South Africa and the International Media: 1972-1979. A Struggle for Representation

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South Africa and the International Media: 1972 -1979. A Struggle for Representation.

James Sanders. London: Frank Cass, 1999. 270 pp. $57.50 hbk. $26.50 pbk.

Teaching an undergraduate course on "media and society" and a graduate course on the "media and South Africa" during the spring semester of 2000 in the United States, I was amazed not so much by the general lack of knowledge students had about South Africa, but rather about what they did know. As Sanders correctly points out in his thorough analysis of media coverage, if one would have mentioned South Africa in the 1970s, most people would immediately have thought of apartheid. My students came up with totally different one-word combinations with the "rainbow country": crime, AIDS, wildlife, and to a far lesser extent, Mandela, and the golf player Ernie Els. The few who mentioned the first Black president of democratic South Africa did not know the name of his successor, Thabo Mbeki. This is no indictment on American media and journalism students (a foreign professor would most likely have the same to say about South African students' knowledge of other countries). What really did surprise me was the way South Africa has almost totally disappeared from American television screens and newspaper pages. In addition, it showed in the students' perception of South Africa.

When I questioned seasoned American journalists about this, most explained that South Africa was no longer a "story," since South Africa obtained its democratic government in 1994, and thereafter the "bad-news-is-goodnews-hypothesis" only holds as long as the bad news does not become endemic (e.g., crime and AIDS in South Africa and genocide and starvation elsewhere in Africa).

This rather personal experience is mentioned to underscore the significance of Sanders' book in explaining in great detail how American and British media first "underreported" the important South African political era of the 1970s, then "discovered" the big political story, and then again moved on to stories elsewhere. Is the same trend now taking place after the democratic elections of 1994 and 1999? What happened to the potential good news stories of the 1990s and the early 2000s?

The London School of Oriental and African Studies awarded the author a Ph.D. in 1997 for his thesis on the same topic as the title of his book, and since then he has worked as a freelance journalist and investigative researcher.

From an academic point of view, this work is extremely satisfying to read. Sanders combines the best of what a combination of Ph.D. student, freelance journalist, and investigative researcher can offer. In a scholarly and exceptional, almost journalistic, readable style, he demonstrates how the international media treatment of South Africa during the political volatile 1970s was influenced by (and mediated through) many opposing forces. …