Independent Newspapers Help Stir Forces for Change
But as reforms take shape, publications are having to rethink their mission. SOUTH AFRICA
JOHANNESBURG — ALTERNATIVE news sources in South Africa have played a major role in the turbulent transformation of one of the world's most repressive societies five years ago to a nation in transition toward democratic rule.
"I think the alternative media has made a massive contribution toward the gathering and dissemination of information which was not available in the mainstream media," says Gavin Stewart, head of the journalism department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.
"This information alerted and informed influential people - like foreign embassies, trade unions, and business corporations - and enabled them to bring pressure on the government," Professor Stewart says.
"It was these pressures on government that led to the turnaround in the policies of the ruling National Party," he says.
The alternative press consists of a plethora of news sheets, pamphlets, and makeshift community newspapers put together by trade unionists and community activists.
"They are the voice of the community speaking to itself," says Keyan Tomaselli, director of the Center for Cultural and Media Studies at the University of Natal at Durban.
At the next level are the anti-apartheid weeklies, such as South, New Nation, and New African. Two independent weeklies - the Weekly Mail and the Afrikaans-language Vrye Weekblad - have been instrumental in exposing the existence of police hit squads and organized elements in the security forces promoting black-on-black violence in the townships.
These disclosures have brought pressure on the reformist government of President Frederik de Klerk. After revelations in the Weekly Mail last year about the government's secret funding of its black allies in the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, Mr. de Klerk started to give way to growing pressure for an interim government.
The Weekly Mail, a gutsy tabloid that has always had an independent streak, has continued probing connections between the security forces and township violence. A series of disclosures in recent months led to the appointment of a judicial committee to probe the newspaper's allegations.
The alternative media - or independent media, as it prefers to be known here - had its origins in the repressive period of the 1980s when growing curbs on press freedom made it difficult to get reliable information about the extent of resistance and repression.
By the mid-1980s activists were disappearing without a trace and assassinations were being disguised as automobile accidents. Emergency regulations absolved the police from divulging even the names of detainees.
The alternative media provided a constant stream of information on anti-apartheid activists. But they also maintained a sense of humor.
"The Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad poked fun at the social mores of the day," says Raymond Louw, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, who now heads the Campaign for an Open Media.
"This helped break down stereotypes in the mind of Afrikaners and caused Afrikaners to rethink their values," he says.
But the change of political direction by De Klerk in February 1990 pulled the rug from beneath the alternative newspapers.
Foreign backers, seeing that the political goal had been achieved, began to give notice that the funding of alternative newspapers was drawing to a close.
"We have come to realize in the new climate that you have to produce a [financially] successful commodity - not a viable newspaper," says Guy Berger, newly appointed editor of South, an anti-apartheid weekly in Cape Town.
"This is quite a conceptual leap," says Mr. Berger. "We can no longer run political stories just for the sake of it."
South relaunched with a new upbeat format in February and changed its masthead slogan from: "You Have the Right to Know" to "News for New Times." It is a bid to make the publication viable by the time anti-apartheid funding dries up at the end of the year. It has more analysis and features and a greater diversification of news.
Vrye Weekblad has gone further and adopted a weekly magazine format, using better paper, more color, and a weekly jazz supplement.
New Nation also tried to give readers a more digestible mix: Its January relaunch features an upscale feature insert, expanded learning sections, competitions, more sports, and a lot more advertising.
The Weekly Mail, which has always headed the pack in terms of creative layout and design, has (as "the paper for a changing South Africa") retained the most political content.
But it has also gained a new lease on life in a deal with The Guardian of London that will see it publishing the Guardian Weekly as an insert beginning in April.
"Without this deal, Weekly Mail would have been in serious trouble by the end of the year," says co-editor Irwin Manoim.
Mr. Manoim angered some alternative editors last year when he predicted that the alternative press would not survive into 1992.
"The emergency did not last," wrote Manoim in an article in the Rhodes Journalism Review last June. "Today the costs are beginning to mount. The alternative press is running out of causes. Worse, it is running out of money. If it does not change direction radically, it will be dead in a year."
Manoim's prophecy of doom has not come to pass, but the alternative press is still facing a financial crisis.
Some hope for a Swedish-type government subsidy in the new political order and the goodwill of the mainstream press to help them in the meantime.
Others are looking to diversification into other fields to make their newspapers viable and free of the strings they believe are always attached to aid.
Much will depend on whether they succeed.
"Alternative newspapers like Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad have been extremely courageous in developing an independence from the organizations they sympathize with and a readiness to criticize them," Professor Tomaselli says.
"It will be extremely important to sustain these different forums in the future," he says.
"The disappearance of the alternative press would have serious consequences for the [African National Congress], which needs such publications to hold a dialogue with its own constituency."