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Presentation by Dr Gerrit Brand, Secretary of the Multilingualism Action Group (i-MAG), to the Mini-Summit of the Portfolio Committee on Communication on “Broadcasting Content and Languages and their implications for Public Service, Community as well as Commercial Broadcasting”.

(The Lord Charles Hotel - Somerset-West, 11 September 2003.)

The ideas and suggestions that I will put forward are based mainly on a recent submission by the Multilingualism Action Group (see Appendix A) to the SABC Board on the latter’s “Draft Editorial Policies”.[1] I have also been assisted by members of Tabema, one of the organisations affiliated with the Group, who have in the past made several expert submissions on the promotion of language diversity in public broadcasting to, among other bodies, the Portfolio Committee on Communication.[2] I shall centre my discussion on the “key broad areas of focus” mentioned in the invitation to the summit.

1. What constitutes broadcasting issues in terms of language, cultural and content specificity?

As a public broadcaster, the SABC has a constitutional obligation, expressed inter alia in its mandate and language policy, and recognised in the new “Draft Editorial Policies” of the SABC Board, to reflect and do justice to the rich diversity of language and culture in South Africa, and to broadcast a substantial amount of local content. The Broadcasting Amendment Act (2002) was drafted with the express aim of holding the SABC accountable on this score, and the present series of mini-summits is meant to take that process forward.

I shall assume, then, that no discussion is required about the desirability of these aims. What needs to be considered are ways in which these non-negotiables can be realised in practice.

That such a discussion is necessary, is clear from the fact that at present, the SABC is not carrying out its mandate, particularly in the area of language.

If the language situation were to be remedied - and we believe this is eminently feasible - the issues of cultural diversity and local content would fall into place of their own accord. Language and culture are, after all, inseparable, and the languages that are currently receiving the shortest end of the stick are precisely our local languages.

At the last count, programming in English took up about 70% of the SABC’s broadcasting schedule. English is the only language with an entire channel almost exclusively dedicated to it. Also on the other channels, which are supposed to serve the other official languages, the dominance of English is there for all to see. When subtitles are used to translate programmes, the translation is always from an indigenous language into English, and never vice versa or between languages. Continuity presentation, including announcements of programmes in other languages, is done mainly in English. Even the presenters and programme hosts whose faces and voices contribute to the SABC’s public image are either English speaking or highly proficient in English, unlike the majority of South Africans. When we switch on the radio to listen to the Tshivenda or Sesotho service, we are confronted with untranslated soundbites and interviews in English. The same applies to TV news broadcasts in the indigenous languages.

In short: English is the de facto “anchor language” of the SABC today. No wonder foreign content and a global monoculture pervade our airwaves to the extent that they do.

What all this conveys are the mistaken assumptions that all South Africans understand English, that English is the lingua franca of South Africa, and that non-English speaking South Africans are happy to get only a bare minimum of programming in their home languages. Put more starkly: the SABC’s de facto language policy carries the clear message that the majority of South Africans do not belong to its preferred target audience. The SABC, we understand, is there to serve the needs and tastes of a small, privileged elite.

After all, according to the most recent census figures, English is the home language of only about 8% of South Africans - mainly white - and the fifth largest language in the country, following isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi and Afrikaans. A national survey by PANSALB found that only about 40% of all South Africans, and a mere 22% of those whose home language is an African language, are functionally proficient in English. Moreover, there is a clear correlation between race and socio-economic status on the one hand, and proficiency in English on the other, with the economically better off and the light-skinned showing the highest level of proficiency.

The very term “public broadcaster” implies that the SABC should serve the needs of all South Africans equally, regardless of race, language or financial clout. This implies, in turn, that the SABC cannot have an “anchor language”. All the languages of South Africa should be treated equitably and with respect. This means that the prevalence of a language on the broadcasting schedule should, at the very least, reflect the number of South Africans for whom it is a home language or a second language.

Given the present allocation of airtime to the different languages - judged against the language demographics of South Africa - this would involve a substantial increase in the amount of airtime allocated to all languages, except English and isiZulu. This, in turn, can be achieved only if the airtime presently allocated to English is cut back to more reasonable proportions, and if English is no longer given a virtual monopoly on an entire channel. Let me emphasise here that I am not saying there is anything wrong with English. It is an official language that has long been thoroughly woven into the fabric of South African society and that many South Africans use with pride. However, precisely as such, there is no reason why it should be used as an instrument of exclusion by being privileged on our airwaves.

We propose, therefore, that the Portfolio Committee on Communication take whatever measures may be required to ensure that the SABC allocates a guaranteed minimum programme content per week during peak viewing time, across channels and in all programme categories, to each official language.

So far, the SABC has not been willing to commit itself to any such guarantees, despite the laudable principles expounded in its language policy. Yet if real progress is to be made, some such guarantee will have to be given so that a clear baseline can be used to monitor progress, and so that any regression with regard to any language can be ruled out. This will show that the SABC is serious about implementing its mandate with regard to language, culture and local content. We accept that a fully equitable allocation cannot be achieved overnight, and that a phased approach will therefore have to be followed. In past submissions, we have made detailed proposals on how airtime can be increased in the short, medium and long term (see Appendix B).

In allocating airtime to all the languages across channels, the principle of language grouping should be used as proposed in the SABC Board’s “Draft Editorial Policies”. Viewers should know beforehand when and where to expect programming in a particular language, and advertisers should know what target audiences to expect during a particular time slot.

Languages that are cognate or shared could share a channel on an equitable basis. Alternatively, languages/language groups could be grouped in such a way as to promote mutual exposure between language communities that, historically, have not been thus exposed. In past submissions we have proposed different possible groupings and discussed their respective merits and demerits (see Appendix C).

All the available technological capabilities to cater for a multilingual society should be exploited to the full in order to achieve the above guaranteed minimum programme content for each of the languages/language groups. These include subtitles, dubbing, simulcast and transmitter separation (see Appendix D).

Finally, in this connection, a note on local content. Our country is filled to the brim with talented artists performing a wide variety of creative productions in theatres, community halls and other venues. Much local broadcasting content can be cheaply produced by televising such productions to a national audience. Very limited resources are required for recording a drama or musical performance on stage. The SABC should be encouraged to pay more attention to this type of programming as a strategy for increasing local content.

2. How best can South African broadcasting reflect overall audience needs?

It is clear, firstly, that as a public broadcaster the SABC must serve the needs of all sectors of South African society. The distinguishing feature of a public broadcaster is precisely that, unlike commercial broadcasters, it cannot allow its programming schedule to be determined by the needs of advertisers, who will tend to prefer programmes targeted at audiences with more buying power. This means that programmes aimed at (say) the youth, the aged, rural dwellers and the disabled, quality programmes catering for selective tastes, and programmes that serve broad community needs like education should not be neglected. The SABC should offer a balanced diet of information, education and entertainment.

Secondly, every single survey done on this topic has shown that South African viewers and listeners, like their counterparts all over the world, prefer programming in their home language. Thus attention to “overall audience needs” only serves to underline the importance of what has already been said about the allocation of airtime to languages, and the creation of clear airtime windows.

Therefore the best suggestion we can make with regard to the question of how South African broadcasting can reflect the overall audience needs, is to reiterate the importance of allocating to each official language a guaranteed minimum programme content per week during peak viewing time, across channels, and in all programming categories.

3. Strategies to cater for significant portions of the broadcasting market not addressed by national broadcasting services in their current form

The problem at stake here is more acute in the area of television than in radio. The fact that radio services dedicated to all the official, and even some non-official languages are in place, that radio sets are much cheaper than television sets and are therefore found in more homes, and that community radio has become a familiar feature of our broadcasting landscape, means that a wider range of audiences is reached through this medium than through television. However, efforts to extend the range of national services broadcasting in particular languages should, of course, continue, especially since, as the most recent census figures reveal, South Africans of all languages and geographical origins are moving to different parts of the country at a rate unprecedented in our history.

In the case of television, several factors contribute to the fact that “significant portions of the broadcasting market” are not reached. We have already seen that, due to the inequitable allocation of airtime to the official languages, the majority of South Africans currently belong to a greater or lesser extent to those “significant portions of the broadcasting market”. This could be set right by working towards a more equitable arrangement with respect to language in broadcasting.

To this should be added the provision of TV programming in non-official languages spoken by “significant portions of the broadcasting market”, like the Khoi, Nama and San languages, Indian languages, and South African Sign Language (see Appendix C). Even foreign languages could be served by making optimal use of available technologies, like subtitling, dubbing and simulcast (see Appendix D).

The fact that television sets are relatively expensive, and therefore beyond the means of many South Africans, is compounded by the fact that viewers have to pay licence fees in order to be served by the public broadcaster. In this connection, consideration should be given to the alternative funding models proposed elsewhere in my contribution (see §5).

Naturally, the ongoing effort to extend the reach of the national television services should be continued until the SABC can reach the whole country in geographical terms.

Government should also consider creating the necessary legislative framework to enable the provision of local community television by the private sector and other non-governmental role players. Such community services could target specific audiences that are currently not being reached through the national services.

Finally, regional broadcasting by the public broadcaster should be explored. This issue will be addressed under the next heading.

4. How can regional broadcasting assist in meeting regional needs and offer audiences programme choice and diversity?

In past submissions we have welcomed the move towards regional broadcasting initiated by the Portfolio Committee on Communication, while emphasising that the introduction of regional channels should not serve as a pretext for providing a less than equitable allocation of airtime to the different languages on the national service. Regional services should not compensate for the lack of programming in the official languages on the existing channels, but should rather be used to increase the amount of airtime available for allocation.

To this I would like to add two things. Firstly, the suggestion that the languages of South Africa can be neatly divided up between two regional channels, and that this can be done on a north-south basis, is not realistic. Unlike the smaller official languages, i.e. siNdebele, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga, which are more or less clearly concentrated in specific areas, the seven larger languages are spoken in significant numbers all over the country, both north and south. This applies especially to Afrikaans, English and isiZulu. It would therefore be unreasonable to carry each of these languages only on one of the proposed regional channels.

A better approach would be to use all the languages spoken in significant numbers within the particular region, even if some of those languages are also spoken in the other region. In other words, while both regional channels will use some of the same languages, they will differ in terms of the amount of airtime allocated to each of those languages, based on the relative prevalence of each language within the region in question. Whereas the national services should reflect the language demographics of the country as a whole, the regional channels should reflect the language demographics of the regions they serve. This would mean that a particular language may be allocated a smaller or larger amount of airtime on a regional channel than may be the case on the national service.

Secondly, if the plan to create regional channels goes ahead, consideration should be given to the possibility of using an east-west rather than a north-south division, since such a division would, in certain respects, reflect more accurately the geographical distribution of languages in the country.

Thirdly, I would like to propose that the method of transmitter separation be considered as an alternative or a complement to the creation of two new regional channels. Transmitter separation is relatively cheap, and can already be used on the existing channels during some parts of the day. If the existing channels are deemed to be too few, I would suggest that only one new channel with national reach be created and that transmitter separation be employed to exploit it optimally in meeting the needs of different geographical areas.

Unlike two separate channels, which would cover two rough halves of the country, transmitter separation can be used with precision to aim broadcasts at several clearly defined geographical areas at the same time. A northern or southern region including (say) KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern and Western Cape, is hardly a “region” in the sense that its inhabitants are bound together by region-specific languages, interests or concerns. By contrast, with transmitter separation broadcasts can be directed at areas where specific languages are dominant, or at the nine provinces with their much more clearly defined regional identities. With this method it would be possible to broadcast specifically for Tshivenda or siSwati speaking viewers in one area, while looking after the needs of Sesotho or siNdebele speakers in other parts of the country. The Western Cape could be served in Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa, and Gauteng in Sepedi, isiZulu, Afrikaans and English. A much wider range of regional needs can thus be met through transmitter separation than would be possible with two channels serving two halves of the country.

In this connection it should be emphasised, fourthly, that a “bigger is better” philosophy need not dictate our strategies in achieving regional broadcasting. Internationally, local and regional broadcasts are done in small, inexpensive studios manned by only a handful of people. Regional broadcasts can focus on coverage of community events, discussion programmes and the like, which are not costly to produce and which appeal to the “local interest”. The creation of two full-blown regional broadcasting stations would be an extremely costly exercise, and would take long to implement. Therefore, any cheaper and simpler alternatives should be seriously considered.

5. Funding model for public broadcasting

At present the SABC is funded mainly through advertising, with only a limited amount of revenue coming from TV licences. Internationally, however, the exact opposite applies to public broadcasters. The heavy dependence on advertising revenue makes it difficult for the SABC to fulfil its mandate as a public broadcaster, since the needs of advertisers are not always the same as those of the broad viewing public in all its diversity. The chances of ever achieving a sufficiently high rate of payment of TV licences under the present system in a developing country like ours are very small.

It has occasionally been suggested that this problem might be solved by government in the form of substantially increased direct funding of the SABC. While this option cannot be ruled out completely, it does have the serious disadvantage of potentially compromising the independence of the public broadcaster. Other solutions should therefore be seriously considered.

One such option is to replace the current system of TV licences with a system of levies on electricity consumption, similar to the way in which third party insurance on motor vehicles is now funded through a petrol levy. Since the pool of electricity consumers is much larger than the number of people currently paying TV licences, such a levy could be made so small as to cause little or no inconvenience to consumers. Moreover, the system could be structured in such a way that those using more electricity would pay a slightly higher levy than those using less, which would be to the advantage of poor South Africans who cannot currently afford to pay TV licences.

A second possible funding model is one that makes use of a type of decoder to regulate access to television broadcasts. Cheap decoders have been developed that work only on the audio side of a broadcast, unlike the more expensive decoders used by commercial broadcasters, which involve the image on the screen as well. Such decoders could be fitted to all television sets, and linked to a card system whereby users could pay their licence fees and then decode the sound that is being broadcast. If the licence fee has not been paid, the sound of the broadcast would be scrambled and the user would be unable to decode it. This would provide a strong and immediate incentive for TV users to pay their licence fees, thereby raising the rate of payment considerably.

These funding proposals were suggested by Tabema, with whom I consulted in preparing my contribution. Tabema have declared themselves willing to assist the Portfolio Committee on Communication in further exploring the details involved in the proposed models.

Many other possibilities could undoubtedly be thought out in addition to these in order to solve the problems currently experienced with the payment of TV licences. What is important, in any case, is that a real effort be made to move away from the present situation, where the SABC is prevented from fulfilling its mandate as a public broadcaster due to an all too heavy reliance on advertising revenue.

6. Conclusion

I would like to conclude with a quotation from a speech by President Thabo Mbeki on October 9th, 1999:

We will not permit it that our differences in terms of race, colour and culture serve as cause for us to treat one another as other than South Africans who share a common patriotism and common destiny. Neither shall we permit it that any of our languages, our cultures and religions is reduced to a position of inferiority or domination by another.

It is my sincere wish that the public broadcaster, the SABC Board, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and, last but certainly not least, the Portfolio Committee on Communication, can make this vision a reality in the field of broadcasting as long as the political will is there and optimal use is made of the technological means and human resources at our disposal.

Dr Gerrit Brand
Secretary: i-MAG
15 Herold Street
Stellenbosch 7600
Tel: 021-887 2713
Fax: 021-887 2710
E-mail: mag@linguasek.co.za


The Multilingualism Action Group (i-MAG) was founded on December 2nd, 2002 as the culmination of a process of consultation between individuals and organisations working in the language field, initiated by the Western Cape Language Committee.

I-MAG’s objectives include:

  • to further and actively promote multilingualism in all spheres of life;
  • to promote a culture of understanding between different language groups, and awareness of language rights;
  • to promote the use and status of marginalised languages;
  • to empower people through home-language education;
  • to strive actively for multilingualism in the public and private sectors, and to engage communities and authorities to this end;
  • to improve the quality of life of communities by encouraging the use of home languages in the cultural life of those communities; and
  • to engage and utilise the media in promoting multilingualism.

    I-MAG has 44 members, among which are representatives of the following organisations:

  • African Languages Practitioners’ Forum (ALPF)
  • Al-Wagah School for the Deaf
  • Centre for Applied Literacy Studies and Services in Africa (CALSSA), University of Cape Town (UCT)
  • Deaf Federation of South Africa (DEAFSA)
  • Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK)
  • Goeie Hoop Division of the Afrikanerbond
  • Iilwimi Centre, University of the Western Cape (UWC)
  • Institute for the Deaf
  • Isiqhamo sikaPhalo
  • Language Centre, Stellenbosch University (SU)
  • National Khoisan Council
  • Noluthando School for the Deaf
  • Philip Lewis and Associates: Consultants in African Languages
  • Project for Alternative Education in Southern Africa (Praesa), UCT
  • Sign Language Project
  • Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA)
  • Suid-Afrikaanse Vertalersinstituut (SAVI)
  • Taalsekretariaat
  • Taakgroep vir die Bemagtiging van Afrikaansgebruikers op Televisie (Tabema),
  • Vriende van Afrikaans.

    I-MAG enjoys the patronage of:

  • Dr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (former State President)
  • Prof Cynthia Marivate (CEO of the Pan South African Language Board)
  • Ms Elinor Sisulu (writer, journalist, academic)


    It is proposed that, in the short term (to be attained within 1 year), the SABC should endeavour to guarantee (say) 20 hours per week minimum during peak viewing time in each of the four largest languages/language groups, ie the Nguni languages, the Sotho languages, Afrikaans and English (at present this would mean increasing the amount of programming in the Sotho languages and Afrikaans), and to increase this amount of airtime progressively each year. Eventually, a realistic goal of a minimum of 30 hours per week could be striven for in the long term (five years’ time). The languages not thus catered for, which receive little or no coverage at the moment, should also be guaranteed a minimum in the short term of (say) 2 hours per week.

    Within the guaranteed minimum for each language/language group, an acceptable spread of programme categories (genres) should be covered for each language/language group. This should be specified in terms of a guaranteed minimum per week, for example:

    Programme genre
    Adult drama
    Youth drama/magazine

        Min hours per week


    Cognate and shared languages could be grouped together to share the same television channel, especially during prime time. This could mean, for instance, that:

    1. The Nguni languages share a channel;
    2. The Sotho languages share a channel; and
    3. Afrikaans and English share a channel.
    4. Xitsonga and Tshivenda, the Khoi, Nama and San Languages, and South African Sign Language are spread across all three channels in clearly demarcated time slots, in addition to being accommodated on the regional channels.

    (This would reflect the true language demography of South Africa, with the Nguni and Sotho languages spoken by a large majority, and therefore entitled to the lion’s share of the available airtime. It would also give wider exposure to the smaller and non-cognate official and non-official languages.)

    Alternatively, some such grouping as the following could be considered:

    1. One channel for the Nguni languages and English;
    2. One channel for the Sotho languages and Afrikaans; and
    3. One channel for Tshivenda, Xitsonga, the Khoi, Nama and San languages, and Indian languages.

    (This would have the advantage of exposing more Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans to African languages, and vice versa. It would also make easier the provision of a fixed window on a particular channel for each of the smaller and non-cognate official and non-official languages.)

    It should be pointed out once again that the grouping of cognate and shared languages on the same channel need not exclude the provision of multilingual programmes and monolingual programming in other languages on that channel, as long as subtitling, dubbing and multiple soundtracks are employed to translate such programmes into the designated languages of the channel in question.

    The precise grouping of languages is of secondary importance. However, we offer the above proposals in the knowledge that the question of language grouping has repercussions for viewer loyalty and for the SABC’s advertising revenue.

    Our primary concern is that each language be given a fixed airtime window on (a) particular channel(s). Channels and time slots that are likely to raise more advertising revenue in the short term (specifically English and Afrikaans) could be used to support and develop other channels and time slots by means of cross-subsidisation. However, the SABC should also consider creating a market for advertising in and to languages other than English and Afrikaans by offering favourable rates and other incentives for advertising in and to those languages.

    APPENDIX D: TECHNOLOGICAL MEANS FOR FACILITATING MULTILINGUAL BROADCASTING p>As pointed out earlier, all the available technological capabilities to cater for a multilingual society should be exploited to the full in order to achieve the above guaranteed minimum programme content for each of the languages/language groups. These include subtitles, dubbing, simulcast and transmitter separation.

    1. Subtitles: Of these, subtitling is the cheapest method, although a culture of subtitles (which is hardly used at present by the SABC, except to cater for the needs of English speakers) would have to be established by the SABC. In countries like the Netherlands and Israel, subtitles in a different language are used extensively to cater for multilingual needs. The use of subtitles, especially in the African languages, could contribute significantly to the development of literacy and language learning among South African viewers.
    2. Dubbing: Dubbing is normally preferred over subtitles by the majority of viewers. However, this could change in future as a culture of subtitling is increasingly established and literacy levels progressively raised (inter alia through the increased use of subtitles in all the official languages). While dubbing is more expensive than subtitling, these costs should not be overestimated. The financial advantages, eg in terms of lower costs for re-using foreign acquired productions when these are dubbed, should also be taken into account. Importantly, the development of skills and infrastructure in this area should be seen as a golden opportunity for job creation.
    3. Simulcast: Simulcast (the use of multiple sound channels for the same video feed) is especially suitable for sports commentaries (but could also be used for other programme genres, like dubbed dramas and films), and could utilise the FM network for alternative simultaneous sound channels.
    4. Transmitter separation: Transmitter separation (regional broadcasts) should take into consideration the language demography of South Africa and the fact that a number of official and non-official indigenous languages are highly concentrated geographically. It could be used to increase the amount of airtime allocated to those languages. However, broadcasts on regional channels should not be used to compensate for a less than equitable allocation of airtime on the national service.
    5. Voice-overs: Voice-overs can be used on both radio and television to translate sound bites in languages other than the designated language(s) on a particular channel, eg in news broadcasts and interviews.

    [1] This submission is available online at www.litnet.co.za/taaldebat/magsabc.asp.
    [2] This submission is available online at www.litnet.co.za/taaldebat/tabema.asp.


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