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Witchdoctors, sex, feed tabloid-hungry South Africa

July 26, 2005

By Rebecca Harrison

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Racist sharks that only devour
white swimmers, husband-snatching witchdoctors, and a magic
tree with penis-enlarging leaves.

Such lurid tales ensure that South Africa’s young tabloid
industry is riding a wave of sales.

Driven by a classic red-top formula of sex and celebrity
with a distinctive African bent, the introduction of tabloids
has proved a hit with the country’s black majority 11 years
after the fall of apartheid.

“It has all the news about what’s happening in the
townships, and it’s cheap,” said security guard Jacob Jaleni of
top-selling tabloid Daily Sun. “Some people don’t like it but I
think it tells the story like it is.”

Publishers in Africa’s richest country used to target the
richer white minority with upmarket titles in English and
Afrikaans. Tabloid-style ‘smut’ — including photos of topless
women — was banned under the conservative apartheid
government.

But media companies have realized there is money to be made
in the mass market, prompting a flurry of cheaper and racier
tabloid titles that are luring hundreds of thousands of readers
from the country’s sprawling black townships.

“Our research shows most Daily Sun readers had never bought
a newspaper before the paper was launched,” said Steve Pacak,
Chief Financial Officer at media firm Naspers, which publishes
South Africa’s first full-blown tabloid.

Daily Sun hit newsstands three years ago and is now the
country’s top-selling daily, shifting more than 400,000 copies
a day with a solid diet of sex, sensation and sangomas — the
local word for a traditional healer.

Two more daily titles — Afrikaans Son and English Daily
Voice — and two Sunday papers have since followed, and more
are in the pipeline.

TOPLESS WOMEN

The boom in tabloids aimed at the township market reflects
a wider trend. Newspaper companies long wrote off black
consumers as too poor to buy their products, but have recently
woken up to the massive buying power the market holds.

Media executives say higher incomes and improved literacy
among the black majority, as well as the end of apartheid-era
censorship prompted them to launch more populist newspapers.

“The black majority is now free to vote and free to access
the media,” said Karl Brophy, executive editor of the recently
launched Daily Voice tabloid. “I think people finally realized
what a completely untapped market it was.”

Revenues are driven by circulation rather than advertising
but executives say that is slowly changing as companies
increasingly seek growth by selling to the black working class.

Brophy says South Africa’s tabloids are based on Britain’s
merciless red-tops, whose paparazzi photographers stake out
stars in search of scandal — but with a local flavour.

One recent Daily Voice edition featured a “racist” shark
that only devours white victims. Daily Sun interviewed a woman
whose husband had dumped her for the local traditional healer
and another who claimed to have been raped by a gorilla.

One report told of a magic tree whose leaves enlarged the
penis of any man to eat them.

“We are very like the British tabloids … but there is
also an African element. Instead of the romping vicar there is
the romping sangoma,” said Brophy.

But while stories about sex are a staple, nudity is a
touchy subject in conservative Africa.

Daily Voice decided to risk a ‘page three girl’ — the
British institution that puts topless women on page three –
but some shops refuse to stock the paper, particularly in
Muslim areas.

Some other African countries already boast tabloids.
Uganda’s raunchy Red Pepper features plenty of female flesh and
Zimbabwe media firms publish two tabloids, albeit slightly more
high-brow than some of their South African counterparts.

Daily Sun, which retails at 1.30 rand ($0.20) says its
readers prefer stories about ordinary women with their clothes
on, and if Jaleni’s reaction was anything to go by, its editors
are right.

“Naked women? In a paper?” he said with an incredulous
laugh. “No that is not good.”

POPULISM NOT POLITICS

After watching the huge success of Daily Sun in South
Africa, other media firms followed suit with their own
tabloids.

Ireland’s Independent News, which ditched a plan for a
tabloid 11 years ago as too risky, launched Daily Voice in
March. Naspers went daily with Son shortly afterwards and
launched Sunday Sun in 2002. Independent, which also publishes
Zulu-language tabloid Isolezwe, says it wants to expand Daily
Voice and may launch a Johannesburg version.

South Africa’s second biggest media company Johnnic
Communications was forced to drag its more serious Sowetan
newspaper aimed at the black market downmarket as new riskier
titles lured away its readers.

The tabloid press tends to shun tales of political intrigue
from the corridors of powers in favor of crime and human
interest stories about ordinary people from the country’s
sprawling black townships.

But they do speak out on community topics like the slow
delivery of decent housing, water and electricity — thorny
issues for the government — and their political clout could be
on the rise, experts say.

The success of the new tabloids and demise of The Sowetan,
which championed the voice of the oppressed black majority
under apartheid, may also illustrate a shift in the priorities
of younger black people, say experts.

Young South Africans who have enjoyed 11 years of democracy
under a black-led government are more interested in getting a
job, car and wardrobe of designer clothes than in the racial
politics than defined their parents’ generation.

“I think young people are different now, politics is no
longer everything and they want to read about everyday issues
that interest them,” Naspers’s Pacak told Reuters.

A surge in newspaper reading was arguably inevitable after
the end of apartheid since black people were no longer
alienated from mainstream culture and politics, said Alan Dunn,
editor of Durban-based Sunday Tribune.

“Under apartheid, black people were not so interested in
reading about a society they couldn’t be part of,” he told
Reuters. “That has changed — this is their country now.”
($1=6.685 Rand)