Ecquid Novi African Journalism Studies (2011): Special edition on Journalism and the Public Sphere in Africa
By Anthea Garman, guest editor
The idea of the public sphere (and the memory of its 18th century flowering in newspapers and publications, conversations in coffee shops and salons and its exemplary citizen engagement) still resonates today and is invoked often as an important, necessary feature of a functioning democracy. But as many theorists have pointed out, the ideal version that Jürgen Habermas described in Western Europe may no longer be an adequate description of today’s forms of publicness and participation.
The new special themed issue of Ecquid Novi African Journalism Studies 32(3) 2011 on ‘Journalism and the public sphere in Africa’ focuses on the actual situations we find ourselves in, with a special interest in the media as vehicles of the public conversation. The questions which animate this edition are ones like: How are actually-existing public spheres functioning? What issues are being circulated? What kinds of performances are being acted out? What preoccupations dominate public debates?
Several of the articles are drawn from a particular locus of research (originally the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project at the University of the Witwatersrand, and its successor instantiation, the Public Life of Ideas Network) whose researchers made a focus of public sphere study and who have tried to tease out these issues in ways that illuminate understanding of the actually-existing rather than the normatively-proclaimed situations. This research takes seriously that legitimate topics for public debate may originate from unusual sources and have atypical articulations.
In the opening article I assert that even issues aired in public, which show up the fragmentation of the public sphere should be taken seriously because they are rooted in deep questions about subjectivity and belonging. Rebecca Kahn’s article on the band Fokofpolisiekar, which had its heyday between 2003 and 2007, shows that the band’s music, lyrics and antics, provoked a great deal of not only news coverage but also fodder for public intellectuals and other commentators to debate the complexity of white Afrikaner identity and inclusion in a post-apartheid South Africa.
The Mbeki era and the contestation between presidency and media is the backdrop to the research Alan Finlay draws on to show how very heated and personal the exchanges became in the quest to establish the terms and tone of the public debate at this time. Finlay shows that anxiety about being South African, speaking authentically, demonstrating solidarity and true citizenship permeated the debate.
Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton, also drawing on case studies from the same fraught period, focus on whether journalists actively facilitate debate or merely allow it to unfold as the strongest actors dictate the terms. And the article by Franz Krüger on community radio gauges the health of an entire sector of the media which is tasked with reaching a majority with news and information required to empower them as citizens. For more information, visit: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/recq20/current.
Garman, Kahn, Finlay, Cowling and Hamilton are all participants in the Public Life of Ideas Network.
Volume 32(3) 2011
Garman. A., 2011. ‘The “refeudalisation” or the “return of the repressed” of the public sphere?’,32(3): 4-18.