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isiZulu Sunday Times a sign of the next big publishing frontier

Every South African publisher worth his or her salt has been keeping an eye on the incredible success stories of the two isiZulu newspapers in KwaZulu-Natal, Isolezwe and Ilanga, for a while now - the two papers even grew circulation through the depths of recession, for Pete's sake.

Significant move

And so last Sunday we had 10 000 copies of the first-ever isiZulu Sunday Times distributed in KZN - a significant move for the country's biggest weekend newspaper that is owned by Avusa. It is interesting for a couple reasons, namely that:

  1. It takes some of the wind out of the sails of critics of the South African press and, indeed, the state-funded Media Development and Diversity Agency has been swift to applaud the indigenous-language title; and

  2. For the Sunday Times, this may be the next step in its evolution through the past century from the pioneering editorship of Joel Mervis in the 1960s until 1975. Mervis revolutionised Sunday journalism with a mix of popularised political news and human-interest stories. Under editor Tertius Myburgh from 1975 through the 1980s, the paper's "quali-pop" content and move to the right broadened its appeal among white readers and then it became the country's premier read for the black middle and upper class under editor Mike Robertson in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

isiZulu Sunday Times a sign of the next big publishing frontier

The paper's current editor, Ray Hartley, is the first to admit this is not an altruistic move (nor bowing to political pressure). But even though the circulation of the isiZulu edition is a modest 10 000, Avusa wouldn't be committing its most senior editorial executive - Mondli Makhanya, the editor-in-chief of all of the company's newspapers - to drive the launch and spending money on isiZulu-speaking sub-editors to translate and re-edit the paper if it there weren't a long game here.

One step at a time

When asked if an isiXhosa or even an Afrikaans Sunday Times will follow, Hartley says the paper is taking it one step at a time.

What's really going on here in my view is that we are about to step into the next big publishing frontier in this country: the growth of vernacular newspapers and KZN is the testing ground.

As Hartley says, this is a "great publishing opportunity" because Ilanga and Isolezwe have demonstrated the incredible appetite for news in indigenous languages. It is hard for first-language English speakers to appreciate this as English is so ubiquitous globally but imagine that your home language has always been on the margins of society - that the Nazis invaded England, for instance, and became the colonial power of Europe and the UK. After years of lurking in the underclass, having little option but to read German newspapers and use German in the work place, suddenly things liberalise and English papers start to appear. What would you do? You'd be down at the news agent in a flash to try it out.

Both Isolezwe, which was started by Independent Newspapers in 2002, and the century-old Ilanga started by John Dube and that is now owned by the Inkatha Freedom Party's investment arm, sell more than 100 000 newspapers. (Isolezwe is daily and Ilanga is twice-weekly). Isolezwe also sells 5000 copies a day in Gauteng while Ilanga is preparing to get into Gauteng in the new year. Then there's the weekend edition of Ilanga - called Ilanga Langesonto - at more than 82 000 and Isolezwe's Sunday edition - Isolezwe ngeSonto - with just over 71 000.


By comparison, The Mercury morning newspaper based in Durban sells just more than 35 000 and the Daily News afternoon newspaper has a circulation of 40 000.

Hartley says the Sunday Times is not competing with Ilanga or Isolezwe because it cannot produce local KZN news to the same degree and, therefore, the isiZulu edition - which is a condensed version of the paper - will remain national in flavour.

And, indeed, Ilanga editor Eric Ndiyane and Brian Porter, the joint GM for Independent Newspapers in KwaZulu-Natal, agree with Hartley, though Porter points out that "anything new takes something from somewhere". Ndiyane, who was a founder of Isolezwe before helping to revive Ilanga, says he cannot see that the Sunday Times can ever match the level of understanding that Ilanga and Isolezwe have of isiZulu speakers in the province - or their rootedness in the community.

I think it is entirely possible that we will start seeing a rash of indigenous-language newspapers starting up in the next three years in this country. Ndiyane himself is of the opinion that there is a market for an isiXhosa-language paper as Ilanga sells as far afield as Mthatha and Lusikisiki in the Transkei.

Eastern Cape ripe for vernacular paper

The Eastern Cape - where more than 80% of the 6.7 million people are isiXhosa speaking - is ripe for a vernacular paper which could also sell in the towns of the Western Cape and in Cape Town. The key question is what kind of newspaper will sell in vernacular and, here, I believe that the Sunday Times is far from the right vehicle. The Sunday Times is a high LSM product and its isiZulu edition will largely be preaching to the converted: the educated elite that is already comfortable with reading the paper in English.

Further, young black people who are educated at former Model C schools today mostly only have the option of studying their home languages as a second language. For my sins, I oversaw the launch and edited a community paper for Mdantsane in East London (it folded after a couple of years) and I was amazed to discover, when casting around for reporters in the Daily Dispatch newsroom to help with proofing a serialised isiXhosa story, that the Model C-educated reporters couldn't handle written isiXhosa. Only the township-educated reporters, who studied isiXhosa as a first language at school, could do so.

So let's go back to Isolezwe and Ilanga and look at the secret of their success. It's not just that they deliver news in isiZulu but that they have found a unique niche in the newspaper landscape in this country. They are tabloids - but not in brash in-your-face manner that is the Daily Sun. They are just that bit more respectable. They have a winning content mix of royalty, celebrity and soccer - like the Daily Mail of the UK rather than The Sun. No wonder, then, that the Daily Sun is far weaker in KZN than in other provinces.


Ndiyane points out that the Sunday Times Zulu Edition will have to find its niche but, for him, the point of the launch of the paper is that it's a vindication of the growing influence of isiZulu and the recognition of such. This spells a bright future for his paper, Isolezwe and other indigenous-language papers, he says.

If this all sounds a tad far-fetched, let's not forget that many pooh-poohed the Daily Sun when it was started by Deon du Plessis for Media24 eight years ago - and look at it now. It is the country's biggest paper, with about 430 000 sales a day. It seems so obvious in retrospect but it wasn't at the time.

Of couse, if indigenous tabloids get going, they will have to compete with the Daily Sun, which is now firmly entrenched in the South African landscape. But there's a lot of legs left in this tabloid trend - just look at the success of Media24's Afrikaans-language Son as it has expanded from the Western to the Eastern Cape. And, joh, with a society as diverse as ours and with so many languages, it's bound to get moerse interesting.

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About Gill Moodie: @grubstreetSA

Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) is a freelance journalist, media commentator and the publisher of Grubstreet ( She worked in the print industry in South Africa for titles such as the Sunday Times and Business Day, and in the UK for Guinness Publishing, before striking out on her own. Email Gill at az.oc.teertsburg@llig and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.
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