In literature about global patterns in journalism education it is argued that all of the traditions of teaching that form part of this field are shaped by local context. To understand each example, one needs to consider the political and economic system in which it is based and the media structures that it relates to. Furthermore, it is important to examine the broader social processes that have shaped these structures and systems (Frochlich & Holz-Bacha, 2003; Josephi, 2010; Goodman & Steyn, 2017; Dickson, 2000).


Studies of South African journalism education are strongly informed by this argument. It is explained that teaching about journalism in this country is located within a transitional democracy. South Africa has, after all, only recently emerged from a history of state-sanctioned oppression and resistance to apartheid. Furthermore, it continues to be one of the most unequal societies in the world, characterised by intense conflict. These contextual factors are understood to have profoundly shaped approaches to the teaching of journalism in this country (Wasserman, 2014; Garman & Van der Merwe, 2017; Du Toit, 2013; Steenveld, 2006).

Commentators identify the School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) at Rhodes University in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) [1], as a site in which context has led to the emergence of a ‘critically engaged’ tradition of journalism education. They explain that this school, which was established in 1972, was originally grounded in a functionalist framework. Its emphasis was on technical instruction, informed by an American model of teaching. However, in the mid-1970s, soon after its establishment, the school underwent a paradigm shift, due to its location in the movement of resistance to apartheid. As a result of this shift,  teaching became informed by a critically engaged approach to the study of journalism and media (Du Toit, 2013; Steenveld, 2006). Ten years ago, in a paper published in African Journalism Studies in 2012, academics based at the school describe the emergence and growth of this tradition of critical engagement (Steenveld, et al., 2012)[2]. They argue that in subsequent years academic project of the school has  continued to be framed by this tradition.

 This paper revisits the assertion of sustained critical engagement by returning to what these commentators describe as the moment of its articulation in the 1970’s. It sets out to explore the approaches to teaching that surfaced at that time and traces evidence of their continuation in subsequent decades. The paper draws for this purpose on interviews with twelve journalism educators who claim to have contributed to the development of this critical tradition at different moments in time. The majority of the interviews were gathered in 2008 and 2010 for a doctoral study produced by the author (Du Toit, 2013). In order to examine subsequent developments, follow-up interviews were conducted in 2019 with the four research participants who were still based at the school.

[1] Makhanda was originally named Grahamstown, in recognition of the role played by Colonel John Graham in the establishment of the town. The name was officially changed in 2018 in acknowledgement of Makhanda, a leader of the amaXhosa who played a central role in resisting British occupation of the surrounding region.’

[2] The paper draws heavily on an earlier book chapter by Steenveld (Steenveld, 2006).

journalism education (Switzer, 2008). Giffard notes that the curriculum dealt, in these early days, with journalistic reporting skills and “press management”. His vision for the department was that it should work in partnership with the English liberal press to challenge the apartheid regime. He set out to design a curriculum that would produce newspaper journalists who could contribute to this purpose (Giffard, 2008).

However, from the mid-1970s onward, the curriculum began to change in response to the strengthening of the mass resistance movement in South Africa.  The participants explain (Giffard, 2008; Switzer, 2008; Stewart, 2010; Tomaselli, 2011) that, at this time, English liberal universities were experiencing a growth in critical consciousness. This occurred not only  in context of formal  academic learning but also through campus-based political debate, student activism and engagement with local communities. For the white, middle class students who dominated these academic environments, exposure to critical ideas was often revelatory.

It is, indeed, in such terms that Richards describes her experience of Rhodes as a student in the mid-1970s. She explains that critical theory shocked her into the realisation that the white and middle-class construction of reality that she had brought with her from home was only one of many world views:

I always thought of myself as within … a little picture frame … that … blew apart. That … Marxist sense of looking at things was big, then … I had never come across anything like that … I’d come from a very … middle class family, I had no idea, you know, that anyone thought any differently (Richards, 2010).

Richards explains that there was a flow of ideas between her formal education, where she was

introduced to “styles of analysis”, and political debate on campus, where she came into contact with “the thinking of … Biko, and [Black Consciousness]” (Richards, 2010). Berger, who was also studying at Rhodes at this time, notes that ideas drawn from the Politics curriculum  “… fused a lot with what was happening in reality … so it wasn’t sort of in an isolated bubble” (Berger, 2010).

Both Switzer and Giffard note that many students in the Department of Journalism were involved in the South African Press Union (SASPU), and in this context were participating in the production and circulation of resistance media. Across South Africa, SASPU was collaborating with organisations in the resistance movement to produce alternative, community-based newspapers.  In Grahamstown, students (one of them Berger) and members of the local community produced Ilizwi LaseRhini, an isiXhosa-language newspaper (Switzer, 2008; Giffard, 2008).  

Switzer explains that, in context of the learning that such students brought into his classroom, he experienced a transformation as an intellectual. He became convinced of the importance of melding teaching about the competencies of journalism with a questioning mind-set, guided by critical theory. He explored the potential of literary journalism (or ‘new journalism’) as a vehicle for achieving this goal and offered students a course on this topic. He also established a course in research methods, arguing that it represented an important basis for a critical approach to journalistic production. According to Switzer, students responded positively to such teaching but were equally affected by ideas that they were exploring in other departments and  through their involvement in political activities (Switzer, 2008).

            Addison, who started lecturing in the department in 1977, notes that it was already known at that time as a “bit of a hot bed of agitation”. Addison explains that during his own time at the department, staff did not share a cohesive approach to the teaching of journalism:

We were all strongly individualist, and we all went our ways. We would agree on politics, but that is about all. And each of these individuals had his own show going … To put it mildly, the department was anarchic … we didn’t believe in actually following anybody’s rules (Addison, 2010).

It is nevertheless possible to observe a degree of coherence in the curriculum of the 1970s, as describe by the participants. They draw a distinction between courses in dealing with the social contexts of journalism and those focusing on its production. The contextual courses included a strong focus on the study of diverse histories of journalism. Switzer, for example, dealt with the history of black South African journalism (Switzer, 2008). Addison chose to focus on global traditions of critical writing about society, both from the realms of journalism and literature. He traced connections between such writing and South African journalism. The idea was “… to put across this notion that journalists could not stand aside and be mere observers”. This was a response to the exploitation by the apartheid government of the ideal of objective journalism:

The Nat government was trying to persuade [us] that the true role of a journalist was to be a stenographer that just wrote things down. Especially if they were official statements … that was objectivity being misused to such an extent that it was certainly not objectivity. What it was, was a big cover up for the sins of apartheid. So – I set myself against that (Addison, 2010).

Richards explains that, from her perspective as a student, it seemed that staff were nevertheless determined to hold on to the ideal of journalism as ‘truth-seeking’:

And …that was [something] that I got from my university, was that journalism is a kind of calling. It’s like – you have to believe in it – and believe in the purity of it. And to retain that purity so that you can seek truth (Richards, 2010).

Richards explains that this emphasis on “truth-seeking” could be more generally observed within the English liberal press of the late 1970’s. It originated from a discomfort with the limitations of guidelines of objectivity for producing journalism under the conditions of the apartheid era. These guidelines assumed that journalists could occupy a “neutral position” from which to be “…quoting this person, quoting that person”. This was recognised at Rhodes and more broadly in the liberal press as an inadequate practice for journalism as it existed in an ‘abnormal’ society:

People were … grappling with how one shows the evils of apartheid …and that is why we were grappling … with whether we should just toss objectivity altogether … that was a product of its time. It was a product of apartheid (Richards, 2010).

This did not mean, however, that objectivity as an ideal was in itself up for debate since it was still understood as fundamental to the occupational identity of journalism, distinguishing it from ‘public relations’.  The credibility of the newsgathering process still depends on the extent to which it is guided by methodological principles of ‘objective’ empirical research. Then, once the process of gathering evidence has been completed, one can adopt a politically situated point of view:

… one should always try to rather find … a way to deal with apartheid … through good research, and … allowing the balance of your research to lead you (Richards, 2010).

Struggle and resistance: The 1980s

The academic environment that participants describe in the mid-1980s is one in which a synergy between the formal curriculum and political education outside the classroom had become well established. Amner, who arrived at Rhodes in 1987, explains that activist organisations operated as an efficient filter for identifying students who had the potential to be drawn into a struggle for social change. They were steered towards academic choices that complemented this purpose:

On the first day of arriving I was recruited into a political organisation … I was pulled in through … contact with other activists into particular courses … one chose courses … because one knew that’s where the … leftists … in academia were, and …those were the courses that were ‘right on’, and … that would … support the ‘project’ (Amner, 2010).

Knowledge of social theory was equally important both in and outside the classroom, and ideas explored in coursework translated with ease into the spectrum of political discussions that were taking place within the student activist community:

It was actually quite a … hair-raising experience to be part of that process of induction not only into … academic discourse, but in fact into political discourse. So for me, almost immediately, there wasn’t really a separation between those things … it was all in some ways … intertwined, made sense together (Amner, 2010).

In contrast, Mati explains that his political schooling began well before he came to university, in context of his involvement with black activist organisations. This education took place in reading groups organised by the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and the Congress of South African students (COSAS). Here he was introduced to ideas drawn from liberation theology and critical pedagogy:

So it really profoundly shaped me before even I encountered … formal education … we had a serious kind of culture of reading … by the time I came to university I had … some sort of background around these issues and a sense of the moral choices that I had to make (Mati, 2019).

In 1985, when he came to Rhodes University, Mati stepped down from his position as national president of COSAS.  He had resolved that, during his years of study, his primary contribution to the resistance movement would be to help build a culture of critical reading amongst students at Rhodes:

The only responsibility I will have is to set up a network … it was a kind of political study group  … to go through literature. We were reading Marx … Che Guevara … the African communists, of course … all the copies that we could lay our hands on. I introduced them to liberation theology thinkers … (Mati, 2019)

The purpose was, he explained, to “… understand society and the causes of the social problems that we were faced with so that we can intervene to transform them”:

So for me it was part of that struggle for social change … there was certainly at the time a huge culture of taking the written word seriously through reading (Mati, 2019).

Switzer notes that, by the beginning of the 1980s, this culture of critical reading was also well established amongst Rhodes staff in the Department of Journalism. As a result of this influence, the curriculum began to expand beyond a focus on journalism to embrace a broader focus on the critical study of media. Indeed, when Switzer took over as Head of Department in 1979, he took the opportunity to add the words “media studies” to the department’s name.   He explains that he avoided the term “communication” because he saw in it a code word for the conservatism which, at that time, was dominant within American journalism education (Switzer, 2008). The research participants who speak about this period refer to the emergence of two streams of teaching; courses that focused on the study of journalism, and those that dealt with the study of media. The two subsections, below, deal with each of these streams of teaching in turn.

Studying Journalism

Stewart, who had worked as a journalist at the Rand Daily Mail in the 1970s, took on the headship of the department in 1980. Like Giffard before him, he aimed for the department to work in partnership with progressive elements in the English liberal press. He explains that it was because this partnership was supported by the leadership of Rhodes University that his own application to teach in the department could succeed. At the time of his job interview in 1979, his academic qualifications were “flimsy”, which would under normal circumstances have made his employment unlikely. Because of his endorsement by the progressive journalistic community he was nevertheless offered the position:

‘79 was the year in which the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Express had exposed the whole information debacle. And the two editors there – Allister Sparks and Rex Gibson … I said to them … would you support me … Which was hugely powerful backing (Stewart, 2010).

Steenveld notes that, in context of this partnership, teaching dealt with an approach to production that replicated the practices of mainstream newspapers, even while they offered contextual courses that critiqued this tradition and offered alternatives to it. She refers in this context to John Grogan, who was responsible for teaching about print journalism when she arrived in the department in the mid-1980’s. On one hand, Grogan presented a course that dealt with literary new journalism and which offered students alternatives to the ideal of a journalism of objectivity. On the other hand, in his teaching of writing and editing, he was focusing on “… the facts, and accuracy, and all the kind of …. ethics that go with that” (Steenveld, 2010).

            Amner, who completed the undergraduate programme in the late 1980’s, makes a similar statement about Charles Riddle, who was responsible both for a course in the Sociology of News and for teaching about writing and editing. The Sociology of News course allowed Amner to look more critically at examples of South African journalism:

Texts like Deciding What’s News by Herbert Gans, I remember reading that, and … feeling very excited by it, because I … found it challenging … and I remember … watching … SABC broadcasts through the lens of texts like that (Amner, 2010).

In his approach to the writing and editing modules, Riddle nevertheless reverted to the language of fairness and balance associated with ‘professional’ journalism:

It was very much the kind of journalism you would produce in … the United States, or the UK … There was the … hegemonic ideas around professional practice, of balance [and so on]… (Amner, 2010).

Amner does not suggest, however, that the department’s writing and editing courses were unquestioning of the rhetoric of objective reporting. There was, rather, a form of ‘paradigm repair’, in which adjustments were made to guidelines for objectivity in order to accommodate their limitations. Like Richards a decade earlier, Amner explains that this was a response to the conditions under which journalism operated under apartheid:

Because we were in a situation of obvious inequality and oppression … critique by the mainstream press was allowable to a certain extent … we needed to …  transcend the strictures and the limitations of that moment… (Amner, 2010).

In the 1980s, then, there continued to be a sustained interest in preparing students to play a role in strengthening critical tendencies within the South African mainstream newspaper industry. Amner argues, however, that such interest did not amount to a commitment to a transformation of this landscape:

We needed to be reflexive … but I think there were limits … the Sociology of News thing was … taught … with an idea in mind that mainstream media practice needed to be reformed rather than radically overhauled … (Amner, 2010).

Objectivity could, in other words, be “played with a little bit”, but only insofar as it enabled the mainstream paradigm to accommodate a critique of the South African political context:

It was really … about political position – you are allowed to be anti-apartheid, but you are not allowed to let go of fairness, balance …  the methodology of mainstream professional practice (Amner, 2010).

Amner also argues that, in order to make sense of these limitations it should be understood that the analysis of South African society that informed teaching about journalism in the department was that of conservative liberalism:

There was a … dominant position that needed to be opposed, and I think that was the liberal … press position … but I mean there is a big difference between the PFP opposition to apartheid, and … a … national democratic revolution … opposition (Amner, 2010).

The assumption also remained that the department existed to prepare graduates for employment in the English liberal press rather than for work in alternative traditions of journalism. This despite the fact that, by the late 1980’s, such journalism had become a crucial feature of the South African media landscape:

We weren’t being taught Sociology of News so that we could go and join Grassroots in Cape Town or … for that matter … Radio Freedom … we were being primed for … a mainstream press that took pride in its anti-apartheid stance, but nevertheless held onto some of those hegemonic ideas about professional practice (Amner, 2010).

Mati explains that his introduction to journalistic production occurred before he came to Rhodes, in context of this alternative journalistic tradition. As part of his work in COSAS, he had worked closely with SASPU on designing a newsletter for the organisation. In this way he came to understand that, like books, journalism could play a role in building a culture of critical consciousness:

And so … in a sense I kind of understood the value of the media … so this idea of the power of … media to spread ideas, and knowledge (Mati, 2019).

At Rhodes, his education in the practicalities of print journalism continued primarily in the context of the student press. This was despite the fact that the department worked closely with  Grocotts Mail, a Grahamstown-based English-language newspaper, where students gained access to experiential learning about mainstream journalism. Because of the repressive political climate and in context of his involvement in COSAS, Mati was not welcome at the newspaper. Instead, he found his way into Ilizwi LaseRhini, where he was given the opportunity to produce community-based journalism in isiXhosa (Mati, 2019). 

Amner also explains that his own education in  journalistic practice occurred in the student press rather than in journalism courses, but in contrast to Mati this was in context of English  campus-based media. It was here that he became versed in the subtleties of engaging with a conservative white audience around political issues without actively alienating them:

There was real strategic thinking about … how [our journalism] would be presented to  …  a relatively hostile audience of middle-class white students … we  … needed to think in very strategic … ways about how that material would … slowly change people’s minds, and pull them kicking and screaming … into … social-political transformation (Amner, 2010).

From these descriptions, it is clear that teaching about journalism at Rhodes in the 1980s included a focus on academic knowledge which allowed for a critical analysis of journalistic practice. Such courses existed, however, in separation from those that focused on teaching students how to produce journalism. The suggestion is, furthermore, that their existence was motivated not by the need for a fundamental questioning of mainstream conventions of journalism. Instead, critical analysis was necessitated by the ‘abnormal’ conditions in which such practice existed within the South African context.  Within production courses, in turn, the treatment of guidelines for journalistic practice did include a degree of critical reflection on the standard guidelines for objective reporting. As such, they can be seen to echo a similar process of questioning that was taking place in context of progressive mainstream newspapers. The focus was not, however, on a fundamental questioning of these guidelines but rather on strategies of adjustment that would ensure their continued credibility. Any learning that students like Amner and Mati were able to pursue about alternative approaches to journalism occurred outside the classroom, in the context of the student press and resistance media. It would seem, however, that, the Department of Journalism did not recognise these journalistic communities as being their primary partners.

Studying media

Whereas teaching about journalism defined itself in terms of a constructive partnership with mainstream news, teaching about media was driven by an interest in disciplinary identity. This interest operated not only at an individual level, but also as part of the department’s claim to a status of academic legitimacy. Participants suggest that it was through an association with critical theory that the department attempted to achieve this goal. Berger notes that critical theory was already central to students’ experience in the late 1970s:

Those particular brands of Marxism that at that point were relevant to understanding media issues and in particular looking at stuff like Ralph Miliband and Gramsci … (Berger, 2010).

Through such theory, the programme offered students a reflective language in which to make sense of South African political context – and as part of this to offer explanations of “… how the ruling class rules and hegemony and so on”. The emphasis was also on the possibility of questioning hegemony so that the media could become a site of resistance to the forces of the state:

You began to recognise … media … was not just a tool of the ruling class … you could actually do something. And then Stuart Hall … in about 1980 started writing about the media as a site of struggle. So that … crystallised some of this thinking, that you could actually … go and contest things within there (Berger, 2010).

Stewart notes that, by the time he took up his post at Rhodes in 1980, the critical study of media had come to define the department’s official identity (Stewart, 2010). Tomaselli argues that the administrative leadership of the university encouraged such attempts at strengthening disciplinary identity. In his view, they hoped that this would “bring stability back” into a department that, in the late 1970s, had become “chaotic” and “fractured” because of the political activities of students and staff. He suggests that this concern informed his own appointment in 1981 as a replacement for Berger. The university authorities saw him as someone who would be serious about the establishment of a coherent academic identity in the department:

I think one of the reasons why I got the job was because … I didn’t present myself as … a subverter of everything that the university took seriously. I … had already begun to develop a research output … there was an academic project behind my practice (Tomaselli, 2011).

In the early 1980s, a staff reading group was established to make sense of the implications of Cultural Studies for the study of media in South Africa. The understandings generated from such reading became the foundation of these academics’ approach to teaching and research. Courses began to draw strongly on Marxist concepts such as those of Althusser and Gramsci (Tomaselli, 2011).

By the time Pinnock joined the department in 1983, it was no longer the “hot bed of agitation” that Addison had found there in the late 1970s. Pinnock notes that although many journalism students were politically involved, he found “remarkably few” members of staff who were “… remotely interested in political stuff”. This did not mean that staff were disinterested in South African politics but rather that they avoided engagement with their immediate social context. Like Berger, Pinnock sought out such engagement, and in this context became involved in the production of Ilizwi LaseRhini. Indeed, it was through his friendship with Pinnock that Mati first became involved in this newspaper (Mati, 2019). According to Pinnock, his own interest in direct social engagement was not encouraged by colleagues in the department. This, he says, was because of an association with the political activities of previous members of staff:

They left before I came. So there was this legacy of these dangerous people who had now left. And then I came along and then there was another dangerous person … there was a … sense in the department that … we must get back to the business of being, you know, lecturers … I can’t really say that I was getting much support  … for an attempt to understand what was going on outside (Pinnock, 2010).

Pinnock identifies a shift amongst staff away from attempts to “understand what was going on outside”, and towards the articulation of disciplinary identity for the study of media in South Africa. A key theoretical term of reference, as he remembers it, was scholarship drawn from the “Birmingham” school of Cultural Studies. Pinnock had read into such scholarship himself, and “… really appreciated [the] stuff and … loved the intellectual rigour that was going on”. He nevertheless questioned whether this literature was of significance to the South African political situation:

Everybody was getting their information from overseas … and it had [no] relevance at the end of the day, in my estimation … it … didn’t really connect with what I saw was going on outside the door of the office, in the streets. It was useful [academically] but kind of rarified (Pinnock, 2010).

In Pinnock’s estimation, the ‘critical turn’ in the department signalled a reaction against the difficulties of social engagement, and with this a withdrawal into the sanctuary offered by the academic work:

My impression of the people in the department was that they were retreating into an academic space which was non-controversial and comfortable and then they could …  become the experts in that field but I wasn’t quite sure of the relevance it had to what I saw was an unfolding revolution (Pinnock, 2010).

Amner, in contrast, notes that as a student in the late 1980s it was exactly the courses dealing with Cultural Studies that seemed politically relevant to him. It was, in fact, political relevance that distinguished these courses from those dealing with the production of journalism:

I didn’t do terribly well in my … prac classes … the Cultural Studies dimension of the curriculum … spoke to me in terms of my political agenda … more powerfully than some of the production courses I was taking (Amner, 2010).

Other participants also speak more positively than Pinnock about the emphasis in the department on academic rigour and disciplinary identity. They suggest that, because of this shift, the department had become uniquely positioned as a space in which it was possible to establish the foundations for a vigorous South African tradition of critical media studies. Tomaselli notes that it was this that had convinced him to take up a post in the department. At this time, he and his wife, Ruth Teer-Tomaselli, were “…working up a political economy analysis of the South African media, and we were looking for places in which to interact with … like-minded scholars”. The department offered a space in which he could find such colleagues (Tomaselli, 2011). Steenveld also speaks of the department as a space in which she found unique opportunities for establishing expertise in the field of media studies. When Tomaselli left Rhodes in 1985 she was offered his post and took over his teaching in film studies. This came to represent her main area of expertise during her first years as a lecturer, when she expanded film studies from a first year course to modules offered in each year of the degree (Steenveld, 2019). For Mati, Steenveld’s teaching represented one of the most memorable aspects of his education in the department. He explains that film studies provided him with access to an intellectual heritage about media production that was located outside the domain of Western liberal media:

We did you know the Latin American film movement … all those thinkers … and in fact we went back to the Russian revolution – to the beginnings … montage – and editing – so we went all the way back. And so that stood out (Mati, 2019)

The participants explain that media studies as it came to exist in the department emphasised the study of visual texts. With regards to the establishment of synergies between such teaching and production courses, there was a focus on partnerships with video production. In the mid-1980s, production courses had expanded from print journalism to include radio and television. Steenveld notes that she contributed to a course on video production, collaborating with Larry Strelitz who had been appointed at the same time as her as a television lecturer. The course did not deal with the television journalism and was, instead, conceptualised around “community production”:

We were very conscious at that time that we had resources here, which community organisations didn’t have, and … we would make our resources available to [them] … the students were paired with community organisations, and they would find out what their issues and needs were, and they would make programmes for [and] with them (Steenveld, 2006).

Amner refers to this course as one of the most valuable learning experiences of his undergraduate degree. He explains that the work he produced in context of the community partnership was not technically impressive:

It was … an appalling television production … aesthetically it was very dull. It was badly shot, it was – well, we tried, you know. But it was a disaster, from a mainstream documentary … point of view (Amner, 2010).

For both Strelitz and Amner, the importance of the assignment had more to do with the way in which the process of production impacted on those involved. Viewed in this way, the production was profoundly significant:

It was an incredibly powerful political experience … really the process was more important than the product. And I think I always carried that with me (Amner, 2010).

Steenveld explains that such teaching held significance for students because they saw its relevance to social context:

There was a point to it all, and … they grew enormously, in terms of maturity and all of that stuff. You know – because of their relationship [to the course], and the seriousness, because the stakes were high (Steenveld, 2010).

This account can, perhaps, be seen to throw some doubt on Pinnock’s argument that staff who became invested in Cultural Studies were involved in a wholesale retreat from social engagement.

At the same time, Stewart notes that the centrality of Cultural Studies to the identity of the department impacted negatively on its relationship with the mainstream English press. He explains that these newspapers were in fact a “rather conservative bunch”. Papers such as the Rand Daily Mail were the exception to this rule but even for them the critical language adopted by the department held little relevance. Stewart argues that these papers were “engaged in a different kind of fight” to that of the media studies academics. The English liberal press defined this fight in terms of an analysis of race rather than class:

The Rand Daily Mail, the kind of enlightened journalists if you want to call them that … at that stage it was primarily a racial issue. It wasn’t so much an ideological issue, at the level of what sort of economic system (Stewart, 2010).

The department’s investment in critical theory did not form part, then, of an attempt to develop a language of critical reflection that could be shared with mainstream journalism. Indeed, Steenveld explains that staff who were involved in the critical study of media did not understand their primary purpose to be that of the transforming mainstream journalistic practice. They rejected the assumption that their responsibility was that of preparing students for work in these spaces because they regarded them as irredeemably compromised by collusion with the state (Steenveld, 2010). In her 2006 study of the school’s history, Steenveld notes that this applied not only to the mainstream press but also to the SABC, which was understood to be a vehicle of propaganda for the state. The role that students saw themselves adopting after graduation was not that of becoming journalists in these spaces but rather that of producers of alternative media. Because of this, the film and video courses did not prioritise knowledge of broadcast journalism. The emphasis was, rather, on experimenting with alternative media production (Steenveld, 2006).

Mati’s description of the SABC differs in some respects from that of Steenveld. He explains that what was then known as Radio Xhosa, the isiXhosa-language channel of the SABC, had always been central to his media world. Furthermore, in the mid-1970s, he had become conscious of a group of broadcasters at the station who succeeded in producing both journalism and drama that was critical of the state. Even though the station fell under state control, there were “pockets of resistance” inside it that allowed for the emergence of such subversive media practice:

So those broadcasters – there was a level of resistance, because often when we look at the SABC we think it was just monolithic, and everybody followed the ideology, but there were spaces there that was very interesting (Mati, 2019).

Mati explains that he would have loved, after graduation, to find his way into this community of subversive broadcasters. When he left Rhodes, he applied for work at Radio Xhosa but he knew that it was “not even a dream, thinking of working there”. The SABC’s management would check security police files, and reject his application:

My wish was that I could just materialise myself inside the SABC … to just find myself there … (Mati, 2019)

There was, however, little consciousness in the Department of JMS about the existence of such traditions of subversion within the SABC, or about the value of engaging with them.

Steenveld also speaks of a disconnect between the study of media in the department and the alternative press. This was despite the fact that these newspapers were, at this stage, the primary domain of alternative journalism. She explains that her own interests had “… veered … towards visual media” because the study of semiotics and film was more relevant to such texts. This meant that she did not engage with the alternative press:

Obviously concurrently there was the alternative press. That was … the moment of the alternative press movement, but my engagement wasn’t with them, but with the alternative visual media (Steenveld, 2010).

It would seem that for Steenveld, teaching and research did not at this stage involve a sustained empirical engagement with progressive journalistic practice.

By the end of the 1980s, then, the application of critical theory to the study of media did not result in a sustained tradition, at Rhodes, of critical engagement with either alternative or mainstream journalistic practice. This would suggest that the role that Cultural Studies or critical theory could have played in the transformation of journalistic practice was not realised. Instead, the history of teaching within this programme, as it existed then, can be seen to represent a missed opportunity for the articulation of a critically engaged tradition in university-based journalism education.

Reconstruction: The 1990’s and early 2000’s

In the early 1990’s, just before South Africa’s first democratic elections, the relationships that the Department of JMS had established with its social context changed. Participants speak of this as a time in which a more constructive engagement with the South African political environment could be established. Berger, who took up his post as Head of Department at this time, explains that he saw a need for the department to become more “… plugged into … what was happening outside … in the mainstream and in the alternative press”. He felt that responding to this context meant that staff needed, firstly, to develop strategies that would address the “whiteness” of the student body. He attempted to articulate such a strategy through the establishment of Grab, which he describes as a “training project with the local community”. The aim was to work with youth from local black schools on the production of a newspaper, and in this way to spark their interest in journalism and draw them into the teaching programme. Berger also recognised an urgent need to harness the intellectual resources within the department in order to “become useful to the new authorities”. This could happen, firstly, through contribution to “policy work” that was taking place as part of the construction of the post-apartheid media landscape. There was, furthermore, the opportunity to train government communicators. Berger’s perception was that some staff in the department resisted such work because it meant that they needed to move from “critiquing power” to “working with power”:

It is one thing to criticise the state when the state is controlled by the apartheid regime. When the new state is there, and they are saying please can you train our government communicators, then you need to respond (Berger, 2010).

He argues that, at this time, there was no shared position within the department with regards to the relationship that it should foster with its external environment. Some staff, such as Strelitz and Steenveld, positioned themselves within the “critical” mode, which Berger describes as “that traditional paradigm continuing”:

Whereas I think the work that I was doing was to say … I don’t have a  problem with critiquing journalism, but I’d rather train journalists, not just critique them. You know I’d like to see us having more direct interventions (Berger, 2010).

However, Steenveld’s comments about the department in the mid to late 1990’s are, in fact, similar to those of Berger. She, too, speaks about the importance of constructive engagement with “what was happening outside”. In her case, she speaks not so much about the relationship to the state but rather to journalism practice. This was because the mainstream press was in a process of transformation and as such becoming more “legitimate”:

I think it was about … a change in politics … you know you are moving out of the eighties, which was a time of critique, and fighting against, and then 1994 a ‘working with’, whereas you know in the 1980’s the industry were demons (Steenveld, 2010).

In 1999, Steenveld was appointed the Independent Chair of Media Transformation and in this capacity began to work closely with leadership both within the print industry and the SABC:

What was very good for me personally from that engagement was that …  I got to know people in the print media industry very well … And because of the position … I was … accepted into … a high level of meetings and discussion with owners, managers, editors. That … sort of leadership level … rather than just journalists (Steenveld, 2010).

Her knowledge of concerns expressed by journalists and editors led her towards the identification of particular bodies of academic work. In this way she established, for the first time, an expertise in the study of journalism:

Whereas before I would have read about media in general, and then about visual media and so on, now I was seeking out stuff … that called itself journalism… (Steenveld, 2010).

Steenveld suggests that the flow of ideas from practice to theory and back again was made possible not only by her own willingness to “work with” industry, but also by the fact that this industry was itself invested in the process of reflection. More than this, the motivation for this work often came from editors, rather than being initiated from inside the academy. Steenveld explains that “… what was great for me [about] that time was that … the practitioners were asking for it”:

I actually loved that time … I used to do a lot of workshops with journalists … and it was them asking me, you know? In the Chair, I would get these requests, to run [workshops]… (Steenveld, 2010).

Steenveld understands this mutual commitment as being specific to a moment in South African media history; one in which there was a shared understanding within the university and the media industry that journalism needed to transform. There was, because of this, an openness to self-critique and to drawing on the resources of the university in order to achieve this:

They had an agenda … and in a sense they needed the university in a way that they hadn’t … before; before they just needed them to run practical courses, or they’d needed journalists to be trained. Now they were asking about ideas (Steenveld, 2010).

There may, certainly be validity in Berger’s argument that academics in the department found it difficult to move from a relationship of “critique” of power to one of “working with” power. Steenveld’s obervations suggests, however, that “working with” a journalism industry necessarily depended on the extent to which it was open to self-critique and to a fundamental reconceptualisation of its own practices.

Garman, similarly, describes her decision in 1997 to leave the Natal Witness in order to work for Rhodes as resulting from an interest in the cultivation of a more self-reflective approach to journalism.  But in contrast to Steenveld, she speaks of an awareness of the insularity of journalistic practice:

I think there was … an accumulating feeling from being in a newsroom that … this was a … self-referential system. It is terribly easy to stay in a newsroom and have your … mode of operation in the world … reconfirmed … despite all the criticism from outside …the system would bolster and reinforce … and it started to feel to me like a kind of … echo chamber (Garman, 2010).

Like Berger, Garman describes her decision to work at Rhodes as being based in a belief that the knowledge that she had established as a working journalist would be of value to the university. She assumed that the University prized such expertise and that for this reason she would be able to “… make a pathway for that kind of knowledge” within the department. She soon became aware, however, that there was direct conflict between the prioritisation of knowledge from the world of journalism practice and that of academic knowledge:

There was this kind of war over these knowledges … I didn’t understand how those two sets of knowledge were going to … battle each other (Garman, 2010).

She also found that the environment that she was entering was not as stimulating or challenging as she had expected it to be. In the newsroom of the Natal Witness, she had come to expect vibrant intellectual debate as part of her working life. The department was different:

It just seemed to be by contrast non-intellectual and quite sort of pedantic – about who taught what and who couldn’t make a meeting … (Garman, 2010).

Garman came to understand that what she was encountering was the traditional individualism of a Faculty of Humanities which was “… all about one’s personal research trajectory”, rather than a shared academic project. This contrasted with the collaborative working culture of the newsrooms in which she had gained her experience of journalism (Garman, 2010).

At this stage, for Garman,  the sphere of journalism practice and that of the university were both limited in terms of the extent to which they allowed for intellectual engagement with the conceptualisation of journalism. There seemed, in particular, to be constraints on the extent to which the cultures of knowledge production within each of these spheres could allow for an interactive flow of ideas between them. This experience contrasts with that of Steenveld, who, as we saw, found herself operating in conditions in which such circulation of ideas seemed completely possible. It may be that this difference had to do with the fact that the project that Steenveld was involved in positioned her outside the university, in the world of journalistic practice. Furthermore, this environment was, at least at that moment in South African history, open to reflective debate. Garman, on the other hand, was for the first time making her way, as a journalist, into the isolating centre of the university itself.


New Hegemony: from the early 2000s to 2010[1]

By 2002, Steenveld had completed her work as the Chair of Media Transformation and returned to teaching in the core curriculum of the department – or, as it now became known, the School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS). Steenveld notes that at this time she could observe a shift in priorities in the department, in which regard for the critical study of media became replaced by a focus on “…growing of the production side”. She understood this change as being informed by the “politics of money”. The department was setting up “different kinds of associations and affiliations” from those that were possible previously:

There is … a different political relationship between the department as an academic institution and the media industries as institutions (Steenveld, 2010).

The greater focus on production could now, in her view, be strongly felt within classrooms. Steenveld was conscious that students had different expectations to the generations that she worked with in the 1980’s and the journalists and editors she engaged with in the mid-1990’s. One difference was that they now needed persuasion to take an interest in the academic study of media. Steenveld suggests that this was because, unlike previous students, they did not view journalism to be first and foremost about the production of social knowledge. Instead, they were primarily concerned with its ‘technical’ aspects:

It is the expectation that they come in with … it’s not a concept of a journalist as a producer of ideas, or a producer of knowledge, but somebody who works with technology (Steenveld, 2010).

Amner explains students’ resistance to the media studies components of the degree in different terms to that of Steenveld. He notes that the curriculum offered students two different positions from which to engage with journalism. They were asked, within Media Studies courses, to recognise journalism as a fundamentally compromised institution:

So what they see is on the one hand a very watertight … critique of mainstream journalism from every … conceivable front … sociological … political economy, semiotics … cultural studies … all of this stuff is thrown at them (Amner, 2010).

On the other hand, in production modules, they are taught how to practice such journalism. The understanding is then that, as critical practitioners, they might find small ways of transforming such journalism, or transcending its limitations. There is, however, little in such coursework that provides students with a sense of agency with regards to achieving this task:

It is kind of – here is this utterly compromised institution, folks, and then come over here and we’ll teach you how to … operate in that utterly compromised institution. And what you have is a progressive closing down of their spirits (Amner, 2010).

Amner also explains that “the people who teach practice” was not understood, within this curriculum, to play a role in the project of critique. The programme was, in fact, structured so that teaching about practice and critical analysis was presented as if they take place separately:

Well, I mean the curriculum is very clear, in the course handbook … there are different streams, in every year. So there are air-tight compartments (Amner, 2010).

This disconnect exists even though some members of staff teach within both “compartments” of the curriculum. Depending on which classroom they walk into, they “… wear different hats while they are in that space”. Because of this, there is little emphasis on the reconceptualisation of mainstream journalistic practice:

When I am teaching a semiotics course … it is not my responsibility to transform this knowledge into alternative [journalistic] practice. It is not the … mission of that course … it’s there … for different reasons (Amner, 2010).

Amner’s comments are informed by his experience of working in environments concerned with the articulation of alternative approaches to journalism. He explains that he aimed to draw on this experience as part of his academic work:

I’d just come from an organisation that was punting development journalism … So some of my ideas came from the outside – I brought them into the academy, having tried to practice myself. So I felt that I was in a position to say something about these ideas inside the academy (Amner, 2010).

He recognised that the concept of journalism that informed the curriculum was still that of  mainstream journalism. This practice was represented to students as unchangeable, and as if it is the only possible object of study for the aspiring journalist or scholar of media. In Amner’s view, there was a need, rather, to acknowledge the broad diversity of approaches to journalism that exists in different social contexts and historical moments in time.  In this way students would be provided with a more enabling language in which to imagine the role that they can play in transforming journalistic practice (Amner, 2010).

Garman notes that, during the 2000’s, a shared discussion emerged amongst teachers in the school with regards to the need for curriculum reform. Like Amner, these teachers  were concerned about the compartmentalisation of the curriculum and its unquestioning reproduction of a mainstream conceptualisation of journalism. The establishment of “intellectual alliances” amongst such staff provided Garman with opportunities for contributing in meaningful ways to the school’s work. Indeed more than any other issue, debates about appropriate curriculum design “… has been the thing that has opened up … collaborativeness and a richer intellectual environment” in the school. She was able, in this context, to engage with colleagues who taught the production courses as well as those involved in the media studies components of the degree to look for ways of working together on shared teaching projects (Garman, 2010).

Other staff also speak of this preoccupation with curriculum design and make particular mention of a third year course dealing with the role played by journalism in processes of democratisation and development. Amner explains that the Journalism, Democracy and Development (JDD) course was “explicitly set up as a praxis course”, with “a whole lot of theory taught with the purpose of … transformative practice”. Students learned about a range of traditions of journalism and were then given the opportunity to work on production projects which draw on these traditions (Amner, 2010). Steenveld notes that this course offered a framework in which it became possible to recreate the critical engagement with journalism that she had previously experienced in her teaching:

One gets a taste of that again, with those students. And it is again about connectedness. Students struggle with theory, but experience the usefulness of that combination. Then when they look back, they … glowingly … talk about the connectedness, and the importance of theory … (Steenveld, 2010).

It would seem, however, that such “connectedness” occurred only when staff ‘worked against the grain’ of the existing curriculum, labouring to break through the established conventions of teaching.

Steenveld points out that production courses often do not make explicit their own philosophical or theoretical underpinnings. This adds to the difficulties of establishing synergies between the teaching about the academic study of media and about its production. To illustrate this point, she notes that the course outlines for Media Studies modules typically have detailed lists of the readings that students will be introduced to, while the production course outlines often do not make their theoretical terms of reference explicit. This means that it becomes difficult for the two groups of teachers  to develop a shared language of reflection. In her view, if the principles that inform the production courses were articulated, “… it then gets understood that it isn’t [a distinction between] theory and practice, but there are different kinds of theory” (Steenveld, 2019).

Berger suggests, at the same time, that there was another divide within the school that was not receiving enough attention. Participants’ comments, as outlined above, tend to focus on the perceived divide between ‘media practitioners’ and ‘academics’. What Berger points to, instead, is a relationship of distance between staff involved in ‘outreach’ projects, and staff who are responsible for teaching students only inside the school and engaging in individual academic research. He suggests that outreach projects are generally regarded as external to the core academic purpose of the school. In Berger’s view, this points to an imbalance in the school’s approach to the three main functions of a university-based institution – that of teaching, research and community service. The last of these roles does not, in his view, receive enough attention within approaches to teaching and research about journalism at Rhodes:

You know people like to say – the ‘academic project’. If by academic project people include community service, cool. But  … it is often assumed to refer to the teaching plus maybe some research … so it is a question of how important are the outreach activities to the general thing here (Berger, 2010).

Berger suggests that it may be a problem that teaching staff in the school continue to put so much of their energy into the refining of the curriculum. In his view, this aspect of the department’s activities has been well developed:

How much better can our teaching get, I don’t know – I think we’re probably almost at optimum … we can keep on investing in teaching for donkey’s years and I think it is important to [venture into] new areas of teaching like … convergence. But on the whole, you know – our teaching; man, we’ve got it taped! (Berger, 2010)

[1] It should be noted that the first interviews conducted for this study were recorded in 2010, which falls at the end of this period. It is for this reason that the participants refer, in the direct quotations included in this section, to this period as the current moment.

Returning to disruption: 2010 – 2019

The most recent era in the school’s history, as discussed in this paper, is based on follow-up interviews conducted in 2019 with those research participants who were still based at Rhodes University. All of four of them describe the years that had passed since the last round of interviews as being characterised by profound disruption. They speak both of socio-political change and a fundamental transformation of journalism as a social practice. They argue that both aspects of change now require the school to revisit the ‘academic project’ that Berger speaks of at the end of the previous section and to reconceptualise it. Their commentary suggests that it is exactly by combining teaching and research with community engagement that this project can best be pursued.

Responding to changes in the social context

All of the participants point out that the decade that had passed since the last round of interviews was also the years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. They note that, under Zuma’s  leadership, South Africa became mired in state capture and corruption. Amner describes this as a period in which public trust in the country’s transition to democracy suffered great  damage:

There has been a kind of souring of optimism  … around the national democratic revolution … we have become bogged down [in] a lack of growth and progress really. You know what Ramaphosa has referred to as the ‘lost decade’ … the Zuma years have actually dealt a huge blow to … hope and optimism (Amner, 2019).

Garman suggests that South Africans used to believe that the foundations for democracy that they had established in the mid-1990s could guarantee the achievement of social transformation. Now, however, this trust has been replaced by disillusionment:

I feel it around me all the time. So I suppose we did think maybe ten or so years ago that … we would see increasing progress made in how we consolidated our democracy … we will lift people out of poverty … Now it feels like … we have to do a  hell of a lot more hard work to actually make democracy become real (Garman, 2019)

Steenveld points out that although the ANC-led government has always pursued the achievement of black economic empowerment, this has operated as ‘elite transition’ rather than broad social reconstruction and development. In the Zuma era, social inequality escalated and there was a comprehensive failure to provide poor people with basic social services (Steenveld, 2019).

In Grahamstown (now Makhanda), the participants observed the impact of the last decade  in the general decay of social infrastructure. Mati, who took up a post in the school in 2015, witnessed this decline in context of his own teaching. At the start of each year, he would take his radio students around town to introduce them to sites of service delivery such as the local clinic, municipality and police station. From year to year, he could see how the resources on which these spaces depended were being leached away. It was evident in the bearing of the sister in charge of the clinic:

You could see … written in her face, man – the frustration, the stress that she is going through … in the first year when I took students there … there were constraints still but gradually with the years [it got worse] … and this nurse, [I feared that] we might find the next year we go there, she has had a stroke, or something you know because it is wearing so heavy on her (Mati, 2019).

The participants also speak of the last ten years as a decade of protest, in which  students in South Africa rose up to demand a transformation of higher education. In describing the impact on Rhodes University, they refer to the student protests of 2015 and 2016. Mati explains that, as a new lecturer at Rhodes, he was encouraged by the extent to which students felt able to claim a space within the university to speak openly about their own social concerns:

I found that there were issues, you know, that the students were grappling with …   they bring them to this space from the communities (Mati, 2019).

Steenveld, similarly, saw the protests as an expression of the students’ engagement with their broader social experience:

So that is about their own situation and the way in which the national situation has impacted on their own situation (Steenveld, 2019).

In the wake of the protests, the university experienced severe financial pressures, at least partly because the state had placed a moratorium on the raising of fees. Garman explains that, for a few years, this resulted in a very strained working environment:   

Rhodes went into the most terrible financial crunch. [The] effect on this entire institution has been to make it cautious …  people have felt, am I going to be retrenched, is this thing going to shut down, are we ever going to do the things that we once did (Garman, 2019).

The participants describe the university that is emerging from these years as one that has undergone a transformation. Garman notes that, between 2014 and 2019, the campus had changed from mostly white to a majority black student population  (Garman, 2010). Steenveld describes the changes in similar terms:

Walk anywhere on campus, you just mostly see black students. Walk in the department,  you mostly see black students. And most of them look quite middle class but we know that they are not all that. We know how many NSFAS students we get (Steenveld, 2019).[1]

Amner points out that in response to this shift in demographics, Rhodes no longer exists to the same extent as a privileged social space. This, he says, is leading to a “middle class flight” of white students from the university. Their departure is also due to the continued fragile social environment that surrounds the campus:

Well, I mean it is the town. Makhanda is in profound decline. And that’s hugely off-putting for middle class parents …  then eventually people say ah well that used to be a cool place to go, and we had our middle class parties and everything  was cool but now it is not so cool anymore (Amner, 2019).

He proposes that the new university that emerges from this process of change is no longer so centrally concerned with prestige and has the potential to become more directly invested in the social transformation of its immediate environment:

And then we become a very different sort of university. One which I am quite happy to be in, frankly. Myself personally. You know? (Amner, 2019).

All four participants generally agree that the change in the demographic profile of students is to the advantage of the School of JMS, if it still aims to play a role in the achievement of progressive social change.  Garman describes the social experiences and commitments that students now bring into her classrooms as their “great strength”:

Because very often they have a social justice commitment … [and] racial consciousness that we didn’t see before (Garman, 2019)

Steenveld explains that, like the students she was teaching ten years earlier, the senior class that she worked with in 2019 prioritised learning about technology. However, in contrast to the generation of the 2000s, they were eager to apply the knowledge of social analysis that they gained from her course to their media production projects:

… they were committed to the understandings that they had gained and to talk about race and … class and to understand it. It made sense to them (Steenveld, 2019).

Amner argues that, with this generation of students, it becomes possible to build a curriculum in which learning is embedded in close partnerships with interest groups within the local community. The approach he describes is reminiscent of the teaching that he himself experienced at Rhodes in the mid-1980s. This time, however, the majority of students involved in community partnerships are no longer white and middle class:

I think those students are … more representative of the demographics of our country. In many … respects they are much better students, because they completely get this. It means something to them when they start partnering with people in communities and they start seeing issues from the inside out (Amner, 2019).

Garman notes that a collaborative approach to teaching, grounded in a shared vision, has for long been one of the school’s strengths. However, this ‘hive mind’ mentality has never been applied to research or community engagement, which is pursued, instead, by individual members of staff in isolation of each other.  Like Berger ten years previously, Garman now proposes that it is time to bring teaching, research and community engagement together:  

You know the teaching works best. And it is something that almost everybody here has deep intensive investment and commitment to … but we don’t have that … commitment in a hive mind way … to community engagement [or] to research. I would love that. Wouldn’t that be fantastic, if we worked like that (Garman, 2019).

Responding to changes in journalism

In speaking of changes that have taken place in journalism, the participants again describe the impact of the Zuma years. Amner points out that systematic interference from the state has compromised core aspects of the journalistic landscape:  

So you know ANN7 and New Age and the SABC story  … that has been very harmful to journalism …  Those ten years of capture of some of our key journalistic institutions (Amner, 2019)

All of the participants also suggest, that in these ten years, in context of the  digitalisation of the South African media landscape, journalism had become transformed. As elsewhere in the world, many of the established institutions of the news industry has finally crumbled. This had led to a fundamental shift in the balance between journalism and other forms of media. Amner points out that much of the socially valuable information that is now available in the online ”news ecology”  is not, in fact, produced by mainstream journalism. The authority of journalism  has, in this context, been ceded to a broader, more diffuse online  universe:

So in fact you know, ironically, there is more information about what is going on in this society now than there ever has been before. Despite the fact that journalism is probably running at twenty, thirty percent of its capacity ten, fifteen years ago (Amner, 2019).

The participants generally understand these changes to have important implications for the way the school’s academic project should be reconceptualised. They generally argue that the school can no longer assume that graduates are being prepared to work only for a mainstream news industry. Instead, it should be acknowledged that graduates are finding employment in a wide range of communicative practices. These include  government communications, non-profit organisations as well as the hyper-capitalist environments of corporate marketing. Steenveld suggests that the main emphasis should therefore shift from journalism to communication:

I am wondering whether we should use the word journalism … so it is communicating about the world. How do we … communicate what we understand about the world (Steenveld, 2019).

Garman argues that such a change in emphasis can be combined with a continued emphasis on communication for social justice:

This socially conscious, justice oriented [mindset that asks] how do we keep democracy in view … I think there are many spaces we can insert that into … And probably the least of those spaces now is journalism as an industry (Garman, 2019).

She proposes that, in the past, the focus on mainstream news has, in fact, constrained the school’s ability to be responsive to community needs:  

If we start thinking ‘communication’ – so we start looking at that spectrum of spaces, I think it actually might help us be much more community engaged (Garman, 2019).

For Mati, a focus  on partnerships with community media has, in fact, always been a priority. When he first arrived at Rhodes, his intention was to establish an outreach project, providing resources for community radio stations in the way that he had once done at the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa (IDASA). But the priorities that then existed at the school had not made this possible:

By the time I arrived here, it was with all of those things, you know, in my head, and my heart …  my interest was to … try to reproduce that sort of network with the community radio stations that we had at IDASA, that democracy radio network, and see if we can as a school …  connect to all of those (Mati, 2019). 

Amner proposes, similarly, that a broader focus on socially progressive communicative practice would be more impactful:

I mean before we were looking at a tiny elite … giving them high end skills so that they could go and work for elite media … but frankly they weren’t making a brass bit of difference to the majority of people’s lives …  those high-end kind of socially meaningful jobs are actually a minority (Amner, 2019).

The suggestion is not, however, that journalism would become irrelevant to the school’s academic project. The participants acknowledge that in South Africa, alongside the decline of legacy journalism, the last decade has also seen the emergence of new communities of journalistic practice that have successfully embedded themselves in the digital domain. These include ventures  such as that of the Daily Maverick, Amabhungane, and Groundup. Steenveld describes the Maverick as the “main political  reporter of our times”. Amner points out that these journalistic projects emerged as a result of the decline of legacy journalism and in context of the dire need for investigative reporting during the Zuma era:

Well I think it is precisely because of the implosion [of journalism] that alternative models have had to be found, you know? For doing what has always been imagined as the important … monitorial work of the fourth estate.  So that emerged out of the crisis (Amner, 2019).

Garman suggests that the “principled, whistle-blowing and investigative journalism” associated with these platforms have been key to South Africa’s survival of the Zuma era:

It probably is true that the Amabhungane consortium … rescued us in some way politically (Garman, 2019).

Both Garman and Amner point out that, in the context of Makhanda, Grocotts Mail has made a similar contribution. As the social infrastructure of the town deteriorated, the newspaper has kept its citizens informed of their circumstances, and opened up spaces for thoughtful discussion: 

I mean Grocotts Mail’s’ contribution to how we know what is going on in this town and keeping us … cemented in this …  wholeness of us working together here – I think [they have] played a phenomenal role in just very solidly doing the journalistic work that is about a community’s health and welfare (Garman, 2019)

Support for these examples of journalistic practice would, then, remain key to the project of the school. 


The research participants’ commentary suggests that it is, indeed, possible to trace a history of critical engaged journalism education within the School of JMS. It would seem, furthermore, that such engagement became possible as a result of two different moments of disruption within the school’s social environment. One of these moments occurs in the mid-1970s, in context of the rise of mass resistance to the apartheid state. During this time, the school’s academic identity became strongly framed by social analysis based in critical theory. Educators applied such theory to a critique of the fundamental relations of power in South African society and the role that media can play either in reproducing or challenging these relations.  It is arguable, however, that the opportunity that such analysis presented for the articulation of critically engagement with journalistic practice was never fully realised. Teaching about journalistic production located itself primarily within a partnership with the mainstream English-language news industry and journalistic practice remained conceived as it existed within the conventional constraints of this industry. This remained true despite the  involvement of individual members of the school in the alternative communities of journalistic practice that emerged as part of the South African resistance movement.

From the mid-1990s onward, it is nevertheless possible to identify instances in which this relationship with mainstream journalism operated as critical engagement. One of these instances is represented by Steenveld’s work as Chair of Media Transformation, when she facilitated processes of self-reflection amongst the editorial leadership of the press and public broadcaster. The discussions that took place in this context were  informed by critical social analysis and a critique of the established conventions of journalistic practice. Another moment occurred in the 2000s inside the school itself, in context of the JDD course. Teachers in this course sought to establish a shared approach to journalism education as praxis, in which critical social analysis becomes embodied in journalistic practice. It would seem, however, that such instances of critical engagement only occurred when staff worked outside the established boundaries and conventions of the university curriculum. Steenveld’s work was located altogether outside the school, at a moment in history when the mainstream news industry was prepared to be self-reflexive. The JDD teachers worked inside the core programme but had to make concerted efforts to break through established institutional  boundaries in order to pursue the goal of praxis-based journalism education. Because these institutional boundaries remained in place, such teaching could not easily be sustained, over time.

The participants’ description of the most recent period in the school’s history suggests that the school now finds itself, once more, in a moment of profound social disruption. It is possible that this, again, provides educators in the school with the opportunity to reconceptualise the nature of its allegiances with its social context. The participants’ comments suggest that the school can now transcend the limitations of its partnership with the mainstream news industry. Instead, it can focus on building alliances with diverse communities of journalistic practice, as well as other groups that have an interest in progressive social change. In context of such alliances, the school might be able to reimagine the role that media can play as part of progressive social practices that operate in service of South African society in the 21st century.


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  • [1] The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which is managed by the South African Department of Higher Education and training (DHET),provides loans for undergraduate students,to help pay for the cost of their tertiary education