they should be recognised for what they show — not a fait accompli, but an ideal, an optimistic fiction, a symbol of aspiration. And the media should ask critical questions, starting with their own positioning in networks of power. And be careful not to sell the dream at a discount.
Dr Herman Wasserman lectures in the department of journalism at the University of Stellenbosch