For news, S. Africa may shun the West

The country's state-run news station considers replacing CNN with the Arabic Al Jazeera.

When South Africa's state-run news station ends its programming day, it switches over to CNN to offer something for the country's insomniacs.

If the Atlanta-based service has kept its small audience entertained between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., it has done so with little excitement. But last week, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) said it was considering replacing CNN with Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news service.

The possibility of America's most renowned news network being elbowed aside by a Persian Gulf channel, considered by critics to be an international platform for Osama bin Laden, has exited more than just the late-night couch potatoes.

"We know enough about what the West thinks. What we need is to learn more about the Arab message," says Muhammad Fadaie, a Cape Town Muslim walking out of afternoon prayers in a mosque. "We are not Al Qaeda here, but we are our own country and need to do some rethinking about what we stand for and who we stand with."

At the moment, SABC insists it is only considering various options. But experts say the willingness to entertain such a debate is a measure of the growing sway of South African Muslims - a small but increasingly vocal community and a prominent political force in the eight years since apartheid ended.

"From an African point of view, CNN gives news from the Western point of view, and there is a strong feeling that today's new South Africa should not be submerged in this," says Raymond Louw, a member of the governing council of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. "There is a major change in orientation going on," he says. "There was always a view that whites see things differently and that whites were always imposing their perspective on South Africa. But since 1994, when the Africans took power, there has been a desire, and increasingly a move, to change this."

The South African Muslim community is predominantly Asian, having arrived in two waves - in the mid-1600s as slaves of the Dutch from Java and Malaysia, and later, in the 1860s, from India as workers for the British colonialists.

But in recent years, Islam has also begun gaining a foothold in black African communities. No exact statistics illustrate this phenomenon, but it is one in evidence throughout the continent, where Muslim schools, religious community centers, welfare organizations, and publications are all growing significantly.

South Africa has an estimated 600,000 Muslims, making up roughly 2 percent of the population. Many members of the community are found in prominent positions, in particular in the civil service and the media.

But the interest and sympathy often expressed for the Arab world among South Africans, whether Muslim or not, has political, as well as religious roots, explains Mr. Louw. Historically close relations between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Palestinians, he says, are perhaps most significant in this regard.

"There is a heightened awareness of the Palestinian issue. During the ANC's liberation struggle [against the white apartheid regime], these two communities were very close. And many Arab countries helped the ANC. All this weighs in now with the search for a clear identity in [US President] Bush's 'with us' or 'against us' world," says Louw.

The ANC maintains it has nothing to do with the SABC's editorial decisions, but has nonetheless welcomed the debate.

ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said it reflected "mature thinking" on the part of the broadcasting agency. "This planned action should be seen as a need for diversity of news," he said. "We need to expose South Africans to events happening in other parts of world."

Ihron Rensburg, a spokesman for SABC, says the issue has become too politicized, and points out other bidders for the late night spot: such as the BBC; the Australian and Canadian broadcasters, ABC and CBC; the German network, ZDF; and ANI of India.

The ideal scenario - proving a collection of news feeds for viewers - would be too costly, Mr. Rensburg says. "We owe it to the public of South Africa to provide the widest range of views and opinions as events unfold," said Rensburg, who then added, "We should not leave the impression that Al Jazeera is a bunch of isolated crazies."

The debate comes at a touchy time - with recent claims that South Africa could be providing a haven for Al Qaeda.

Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported mounting evidence of Al Qaeda's presence in South Africa, and quoted Gideon Jones, the FBI-trained former head of the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the South African Police Force, as saying South Africa is "a perfect place to cool off, regroup, and plan your finances. The communications and infrastructure are excellent ... and our law enforcement is overstretched."

The report went on to say that various Islamic groups, including Al Qaeda, were laundering money through South Africa, and smuggling gold, diamonds, and cash through its ports - especially Durban and neighboring Mozambican ports - to Dubai and Pakistan. Soon after, a radical South African Muslim group, the Movement Against Illegitimate Leaders (MAIL), claimed that 1,000 South Africans had gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban after Sept. 11.

But Andrew Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says he does not see real evidence for a sea change in South Africans' views on terrorism. "I have found considerable opposition to politically motivated terrorism among the population, Muslim and otherwise, in South Africa," he says. "What there is, rather, is evidence of a growing concern about US policy as regards Iraq - a criticism shared by other countries both in Africa and elsewhere."

As Mr. Fadaie leaves the mosque, one of several in this city, he strolls into a music store next door to look for a pop CD for his daughter's birthday. "It's not like we are saying we hate the US or anything," he explains after he hums the child's favorite Britney Spears tune for the store manager. "But it's time we made it clear we are not automatically in any camp, so to speak. We are Africans. We are reflecting."

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