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South African communicators face challenge.

The "message" of participatory democracy and peace, as much as the "medium," sharply delineates the abrupt shifts in points of reference and icons on which to base and direct communication. It is not just translation into seldom-used languages for communication that may have to be addressed if unfamiliar and complex issues are to be fully understood by a diverse people, fractured politically and economically.

There also is a sea change in communication objectives that once were almost wholly First World in character and which now must embrace the needs and aspirations of a mostly impoverished, largely Black, Third World constituency that is alive with great expectations.

Communicators must contend with factors such as events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet states. South Africa also is subject to a frenetic page of change that taxes corporate communicator resources to the limit. The argument -- and the vehicle of communication today -- may be irrelevant or shouted down as the clamorous demands of tomorrow arrive.

The aim of a South Africa in transition is a fully enfranchised democratic society, free of discrimination and governed by an inviolable Bill of Rights. Although hopes are high, no one can tell with certainty whether South Africa will arrive at that destination.

Democracy is arriving slowly

True, the shadowland of apartheid and all its works may be retreating rapidly before the spreading sunlight of vigorous socioeconomic, political and constitutional debate and growing world acceptance as political, economic and cultural sanctions fall away. But democracy under Black leaders has come just recently to African states riven by coups d' etat and civil wars since the sweep of uhuru began in Ghana in 1957, or rule by one-party socialist or Marxists-Leninist governments and military dictatorships, with a brace of the latter already in place within South Africa's bosom. And there are still White conservative forces bent on maintaining, by force if necessary, some form of domination, or a Whites-only nation within the subcontinent.

The political parties and power blocs shaping South Africa's constitutional and political form attending the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) must guard against following the path into African-style national and individual penury in neighbouring countries brought on by successions of incompetent leadership or war. They also must work to prevent conversion from a White to a Black oligarchy and a shadowland of reverse discrimination, intimidation and rule by year.

Already, responsible Black journalists receive death threats for honest writings that displease one political force or another. They seriously doubt the present fragile freedom of the press will survive under a future government. Even if a democratically elected government is installed, it will take generations of education and communication to bleach out the malady of discrimination embedded so deeply in the South African psyche. This won't happen until Whites and Blacks, Afrikaners and English-speakers, Asians and Coloureds (people of mixed race), Zulus and Xhosas and others come to regard themselves simply as human beings and South Africans (or whatever nationality is given to this nation in transformation). It is these new factors and sensitivities that the communicator of the 1990s will have to take into account if the credibility and integrity of the message is to be maintained.

Historically, communication in South Africa is a post-World War Two creation evolved largely by Whites within the compass of (and funded by) business as well as employee communication and, let it be admitted, within the period and framework in which apartheid took political hold on though processes and lifestyle.

To their credit though, in spite of this, communicators who founded professional organised communication bodies such as the Public Relations Institute of South Africa and the South African Association of Industrial Editors, opened the doors to, and encouraged membership of, people of other races. In the new, unfolding order those corporate communicators who now number among them a growing band of Black professionals, must move beyond the often authoritarian business condition and concentrate on the reception, understanding, acceptance and action upon their message by an audience that although still racially divided, more correctly split between "haves" who are Black as well as White, and "have nots" who are overwhelmingly Black. The "haves" in the work place generally are highly literate and respond readily to the same icons and points of reference found in the industrialised countries.

Their concerns resemble those abroad: corporate downsizing outplacements, falling standards of service, the environment, AIDS (with 300 cases a day adding to the nearly 200,000 mainly HIV-infected heterosexuals already known and the number of full-blown cases tripling ot 969 in a year), population control (but not yet pro-life or abortion to the extent evident in the U.S.), and even sexual harrasment. But they also are preoccupied with the political power-sharing versus majority rule debate; the breakdown in law and other and the crime rate; stubborn double-digit consumer inflation; and the proliferation of squatter tonwships as the urban influx from rural areas, pent up by apartheid, becomes a flood and strains infrastructural resources to the hilt. Their communication requirements also include catching up on globalisation, world economics and culture, and technological advancement, all issues in which expansion and experience were stunted by sanctions during the 1980s.

In the old order, corporate communication focused mainly on media exposure through news releases. Internal communication used newsletters, tabloids, magazines, bulletin boards and, to an increasing extent, videos and teleconferencing through the South African Broadcasting Corporation and its main national rival, the M-Net pay channel. These were principally to White audiences, and then corporate radio and television channels for workers on the larger mining estates. The techniques employed are no different from those practised in the U.S., the U.K. and other EC countries, even if the standards may not be the same. Nevertheless, of 16 awards made by IABC's Europe/Africa region for outstanding publications, four were made to South African communicators, and these went on to win 1990 Gold Quill awards.

Communication has been conducted mainly in English and Afrikaans, with insufficient regard for the use of other tongues. This "westenised" approach to broad communication requirements may no longer be adequate, if needed it ever was. But business must communicate now more than ever. A communicator's paramount concern is preservation of a free market economy and the productivity standards and work ethic of the industrialised nations. These concerns are essential catalysts to provide the means to lift South Africa's foundering economy, to create jobs, and to remove the huge backlogs in education, housing and health care.

Communication must be for

both haves and have-nots

To successfully project this argument into the work place, and especially to workers holding down unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, will require inventive communication ideas and techniques because illiteracy, even in the vernaculars -- a pernicious outcome of apartheid's brutal disregard for adequate schooling for Blacks -- is perhaps the greatest barrier to understanding. For the moment, this handicap can severely limit the use of the printed word, as my opening passage indicates.

The communication icons for the work-place "have nots" also need to be different. A huge number of these people have little or no experience or understanding of the business world, of finance, profit and loss, the role of the shareholder, or indeed of technology such as computerisation or electronic data interchange.

Nor, on an individual plane, are they knowledgeable about personal finance such as property ownership, rates of interest, repayment of mortgages, and the other financial complexities taken for granted on the modern side of South African life to which they are now becoming exposed. For those who are on the fringe, conservation of flora and fauna and the environment matters little when the main preoccupation is to find a job, provide a roof and food for dependents, and thereafter to ensure adequate education for children.

The "have nots" are further excited by talk from Black political parties about wealth redistribution, reparations for the sins and injuries of apartheid, the nationalisation of organisations such as banks, the mining industry and large conglomerates. Some are attracted to communism even with the disintegration of that doctrine in Eastern Europe and the Soviet states. The concept of a free market economy sits uneasily in such circumstances.

The division between management and organised labour also must be addressed with new ideas. On the labour front, even under apartheid, labour laws were liberalised to allow formation of Black trade unions. In the absence of the vote and a political voice for Blacks, these unions became highly politicised, with effective communication channels of their own.

At this time, they side mainly with Black political parties in formulating economic ideas and policy suggestions, and seek to enforce these through mass industrial action such as a two-day nationwide strike againts the introduction of value-added tax (VAT), saying they were not consulted on aspects of its implementation. They do not buy the free market concept and say business has not yet proved it is the correct answer for the wealth distribution so desperately needed by the "have nots" for whom they claim to be guardians. But it is not a claim exclusive to them. The corporate sector has in many instances picked up the cudgel.

Although education is a prime government responsibility, organised business has committed millions of rands to education and many front-running organisation provide work-time on-the-job literacy courses paid out of corporate funds. Many are now building homes or financing home ownership for workers. Huge sums are also being spent on training to upgrade Black's skills management capabilities as quickly as possible.

Participative management

begins

But these initiatives are not general. Much more needs to be done. The magnitude of the forces at work on the grand scale described could induce communication paralysis, but it hasn't.

Many managements have begun tackling the communication task by moving away from authoritarian "we know best" communication to consultation and the search for shared values on which to base future corporate structures. The more enlightened now seek worker cooperation in drafting corporate mission statements in language everyone can understand and then endorse.

Many examples of joint management and union participation also exist in distribution of funds for corporate social responsibility schemes, in the provision of employee housing and in-house training and of informal face-to-face meetings between management and workers all the way to floor cleaners to discuss freely issues of concern to the firm's well-being.

These forums also explore cross-cultural differences and how to achieve understanding.

Communication channels of this kind are still supported by conventional media such as corporate publications -- tabloids, magazines and videos -- which in turn are looking for fresh ways of using icons and points of reference that effectively amplify and explain.

But experimentation and research into other forms of effective communication to overcome the many barriers to understanding must be intensified so that corporate South Africa and the country itself can take its place among equals in the modern world.

To this end, leadership inevitably must pass from White to Black communicators who eschew propaganda and hold true to already established standards of credibility and integrity.

And IABC/Southern Africa itself seeks platforms to bring communicator and management together to seek joint participation in developing the new ideas and techniques that are needed.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, the solutions are unlikely to come from anywhere else.

Milner Erlank, APR, practices as an editorial consultant in Johannesburg.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Section 4: Communicate Globally by Communicating Locally
Author:Erlank, Milner
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1992
Words:1892
Previous Article:Is the world of the communicator shrinking or expanding?
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