African Mass Media -- Shallow Roots and Little Influence

Tawana Kupe, Lecturer, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe, and Research Fellow, University of Oslo

Colonialism brought the print and electronic media which become another form of communication hitherto unused in African Society. Kivikuru is right to say that " ...the role of the mass media is not deeply rooted into societal life in Africa as in, say Europe (Kivikuru 1995: 5). But it is also true that role of the media in Africa is something that to date has not yet been clearly ascertained. Most studies assume in some vague way that the media is integral to political, economic and cultural processes in Africa. There are several reasons why the media is not as rooted into societal life in Africa as in Europe which are worth rehearsing here.

First, African media systems are very small urban phenomena. A majority of the population in African countries lives in the rural areas. Even in the urban areas the penetration and availability of the media is not uniform. Circulation of, for example, daily newspapers very small. Most countries have one major national daily whose widest circulation is in the capital city.

Second, when it comes to the print media it is only those who can read and write and have the purchasing power who have access to the limited titles available. Levels of literacy vary from country to country but it is an accurate statement to say that levels of illiteracy are high.

Third, African media systems are so undercapitalised that existence is precarious and the mortality of newspapers and magazines is very high. This is compounded by poor management and poor distribution systems. The transport networks are so underdeveloped that daily newspapers reach parts of the country days after publication. Radio, which is the nearest to being a mass medium in Africa, suffers the same handicaps: transmission equipment that does not cover the national territory, weak signals, radio sets that are too expensive to a large section of the population, batteries which are both expensive and in some countries difficult to find. Television does not even exist in some countries; where it does the cost of sets is prohibitive and it is only available where there is electricity, which is normally the urban centres. In terms of content, most programming is cheap and old programmes from Europe, North America and Australia.

Fourth, contrary to the desires of the media and development advocates, perhaps the media in Africa is used more for its entertainment value than its ability to inform or teach people how to improve their living standards. Certainly most mainstream media which is dominant in Africa hardly contain the so-called development programmes; rather, they carry promises of development by politicians and threats against "elements bent on destabilising the nation." The material that is "free" from the shallow promises and dire threats is entertainment.

[From Tawana Kupe. "Comment: New Forms of Cultural Identity in an Afican Society." Media and the Transition of Collective Identities. Ed. Tore Slatta. Oslo: University of Oslo, 1996, pages 114-15. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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