Jam or Cheese? The Challenges of a National Broadcaster in a Multilingual Context

By Rosalie Finlayson, Sarah J.C. Slabbert and Iske van den Berg.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The changes that South Africa has experienced in the transition from apartheid to democracy have had implications for the national broadcaster (SABC). In contrast to commercial broadcasters, national broadcasters are partly subsidized by tax payers’ money and therefore have a mandate to serve their particular society within the context of the current political system. In democratic societies these mandates typically have to balance out the challenges of a limited number of available television channels and radio stations; equity in terms of audience home language/language variety; audience preferences and values; audience ratings and the subsequent advertising income.
The SABC has the mandate to inform, educate and entertain. This it has had to implement in the context of: Three available television channels; A highly multilingual and multicultural society; A Constitution that calls for the equitable treatment of society at all levels, including the eleven official languages; Socio-economic inequity with a large poor rural population; Fast paced economic growth and a growing black middle class with high aspirations for material symbols of wealth; The legacy of apartheid and underlying racial tensions; The cost disparity between producing local programmes and buying cheap international programmes; The popularity of local content; and Strong competition from commercial broadcasters. This paper investigates how these challenges have impacted on the language decisions of the SABC as exemplified by the use of languages in television dramas and soap operas, and the response by the producers of dramas and soap operas to satisfy the policy imperatives, secure maximum viewership and reflect the realities of a transforming society. In conclusion the paper argues that the languages’ selection and mix of successful local dramas and soap operas not only reflect the language realities of the South African society, but also influence language behaviour and attitudes.

Keywords: South Africa, Language, Multilingual, Media, Television, Public Broadcaster, Policy Compliance, Soap Operas, Marginalised Languages, Language Status, Commercial Viability, Audience Rating, Multiple Identities

The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 2, Issue 6, pp.197-214. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.471MB).

Prof. Rosalie Finlayson

Professor, Department of African Languages, University of South Africa, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

Early language competency in Xhosa initiated my interest in the field of African Studies in general and African Languages in particular. This was augmented by language courses in Southern Sotho, Zulu, Venda and Karanga. Doctoral studies at SOAS, London University, included Bemba, Tswana, Northern Sotho, Zezuru and Swahili. Post-doctoral research has focused on sociolinguistics, comparative language studies as well as the intellectualisation of the African languages. This has included language and identity, codeswitching, transformation discourse, the future of the standard African languages in a multilingual classroom and women’s language of respect among the Nguni people. As past member of the Pan South African Language Board, a statutory body, I served on the Minister of Arts and Culture’s Advisory Panel on Human Language Technologies and the Minister of Education's Committee to advise on the Development of Indigenous African Languages as Mediums of Instruction in Higher Education.

Dr. Sarah J.C. Slabbert

Honorary Research Associate, School of Modern Languages/Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Iske van den Berg

Director, Ja! Productions, South Africa


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