September 21, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area



Empirical Research
In 2012 the project team embarked on an empirical research project aimed at establishing the actual ways in which media were being used by citizens to construct civic identities and engage in public life. This project built on an earlier survey conducted in 2011 by profs Herman Wasserman and Larry Strelitz into media use by Grahamstown residents, and on the SANPAD study into youth identity, the media and the public sphere in South Africa (which involved profs Anthea Garman, Jane Duncan, Lynette Steenveld and Larry Strelitz and which was run in collaboration with UCT, the Free University in Amsterdam and Media Tenor) and also aimed to contribute qualitative data which could be used to enrich our understanding of the role that media play in people’s everyday lives and how the extent to which media use facilitate public participation and civic identities.

This research (based on focus groups with young South Africans in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng) was presented in February at the Unisa colloquium ‘Media and Citizenship: Identity Politics, Politicised Identities and the Question of Belonging’, which was co-hosted by the Mellon Project.

In addition to theoretical explorations of normative frameworks for media, democracy and citizenship, in which we have focused on theories of ‘listening’ (taken from Susan Bickford’s work) and ‘acts of citizenship’ (inspired by Engin Isin’s work), we have completed three substantive empirical data-gathering projects. In 2011-12 we undertook to do the survey study of the SANPAD research in four cities in the Eastern Cape (Alice, East London, Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown). The data generated in this survey prompted some interesting questions for further research. We then pursued these questions further by following up with focus groups of young people in these four cities on issues that were pertinent to our Mellon Focus Area study. We also added two focus group in Johannesburg  as a comparison with a highly urbanised area. Towards the end of 2013 we drew out some persisting questions relating to media trust (unusually high) as against media relevance to their daily lives (very low) and held an in-depth focus group as well as more intense interviews with 10 participants selected from our focus groups in order to probe this seeming anomaly. The question we wanted to ask was: ‘Why, if young South Africans trust the media, do they not find it relevant or applicable to their own lives?’ This research has been transcribed and translated and was presented at the Oxford conference on 20 Years of Democracy in South Africa in April as well as at the annual conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in Hyderabad in July. These papers are now being edited for publication.

As we have conducted three rounds of empirical research among young Eastern Cape South Africans (each time deepening our questions and engagement), we find that the rapidly altering media landscape and their media use in response to this which is varied and strategic unsettles our notions as researchers of how we understand the media and its reception in present-day South Africa. We realise that we do not have a good enough theoretical grasp of the actual ways in which young South Africans (both employed and unemployed, privileged and marginalised) range across the media offerings and consume opportunistically (which is contrary to the patterns described in the established literature). These findings show us that much of the media theory that is being developed now in Northern contexts among first-world participants is not adequate to describe the diversity of engagements and behaviours we are encountering. Our challenge is to draw on existing theories of citizenship and listening while doing empirical research, and in the process to expand and build these theories on the basis of our empirical findings.

We have also discovered endemic and very severe disillusionment and disengagement from formal politics. While the apartheid years created the environment for active and powerful oppositional engagement in politics we struggle to see such space and creativity among this group we have been studying. A challenge for us as researchers is to find the spaces where citizens are displaying political agency even though such engagement is not always visible in the media. Such agency might, in contrast to dominant media theories that place the media in the centre of political life, happen outside of or despite the media. In our research we therefore have to suspend existing media-centred approaches to democracy and citizenship and remain open for alternative insights to emerge.

In order to pursue and understand more thoroughly (and thereby theorise more adequately) this situation of media use, voice, agency and activity, as well as understand more acutely political identities and speaking positions, we deepened our research with further interviews which are rooted in more intense ethnographic and observational work (which has already begun with Dr Malila’s research in 2014). We then extended this research into engagements with journalists and editors across the province in both mainstream commercial and community media.

Stimulating a research culture

In addition to its own specific research aims, the Media and Citizenship Focus Area is also being used as a hub within the School of Journalism and Media Studies to draw in staff working in related areas in their own teaching, research and community engagement.

One such engagement has been with staff who are embarking on or completing higher degrees and beginning research careers. Regular weekly conversations in which staff members discuss the preparation of papers for conferences, the review of journal articles, access to funding and also the discussion of theoretical concepts around citizenship and media are now a feature in the School.

Many of the existing individual projects of teaching and media production have been found to articulate well with this new focus on media and citizenship and to be enriched both by the theoretical input as well as the practical information on how to operate as media scholars. In addition, weekly meetings of the Mellon Focus Area scholars include a discussion of the current research within the focus area, sharing and discussing readings, and planning for project activities such as a regular blog and website and the empirical research projects (see below). The project leaders regularly engage with the project’s researchers to pool knowledge and discuss the focus area but have also broadened the basis for discussion by including other members of the School, so as to establish synergies between the focus area and teaching and community engagement – for instance a JMS1 project involving learners from Mary Waters School, the Upstart youth development project and radio and television production courses. The Mellon group also meets weekly to discuss readings in the area of media and citizenship.


Wasserman, H. 2015. South African Media After Apartheid: Local Contests, Global Shifts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press (forthcoming)

Wasserman, H. (ed.) 2011. Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa. London: Routledge

Book chapters

Wasserman, H. 2015. (accepted, forthcoming) Social Justice and Citizenship in South Africa: The Media’s Role. In: Rao, S. & Wasserman, H. (eds.) Media Ethics and Justice in a Global Age.

Garman, A. 2015. Troubling White Englishness in South Africa: a self-interrogation of privilege, complicity, citizenship and belonging in Unveiling Whiteness edited by Dierdre Howard-Wagner, Veronica Watson and Lisa Spanierman. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 211-228.

Wasserman, H. 2014 Key trends in South African society and media. In:  Meyiwa, T., Nkondo, M., Chitiga- Mabugu, M.,. Sithole, M. and Nyamnjoh , M. (Eds.) State of the Nation. Pretoria: HSRC Press. Pp. 310-324.


Wasserman, H. & Jacobs, S. 2013. Media, Citizenship and Social Justice in South Africa. In: Pillay, U., Hagg, G.  & Nyamnjoh, F. (Eds.) State of the Nation 2012-2013.  Cape Town: HSRC Press. Pp. 333-354.

Wasserman, H. 2013. Media Ethics in a New Democracy:  South African perspectives on freedom, dignity and citizenship. In: Ward, S.J.A. (Ed.) Global Media Ethics: Problems and Perspectives. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp 126-145.

Wasserman, H. & Garman, A.  2013. Being South African and belonging: the status and practice of mediated citizenship in a new democracy. In: Walthrust-Jones, N. and Vemuri, S.R. Diversity and turbulences in Contemporary Global Migration.  Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press. (978-1-84888-187-7)

Wasserman, H. (ed.) 2011. Popular Media, Democracy and Development in Africa. London: Routledge (Nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award)

Garman, A. 2011. Speaking Poetry to Power in Public Sphere Reconsidered: Theories and Practices. Labcom Books: University of Beira Interior, Covilhã, Portugal: 89-104. (ISBN: 978-989-654-082-1)

Journal articles

Rao, S. & Wasserman, 2015. A Media Not for All: A Comparative Analysis of Journalism, Democracy, and Exclusion in Indian and South African Media. Fortchoming in Journalism Studies.

Wasserman, H. 2015. Marikana and the media: acts of citizenship and a faith in democracy-to-come. Forthcoming in Social Dynamics.

Wasserman, H. & Garman, A. 2014. The meanings of citizenship: media use and democracy in South Africa. Social Dynamics 40 (2): 392-407.

Malila, V., Oelofsen, M., Garman, A., Wasserman, H.. 2013. Making meaning of citizenship: how ‘born frees’ use media in South Africa’s democratic evolution. Communicatio 39(4): 415-431

Wasserman, H. 2013. Die media, demokrasie en burgerlike deelname: ’n etiek van luister. (The media, democracy and civic participation: towards an ethics of listening) Litnet Akademies.10(2). Online:

Wasserman, H. 2013. Journalism in a New Democracy: The Ethics of Listening. Communicatio 39(1): 67-84

Wasserman, H. & Garman, A. 2012. Speaking out as citizens: voice and agency in post-apartheid South African media. Communitas 17: 39-58.

Wasserman, H. 2013. Journalism in a New Democracy: The Ethics of Listening. Forthcoming in Communicatio.

Wasserman, H. 2011. Mobile Phones, Popular Media and Everyday African Democracy : Transmissions and Transgressions. Popular Communication 9(2) : 146-158.

Garman, A. 2011. The ‘refeudalisation’ or the ‘return of the repressed’ of the public sphere? Ecquid Novi African Journalism Studies 32(3): 4-18.

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