| The Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) at the University of Natal in Durban (UND), South Africa, was founded in 1986 as the Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit. As the original name suggested, we originally based our teaching and research on work which had been going on for some 20 years at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in England. |
Cultural studies was developed from Marxist reworking of literary criticism, to develop a broader and less economically dogmatic form of social and political criticism. This was done by examining different kinds of expression as if they were texts having a similar status to that of intellectual literature. Forms of expression like women's radio shows, television soap operas, youth fashion and pop music, for example, were studied in relation to wider trends in education, the economy, and English class values. This provided new ways of dealing with trends in the United Kingdom, and later in America and Australia.
However, research in South Africa showed that the conditions we had to deal with were rooted in a much more violent history of dispossession and exploitation than existing cultural studies approaches were able to explain. In England and America, for example, people of colour are minorities who are not formally excluded from the generally accepted system of civil rights. They have recourse to the law and the courts when they find themselves subjected to discrimination at work, in their studies, or when they are looking for a place to stay.
We had to deal with a situation where a minority had almost complete power, and where this power was exercised in all spheres of life. We also had the advantage, however, of being able to draw on a long tradition of resistance to this situation. The Contemporary Cultural Studies Unit, as it was known until 1990, therefore drew its students from among activists in the labour, education and development fields. The Unit's work used the critical approach to expand existing lines of resistance in trade unions, schools and community organizations (see, for example, Journal of Communication Inquiry, 1988, theme issue: "Cultural Studies in South Africa").
In pursuing this path the Unit opened up a cultural studies which synthesised the rigour of British cultural studies and meshed this with strategies developed by Latin American academic activists like Armand Mattelart. Our reading of African philosphers like Paulin Hauntondji, Abiola Irele and others provided a fertile ground for an Africanisation of cultural and media studies within the Southern African context.
Not surprisingly, state-supported research bodies in the Old South Africa largely ignored the unit. As is the case with these kinds of resistance activities, critical theoretical operations like CCMS had to operate in a reactive kind of way. On the one hand, the Unit was, by nature of its 'resistance' stance against apartheid, always drawing on available avant-garde critiques of the state. In many cases, South African scholars and activists developed innovative critique of their own because of the uniqueness of the South African situation. On the other hand, however, its work tended to have to wait on action by the State before its faculty and graduate students could actually do anything about it.
According to its director, Professor Keyan Tomaselli, the approach developed by the Unit during the 1980s looked something like this:
Central Theoretical spine of
Cultural studies (CS)
a) Social theories
b) Theories of language and meaning (semiotics, linguistics, representation)
CS studies the relationships between texts and contexts.
Texts: media, literature, performance, urban
phenomena - the world and its parts are
studied as texts and discourses which emerge from
Contexts: require the study of textual phenomena
in relation to social science
disciplines such as
politics, economics, sociology, anthropology and history.
Specialisation occurs via CS's central theoretical spine,
but the applications of this theory may differ,
being called on by different disciplines.
And these disciplines are wide and varied. CS is now studied
as essential components in many departments overseas and locally:
Literature, media studies, communication, sociology,
anthropology, politics, drama, music, religion, geography,
even accounting (finance as indicator of power relations).
CCMS also draws on the natural sciences:
Physics, Biology, Electronics
and so on.
Applications of the above text-context schema occurred in conjunction with internal anti-apartheid organisations, communities and movements such as the Film and Allied Workers Organisation (FAWO), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), various sectors of the Catholic Church and the Durban Media Trainers' Group (DMTG), amongst others. These applications are well documented in the published literature.
From Resistance to Reconstruction
After 1994, though, CCMS suddenly finds its credentials receiving very serious notice from state research bodies under the African National Congress (ANC) dominated Government of National Unity. Among issues raised by the state and dealt with by the newly named Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) faculty and students since 1994 are telecommunications, arts, culture and film policy, broadcasting, media and health, and many similar issues about which we were once labelled as 'dangerous communists'. In 1995, the Human Sciences Research Council's (HSRC) Cultural Reconstruction and Development Programme (CURED) incorporated the Centre in its projects. The HSRC was the world's largest para-statal research body, and had been very closely aligned to the apartheid government. Since 1990, like all state institutions, it too has undergone a radical process of restructuring and reorientation.
Our experience with this new direction indicated in CURED is emblematic not only of the shift in the way parastatals operate. It is also characteristic of the ways in which CCMS has had to shift its focus in the post-apartheid era.
Since the inauguration of the new government, the Centre has found itself having to make positive contributions to the business of government, where previously its focus was on resistance against the State. This opposition had the formal support of the University itself. This rather novel situation has meant that the Centre's faculty and students have had to reassess what their stance towards the new state and democratically elected government ought to be. Clearly, any relation between academics and any state needs critical reflection. Simply becoming the new intellectual apparatchiks of the new state is not an option.
Certainly, the transition period (1990-1994) and the tenure of the Government of National Unity (1994-1999) open up all kinds of opportunities for the type of academic-state relationships which will not exist after 1999, the year when the 'winner takes all' kind of politics returns to South Africa. We have, to apply a somewhat hackneyed but appropriate phrase, a "window of opportunity" during this nine year transformative period to actively shape state media and cultural policy. This is being done through participation in state task teams and government reference groups interpreting the recommendations of the a bvariety of committees into government White Papers to be considered by Parliament, Cabinet, state departments and so on.
I will now discuss these general issues in relation to the HSRC's CURED project in the remainder of this article.
Culture: ideological maneuvers
Most cultural debate in South Africa has followed one of two lines. On one side, `culture' has been the target of Left intellectuals because of its anthropological meanings. In other words, we were very aware of the way the apartheid state had used `Culture' as a means to bolster arguments for racial separation. Indeed, anthropologist Emile Boonzaaier (South African Keywords, David Philip Publishers: 1988) noted that the apartheid state had actually 'created greater scope for ideological manoeuvre' by replacing the idea of `race' with that of 'culture'.
The other line of the debate followed the `High-Low-Popular' Culture polemic, where culture is associated with some definition of Taste.
CCMS usually approached these discussions from the point of view of the political economy of symbolic production (see Tomaselli KG (ed) Rethinking Culture, Anthropos, 1986). In less intellectual terms, this means that we looked at the anthropological approach in terms of how big business and other large economic stakeholders benefitted from policies based on this kind of theory. We dealt with the latter approach first by seeing just who owned or subsidised what in the field of media and artistic activities (see the Lake View Press (Chicago) book series edited by Keyan Tomaselli called Studies on the Southern African Media).. Secondly, we would see how to encourage those excluded by existing ownership or subsidy systems to go about producing `culture' for themselves. Generally, the reputation of CCMS is most commonly associated with our work in media and performance based on critical interventions using this second line of thought.
Culture in the New South Africa: the same old story?
To the extent that the CURED proposals coincide with the Unit/Centre's previous work, they exhibit an ironic shift in the way state-employed intellectuals are thinking. Where previously such approaches would have followed the anthropological paradigm, the new proposals are in line with the second line of critical cultural thought. However, while this approach was a pretty useful one from the point of view of anti-apartheid activism in the fields of media and popular performance, CCMS very quickly found that it was not so easy to draw upon for positive action about policy. If we are to create policies which dictate Taste, then no matter how close to `The People' these may be at first they become impositions for another generation. We simply could not square this with the idea of a democratic society.
We decided to narrow down the overall approach so that certain basic requirements could be met. The first requirement was the issue of economy. What kind of policy, we asked, would get the most bang for the buck?
Secondly, we had to look at the effectiveness of cultural policy in the democratic environment. What, we asked, would be the approach which would uplift the least-privileged people here and now over the longest possible term?
Finally, we had to ask ourselves Who are these people in cultural terms?
Besides being plain undemocratic, the Taste approach was just too clumsy: what kind of Art would do the trick? Would performance art or fine art or visual production be the way to go? None of these questions actually confront the scale and scope of the conditions of cultural deprivation which exist in South Africa. Most important from our point of view was the question of benefit: who would get the most from basing cultural policy on this kind of theory? In the present environment of media globalization, we concluded that the entertainment industry would be the only long-term beneficiary.
Reversing the Roles
What did make sense, however, was a different approach to the anthropological conception of culture. In the end, the CCMS policy framing paper for CURED developed the idea of Culture around exactly the meaning of the Latin word from which 'culture' originated: to nurture, tend, look after, and live in a place. We reread the work of cultural studies scholars. It was clear that this aspect of culture had received attention largely in terms of English experience: issues of class pervaded the material, and gender questions focused mainly on media and economic representation of women. But in anthropological terms, the people under consideration remained citizens of settled industrial societies.
For South Africa, we took as our starting point one of the most significant constituencies: women who singly and collectively head households in urban and peri-urban areas. Here we had concrete agents of nurture and looking- after. They presented a good demographic 'hook' upon which we could confront the questions of 'how much?' and `how many?'. We then asked: what is the object of the activities of nurture, tending, and so on? From radical philosophy (Agnes Heller: Beyond Justice, Basil Blackwell: 1987) we took the answer: taking people born into the world and raising their endowments into talents.
This unlocked the whole debate. We could look at cultural needs, a primary focus of CURED, in concrete terms. Women raising their children have specific needs, and they can articulate them. The talents which can be seen as undesirable can be readily identified against the simple radical criterion: does a talent require people to be held in subordination? This way of approaching policy enabled us to set up guidelines not only for the target communities of cultural reconstruction. We were also able to use it to separate the different kinds of activity relevant for local, regional and national policy formation.
Under this definition, issues to be addressed include: library services, transport for schoolchildren, facilities for pre-school activity, primary health care, school feeding schemes, and so on. These appear far removed from traditional notions of 'Culture'. Yet the absence of such services and facilities are fundamental hindrances to the activity of raising people's endowments into talents suited to an industrial society. We have simply recognised the fact that the most deprived community in these terms needs the first major development input.
Getting down to basics
In conclusion, our whole way of seeing culture and cultural studies has had to adapt to a very basic new situation. To a large extent, there was little time to spend reviewing the many works in which culture and cultural policy have been discussed, chewed over and disputed. Yet the work we had time to study, and this was none the less quite a large body of writing, seemed to focus almost exclusively on culture as the expressive activity of mature people in settled and well-developed nations. We had to accept that many people in South Africa had been living in the midst of a low-key but very vicious civil war. Many still do, in the KwaZulu-Natal province. For such people, the promises of 'culture' in the form of art, dance, and poetry must simply seem to be luxuries.
Most importantly, from the point of view of democracy, the things we can look at from this way of using cultural theory are precisely matters which are the business of local government. Lines of communication extend as far as one's local municipal offices. In terms of the present interim constitutional arrangements (and of the permanent ones presently being negotiated), cultural factors such as those we identified are the responsibility of communities' elected local representatives, and therefore the problem of accountability is not made worse by distance. Finally, we believe that by adding the cultural dimension to the need for social service equity restores an element of concreteness. It starts with a constituency which is doing actual nurturing and looking after, who are the primary agents of culture in any culture.
1. Available in Europe from James Currey (London). Intervention Press (Denmark) represents the more recent titles: Louw, P.E. (ed.): South African Media Policy: Debates of the 1990s (1993); Mpofu, A., Manhando, S. and Tomaselli, K.G. (eds.): Public Service Broadcasting in South Africa: Directions Towards 2000 (1996); and Zaffiro, J. The Politics of Broadcasting in Zimbabwe (1997).