Back in 1989, at the height of political violence involving the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Inkatha Freedom Front (IFP), I almost got the hiding of my life or possible death – for working for the “wrong” newspaper.
Just as the townships were divided into IFP or UDF territories, newspapers were also labeled as “belonging” to this, or the other camp. The two dominant papers that were read by everyone in the affected areas as they were written in Zulu were UmAfrika and Ilanga.
If you worked for Ilanga, which had been bought from Argus by Amandla-Matla, an IFP company, in 1986 you would be stupid to try and venture into UDF dominated areas and, conversely, reporters from UmAfrika, owned by the Catholic church, couldn’t venture into IFP-dominated areas.
That day I had ventured into Malukazi, which was divided equally between the UDF and IFP, and the house I was visiting was owned by an elderly man who had just lost his entire family during a raid by IFP people.
When I got there, the old man introduced me to those sitting outside his house preparing for the wake. He told them I was a reporter from Ilanga. They started shouting, baying for my blood, until I quickly pointed out my host’s mistake: “I work for UmAfrika, and I’ve got my press card to prove.”
The old man had made a common, but potentially deadly mistake. Those days Ilanga, because of its heritage, was synonymous to the word “newspaper”.
It was a brand so established that when a person went to the shop to buy a newspaper he would say: “one copy of Ilanga“. Only when the cashier brought “Ilanga” would the purchaser say: “Not, this Ilanga, the other smaller Ilanga” (meaning UmAfrika, which is in tabloid format.)
Those days, UmAfrika was trying to carve an identity for itself. I, together with around 20 journalists had quit Ilanga when it was bought by the IFP as we detested working for an overtly political newspaper owned by a political party in those turbulent times. Some of us ended up at UmAfrika.
UmAfrika and Ilanga are two fine examples reflecting the development of Zulu journalism. The two titles best sum up the tensions that have always been at the heart of newspaper ownership, and how this impacts on the quality of journalism, in this country.
Ilanga was launched in 1903 by John Dube who would, in 1912, be the first president of the ANC. Right from the onset the paper reflected the man’s political ambitions – he was a liberal preacher who had been taught in the United States and wanted to use the paper to further his evangelical duties but also instill in his readers the need to embrace western civilization in all its manifestation. He has been called the Booker T. Washington of South Africa.
Ilanga, which produced such great writers as RRR Dhlomo, Lewis Nkosi who went on to be respected literary voices in the country, went through metamorphosis over the years, and by 1936 it had been gobbled up by the Argus, the publishing house that was owned by the mining houses.
Obviously, like all newspapers in that stable, Ilanga avoided stories that would embarrass the mining houses. Ilanga brought to black publishing the look and feel of the Western (particularly British) popular press, modeling itself on the Daily Mirror.
(Except that because Zulu people are considered to be conservative, stories about sex and other taboo subjects were not to be seen on their pages). The bill of fare was sports, crime and politics (of a moderate nature).
Meanwhile, UmAfrika, which had been launched by the Trappist monks of the Mariannhill Mission in 1911 (initially as Izindaba Zabantu, later changing to UmAfrika in 1929) has always been a sober, reflective read.
Throughout the years of its existence tensions were present between those who wanted UmAfrika to be a purely religious paper, and those who wanted it to include current news and articles on political issues.
In 1962, UmAfrika, which published once a week, had 13,000 subscribers; 9,000 in 1971, and 16,000 in 1978. There was a steady decline in the early 1980s with subscribers dropping below 5,000. Correspondingly, during that period Ilanga (which published on Mondays and Thursdays) had a healthy circulation of around 150,000 for each edition.
In 1985 and 1986 two comprehensive reports on UmAfrika were produced with the aim to secure its future as a contemporary, relevant, independent and effective newspaper, and broaden its appeal as a Christian-based instrument of reconciliation and development.
Living up to the recommendations from the reports, the owners of the paper the Catholic Missionaries of Mariannhill obtained funding from the European Commission, relaunching the paper and hiring new, trained journalists who were to be headed by Cyril Madlala, formerly a political and labour reporter on Ilanga.
From a traditionally conservative newspaper during a period when black people were yearning for political change, UmAfrika now emerged as a powerful alternative newspaper in the mode of the Weekly Mail. In fact, the two newspapers collaborated on a few investigations while I was there.
The injection of new editorial blood saw the circulation swiftly rising from a measly 5,000 to around 87,000 in a space of about three years. Ilanga was struggling for sales, their circulation having gone down to around 100,000 during the same period.
But after 1994, and with the departure of Madlala and those journalists who had worked with him at UmAfrika, circulation started flagging again.
Remember, reader interest in straightforward political reporting was waning, and this was happening across the board. Readers needed sophisticated political analysis – and those at the helm were not ready.
Ilanga was not only stigmatised as an IFP mouthpiece, it also did not attract, or look for suitably qualified staff to rise to the challenge of providing cutting edge journalism for the new era.
UmAfrika was finally sequestrated, and re-launched in 2003 under new management – with Madlala as editor and co-owner, working with Andy Stanton.
Meanwhile, in 2002 a new Zulu language paper, the first daily in that language, had been launched under the title Isolezwe (the eye of the nation). Its initial circulation was 32,000 (and for the ABC period April – June 2006 it sold 91,316). Remarkable.
Madlala and his team have boosted the circulation of UmAfrika again. It now sells 32,288. Ilanga has clearly been hurt. Their ABC April – June 2006 stands at 97,822 from 112,986 (corresponding previous period).
I think the lesson that can be learnt from this is that the market is looking for new ideas, for new takes on issues ranging from politics to celebrity news – while Ilanga is still stuck in its 100-year old format of political partisanship when it is not writing stories about zombies.
What is happening in Zulu print journalism can also be seen in Zulu broadcasting where Ukhozi FM (formerly known as Radio Zulu) is being challenged by newcomer iGagasi 99.5.
There is a cry for innovative, entertaining, informative media – and the new entrants have seen that gap.
Whether there is a gap for a new Zulu newspaper remains to be seen; but what is clear is that in as much as indigenous Zulu speakers, like their Afrikaans counterparts, do consume media in other languages they still prefer to be spoken to in their language – and media owners better take note of this. This is quite remarkable in the sense that newspapers in other indigenous languages are all but dead.
Ironically, one of the iconic voices in African-language publishing, Imvo Zabantsundu, has been dead for more than a decade now, and is being missed immensely.
One wonders if that has to do with the fact that Xhosa-speaking people are not interested in being communicated to in their language; or is this perhaps an opportunity that has not been explored by media owners who are not in touch with their audiences?
But that’s a subject that needs to be scrutinized on its own…
While in the past Zulu newspapers could be classified “wrong” or “right” based on their political stances, today the “wrongness” or “rightness” of the papers are based on quality and their adaptability to a fast-changing market, and a demanding readership.