It was Victor Hugo who mused: “What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.” I’m forced to reflect on these words every week as we put together articles for Jambo Africa Online. So let me start by outlining the personal experiences which were  garnered in the trenches of the anti-apartheid independent or “alternative”  media in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the dawn of our democracy. I was a journalist and later Editor-in-Chief at Learn and Teach Publications – publishers of the monthly magazine, Learn & Teach, and various publications for readers with low literacy skills, particularly for the members of COSATU and its affiliates. 

Although the magazine was sold (through an informal distribution networks of community-based organisations and trade unions, and individuals based in the townships and rural villages), this publishing house relied primarily on donor funding from conscientious anti-apartheid funders such as World University Services (WUS), Novib and others in Europe. The funders came onboard as their commitment to supporting independent media outlets that challenged the status. The mainstream media then didn’t communicate the legitimate anti-apartheid voices in line with the stringent apartheid legal prescripts and also their fear of losing advertising support from the private sector.

Some of these alternative media houses were the publishers of SPEAK, a monthly woman’s journal whose last editor was Elinor Sisulu; New Nation, a weekly newspaper edited by Zwelakhe Sisulu; Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), then edited by Prof Anton Harber;  South African Labour Bulletin (edited by Dr Karl von Holdt); Challenge (a monthly magazine, edited by Rev Dr Albert Nolan, that advocated for progressive theology based on the Kairos document); Work in Progress, a high level progressive policy monthly journal which was edited by Chris Vick); Saamstaan (a progressive Afrikaans’ medium community newspaper in the Western Cape); Vrye Weekblad (which has just been relaunched as a digital publication), a weekly newspaper, edited Max du Preeze,  for the progressive Afrikaner community; and Upbeat, a monthly magazine for the youth which was edited by Orenna Krut and published by South African Council on Higher Education Development (SACHED). Despite constant bannings, confiscations of copies of these publications by the then draconian security branches, these publications’ uncompromising survival persisted.

The film sector was represented by the Video News Service (VNS) – led by people such as Mokone Molete and other filmmakers who belonged to the Film and Allied Workers Organisation (FAWO). And print photography was represented by photographers at the AfraPix and Dynamic Images. These institutions helped to beam videos and circulate photos that captured mass uprisings across the world.

As media activists, we belonged to the progress Association of Democratic Journalists (ADJ) – led by such leaders as Tyrone August and Daryl Accone – which was aligned to the United Democratic Front (UDF).

With the liberalisation of South African politics in 1990 through the unbanning of the national liberation movement; release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners; a negotiations for a settlement embarked upon, the funders indicated to the independent media that they needed to begin to explore revenue-generating avenues for their sustainability since they were funded on the basis of the then apartheid government having not allowed space for alternative voices.

Although the funders voiced this in 1990, three years later a few publications’ inability to generate revenue were forced to shut their doors – namely, Saamstaan; New Nation; and Work in Progress. Those of us still running then began actively to accelerate the process of exploring and devising revenue generating options as advised. We then decided to develop a shared services model that involved merging our corporate services into one – these were financial departments; Human Resources; design, production and distribution; and sales and marketing. 

This meant we were to retrench extra staff. We decided to move into one building so that we could employ only one receptionist. And the shared services centre was to be managed by a new holdings company, the Independent Magazine Group (IMG). By the way, the company still appears in my current CIPC account though it’s “undergoing a deregistration process”). I and the other Editors-in-Chief were joined by the newly-appointed CEO of the shared services centre as Directors of the IMG.

But implementation of the decisions was hampered by our ideological standpoints. First, which is cardinal, was the fallacy that these publications could survive without making profit – this was because of our misunderstanding of the concept of “not-for-profit” status. 

The lesson learnt, in hindsight, is that “not-for-profit” status means the company should strive to make profit like any other commercial entity for its survival – the only difference is that while the latter pays dividends to the shareholders, in the case of an NPC, the profit is re-invested into the company for its sustainability and expansion. To us then as pseudo-socialist intellectuals, the word “profit” was construed as a taboo. 

The second stumbling block was that while we reached a consensus that we were to reduce our headcount, none of us was prepared to retrench their staff – so our shared services centre inherited the full staff complement, remained bloated and our salary bill remained high. There was no cost-cutting. 

Furthermore, although we had decided to begin to attract advertising, some of our colleagues adopted a moralist stance: questioning a decision to advertise tobacco and alcohol products. This compromised our resolve to generate advertising revenue on top of the challenge which was compounded by the fact that the advertising industry was untransformed and all media buyers’ conservatism motivated them not to secure media space from us. 

I remember when we – my colleague Richard Maguire and I – were interviewing the then Secretary-General of the African National Congress (ANC), I then as a parting shot expressed how aggrieved we were that the advertising agency they contracted to do the elections campaign for them, was reluctant to buy media space in our publications. He committed to intervene. But I do remember our Advertising Sales Representative telling me one of the media buyers asked him: “Why should we buy space from your publication which is already serving the converted?”

Then the other challenge faced was of circulation and distribution. The commercial distribution outlets such as the CNA and bookshops were reluctant to distribute our publications fearing backlash from their traditional conservative customers. In an instance where they accepted a few copies to test the market, the commission they charged was exorbitantly high. 

For ideologues within the independent publishing industry, using the commercial distributors meant we were taking business away from our informal distributors whose livelihoods depended on selling our publications. This predicament cast most of us into a crisis of conscience: we needed to continue supporting our traditional informal distributors and yet we knew it was almost impossible to retrieve money generated by the sales from them because they often spent the revenue on their immediate commitments. So, we couldn’t take any civil action against them for non-payment.

So in a nutshell, during the struggle against apartheid propaganda, we were forced with such life and death challenges: political repression; skills development; access to limited printing facilities; distribution and circulation; and audience development. Despiteconstantbannings,confiscationsofcopiesofthesepublicationsby the then draconian security branches, these publications’ uncompromising survival persisted. Why? Commitment by the staff but largely because the donor agencies provided the funding they needed for their survival.

Indeed, donor funding for the alternative media dried up in 1994 – coinciding with the first democratic elections in the country. One donor funder indicated to us since the ANC was in power, they were to direct their funding resources directly to the post-apartheid government and we were to source funding from it.

In announcing the first post-apartheid public service architecture, President Nelson Mandela introduced the Ministry for Reconstruction and Development. We were given comfort that we were to source funding from this ministry. But little did we know that the mills of government grind slowly. Although ultimately the media diversity and development prescript was enacted, the regulatory framework was developed way after all the alternative publications had folded – except for the Weekly Mail that sold a stake to the UK’s Guardian and thus reChristening it today’s Mail & Guardian; and the South African Labour Bulletin was taken over by Wits University’s Sociology Ddpartment.

Post the formation of the MDDA as the custodian of developing diverse and multiple voices in the media space, we have witnessed the mushrooming of community and small commercial publications dependent largely upon advertising by government and funding from government through the MDDA. Most of these publications can’t grow beyond reliance on funding from the MDDA by attracting advertising from the private sector simply because the advertising industry is still largely untransformed. 

Yes, granted, the quality of some of the independent media leaves much to be desired: for example, editorials are sub-standard, photos often pixilated, and designs characterised by monotonous and incorrect typography. But the most significant thing is that they have adopted the look and feel of knock-and-drops thus competing with the publications of the highly resourced Caxton group. On the other hand, community radio is besieged by ill-prepared and incoherent presenters with very little substantive  research being done and under qualified and capacitated management.

The technological advancements, particularly the uptake of news through digital publications as I argued in my previous Publisher’s Comment – dealt a fatal blow to some of our mainstream media. The latest research I shared indicated that in the past ten years the readership on mobile platforms has increased by 460% (from 45 minutes to 4 hours 12 minutes) and on desktop by 26%; while the losers were TV which decreased by 24%, radio by 19% and magazines by 50%.

In my Publisher’s Comment i posited we had to go transform ourselves into a news portal we are today. Internet penetration, nationally and globally, motivates for this. As an example, in South Africa, out of a population of 59,67 million people as at January 2021 – meaning a population increase of 741 thousand (+1.3%) between January 2020 and January 2021 (67.6% living in urban centres, while 32.4% in rural areas) – there are 38.19 million internet users in South Africa as at January 2021. This represents an increase of internet users by 1.7 million (4.5%) from 2020 and 2021. Internet penetration in the country was standing at 64.0% in January 2021. Furthermorethere were 25 million social media users in South Africa in January 2021 having increased by 3 million (14%) within the period under review – thus making the number of social media users to an equivalent of 41.9%.

I am aware that the MDDA has interest in trying their level best in developing a sustainability model for the community media sector. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that the concept of sustainability is contested and therefore contextual. Media sustainability isn’t on sustaining just any media, but sustaining quality media: particularly journalism that contributes to transparent, democratic governments that are responsive to their people, support human rights, are not corrupt and enable economic development.

  • It takes lots of resources, training and expertise to have media like that.
  • Media sustainability should be seen as a measure of quality journalism and quality media content. In our context, “quality” means people-centred and people-driven.
  • The key to sustaining quality media is to focus on the resources: time, funding and experience. Media sustainability occurs at an intersection of three sources: technology, economics and law and policy.
  • In a broader sense, sustainability communication is concerned with “introducing an understanding of the world, that is of the relationship between humans and their environment, into social discourse.

What are the lessons learnt from this brief history? We need to undertake the following exercises: 

  •  develop a micro- and macro-environmental scan of the industry outlining notable event trends
  • establish international benchmark (for example, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands – are highly ranked in the Community Media Forum’s Community Media Index)
  • aim to develop a framework for strategic and operational efficiencies and effectiveness
  • also offer options for brand development frameworks for independent media to develop co-branding mechanisms with the private sector
  • develop a model for human capital development 
  • and develop an economic development framework conducive for the emergence of the new platforms; and sustainability and expansion of the current initiatives.

Africa’s identity is largely crafted by foreign media – CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, China Daily, Russia Today, Radio France, Africanews., Voice of America and a cacophony of print media. As Jambo Africa Online we try to give an inside out communication that define us as opposed these foreign media outlets giving an outside in account which is then positioned as the ultimate truth about who we are. These institutions continue to othering us by differentiating us both as individuals and groups and relegating us to the margins according to a range of socially constructed colonial categories. We reject such notions with the contempt they deserve.

Our story began twelve months ago when I bid farewell to my full-time job as an employee as fate plunged me into joining, as the CEO and Group Chairman, Brandhill Africa (Pty) Ltd – the company I established in May 2016 before I took a detour to join the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA). What a rollercoaster year it has been. Our work has been cut out for us from the word go. It all started with UNCTAD FDI Index indicating that South African government and all its entities only facilitated 10% of all the  investments that came into the country, and the rest was done by the private consultancies, asset managers snd lawyers. Furthermore, SA’s share of global FDI came down by 46% in 2020. Thebe Ikalafeng’s annual brand Africa Top 100 Most Admired Brands saw “Made in Africa” service and product brands declining from constituting 34% in 2010 to a mere 13% in 2020. 

While the continent is excited about its integration through the AfCFTA, we were mindful of the dire need for infrastructure development to ensure interconnectivity though rail, road, air and ICT between African countries, and we therefore set ourselves a mission to mobilise FDI (through straight loans, equity stakes or PPPs) for such. 

Thanks to the heavens, though we encountered many challenges particularly on revenue generation, we have relatively achieved more than we had bargained for during the first year which was dedicated to building Brandhill Africa into a brand – the basis upon which our future livelihoods and the company’s financial sustainability have to be premised. The English bard, William Shakespeare, characterised reputation as an “immortal” part of one’s existence and the rest as “bestial”.

We emerged as thought leaders on the AfCFTA as we addressed many virtual business conferences across Africa and other continents – including the event organised by the Indian Ocean Rim Association (a multilateral body representing 22 countries sharing the Indian Ocean). We were also featured in numerous radio, magazine and television interviews advancing the opportunities and threats brand Africa is confronted with. Most humbling was when the Netherlands-based Strategia Business School listed me as one of their guest facilitators in their “Investing in Africa” online masterclasses.

We developed this Jambo Africa Online weekly news portal  , (to which even the US Presidency subscribed although we kept on criticising President Donald Trump in our Publisher’s Comment) and the Biashara Services and Products Africa (BiSPA) Conference and Exhibition – both platforms promote “Made in Africa” service and product brands. 

We were privileged that legends volunteered to serve in our Editorial Advisory Board –  Dr Thami Mazwai (Chairperson); Prof Tshimpaka Yanga (attached to the University of Lumumbashi, DRC); Angela Akua Asante (a renowned multilingual television personality and MC in Ghana); Mlungisi Mpofu (Executive Director of the Trans Kalahari Corridor in Namibia); Francois Fouche (Director of Growth Diagnostics at the North-West University Business School); Salline Handa (a seasoned entrepreneur in Kenya); Namatirai Zinyohwera (ICT business executive in Zimbabwe/RSA); Lebohang Ramotete (a journalist in Lesotho); and Dr Bamidele Adeoye (a Nigerian academic and consultant based in the USA). I’m the Publisher; Andile Andy Msindwana is the Editor; Dithako Nakedi, Deputy Editor; and Ofentse Nthite is the Associate Editor.

We’ve forged partnerships with Proudly SA; African Agri Council (with members across the continent); and the Dubai-headquartered World Free Zones Association (a body representing special economic zones). The Growth Diagnostics (in collaboration with the North-West University Business School) and (from today) the UNISA Enterprises (a revenue generation company owned by the university) came onboard as partners.

I was nominated as the “World CEO of the Year” by the US-based World CEO Rankings Board. The highlights of our first year climaxed into Brandhill Africa (Pty) Ltd being nominated for the “Brand Leadership” citation by the Academic Council and Awards Committee of the Mumbai-headquartered  CMO Global – described as “a premium forum bringing elite marketers, brand custodians, advertising and creative honchos together under one roof.”

This on top of being formally appointed into the Board of Directors of the Africa chapter of the New Delhi-headquartered Global Council for the Promotion of International Trade (GCPIT) – a body championing the interests of SMMEs after I did a presentation on brand Africa at their annual conference. Also privileged to be appointed as a Non-Executive Director of Beam Afrika (which has offices in Johannesburg and Nairobi). I remain a social entrepreneur too as a Trustee of the Dr Molefi Sefularo Foundation which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the late Dr Molefi Sefularo, who was South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Health, of advocating for the provision of quality healthcare to all.

All these humble successes should be attributed to the unqualified support I have received from my highly committed tea. Inspired by team-building principles from such movies as “Ocean’s Eleven”, “The Expendables” and “Gone in 60 seconds”, I put together an excellent team to join me at risk with the understanding that the quality and quantity of they work they put into the companies will earn them shareholding. A team of highly experienced professionals joined by vibrant young women with qualifications in marketing, communications and international relations. To say their commitment to executing my vision has been a blessing will be a gross understatement. They have taken full ownership of the companies in the Brandhill Africa group. 

If our limited resources could allow for the most expensive South Africa sparkling wine (yes, they are far much better than Champaign and that’s why France had to force us through the World trade Organisation’s rules of origin to refrain from calling our Stellenbosch produce as such), I was to raise the most expensive stemware to this team: Here’s to our next twelve months!

But above all else, my insatiable doses of thanks go to you, our loyal reader.

Saul Molobi




Twitter: @saulmolobi
Instagram: @saulmolobi