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Mar 30 2011

Of state-owned papers, the web and revolutions

Published by at 9:23 am under Opinion,South Africa,Top Stories

I get the impression South Africa is finally waking up to the internet. It took so long, I wrote the country off as “essentially non-digital” in 2009 (here and here). But, I might have been wrong – there may still be (digital) life down there after all. 

Digital life as defined by use, not offers. Offers have been around for a while and in great numbers (thanks to early-adapter Koos Bekker). With a good measure of innovation and creativity. The big drag has been the small audience. In web-speak: the low internet penetration in the population**.

South Africa is often called the economic powerhouse of Africa. Yet, it’s penetration rate is lower than the rates of poverty-ridden Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Clearly, SA has some catching-up to do. And I get the feeling this catching-up process has begun – now that the private sector-funded undersea cables are coming on stream.

Facebook and Twitter are frequently mentioned/discussed on SA radio stations (I listen to SA radio from Germany); Google set up an incubator for start-ups in Cape Town recently, innovative new sites and online magazines are coming online and I’m being contacted via Facebook by South Africans who’ve never been interested in anything digital before. To mention just a few hopeful signs.

The hype might still be centered largely around Facebook and Twitter***. And there’s nothing in the latest Internet World Stats to confirm my observation. I still send e-mails to individuals and businesses in SA and then wait for days (even weeks) for replies. And on this blog traffic from SA still dries up completely at around lunch on Fridays and stays dead until around lunch on Mondays, while the rest of the world surfs at a constant tempo 7 days a week.

But, I’m picking up positive signals. Paradise wasn’t built in a day. Even in Germany, the internet took a few years to infiltrate everyday life.

That’s why I found the news that the SA government is planning a national newspaper so perplexing. Just when the internet (finally) seems to be getting traction in the country; only weeks after we’ve heard of the role the internet had played in the Tunisian, Egyptian and other ”revolutions” in the Arab world. Surely, the internet is where the SA government wants to be in future – not print?

News of the planned newspaper raises many questions. Let’s ignore the absurd situation that Helen Zille’s tax money will be used to spread the message of her political opponents for now. And get to the even more interesting question, namely whether Koos Bekker’s tax money will be used to create competition for his newspapers. Will this state paper sell advertising?

Judged by media reports, the media people behind the new newspaper are very confident their baby will be a success and grow into a national daily. Their confidence is my confirmation they lack media experience. Or, maybe they are simply politicians disguised as media people? I don’t know.

All I know, is independence and objectivity are central to the financial success of papers. In the next few years that lesson will be learned by the people behind the project – and paid for dearly by the taxpayer.

While the young SA voter happily surfs the web. In the way the young revolutionaries in Muslim countries have been doing for some time now…

PS. See what I wrote about the mooted state newspaper in 2007  here. And what The Economist wrote on the same topic later that year here.

** At 10,8% South Africa’s penetration rate is still below the average for African countries (10,9%). That is 5,3 million users out of a population of 49,1 million.

*** In December last year 3,5 million of the 5,3 million users were registered on Facebook! (Source)

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