Brown Development-White-washed Media: It’s a colorful relationship

I really didn’t want my first post to be anything overtly political, academic or self-indulgent. I imagined the first post on my self-named blog would be an ode to all the strong brown women out there, doing the most for themselves and their families. A day after international women’s day I thought I had read enough uplifting stories on social media about my homegirl and Black Panther Star Danai Gurira to convince me that the tides had finally turned for media transformation.

But this post is not an ode to anyone. This post is a quick and dirty expository unpacking of the still gendered, still white-washed media, its exclusory nature and consequential impact on grassroots development interventions in the rural Eastern Cape.

I know that’s a mouthful, so let me give you some contextual popcorn to chew on. I am a self-proclaimed development communications consultant based in the Eastern Cape, also affectionately known as the “armpit of South Africa” (Thanks, Gareth Cliff). One of the projects I am currently working on is called “Towards a More Accountable South Africa”. The goal of the project is to build an informed, unified and coordinated network of grassroots organisations focused on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health (ASRHR), linked to an empowered movement of young people in the Eastern Cape who will partner with state actors to improve implementation of ASRHR policies and effectively participate in core accountability structures relating to them. My role is to provide selected youth and NGOs with basic media skills and help them develop media content to achieve their advocacy goals. Seems an easy enough task, right? Not so much.

I spent 3 days in East London with 27 amazing, passionate development workers who were eager to learn about Media. Participants came from the rural areas of Qumbu, Mt Frere, and Bizana (7 hours from the training venue). Mostly female (5 men), black, isiXhosa speaking with quite a few women above the age of 60. The experience highlighted what I had already known about the colorful relationship between white-washed media and brown development—its murky. But this time, my observations came in a way that touched me deeply enough to be the center of my first post and set the tone for my website.

“Can you please explain the meaning of the word subject? “

Obstacle 1: Language; Take a quick squiz over the internet right now. There are so many free tools, repositories, and websites that make content development easier than it’s ever been. The average 12-year-old can create a stunning birthday party invitation at the click of a button. Except, in South Africa, this kid is probably middle-class and probably non-black. I took a couple of days to put together a workbook for the training participants in basic media development. I struggled to find examples that were relevant to the African context, written in simple, easy to follow language, let alone in isiXhosa. How do you explain Fiverr or Canva in isiXhosa? You don’t. A subject is a subject, even by any other name, however, media concepts that many of us take for granted, like “hashtag” or “post” need to be broken down and translated so that new media users can understand. Understanding is the first step towards innovation.

“I use my husband’s WhatsApp to communicate”

Obstacle 2: Gender; The main communication channel in most semi-rural areas is the community dialogue. Problem: most NGO’s are run by women. Women are rarely given an opportunity to stand in front of the community. Sensitive issues like reproductive rights and sexual health are then left in the hands of often misinformed and patriarchal male leaders who often push agendas that serve their interests.

“We don’t take community media seriously because people ride by the radio station in their bicycles with bags of mealie meal, sending shout-outs to their friends and boyfriends”

Obstacle 3: Access; Commercial vs Local Media. Current conversations about grassroots advocacy have become so heavily influenced by the digital obsession at the expense of traditional, more accessible media tools. With no real access to the internet, local media remains the most viable and reliable media tool for rural communities. Community radio stations and newspapers are closing almost every day and are being replaced by online curators. I took a squiz through my community media database and realized that almost half of the newspapers were now listed under “closed”.

An extra thought

It is important to note though that the disconnect is not just with white south Africa and black/colored south Africa but also with the West and Africa. The platforms I’ve mentioned are not African (Canva, Fiver), few to no popular technology platforms are. So how to we advocate for our languages to be added?

Google has tried to be inclusive with languages like Shona, isiNdebele, Xhosa, Zulu being added but they are open meaning contributors have to volunteer to improve the translations.

Unfortunately other platforms have really not cared much. It’s a quandary because the regional improvements are based on usage in that region, but people can’t use them because they are not in their local language / not contextually relevant.

Would the solution be to just develop and promote our own systems and block the western ones like China?

This post is not an ode

Until I can find Eastern Cape-centric media training material written in vernacular, see more women given access to public communication platforms in rural communities and local media fully funded, I will not be celebrating media transformation.