Two (related) ways that township life reflects the day’s headlines = two of my recent video reports for The Times:

Expectations for a Zuma presidency in Alex

Continuing horror of last year’s xenophobic attacks

Allow me to get back to something I let fly before I got caught up in the final dash of the campaign. The Daily Sun might be the most relevant newspaper in South Africa.

I’ve made this claim to academics, journalist colleagues, and — perhaps misguidedly — to editors of other South African newspapers. The first uniform response is a hearty chuckle followed by a “you can’t be serious” rejoinder. Oh, but I am.

To most upper/middle-class literate, educated South Africans, the Daily Sun is known for its fantastic tales of schoolgirls overtaken by evil spirits, tokoloshes, sensational revenge murders, and other sordid tales common to the tabloid newspaper genre. And when I say “tabloid” I’m not just talking about the size of the page on which these stories are printed.

So why do I find myself paying the two rand for a copy usually at least twice a week? Because the Daily Sun has stories about the real lived experience of the working-class and poor in this country that are often invisible to the rest of the country. I realized this first hand when the situation of refugees overflowing out of the Central Methodist Church hit the pages of the Sun a full day before it was picked up by any of the other newspapers. Page through the classifieds, and you can see that the sexual preoccupations of many blue collar South Africans — documented in Jonny Steinberg’s absolutely essential Three Letter Plague — are alive and well. The daily feature called “Home Affairs Horrors” documents how chronic mismanagement of home affairs offices has left many South Africans without the means to pursue basic employment and education. It also exposes a greater preoccupation with the bureaucratic machinery of delivery that dominates the lives of South Africa’s working-class. Mention allocation of RDP houses to a resident of Alexandra, for instance, and I near guarantee that this worry lies beneath whatever response you will receive.

Perhaps the greatest example of the Daily Sun‘s relevance as a voice for the poor is its coverage of the xenophobic riots last year. For those with any familiarity with the Sun’s coverage of that ugly episode, you might be apopleptic at this point. WHAT?! Isn’t the Sun the same newspaper that stoked xenophobic anger as the violence raged on?

To that I answer, “Yes, but.”

Wits journalism professor Anton Harber shows how the situation is much more complex than it may at first seem. In an essay eventually printed in a fantastic collection of essays about the riots, he compares the coverage of the affair in both the Sun and the Star. When I bring up this essay, most people tend to point to the fact that Harber notes that the Sun had rather inflammatory coverage while the violence was going on. I think this misses Harber’s greater point, which is that if you had been reading the Sun before the outbreak of violence, what eventually transpired would have been no surprise at all. Frustrations about immigrants taking jobs and houses away from South African citizens living in townships were clear for weeks leading up to the riots, as were the violent rumblings themselves.

The Sun is far and away the most popular newspaper in South Africa. It sells hundreds of thousands more papers than its nearest competitor. The vast majority of this consumer public is much poorer than readers of probably any other newspaper in the country (the Sowetan is probably the only other paper that can shake a stick at the Sun‘s demographics). It’s worth recognizing, then, that while perceived “low,” mass cultural productions may be flawed in terms of a given prescribed notion of social development, it is also important to cultivate those productions that give a voice to people who may otherwise be voiceless. The Sun contains a lot of sensationalist nonsense. At the same time, it expresses a viewpoint that has great currency among often hidden, and rather large swathes of the South African population. Put plainly, to dismiss a publication like the Sun is to do so at your own peril if you care at all to find out what is really going on in this highly complex country.