Ready to Adapt

In a witty new television advertisement for Klipdrift brandy a clueless but well-meaning young white farmer takes a black couple in tow to his farmstead, constantly misunderstanding his male visitor’s comments as a request for another dop. “Nog enetjie?” the farmer asks his guest when they relax on the stoep after an evening of indulgence. “Eish—,” is the only reply the battle-weary guest can muster.
The farmer’s eyes light up. He has found a soul mate: “Met ys, ja!”

If the boertjie of advertisements (compare the undermining of clichés in the new SABC radio ad for Our Nation in Colour) now finds himself in conversation with compatriots from other cultures, it seems that even stereotypes have moved with the times.

Thinking about Afrikaans audiences in stereotypes would not take one far towards an understanding of Afrikaans media. The language community is diverse, and constant adaptation a requirement. While the majority of Afrikaans speakers are coloured, symbolic power has historically been concentrated around the white part of the community, linked to the Afrikaans media’s proximity to political power under apartheid. But although market segmentation in post-apartheid South African media in general is still not divorced from the racial configurations of the past, patterns are unmistakably shifting. Afrikaans newspapers, having had to change considerably since the advent of democracy, seem set to continue on this path. The addition of new titles indicates an exploration of new markets over and above the drive to find fresh permutations of old ones. Commercial Afrikaans newspapers (the majority of which are owned by Media24, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Naspers) today span the range from quality broadsheets to Sunday papers to tabloids. Repositioning was especially acute for titles like Rapport and Die Burger, who under apartheid had separate editions for white and coloured readers. Shaking their political baggage and gaining the trust of coloured readers (while not alienating white readers) was a daunting task for these titles.

Die Burger‘s current editor Arrie Rossouw called in the help of an independent consultant to “turn the heads of the whole editorial staff in order to create a non-racial agenda”. He made changes to the staff profile, recruited new columnists, and announced that the paper would no longer refer to Afrikaans speakers as “Afrikaners”, but more inclusively as “Afrikaanses”.

“Change was necessary to reposition Die Burger as an Afrikaans newspaper in the new democratic South Africa for all speakers of Afrikaans,” says Rossouw. “It was essential to appoint new senior editorial staff to help implement the more democratic political positioning. It was also necessary to transform the editorial staff to reflect the racial composition of the market, in other words more coloured and female editorial staff, especially in senior policy-making positions.”

The gamble paid off: “The most recent readership figures indicate that we succeeded [in winning] new coloured readers without losing a significant number of white readers.” Rossouw quotes last year’s Amps figures, which show Die Burger‘s readership as 56% coloured, 42% white and 2% black, and the gender mix as more or less balanced. The main age categories are 16 to 34 (38%) and 35 to 49 (36%), with the majority of the readership falling in LSM 8 to 10 (52%), followed by LSM 6 to 7 (35%). The ABC figures for the period July to December 2004 show an average of 104,102 on weekdays (117,092 on Saturdays). This puts it slightly ahead of its Gauteng-based stablemate Beeld (102,070 weekdays; 88,683 Saturdays) and in a different league to Bloemfontein-based Volksblad (29 018 weekdays; 24,431 Saturdays). For Peet Kruger, editor of Beeld, their success lies in providing a broad spectrum of information in a single paper. “Readers of Business Day mostly also read another, general daily. Our readers mostly only read Beeld.” This involves combining sensation and serious news.

The giant of Afrikaans newspapers, Rapport, underwent repositioning under the leadership of current editor Tim du Plessis. In the late ‘90s Du Plessis, then working for Beeld, earned the scorn of Naspers chairman Ton Vosloo (see Graeme Addison’s “Fast Newsday in Afrikanerdom”, The Media, January 2003) when he led a rebel group of journalists in submitting an apology to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for their own and the company’s complicity during apartheid. After stints at City Press (deputy editor) and Citizen (editor), he took the top editorial job at Rapport. “About two editors ago, Rapport was a platform for gatvol Afrikaners,” says Du Plessis. “I think we managed to shake off that image.” These days, Du Plessis argues, it is not as difficult as before to take readers along in a new direction. “Afrikaans newspaper readers are much more sophisticated than they get credit for. Many would buy a newspaper without necessarily agreeing with the paper’s political stance. They enjoy being challenged, but will not accept being prescribed to.” On this point, Du Plessis is well aware of Rapport’s institutional status: “To paraphrase Arthur Miller: Rapport is the Afrikaans community in conversation with itself.”

But not everyone seems to think that the sector’s general repositioning has reached deep enough. In a weekly letter to the nation earlier this year, President Thabo Mbeki lashed out at both Du Plessis and Die Burger‘s deputy editor, Leopold Scholtz. In response to Scholtz’s accusation in a column that the ANC infringes on minority rights and Du Plessis’s branding of him as a “race-ideologist”, Mbeki countered that the comments indicated blindness to “the imperative to address the equitable empowerment of all South Africans”. The conflict may have been interpreted in a number of ways, but the valid suggestion in Mbeki’s argument is that content does not automatically follow audience profile, and may occasionally still be at odds.

Then in April this year Rapport got competition for the first time in decades, when tabloid-format paper Die Wêreld launched nationwide. Editor Maryna Blomerus, former organiser of Ukkasie, the Afrikaans cultural festival in London, has no prior journalism experience and sees her role as “managing with one eye on [their] vision and the other on the bottomline”. This vision is to publish a paper that is “dignified, modern, investigative, honest, balanced, responsible”. The paper targets the mainstream in the LSM 6 to 10 category, claiming a desire to “move away from sensation” and “break their own stories”. While Blomerus plans a strong focus on the “unexplored” youth market, she believes the paper has “something for everyone”: “Our readers are Afrikaans speakers from all cultural communities - people who want to form their own opinions, rather than those wanting the truth dumped upon them.”

Sales in the first two weeks have been pegged at 60,000, but Blomerus hopes to reach 100,000 within a year, and to break even commercially within two years. She did not want to be drawn on the paper’s political stance, describing the paper’s main criteria as “universal values” and “the inherent dignity of each person”, while not having “an Afrikaans agenda” or “promoting the values of (white) Afrikaners at the cost of other people”. But the funders of the paper, Unisa academic Professor Kobus Wolvaardt and his family, are however involved in Afrikaner cultural politics - Wolvaardt being a member of the Group of 63, an Afrikaner organisation lobbying for minority rights, and his son, Kobus jr. being involved with the Konfederale Afrikanerforum (KAF) and the Pro-Afrikaanse Aksiegroep (PRAAG), led by the rightwing Dr Dan Roodt.

Content wise, the new kid on the block received a lashing from the outset. John Farquhar, writing for Marketingweb, gave a forthright assessment: “I looked in vain for an editorial style that would ‘show up’ the other Afrikaans media…[w]hen it comes to covering the daily doings and goings of the Afrikaner, it is not a patch on Beeld and Die Burger.”

Arrie De Beer, professor emeritus at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Journalism, called Die Wêreld‘s approach “amateurish”: “Although Blomerus claims an almost apolitical approach, it does not take a PhD in journalism to identify the newspaper’s political stance as being in line with that of Radio Pretoria and the gatvol Afrikaner conservative stance on the New South Africa.”

Tim du Plessis does not seem overly impressed either. “Until now Die Wêreld has not had any effect on our circulation. Our sales increased on the first two Sundays that Die Wêreld appeared. The Afrikaans Sunday market is currently stagnant. Between 1990 and 2000 it was shrinking, and Rapport lost 60,000 readers during this time. Time will tell whether there is a gap in the Sunday market and whether Die Wêreld will fill it. We have a rather good idea of what our readers expect of us, and Die Wêreld will not change that focus.”

Another recent entrant to the Afrikaans newspaper market is the tabloid Son. Starting life in the Western Cape in 2003 as the weekly Kaapse Son, it went national in the same year when its success became evident (average circulation July to December 2004 pushing 200,000, up from 179,287 in the preceding 6 month period) and changed from weekly to daily this year. According to senior editorial staff member Andrew Koopman, Son targets a coloured and white readership, mostly amongst “the working class”. Son describes its content as “educational” through its exposure of “drugs, prostitution, corruption”. Its “page-three girl” has had some feminist commentators up in arms, although the paper claims that “women love Son: 56 percent of our readers are female”.

Interestingly, Son‘s coverage of a recent story involving harmful allegations about a gay minister made by his ex-partner, and the latter’s subsequent suicide, led to heated debate in the Afrikaans media. Professor Lizette Rabe, chair of the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University, asked whether tabloids are also subject to an ethical code, or have a metaphorical “licence to kill”. Son‘s national editor, Ingo Capraro, responded that the tabloid subscribes to the same ethical codes as other newspapers, but that they “tell the story in a different way”.

So readiness to adapt seems to be the motto for Afrikaans newspapers wanting to meet future challenges. Rossouw is upbeat, citing the media awards that Afrikaans journalists, subs and graphic artists scoop annually. “There is still considerable space for growth in parts of the Afrikaans market. The challenge is to get the younger generation to read newspapers. If we can succeed in that, there is no reason for serious concern.” Kruger says its easier to alienate readers in the Afrikaans market by not changing, than the other way around. “Just understand your market, and their changing needs.”

Du Plessis concurs: “As long as Afrikaans newspapers continue the quality of their reportage and professional presentation, they will have a market. Especially if they stay in touch with the community and anticipate its shifts timeously.”

Time will tell in what direction these shifts will be, and how newspapers are going to respond. But change seems to be a constant. Eish, ja.

Dr Herman Wasserman is a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch, and a former newspaper journalist.