South Africa lacks a strong tradition of national newspapers and instead has many regional publications of varying quality. Television delivers a mix of imported programmes and home-grown soaps heavily modelled on US fare, as well as the odd home-grown reality TV show and one or two watchable documentary slots. Radio is where South Africa is finding it easiest to meet the needs of a diverse and scattered audience, and deregulation of the airwaves has brought to life scores of small new stations.
Of the roughly twenty daily newspapers, most of which are published in English or Afrikaans, the only two that qualify as nationals are Business Day (www.businessday.co.za), which is a good source of serious national and international news, and The New Age, which is aligned with the government.
Each of the larger cities has its own English-language broadsheet, most of them published by South Africa’s largest newspaper publisher, Independent News & Media, a subsidiary of the Irish company that owns London’s Independent newspaper and the Irish Independent. In Johannesburg, The Star (www.thestar.co.za), the group’s South African flagship, has a roughly equal number of black and white readers and offers somewhat uninspired Jo’burg coverage, padded out with international bits and pieces piped in from Dublin and London. Cape Town’s morning Cape Times (
www.capetimes.co.za) and Cape Argus (www.capeargus.co.za), published in the afternoon, follow broadly the same tried (and tired) formula, as do the Pretoria News (www.pretorianews.co.za), the Herald (www.theherald.co.za) in Port Elizabeth and the Daily News (www.dailynews.co.za) in Durban.
The country’s biggest-selling paper is the Daily Sun, a Jo’burg-based tabloid that taps into the concerns of township dwellers, with a giddy cocktail of gruesome crime stories, tales of witchcraft and the supernatural, and coverage of the everyday problems of ordinary people. Another Jo’burg tabloid is the Sowetan (www.sowetan.co.za), which has been going since the 1980s, but is a far more serious publication than the Sun. In Cape Town, the studiedly sleazy Voice attempts to emulate the Sun in the coloured community, with a downbeat mixture of crime, the supernatural and sex advice.
Unquestionably the country’s intellectual heavyweight, the Mail & Guardian (www.mg.co.za), published every Friday, frequently delivers nonpartisan and fearless investigative journalism, but at times tends towards the turgid.
The Sunday Times (www.sundaytimes.co.za), on the other hand, can attribute its sales – roughly half a million copies – to its well-calculated mix of investigative reporting, gossipy stories and rewrites of salacious scandal lifted from foreign tabloids, while the Sunday Independent (www.sundayindependent.co.za), from the Independent stable, projects a more thoughtful image but is a bit thin.
The easiest places to buy newspapers are corner stores and newsagents, especially the CNA chain. These outlets also sell international publications such as Time, Newsweek, The Economist and the weekly overseas editions of the British Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Express – you’ll also find copies of the daily and weekend international editions of the Financial Times.
The South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s three TV channels churn out a mixed bag of domestic dramas, sport, game shows, soaps and documentaries, filled out with lashings of familiar imports. SABC 1, 2 and 3 share the unenviable task of trying to deliver an integrated service, while having to split their time between the eleven official languages. English turns out to be most widely used, with SABC 3 (www.sabc3.co.za) broadcasting almost exclusively in the language, with a high proportion of British and US comedies and dramas, while SABC 2 (www.sabc2.co.za) and SABC 1 (www.sabc1.co.za) spread themselves thinly across all the remaining ten languages with a fair amount of English creeping in too. SABC 1, with its high proportion of sports coverage, has the most viewers.
South Africa’s first and only free-to-air independent commercial channel e.tv (www.etv.co.za) won its franchise in 1998 on the promise of providing a showcase for local productions, a pledge it has signally failed to meet.
There is no cable TV in South Africa, but DSTV (www.dstv.co.za) offers a satellite television subscription service with a selection of sports, movies, news and specialist channels, some of which are piped into hotels.
Given South Africa’s low literacy rate and widespread poverty, it’s no surprise that radio is its most popular medium. The SABC operates a national radio station for each of the eleven official language groups. The English-language service, SAfm (www.safm.co.za), is increasingly degenerating into tedious wall-to-wall talk shows interspersed with news. The SABC also runs 5FM Stereo, a national pop station broadcasting Top 40 tracks, while its Radio Metro is targeted at black urban listeners.
To get a taste of what makes South Africans tick, tune into the privately owned Gauteng talk station 702 (in Jo’burg 92.7 FM and in Pretoria 106 FM; www.702.co.za) or its Cape Town sister station CapeTalk (567 AM; www.capetalk.co.za), both of which are a lot livelier than the state stations and broadcast news, weather, traffic and sports reports. Apart from these, there are scores of regional, commercial and community stations, broadcasting a range of music and other material, which makes surfing the airwaves an enjoyable experience, wherever you are in the country.