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Is the SABC’s expansion into the rest of Africa neo-imperialism?

A hot topic of debate on the first day of the Africa Media Leadership Conference in Cape Town yesterday was the role the SABC plays in the pan-African media space and whether its African expansion project amounts to neo-imperialism. Ironically, the matter was brought to the fore by Phil Molefe, the head of SABC’s international strategy right at the beginning of his own presentation, and perhaps wisely so.

I’ve heard it said before, half jokingly, that South Africa is the Texas of Africa but, as Molefe put it, if the SABC doesn’t expand into the rest of Africa, then someone else will who might be less capable of telling the African stories. He cited as examples, the arrival of CNBC Africa and al-Jazeera as key indicators that the market is becoming more competitive.

Some of the concerns raised by the conference delegates and other speakers revolved around the distribution of SABC Africa via satellite, still a very elitist channel in the rest of Africa, and the way Africa is presented through a South African lens.

Both criticisms are valid when compared, perhaps, with well-produced and local news channels that have fair and balanced reporting at heart. The question really is how many African broadcasters can make that claim given that the bulk of them are tied up in the politics of state ownership or battling against state regulation.

Tied to this is the question about the African story, as opposed to the local or regional story. Is there really a unity of identity across the continent that will enable one lens to capture the meaning of a story that reverberates across the multitude of languages, cultures and religious groups? And I’m just talking about news, which will be politically contested — imagine the entertainment programming where religion, language and culture come into play.

Molefe says he believes the African story does exist and I want to believe him. My personal experience has led me to believe otherwise.