Is This Racism? Representations Of South Africa in the Sydney Morning Herald Since The Inauguration Of Thabo Mbeki As President

by Alan Morris

© all rights reserved


In the post-apartheid era the media in South Africa, more especially the print media, has been the focus of much attention and sensitivity. In November 1999 the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a government-funded organisation set up in terms of the South African Constitution, released an Interim Report which concluded that there were constant examples of ‘subliminal racism’ in the South African media (Braude 1999; Media Monitoring Project 1999; South African Human Rights Commission 1999). In February 2000 about thirty editors were subpoenaed to appear before the SAHRC to answer allegations that their publications were guilty of publishing material that could be interpreted as racist (Glaser 2000). After much negative media coverage the SAHRC agreed to withdraw the subpoenas on condition that ‘the owners of newspaper undertook to use their influence to persuade (editor and journalist) participation…’ (Pityana 2000, p. 531).

This dramatic confrontation with the media was premised on the argument that five years after the demise of apartheid, sections of the media, most notably the press, were guilty of hostile / racist reporting. Thus the 1999 Annual Report of the African National Congress (ANC) argued that ‘the ANC is still faced with a primarily hostile press corps as media is still primarily owned and controlled by antagonistic forces with minority interests’ and that this has resulted in ‘a continuous onslaught of negative reporting on the ANC and the ANC-led Government’ (African National Congress 2000).

The investigation by the SAHRC was instigated after complaints by the Black Lawyers Association and Association of Black Accountants of South Africa. In a formal complaint to the SAHRC they argued that the Sunday Times and the Mail & Guardian were guilty of ‘subliminal racism’.

The question of what is racist coverage in the media is not straightforward. There is a crude and obvious version where ‘physical distinctiveness is used to explain social behaviour, and sometimes to justify discrimination, oppression or even extermination …’ (Jakubowicz 1996, p. 29). In the contemporary period it is argued that what we generally have in the media now is what has been called the ‘new racism’ (Barker 1981). This form of racism is far more subtle and, in many instances, the perpetrators would deny that they are practicing racism. A feature of the new racism is to reinforce racial and other stereotypes by reporting on different groups, countries or continents in particular and different ways. This articulation of difference serves to reinforce and create stereotypes. As Jakubowicz (1996, p. 30) concludes,

The continuous articulation of difference is one of the media’s main exercises. As the process continues it has the effect of assuming and reinforcing boundaries, of justifying views of the world and understanding it in terms of race, and thereby, almost because it is so unselfconscious, in accelerating the slide from differentiation to discrimination.

It has been argued that in the United Kingdom and USA media there is a tendency to portray governments and politicians in Africa as inept and corrupt and that this is done by focusing almost exclusively (invariably in a superficial fashion) on the negative events on the continent (Hawk 1992; Brookes 1995). Referring to the American public and the impact of the media’s coverage on Africa, Hawk (1992, p. 3) concludes,

Many stories surge to the headlines and disappear quickly, leaving Americans with little understanding of the continent or the politics that drive it … Americans are left to believe that Africa is a confusing place with instability in government, society, and even country names.

Brookes (1995) examines how two UK papers, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph portrayed Africa. She shows that African leaders are invariably portrayed negatively as ‘power hungry’, ‘despotic’ and that the west is portrayed ‘as the senior partner or parent who shoulders the burden of responsibility for the helpless, savage, self-destructive and child-like African’ (Brookes 1995, p. 478). She concludes that ‘Africa is portrayed as a homogenous block with violence, helplessness, human rights abuses and lack of democracy as its main characteristics’ (Brookes 1995, p. 465). This results in the ‘construction of a stereotypical representation of Africa in the minds of readers’ and the ‘… the representation of African leaders as agents of violence, repression and verbal wrangling in the DT [Daily Telegraph] and the G [Guardian], suggests that African leaders are dictatorial, tyrannical and despotic’ (Brookes 1995, p. 465 and 477). The analysis by Brookes is powerful, however an issue which is not dealt with in her analysis is whether the newspapers under scrutiny could have avoided reinforcing racist stereotypes if they were intent on reporting newsworthy stories. The newspapers were reporting injustices and serious abuses of power that required media attention and public scrutiny. Many countries in Africa in the 1990s were characterised by poor governance and serious to extreme human rights abuses did occur, and this certainly made it difficult for media reporting ‘news’ in Africa during this period to avoid conveying an unfavourable representation of the culpable countries. From a human rights perspective it could be argued that the newspapers had a duty to report the serious human rights violations and, in some instances, carnage taking place.

The South African government and organisations like the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa have taken a similar position to the one taken by Brookes. They have argued that negative coverage of the government and the ANC is motivated by and equals racism. A primary aim of this paper is to engage with this argument through an examination of the SMH’s coverage of South Africa during the period under review. The study focuses on three key representations – the representations of President Thabo Mbeki, the ANC and finally South African corporations. The CEO of a major South African corporation is also focused on. In the process of analysing the portrayal of Thabo Mbeki, the whole gamut of issues around HIV/AIDS and the President’s stance on these issues are examined. The three themes were selected because of their centrality. Also, despite the political transition, the economy in South Africa is still white dominated and controlled. I was interested in exploring how the white-dominated corporate world was portrayed in contrast to the black-dominated government and ANC.

The analysis found that the SMH’s reporting certainly portrays the president (black) and the African National Congress (a mainly black political party) negatively whereas coverage of South African corporations and the white CEO in question is overwhelmingly positive. The reporting by the SMH could thus be interpreted as new racism in that although the journalists concerned would vigorously deny they are racist, the coverage probably did reinforce racist stereotypes. The stories covered were newsworthy and exposed serious shortcomings of the president and the ANC-led government. The question that needs to be asked is was it possible for the SMH to avoid ‘new racism’ during this period. I argue that it was not possible as the actions of the president and the ANC made it difficult for the SMH correspondents to avoid painting a negative picture of the ANC leadership and government in the period under review.

The analysis of the SMH’s coverage (82 articles were examined) covers the period between 15 June 1999 (the day when Thabo Mbeki took over the presidency from Nelson Mandela) and the16 June 2001.1 Thabo Mbeki’s inauguration was selected as a starting point as it represented a new era in post-apartheid South Africa. The retirement of Nelson Mandela meant that no longer was an international icon, who was virtually beyond media reproach, in control of the country.

The articles are analysed using a discourse analytical approach (van Dijk, 1991). A central feature of discourse analysis is that there is a relationship between the text and the context. Thus ‘discourse analysis specifically aims to show how the cognitive, social, historical, cultural, or political contexts of language use and communication impinge on the contents, meanings, structures, or strategies of text or dialogue, and vice versa …’ (van Dijk 1991, p. 45). In news reports the style of a discourse is very important. The style refers to the ‘specific lay-out words, or sentence structures’ and the ‘word choice’ (van Dijk 1991, p. 46). The choices made depend on the orientation and readership of the paper concerned – ‘the style of a popular tabloid will usually differ from that of a quality newspaper …’ (van Dijk, 1991, pp. 46-7). Bias occurs when important information is left out or ‘is placed at the end’ of an article (van Dijk 1988, p. 15). ‘Rhetorical structures’ refer to the mechanisms that are used to make a piece more persuasive. Thus ‘news reports may use words that function as hyperboles … or understatements, or word and meanings that establish contrast or build a climax’ (van Dijk 1988, p. 16). The ‘lexical style’ or choice of words is crucial and will usually ‘signal the position of the writer’ (van Dijk, 1991: 211). ‘Negativisation’ is a central strategy used in racist reporting. Negative terms are used to portray minorities as irrational, intolerant, etc (van Dijk 1991, pp. 213-4).

The SMH’s portrayal of President Thabo Mbeki


In the two-year period following his inauguration as President, Thabo Mbeki received a good deal of coverage in the SMH. From mid-June 1999 to mid-May 2001, there were 66 articles which mentioned his name, and, of these, 52 had more than a passing reference. The subjects covered in the 52 articles in question are summarised in Table 1.


Three profiles of President Mbeki

The first article on Thabo Mbeki by the SMH correspondent in South Africa during the period under review (the three profiles to be discussed were all written by the same journalist) was a brief profile of the president the day after his inauguration. The article headlined ‘From exile to the top enigmatically’, describes Mr Mbeki ‘as a distant, enigmatic figure’ especially when compared to his ‘illustrious predecessor’ (SMH 17 June 1999). Besides highlighting the lack of public knowledge of Mbeki, the article is not negative.

A year after his inauguration there was another profile of Mr Mbeki, assessing his first year in office. Headlined ‘World waits to find out who Mbeki is’, the article indicates that on one level the SMH’s view of the president has not altered. The journalist continues to portray him as opaque and mysterious, however, unlike the first profile which is dispassionate, this profile is patently negative. Three issues played a central role in shifting the journalist’s perception of Mbeki – the slow rate of socio-economic progress; his response to the land seizures in Zimbabwe and, most significantly, the president’s statements and policy on HIV/AIDS. On the socio-economic front the article points to increasing inequality, the high levels of unemployment, the ‘near-collapse of the state education system’ and the phenomenal crime rate. The article recognises the enormous legacy of apartheid and the difficulties Mbeki faces in tackling these issues: ‘To be fair to Mr Mbeki, it would have taken a miracle to bring all these problems under control. He and Mr Mandela inherited a country that was brutalised and divided by the years of apartheid struggle’ (SMH 16 June 2000). He has no sympathy, however, for the President’s handling of the HIV/AIDS or Zimbabwean crisis. The President’s interventions around HIV/AIDS are viewed as especially flawed. Mention is made of a letter President Mbeki sent to President Clinton on HIV/AIDS in which Mbeki writes, ‘‘‘The day may not be far off when we will, once again, see books burnt and their authors immolated by fire by those who believe that they have a duty to conduct a holy crusade against the infidels’’’ (SMH 16 June 2000). The letter was so ‘passionate’ that White House aides initially thought that it was ‘the work of a crank impostor’ (SMH 16 June 2000). The reader is left with the impression that Mbeki’s approach to the HIV/AIDS catastrophe is eccentric and suspect.

On Zimbabwe it is argued that Mr Mbeki’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ has not worked and that ‘not only did Mr Mbeki lose face by failing to control Mr Mugabe, he also exposed himself to criticism for failing to take a moral lead on the breakdown of democracy and law in Zimbabwe’ (SMH 16 June 2000). The article suggests that the president is not prepared to condemn an undemocratic, autocratic African leader.

The SMH’s third profile, written at the beginning of March 2001 (21 Months into Mbeki’s presidency), is a scathing critique of the president. The headline – ‘Gift for the gaffe turns Mbeki into a man besieged’, is certainly dramatic (SMH 3 March 2001). Van Dijk makes the point that headlines ‘deserve special attention’ as they are ‘the most conspicuous part of a news report’ and ‘summarize the most important information’ (Van Dijk 1991, p. 50). The headline suggests that the president is inept and, as a result, is under enormous pressure (SMH 3 March 2001). The profile outlines his various alleged blunders and his increasingly adversarial relationship with the press. It summarises Mbeki’s reign as a ‘story of suspicion, paranoia, surveillance and secrecy’ (SMH, 3 March 2001). Once more Mbeki’s remoteness and his stance on HIV/AIDS are given prominence. There are, however, important new areas of concern. The profile mentions the increasing centralisation of power in the President’s office and his inability to take criticism. It suggests ‘Mr Mbeki may be too sensitive if not downright paranoid to withstand ordinary democratic abuse’. At another point in the same article Mr Mbeki is again portrayed as paranoid. The journalist relays how Mr Mbeki told ‘a closed session of the ANC’s parliamentary caucus that he was the victim of a CIA-inspired smear campaign designed to benefit Western powers and drug companies’ (SMH 3 March 2001). The president’s view that sections of the South African media are racist is an important focus of the article: ‘According to Mr Mbeki and his supporters, most of the Government’s public relations problems are due to hostility from “subliminally racist” media that still cater mainly for the needs of the wealthy white minority’ (SMH 3 March 2001). The reader of this article is likely to come away with the impression that the President is a bumbling, paranoid, authoritarian, mysterious man who has achieved little during his presidency and that much of what he has done has been negative rather than positive. It has been argued that ‘the media operate as a means for the expression and reproduction of the power of the dominant class and bloc’ (Fairclough 1987:51). The SMH’s profiles of Mbeki clearly did not follow this pattern. Mbeki’s credibility as a competent leader and implicitly the competence of the black ‘dominant bloc’ is questioned by the profiles. What we have is a discourse strategy which involves ‘discrediting’ and ‘delegitimating’ the president (Wodak 1997). In the process the stereotype of the black incompetent leader is strongly reinforced and it could be argued that the SMH correspondent who wrote the profiles is guilty of new racism. However, the profiles do uncover serious issues concerning the president and are thus important journalistic interventions.

President Mbeki and HIV/AIDS

The critique of the president is most damning in the SMH’s coverage of his policy on HIV/AIDS. This is the topic most frequently linked to President Mbeki by the SMH during this period (see Table 1). Seventeen or just under one in three SMH stories that gave Mbeki more than a passing reference, examined the issue of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. The first article on his position on HIV/AIDS appeared in November 1999 and is a stinging attack on his handling of the epidemic. It begins by outlining the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa and argues that in the African context, from a knowledge and infrastructural point of view, South Africa, compared to the rest of the continent, is in a relatively strong position to fight the epidemic. The problem, however, is that ‘South Africans are facing the embarrassing fact that the country’s AIDS policy is being dictated in an ad hoc fashion by a casual Internet surfer, President Thabo Mbeki’ (SMH , 13 November 1999). The article unambiguously argues that the President’s actions are irresponsible and inappropriate. The article quotes the president’s statement in Parliament that he will not countenance the giving of the anti-retroviral drug, AZT, free to rape victims and pregnant women “‘because of a large body of scientific literature showing that the drug was dangerously toxic’” and that “‘there were safety-based legal cases pending against AZT’s manufacturers Glaxo-Wellcome in South Africa, the United States and Europe’’’ (SMH, 13 November 1999). In the following paragraph of the article Glaxo-Wellcome denies any knowledge of pending legal cases. World Health Organisation and public health experts are also quoted as saying they have no knowledge of the research quoted by Mbeki. A Presidential spokesperson is then cited and comments that the President had obtained his information from the worldwide web. In response, a senior state scientist is quoted as saying that s/he is ‘‘‘completely flummoxed’’’ and could not ‘‘‘… think why the President would want to make a public statement on AZT based on something he read on the Internet. Even the Flat Earth Society has a Web site these days, for God’s sake’’’ (SMH 13 November 1999). The implication is clear – the President’s approach is eccentric, and his sources of knowledge are clearly suspect.

The SMH’s correspondent’s devastating first article on President Mbeki’s handling of the AIDS crisis concludes by quoting Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of AIDS research at the government-funded South African Medical Research Council:

“There are, say, 1 million pregnant women in South Africa each year. Last year 22 per cent were HIV positive, and that’s going to be 25 per cent this year. Of those 30 per cent will pass the virus on to their babies. That is say 80,000 new HIV babies. By allowing AZT the minister could prevent 40,000 infections, which is much cheaper than treating them” (SMH 13 November 1999).

Implicit in this statement is that annually, ANC policy, driven by Mbeki, is resulting in 40 000 children unnecessarily being born HIV positive. In this article a range of attributes are explicitly or implicitly attributed to president Mbeki and by association to the ANC-led government. ‘Bizarre’, ‘embarrassing’, ‘ad hoc’, ‘casual’ and ‘extraordinary’ are some of the adjectives used by the journalist or sources he quotes to describe President Mbeki’s AIDS policy and statements. There is little doubt that the article would reinforce the views of a racist reader and could thus be interpreted as an example of new racism, but the question we have to ask is whether the journalist was not merely doing his job. The negative portrayal of the president is due to his position on HIV/AIDS rather than a racist perspective on the part of the journalist.

The same journalist’s second article on the AIDS crisis was written five months later in March 2000. Again, a central feature of the article is President Mbeki’s stance on HIV/AIDS:

In a series of personal interventions, President Thabo Mbeki has repeatedly attacked the scientific consensus on HIV/AIDS, ignoring his own experts. Scientists say they fear Mr Mbeki, an economist with no science background, may be the only world leader to lend credence to ‘AIDS dissidents’ who say HIV is harmless and deny AIDS exists (SMH 25 March 2000).

The article then gives a brief history of President Mbeki’s interventions in the HIV/AIDS debate and his contact with dissident scientists is outlined. Various experts are quoted damning the President’s links with these individuals. Perhaps the most powerful is the trenchant comment of Professor Malegapuru Mokgaba, the head of the South African Medical Research Council, who ‘said that the AIDS dissidents were discredited and that South Africa was in danger of becoming “fertile ground for pseudo-science’’’ (SMH 25 March 2000). He described Mr Mbeki’s actions as ‘foolish and harmful’ and concluded that the President was ‘medically and scientifically naive’ (SMH 25 March 2000).

The next SMH article on President Mbeki and HIV/AIDS comes only three days later and describes President Mbeki’s virulent attack outlined in a letter addressed to a group of prominent South Africans who had asked him to reconsider his stance on the giving of AZT to expectant HIV positive mothers:

Mr Mbeki, in his reply to their request, wrote: “I am taken aback by the determination of many people in our country to sacrifice all intellectual integrity to act as salespersons of the product of one pharmaceutical company” a reference to Glaxo Wellcome, maker of the anti-retroviral drug AZT … (SMH 28 March 2000).

According to the SMH President Mbeki went on to say that he was ‘“amazed at how many people, who claim to be scientists, are determined that scientific discourse and inquiry should cease, because most of the world is of one mind”’ (SMH 28 March 2000). The journalist describes the president’s actions as ‘defiant’ and ‘eccentric’.

The International AIDS Conference in Durban in July 2000 resulted in a spate of articles in the SMH on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. All focus on President Mbeki’s response to the epidemic and all conclude that the President’s position is untenable and would lead to a dramatic increase in AIDS-related deaths.

An article by a London-based commentator, covered the unequivocal declaration of more than 5000 scientists and doctors in 80 countries in the prestigious journal, Nature, stating that HIV leads to AIDS (SMH, 6 July 2000). The declaration was a direct response to President Mbeki’s denial of the link. The SMH article argues that the main reason for the President’s position is the extent and intensity of the disease and its disastrous implications for South Africa’s social and economic fabric. While on one hand being sympathetic to Mbeki, she is under no illusions that he is wrong and that his stance will have dreadful consequences: ‘That’s why Mbeki wants to believe the dissenters but believing them probably means millions of extra South Africans will die who might have been saved’ (SMH 6 July 2000). The president is portrayed as a desperate, hysterical figure swimming against the tide of science and reason:

In a recent letter to other heads of state, he complained of an “orchestrated campaign of condemnation” that was being carried out against dissenting scientists such as Duesberg, comparing the “silencing” of the dissidents (who are not the least bit silent) to apartheid, and suggesting that “in an earlier period of human history, these would be heretics burnt at the stake!” (SMH 6 July 2000).

Throughout the remainder of 2000 and 2001 there were several more articles in the SMH on the HIV/AIDS crisis and the President’s handling of it. All were critical of his approach. I would argue that although reinforcing racial stereotypes, the harsh treatment of Mbeki by the SMH correspondents is not premised on a racist perspective. Perhaps Niklas Luhmann’s theory of system differentiation is a more useful way of understanding what makes Mbeki’s intervention in the HIV/AIDS debate so newsworthy and anachronistic. Luhmann (1995) argues that within modern society there are subsystems (politics, education, family, medical, legal, etc) and that each subsystem has its own code or criteria and specific functions. Thus the medical system using criteria established by the discipline differentiates between sick and healthy and what drugs are appropriate. What Mbeki’s intervention signifies is the political subsystem intervening in the medical subsystem and using its power to instruct the medical fraternity as to what is right or wrong. This is viewed as inappropriate and bound to create tension (and news) especially when the intervention is costing thousands of lives.

President Mbeki and democracy

In April 2001 accusations by bureaucrats in Mbeki’s office that senior ANC members were plotting against the President were presented by the SMH South African correspondent as further evidence of the President’s desire to stifle all opposition. In an article headed, ‘Mbeki plot allegations split ruling coalition’ (SMH 27 April 2001), it is mentioned that ‘police and intelligence services were investigating an alleged move to challenge President Thabo Mbeki’. The move is portrayed as part of the President’s endeavour ‘to intimidate growing opposition within the party’ (SMH 27 April 2001). In the article political commentators (not named) are quoted as saying that the President’s ‘increasingly autocratic and eccentric leadership … is eroding his support…’ (SMH 27 April 2001). An article in the SMH the following day headed ‘Mbeki’s conspiracy gambit shows signs of backfiring’ begins dramatically arguing that the ‘political manoeuvre by the President poses a threat to South Africa’s young democracy’ (SMH 28 April 2001). The article goes on to argue that ‘many senior ANC members are said to be concerned about his concentration of virtually all power and influence within his own office, and at his eccentric public views on AIDS’ (SMH 28 April 2001).

Summing up the SMH’s portrayal of President Mbeki

The three SMH profiles of the president, combined with the various articles outlining the President’s views on HIV/AIDS and those highlighting his centralisation of power, certainly paint a negative picture of Mr Mbeki. We are left with an image of a fledging democracy being undermined by an incompetent and irrational leader. Amongst a section of the SMH readership there is little doubt that the coverage of Mbeki would reinforce the notion that African leaders in general are incapable, corrupt and authoritarian. For corporations or individuals looking for investment opportunities these representations would not encourage them to invest in South Africa. The ignominy of the portrayals in the public mind would be intensified by the inevitable comparison with Mr Mandela, who in the Australian and global media is constantly portrayed as one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century. A key argument, however, is that the president by pursuing what are viewed by the majority of the world press as unacceptable policy options has laid himself open to attack. To argue that the attacks are premised on a racist perspective operating amongst the journalists concerned would be difficult to sustain.

The SMH’s portrayal of the ANC

The numerous articles portraying the ANC were all negative. The SMH’s first comprehensive report on the ANC in 2000 is headlined ‘Editors fear ANC McCarthyism’ (SMH 21 February 2000). The article describes the ANC’s attack on the media and the subpoenaing of editors to appear before the SAHRC to defend themselves against charges of racist reporting. The President’s opening speech in Parliament is cited to illustrate the ANC’s support for the SAHRC’s analysis and its actions (SMH 21 February 2000). The editor of the Mail & Guardian at the time, is quoted, arguing that the government is using the racist card to silence criticism and that this is reminiscent of the use of the Communist label during the McCarthy era.

In another article on the ANC, only five days after the first article dealing with the issue, the SMH correspondent summarises the critiques of the SAHRC’s decision to summons editors ‘to defend themselves against allegations of racism’ (SMH 26 February 2000). In this article a central focus is the racial schism between some black editors and their white counterparts over their willingness to appear before the Commission. The article points to an authoritarian turn in the ANC and its increasing focus on race.

These themes are picked up again in September 2000 when the SMH correspondent (SMH 18 September 2000) recounts a dramatic radio interview conducted by a well-known radio personality with the minister of health. The interview was set up after it became public knowledge that a book by a member of the Ku Klux Klan on the HIV/AIDS epidemic was circulated by the health minister to her staff as a serious text. The book claims that the AIDS epidemic was triggered as a conspiracy involving Jews, the CIA and others and was a prelude to an alien invasion. A serious spat occurred when after quizzing the minister about the book, the radio personality asked her to clarify her position on the link between HIV and AIDS. The minister refused to clearly answer the question and a bitter exchange ensued. The SMH article highlighted the ANC’s response to the radio personality’s actions.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) called for Mr Robbie [the radio personality] to apologise or be sacked for his “shabby, despicable treatment and disrespect” of a minister and for “undermining the noble profession of journalism”. An ANC spokesman, Mr Smuts Ngonyama, went on to hint that racism was behind Mr Robbie’s behaviour. Until he and Radio 702 apologised it would be “difficult” for the ANC to have anything to do with it. (SMH 18 September 2000).

The SMH article implicitly sides with Robbie. It suggests that the minister’s competence is questionable and that the ANC’s response to Mr Robbie’s behaviour was inappropriate and autocratic.

When the ANC took over the reigns of power it pledged that it would run a clean administration after the brutality and corruption of the apartheid regime. In 2001 the ongoing allegations that senior ANC members were involved in corruption and mismanagement around a $10 billion dollar arms deal dealt a serious blow to the ANC’s image. The SMH’s articles on the deal highlighted the President’s and the ANC’s attempts to prevent a proper investigation of the corruption charges. After initially agreeing to an investigation, ‘four senior ministers called a press conference to say there was no evidence of corruption … They accused the public accounts committee of incompetence and failing to understand its own documents’ (SMH 2 June 2001). The SMH correspondent was clearly deeply sceptical of this analysis and tactic and he describes how ‘President Mbeki used a special TV broadcast’ to attack the primary investigators and ‘announce that he would not allow Judge Heath (the head of the anti-corruption unit) to investigate the deal’ (SMH 2 June 2001). A prior SMH article discussed the controversy surrounding the suspicious acquisition of a luxury Mercedes Benz by Mr Tony Yengeni, a senior ANC member and the chairperson of the South African Parliamentary defence committee when the deal was being finalised (SMH 31 March 2001). One of the successful companies was Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace, a sister company of Daimler-Benz. Mr Yengeni denied that he had been given the car as a gift. The article describes the ANC’s avid defence of Yengeni: ‘The ANC has rallied to Mr Yengeni’s defence, accusing the press of ‘trial by media’ and blaming the controversy on the slow pace of an investigation ordered by the independent state auditor’s office’ (SMH 31 March 2001).2 The impression conveyed by the SMH article is that by supporting a corrupt parliamentarian, the ANC is defending the indefensible.

Linked to the corruption focus was the argument that the ANC is becoming less and less tolerant of opposition. The endeavour to forestall any investigation of the arms deal was viewed as another indication of claims that the ‘ruling party is … using its political might to bully Parliament and cover up allegations of wrongdoing against senior members and their associates’ (SMH 2 June 2001).

The final theme is that the ANC is failing to deliver the promised gains to the masses. Referring to the decline in the ANC’s support in the local elections at the end of 2000, a SMH article in December 2000 concludes that ‘the perceived poor performance by the ANC in creating jobs, providing services and fighting the growing catastrophe of AIDS could begin to seriously tell against it’ (SMH, 9 December 2000).

In sum, the ANC is portrayed by the SMH as a political party that has failed to deliver politically, economically and socially. The articles on this topic could be categorised as racist in that they do reinforce racist stereotypes. There is no coverage of the ANC’s achievements during this period. It could, however, be argued that the ANC, by embarking on the course of action it did, lay itself open to this negative reporting.

The SMH’s portrayal of South African corporations and a (white) CEO

There were several articles during this period that focused on South African corporations. Brian Gilbertson, the CEO of Billiton, one of South Africa’s largest mining houses, was portrayed in three articles. In stark contrast to the portrayals of President Mbeki and the ANC, South African corporations and Mr Gilbertson are presented as ‘go-ahead’, ‘efficient’, ‘powerful’, ‘aggressive’, ‘fast-moving’ and ‘a force to be reckoned with’ (SMH 20 March 2001; SMH 9 August 2000; SMH 24 March 2001). An underlying aspect which is never directly mentioned, is that the ANC government and its leadership are mainly black while the corporations and the CEOs are mainly white. A SMH article in August 2000 describes the prowess of South African business and their entry into Australia in an admiring and controversial way. For the first time, a SMH article during the period under review, is guilty of using racist language: ‘In recent months a new breed of South African invader has muscled its way into Australia’s pristine landscape, employing the survival tactics built up in the harsh environs of the dark continent’ (SMH 9 August 2000). The article’s imagery is premised on the colonial image of the ‘civilised’ white man battling for survival in ‘uncivilised’ Africa and in the process being toughened up so that he is now able to deal with any adversary. Africa is the ‘other’ – the ‘dark continent’. The ‘invaders’ are admired because they have survived ‘the dark continent’ and are now moving to a more hospitable, rational, predictable space. As Pennycook (2001:145) states,

this view of cultural fixity is part of a long history of colonial othering that has rendered the cultures of others fixed, traditional, exotic, and strange, whereas the cultures of English (America, Europe) are unexplored givens or moving, modern and normal.

The movement of South African corporations into the Australian market is portrayed as a wise move in view of the predictable and stable political and economic climate in Australia in contrast to the unpredictability of South Africa:

But if the South Africa companies have individual reasons for heading east, they all also share an appreciation of Australia’s attractions as a place to do business. With southern Africa looking more unstable than it has for a generation, most are keen to spread their geographical risk (SMH 9 August 2000).

The correspondent then quotes an analyst who deepens the image of unstable Africa – ‘Africa is not the most stable part of the world and it would seem to attract a political discount [sic] the notion that your assets might be worth less because of where they are’ (SMH 9 August 2000).

The portrayal of the CEO, Brian Gilbertson, is in stark contrast to the portrayal of President Thabo Mbeki. Gilbertson, the person behind the merger of the South African multinational, Billiton, with the Australian multinational BHP, is portrayed as a tough, competitive and extremely competent individual. He is described as ‘fast-moving’, as having a ‘clever sense of humour’ and ‘a taste for trojan-like working hours’ (SMH 24 March 2001). An analyst is quoted who glowingly describes how Gilbertson ‘very successfully’ transformed Gilbertson’s old company, Gencor (SMH 24 March 2001). Another SMH journalist emphasized the ‘steeliness’ of Gilbertson: ‘They say in South Africa that the softest thing about Billiton’s Afrikaans-speaking boss Brian Gilbertson is his teeth’ (SMH 20 March 2001). She goes on to say that Gilbertson has ‘certainly won the respect of the serious mining players and got up the snotty-noses in London’ (SMH 20 March 2001).

Ultimately we are left in no doubt that South Africa’s corporations and the CEO focused on are ‘smart’ and ‘competent’ and that South Africa, because it is politically part of the ‘dark continent’, is not a place to invest, rather they should invest in the ‘modern and normal’ (white) world. Noteworthy is that in the SMH’s analysis of South African corporations and businessmen there is no discussion of the actions of these corporations/ businessmen during the apartheid era.


The SMH articles analysed have certainly focused on the negative side of South Africa’s political realities post-apartheid and in the process the post-apartheid leadership and government are rarely portrayed positively. Van Dijk (1991, p. 16), summarising the trend in reporting on minorities in the United States, concludes that the media continue to focus ‘on minorities as problem people, who tend to be covered especially when they satisfy a number of stereotypical conceptions or expectations’. It can be argued that the coverage by the SMH during the period in question has this tendency. Rarely are the gains that have been made by the post-apartheid government mentioned. The focus is overwhelmingly on the woes. The coverage of South African corporations was completely different. As illustrated, they were portrayed as assertive and confident and able to take on anybody in the global market. By focusing on the negative in the case of the black president and the black dominated ANC and portraying the mainly white corporate and the white CEO positively, the SMH is guilty of the new racism as defined by Barker. The coverage would almost certainly reinforce the racist stereotype that black leaders and black dominated governments are incompetent and that white people are more capable. As mentioned, there is no doubt that the South African government and its president has made it difficult for the SMH and the independent media generally, not to focus on the negative. This is especially so in the case of Thabo Mbeki’s and his government’s policy around HIV/AIDS. It also applies to their handling of corruption, the media and the increasing centralisation of power in the President’s office. Glaser (2000, p. 380) makes the important point when talking about media reporting in South Africa in the contemporary period that ‘whatever racial stereotypes they (the media) reinforce in the minds of prejudiced readers … the media involved are performing a public service by providing information, or stimulating discussion about important matters…’ It could be argued that the SMH journalists, by reporting on the performance of the South African President and his government, were merely doing their jobs – focusing on newsworthy stories. They certainly did not have to dig deep to find dirt on the South African President, government or its ruling political party. We are thus left with an uncomfortable conclusion. Yes, the reporting of the SMH during the period under review did reinforce racial stereotypes but the ANC and its leaders have to shoulder a large part of the blame. Brookes’s analysis is problematic in this regard. She rightly concludes that the coverage of Africa by the two British newspapers she analysed reinforced racist stereotypes. However, the question she does not pose is was it possible to avoid. If unjust or horrific acts are being committed by governments it is the duty of journalists to report these acts otherwise they continue to remain the privy only of the victims and the perpetrators thereby giving the latter a free hand to commit even greater injustices.

Alan Morris teaches in the School of Social Science and Policy, UNSW. He is currently a visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. His book, Bleakness & Light: Inner-City Transition in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, received an Honourable Mention at the 2000 Noma Award for publishing in Africa and in the same year it was short-listed for the Alan Paton Prize for best work of non-fiction in South Africa.


1. The SMH was chosen as it one of Australia’s premier broadsheets and also because during the period focused on the newspaper had an excellent correspondent posted in Johannesburg whose reports were constantly being used by the paper. The paper also has a reputation for being one of the more liberal and responsible newspapers in the country.

2. Mr Yengeni was ultimately sentenced to serve time in goal for corruption.


African National Congress 2000 1999 Annual Report of the African National Congress, Johannesburg: African National Congress.

Barker, Martin 1981 The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe, London: Junction Books.

Braude, Claudia 1999 Cultural Bloodstains: Towards understanding the Legacy of Apartheid and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in Contemporary South African Media. Research Report Commissioned by South African Human Rights Commission as part of its Inquiry into Race and the Media. Pretoria: South African Human Rights Commission.

Brookes, Heather 1995 ‘Suit, Tie and a Touch of Juju – The Ideological Construction of Africa: A critical Discourse Analysis of News on Africa in the British Press’, Discourse & Society, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 461-94.

Fairclough, Norman 1987 Language and Power, London: Longman.

Glaser, Daryl 2000 ‘The Media Inquiry Reports of the South Human Rights Commission: A Critique’, African Affairs, 99, pp. 373-93.

Hawk, Beverley (ed) 1992 Africa’s Media Image, New York: Praeger.

Jakubowicz, Andrew (ed) 1994 Racism, Ethnicity and the Media, St Leonard, NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Luhmann, Norman 1995 Social Systems, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Media Monitoring Project 1999 The News in Black and White: An Investigation into Racial Stereotyping in the Mass Media, Pretoria: Media Monitoring Project.

Pennycook, Alastair 2001 Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pityana, Barney 2000 ‘South Africa’s Inquiry into Racism in the Media: The Role of National Institutions in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights’, African Affairs, 99: pp. 525-32.

South African Human Rights Commission 1999 Research Report Commissioned by the South African Human Rights Commission as Part of its Inquiry into Race and Media, Pretoria: South African Human Rights Commission.

Sydney Morning Herald 1999 ‘From exile to the top, enigmatically’, Sydney Morning Herald 17 June.

Sydney Morning Herald 1999 ‘Net surfer sets AIDS policy’, Sydney Morning Herald 13 November.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Editors fear ANC McCarthyism’, Sydney Morning Herald 21 February.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Racial fault lines rumble under bias inquiry’, Sydney Morning Herald 26 February 2000.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘The epidemic that won’t go away’, Sydney Morning Herald 25 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Mbeki attacks HIV “‘drug peddlers”’, Sydney Morning Herald 28 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘World waits to find out who Mbeki is’, Sydney Morning Herald 16 June.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘How HIV boy Nkosi, upstaged his President’, Sydney Morning Herald 11 July.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Your money or your life’, Sydney Morning Herald 14 July.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Viral reality’, Sydney Morning Herald 15 July.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Rand power’, Sydney Morning Herald 9 August.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Alien notion on AIDS leads to on-air turbulence’, Sydney Morning Herald 18 September.

Sydney Morning Herald 2000 ‘Drop in support stings ANC’, Sydney Morning Herald 9 December.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Gift for the gaffe turns Mebki into a man besieged’, Sydney Morning Herald 3 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘This boy’s no cream puff’, Sydney Morning Herald 20 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Winners are grinners as BHP power shifts’, Sydney Morning Herald 24 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Billiton brings takeover baggage’, Sydney Morning Herald 24 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001’Daimler got the contract and MP got a luxury car’, Sydney Morning Herald 31 March.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Mbeki plot allegations spilt ruling coalition’, Sydney Morning Herald 27 April.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Mbeki gambit shows signs of misfiring’, Sydney Morning Herald 28 April.

Sydney Morning Herald 2001 ‘Move to stifle $10 billion arms deal’, Sydney Morning Herald 2 June.

Van Dijk, Teun. A. 1991 Racism and the Press, London: Routledge.

Wodak, Ruth 1997 ‘The Discursive Construction of the Other’, in C. Florian (ed) The Handbook of Sociolinguistics, London: Blackwell.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]