After nearly 200 years, The South African Commercial Advertiser (SACA), which was founded in 1824, enjoys an unrivalled status as the first independent newspaper and trailblazer for journalism in South Africa.
This article revisits the history of the newspaper to research one aspect that has been underemphasised, namely its commercial positioning regarding slavery. On the one hand SACA played an activist role against slavery, which is often praised, but the newspaper also published advertisements for the slave trade. This contradiction invites the question whether the newspaper’s idealised position in journalism history needs to be reconsidered.
The departure point of this article is that the accepted versions of history need to be revisited by each new generation in search of new questions and fresh insights. The research question, whether current journalism scholars should reconsider SACA’s history considering its apparent contradictory positioning towards slavery, is investigated through a literature review of SACA’s founding and role, supported by a qualitative content analysis of the newspaper in its first year.
The qualitative content analysis concentrated on a facsimile edition of the first eighteen editions of SACA published in 1978 by the South African Library. The book is also available in digital format on Google Play. The first eighteen editions were read chronologically to discover themes and trends, after which specific searches were conducted in the digital edition by using words like “slave” and “slavery”.
The article found that SACA’s positioning towards slavery in its founding period was the result of diverging interests and driving forces. Firstly, there was the opposition of Governor Lord Charles Somerset to a free press and what he regarded as other revolutionary elements in Cape colonial society. In particular, Somerset was suspicious of the involvement of Dr John Philip, head of the London Missionary Society, who preferred to contribute behind the scenes to the struggle for press freedom but did not fool Somerset. More on the forefront as targets of Somerset’s dislike were George Greig, the founder of SACA, who soon involved two other prominent journalistic role players, the British Settler Thomas Pringle and his friend John Fairbairn. Especially the latter would later be a major driving force behind SACA, but in 1824 these men formed a formidable team. However, because of the governor’s even more formidable autocratic powers, the founders of SACA were vulnerable and had to be strategic in pursuing their interests.
Thus SACA tempered its political positioning by underemphasising controversial topics, otherwise it would have been an easy target for censorship. But on one principle SACA stood firm: No pre-publication censorship was acceptable, while the newspaper was sure that it would gain the support of many colonists by campaigning for more civil liberties. Slavery, however, was a divisive issue.
Although Somerset implemented regulations in 1823 to improve the conditions of slaves, Pringle and his associates questioned his commitment to a “liberal” agenda, and their trust was obviously eroded further by his effort to hamper their projects, which included a magazine, school and literary society besides the newspaper.
SACA’s founders also thought strategically about their potential colonial readership and had various reasons to establish a good relationship with all the white colonists. Fairbairn and friends were idealistic and saw visions of SACA as a vehicle for political mobilisation to achieve more civil liberties, including representative government, and to achieve this, co-operation between Dutch and English speakers was necessary. The divisive issue of slavery thus had to be underemphasised at the start, because many of the former were slave owners with vested interests. There was also a view that a united democratic movement of colonists could or would emancipate slaves.
Another issue to consider is that for the founders of SACA the meaning of “liberal” should be understood in the context of the 19th century. As can be seen in the example of Benjamin Franklin of the United States – who inspired Fairbairn – a certain contradictory positioning towards slavery was part of the dilemma with which groundbreaking reformers in the West struggled from early on. Although they were supporters of abolition, they were confronted with so many influential role players with vested interests in slavery that compromises seemed inevitable. Examples of newspapers in America and Canada with a similar contradictory positioning towards slavery were noted.
SACA also emulated other abolitionists in trying to avoid religious and emotional arguments about slavery. Instead, it was pragmatic, and balanced its disapproval of slavery with counterarguments about slaves as “legally obtained property” and leaving the “slave question” in the hands of the British government to resolve.
The latter is connected to an important aspect of SACA’s early positioning towards slavery that is perhaps sometimes ignored: the strong commercial interest which the newspaper represented from the start for its founders. Advertisements about the slave trade contributed to its income, and the argument could be presented that the newspaper did not want to exclude slave advertisements while some of its readers were involved in slavery as a legal activity. Slave owners were also involved in many other trading activities, and to alienate them could have had a rippling economic effect.
As a symbolic trailblazer of the founding of independent South African newspaper journalism, the principled stance of the founders of SACA on censorship is a beacon to celebrate. But a closer look at the history also shows that regarding the issue of slavery, the first tentative steps of SACA were influenced by everyday personal intrigues, ambitions, the diverging interests of several individuals, the realities of political and economic challenges, and the colonial zeitgeist at the beginning of the 19th century. The story of SACA, in other words, deserves to be presented with several nuances. In that sense, the history of journalism two centuries later has probably not changed much.
Further research is needed into the history and development of the so-called church-state separation between editorial and advertising content which has been established in the press/media since at least the 20th century, but which apparently remains under pressure and is often questioned. An example from the 20th century was the campaign by some media companies to retain the advertisement of tobacco/smoking for commercial reasons, while editorial staff members were reporting about the health risks of smoking. Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian announced that it was banning advertisements of gambling because it is considered to be such an addictive activity, while in South Africa the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) rejected a notice with political content from a civic society organisation.
Debates over the positioning and role of independent commercial journalism in society, which started in South Africa with the founding of SACA, are therefore continuing.
Keywords: advertisements; Cape Colony; contradiction; editorial positioning; history; legacy; newspapers; nineteenth / 19th century; press freedom; revisit; slavery; SACA; The South African Commercial Advertiser