National discourse is set according to what English newspapers and websites conceive to be of public interest, writes Unathi Kondile.
Akwaba esisibhalo bendinokusibhala ngesiXhosa. Akunani. Mandiqhabalake ngelasemzini kuba ndilundwendwe kweliqonga ndibhala kulo.
One of the many pains of living in post-apartheid South Africa is the contemporary black struggle to be heard and acknowledged as human beings. National discourse is set according to what English newspapers and websites conceive to be of public interest. Rarely do we acknowledge that the voices of the majority in this country do not participate in shaping online and print brouhahas. We are essentially a majority that is a minority when it comes to media. Surely, if one cannot see their interests, languages and curiosities reflected in the daily pressing matters of the press, ababonakali (they are invisible citizens).
For this we cannot blame the English-language media for they serve a particular market that shares their interests. For this we have ourselves, coupled by our assimilation of all things not-us, to blame. Twenty-one years after the dawn of democracy we have only one daily vernacular title esingazingomba izifuba ngayo (that we can beat our chests about): Isolezwe, the Zulu daily read by more than a million people a day.
Surely there is room for more daily vernacular titles?
To prove this, in 2012 I re-established a Xhosa newspaper titled Isigidimi, which was to test the waters for a possible PhD proposal on transforming the media in South Africa through the vernacular press.
Isigidimi was well received throughout the country, and particularly in the Eastern Cape. The hunger for a Xhosa newspaper was palpable. Soon Umhlobo Wenene FM, the largest Xhosa radio station in the country, latched on and the paper’s support grew. The demand for this paper was beyond the means of a 10 000 to 20 000 print run. Along the way it even picked up a British Council culture award. Through Isigidimi it became clear that a need existed.
Through further research, which entailed the production of dummy copies, numerous focus groups and one-on-one interviews throughout the Eastern Cape, we validated the belief that a need indeed exists.
Above all there exists an untapped market of more than 3.5 million adult Xhosa literates in the Eastern Cape alone, yet there is not a single daily Xhosa newspaper catering for this potential market.
This in itself points to a profound failure of South Africa’s media to transform itself. How long will this subservient mimicry of an English press prevail in a country where the majority speak the vernacular?
It was with this in mind that I approached Independent Media in January last year, having closely followed the company’s interest in setting up a vernacular title in the Eastern Cape. It was genuine. Ten months later, after many meetings, I joined Independent to head up the Eastern Cape Xhosa newspaper project.
The first item on the agenda was to expand my research; test the name, produce more dummy copies and rope in the services of a reputable research company.
The idea that vernacular newspapers are arduous endeavours is something that should be reserved for the lazy. Yes, many have tried. Many have failed. And others end up becoming English titles with Xhosa mastheads. There also exists a false sense of hopelessness whenever one raises the idea of vernacular newspapers.
“Xhosa is a difficult language to read”, “Why bother with Xhosa when all opportunities are in English?”, “You are taking us backwards, we live in a global village…” and so on I have heard. These are not the things that make vernacular papers fail. It is often shoddy design, poor orthography and lack of distinction from English titles (in terms of content) that renders these vernacular newspapers irrelevant. Many of these papers also blame a lack of advertising as a primary source of their failure.
Some rely on seemingly perpetual Media Development and Diversity Agency funding while operating in silos.
I must, however, commend newspapers such as Zithethele in Port Elizabeth as well as Skawara in the Cofimvaba and Queenstown area.
Although now featuring English, they are working hard to serve their communities. There are many other smaller titles like Pondo News, Ikamva laseGcuwa, and Ingqanga neNtsiba Zayo, to name a few, that are able to secure government advertising, which points to a keen interest in supporting such undertakings. If such papers worked together and published regularly, many more advertisers would come on board.
There is no doubt that vernacular newspapers are in demand; the challenges for many have largely been around the market positioning of such products as well as the vast distribution size of the Eastern Cape.
Even the Eastern Cape government has over the years mentioned how it would like to strengthen its communication and gain tips and insights from the people of the province. The role of a genuinely and proudly Eastern Cape newspaper would be to become the people’s conduit and follow their interests closely.
“Kufuneka siqhube ngesicwangciso sophuhliso lwePhondo, esisekwe kwesikaZwelonke,” Eastern Cape MEC Sakhumzi Somyo has said.
For a province plagued by poverty and an unemployment rate above 30 percent I believe that things can only get better. It would be in the interests of any newspaper that wants to thrive in the Eastern Cape to focus on the province’s key industries; automotive manufacturing, agriculture and tourism, to name a few.
Of further benefit for a vernacular newspaper would be following up, aggressively, on the stalled promotion of indigenous languages and home language teaching in the country. The sooner that programme gains traction the sooner we can guarantee future vernacular media consumers and contributors.
Vernacular media are not merely a cause for diversity or a nice to have, they are a means through which we can access new voices, new ideas and humanise those who continue to be denied the chance. Theth’ba nakweli ityeli zakumka iinkomo zethu sijongile, magwala ndini?
* I have written this in the memory of William Wellington Gqoba, Isaac Williams Wauchope, John Tengo Jabavu, Tiyo Soga, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, John Langalibalele Dube and many more vernacular newspaper pioneers who had the same goal, to take up the pen in our own languages and create forums for African opinions, or izimvo zabantsundu, before our rights and languages are gone.
* Next month Independent Media will launch its first Xhosa daily newspaper, led by Unathi Kondile, in the Eastern Cape.
The Sunday Independent