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South African Tabloids

The New Middle

by Brandon Edmonds / 29.06.2011

As someone seriously jonesing for the spectacular heat-death of Capitalism as we know it (Egypt was looking good for a while there, Wisconsin, Spain, even Swaziland), I tend to think of poverty in the same way as Mother Theresa. See that bloviating, metastasizing pontificator Christopher Hitchens once wrote a brilliantly venomous little book about the Angel of Calcutta. The Good Mother’s theology held that suffering brings us closer to God. She had the money to help the poor with the most modern up-to-date medical care but her faith got in the way. Why alleviate suffering when it affords grace? Apparently her hospices seldom even used antibiotics or painkillers. She died with pledged millions in the bank. Poverty, from a certain callously pragmatic radical perspective, speeds the grace of Revolution. The worse things get, the more bountiful the harvest of fiery change (provided the resulting social anger is democratically organized to transform the situation). So you’ll appreciate my mixed feelings encountering an upbeat view of our country so far removed from the standard statistical picture of lack and woe. And from such a debased source, the Afrikaner brains behind the first local tabloid.

Deon Du Plessis is the savvy publisher of the Daily Sun which is the biggest daily in Africa with around 4 million readers. His blog contains wonders. Counter-intuitive positivity about the swelling black middle of the country. He calls his readers the new average, Township Man & Woman, a comprehensive demographic, chefs and teachers and nurses, factory workers and electricians, from KwaMashu, Khayelitsha and Khaya Sands, who are the most socially mobile and significant bloc of voters and spenders in South African history. Here is the real referent of an aerated phrase like “national life”. These are the people who must increasingly matter to politicians and business. The New Middle South Africa. And they’re acquiring new habits (buying dog food, coffee makers and low-fat milk) and a whole new sense of themselves. Biko lite. Brothers and sisters, shop till you drop. As Du Plessis puts it, “they represent the biggest chunk of money in the country”. They are buying Sundaylife, the Sunday Sun lifestyle supplement, with around 2.6 million weekend readers, for articles on how to mix cocktails and handle yourself in court. The advertising in there is increasingly high end: jewelry, Scotch whiskey and luxury cars (with flexible payment plans). The global recession and attendant waves of job losses complicate this New Middle’s ascent – but Du Plessis is adamant it is “another face of SA townships: a vast audience across the land who are interested in getting ahead in life (and) embracing a more glossy lifestyle”. That aspirational flood is unlikely to ebb.

Sundaylife

This is bad news for revolutionaries. As Du Plessis says, “It’s no use grinding on endlessly about poverty when well over half the voters are skittering up the greasy pole of life at a speed that would impress a circus acrobat!” That ascent may explain why widespread protests against the State (what the mainstream press finesses as ‘service delivery’ – as if managing inequality is a narrow technical matter of getting resources where they need to be) have not yet matured into a genuine mass movement built on solidarity with the poor (like the late great UDF); one that provides a very necessary alternative to the self-serving corporatist Alliance (SACP-ANC-COSATU). Du Plessis again: “They have largely abandoned the collectivist view… now it’s up to ME and about ME, they say, this is MY time.” This New Middle reflects the ‘liberal consensus of the post-apartheid democratic settlement’ – they’re enjoying their first home, seeing their kids turn into up-to-date global teens, even starting to travel and increasingly think of themselves outside of the necrotic limits of apartheid identity.

And the tabloids hold their attention despite, what Herman Wasserman calls, in Tabloid Journalism in SA (2010), “the paradox between the critical coverage of the politics of the everyday (lack of service delivery, health care, crime) on the one hand and the celebration of consumerism and upward mobility through ‘lifestyle’ supplements with features on cigars, wine and partying on the other.” Local tabloids must stare into the abyss of social breakdown, familial implosion, municipal dysfunction, even the regressive supernatural ‘occult economy’ of witchcraft and muti, as the People’s Voice, while encouraging readers to enter a new dawn of consumer pleasures (to secure all that sweet aspirational adspend). Tabloids are owned and operated by media multinationals, after all, essentially interested in “their poor and working class audiences as a market to be tapped.”

South African Tabloids

But it isn’t as simple as that. Bringing the news of the New Middle in ways the mainstream “prestige press” don’t, tabloids tell poor people’s stories, reflect the poor’s intimate lifeworld and experiences, and address readers as citizens whose problems matter, granted in sensationalized ways, with bouts of sexist and xenophobic pandering. Analysts are wondering if local tabloids constitute an ‘alternative public sphere’ – completely commercialized but radically inclusive of the kinds of marginalized perspectives and voices the ‘quality media’ neglect out of ‘good taste’ and class based vanity.

The question is how critical the tabloids are willing to be? Will they continue marching in step with this consuming New Middle and waste the great transformative potential of this alternative public sphere by treating it as another neoliberal space where, as Wasserman puts it, “consumerism is masquerading as citizenship”? Or will we see more of the Wall of Shame (which exposed shitty local councillors around the municipal elections), and a move beyond isolated campaigns for ID Books into a fuller notion of citizenship as taking ownership of the state?

That’s unlikely. Here’s the Daily Sun’s Du Plessis on his dream future for the country: “We need a populist for president. The dream team in my view is Zuma with Cyril Ramaphosa. Let Zuma get his couple of years like Tony Blair. The meld of populism plus the comforting of real capital.”

That final sentence sums up our recent history and the onrushing authoritarian nature of our future. Militant cops are trigger happy, a free press is imperiled and work is scarce (and punishingly part-time without benefits) while popular dissent is criminalized. The grotesquery of local tabloids is our reality.

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