A look at South Africa’s media landscape ahead of the upcoming elections

Press Conference with Cyril Ramaphosa at the World Economic Forum in 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda. Image by World Economic Forum on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 DEED).

On May 29, South Africans will cast their votes to elect a new president. To grasp the current political terrain in South Africa, this article offers a curated selection of informative sources to keep you abreast of the upcoming elections and South African news.

Situated in the southernmost part of Africa, South Africa shares borders with six other African nations (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Eswatini and Lesotho) and boasts a coastline spanning 2,798 kilometers (1,739 miles) to the south. With a population of over 60.69 million people and a landmass covering 1,221,037 square kilometers (471,445 square miles), it stands as the second most populous country located entirely below the equator, following Tanzania, and ranks as the 23rd most populous nation globally.

South Africa has a multicultural society, comprising diverse races, cultures, languages, and religions, which inspired Bishop Desmond Tutu to coin the nickname “rainbow nation. While 80 percent of the populace identify as Black South Africans, the rest make up Africa's largest communities of European (White South Africans), Asian (Indian South Africans and Chinese South Africans), and multiracial (Coloured South Africans) descent. 

The country’s constitution recognises 12 languages but the most spoken languages include Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. Media publications and broadcasts in South Africa are mostly in English and Afrikaans.

Essential information is disseminated to the public through various newspapers, magazines, television networks, radio stations and social media. According to Reuters Insitute, the usage of newspapers and TV as primary news sources has decreased, while there has been a rise in the number of individuals relying on social media for news, with Whatsapp, YouTube and Facebook toping the list.

The top broadcaster of radio and TV news is South African Broadcasting Corporation(SABC), which is state-owned.

With over 63 active commercial radio stations and several community radios, it is not surprising that radio is the biggest broadcast media in South Africa. Since the 1960s, South Africa has been a world leader in radio technology. The top five most listened to radio stations include Ukhozi FM, Umhlobo Wenene FM, Lesedi FM, Thobela FM and Metro FM, all of which are owned by South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).

In addition to radio, the state-owned SABC is also the top broadcaster of television news.

Radio and TV are tightly regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).  

Broadcast rights, particularly for television, are exclusively granted through invitation. As a result, there are only a few active independent television broadcasters which have so far been authorized to operate, and they include, e.TV and M-Net. 

SABC maintains a presence on X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, garnering over 2.8 million, 2.34 million, and 2.1 million followers on the respective platforms.

The Sunday Times, which is privately owned, is the oldest and biggest newspaper in South Africa. It is distributed throughout South Africa and in neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Botswana, and Eswatini. It has recently published breaking stories about the former African National Congress (ANC) and fourth president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma and other highly controversial topics.

Other popular privately owned English-language newspapers include the Daily Sun, the Sowetan, the Citizen, and Business Day. For Afrikaans-language newspapers, Volksblad is the oldest, while Beeld is the largest newspaper. There are a few newspapers written in Zulu language including Isolezwe and Ilanga lase Natal.

For purely digital news in English, platforms like News24, eNCA, Briefly News, Daily Sun, TimesLIVE, Eyewitness News and the Mail & Guardian are the most popular, and they cover a wide range of topics, including politics, entertainment, media, sports, lifestyle, and business. These news sites have garnered more than 7.7 million, 4.4 million, 2.7 million, 2.1 million, 2.1 million, 1.6 million and 1.1 million followers on their respective Facebook and Twitter pages. For digital news in Afrikaans, Netwerk24 online is the most popular.

Internationally, South African news receives coverage from several French and English-speaking international media outlets, including Voice of America, The Conversation, the Independent, Okayafrica, Al Jazeera, CNN, France 24, Radio France Internationale, The Guardian, the English section of Africanews, BBC Africa and Sky News.

The history of press freedom in South Africa is marred by government censorship during the apartheid era.  However, following the end of apartheid and National Party rule, censorship ceased and a new constitution was enacted. This constitution includes a Bill of Rights that guarantees that every citizen has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and media, the freedom to receive or impart information or ideas, freedom of artistic creativity, academic freedom, and freedom of scientific research.

In 2024, Reporters Without Borders ranked South Africa 25th out of 180 countries, an improvement from its previous rank of 35th. According to the Freedom House report, South Africa is categorized as “free,” boasting a score of 79 out of 100. It is recognized as a champion of human rights and a prominent leader across the African continent. Nonetheless, the ruling party has been accused of weakening state institutions to shield corrupt officials and preserve its authority

Internet penetration in South Africa increased by 0.9 percent (409,000 users) between January 2023 and January 2024, according to a report by DataReportal, stating that about 25.3 percent of the population remained offline at the beginning of 2024.

Approximately 42.8 percent of the total population actively uses social media, with Facebook (26 million users) and YouTube (25.1 million) being the most widely utilized platforms. They are followed by TikTok (17.46 million), LinkedIn (12 million) Instagram (6.95 million) and X (4.10 million). 

Notwithstanding its history with government censorship during apartheid, South Africa has made significant strides towards press freedom and human rights since the dawn of democracy in 1994. Today, the country boasts a diverse and harassment-free media landscape. However, as South Africans gear up to cast their votes in the upcoming presidential election, it remains to be seen whether the media will persist in operating freely without encountering any threats or attacks.


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