Wits communications workshop kicks off the process for investigating, rethinking and the Africanisation of communications, media and journalism curriculums

By Bob Wekesa

To say that dynamics in the media and communications field have and continue to be fast-paced is to state the obvious. At the 2015 South African Communication Association (SACOMM) meeting for instance, it was noted that media and journalism curriculums were at cross-purpose developments in the field. 

Is journalism education and training in South Africa and Africa fit for purpose? Is journalism keeping pace with the rapid technological, socio-cultural and political dynamics being witnessed in the media and journalism fields? Does the teaching and practice of journalism meet the African demands and realities? Are the teaching and learning course structures, materials used in media and journalism fields attuned to African realities? Are media and journalism graduates ready to operate in a dynamic global and African sphere?

The thread running through these questions is a stark NO. The assumed response is that Africa needs Africa-centred communications, media and journalism curriculums. Would this require the de-westernization of the curriculums? If Western elements are to be expunged from curriculums, what would the removed elements be replaced with? What would be the pathway towards achieving curriculums attuned to African realities?

It is the concern by academics over the implication of the challenges impacting the profession and the practice that inspired the Wits Journalism department to convene a workshop aptly labelled as: “Confronting the challenges of Africanising curriculum in media disciplines”. Held on July 4 2017 and supported by the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), the workshop brought together media and journalism lecturers from a dozen South African universities.

The abbreviated background leading to the workshop is that universities across South Africa and Africa are grappling with the gap between societal changes on the one hand, and the pedagogies that have remained fairly unchanged. There is an ambiguous consensus that transformation of the content of degree programmes is an urgent need. This is indeed part of ongoing “decolonization” dynamics best seen in the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa. Related terminologies such as Africanisation and transformation have been used. However, as speakers at the workshop noted, efforts are scattered both conceptually and geographically. The workshop was thus an eye-opener not just in terms of what various institutions are doing but in understanding the academic base upon which the sought-after transformation should be undertaken. A key conclusion of the workshop was that collective effort in which challenges and mitigating approaches are shared would help address the many issues that the profession and practice face.

In a motivation for the workshop, Wits Journalism’s Professor Mathatha Tsedu pointed out that there was a need for “marrying international and Africa dimensions by producing graduates steeped in their Africanness, but who are internationalist media and communication experts who can operate anywhere in the world.”

If it has been felt that South African and African universities need to transform their curriculums, it was also noted that the need for new ways of teaching media was a global concern. Should journalism curriculums be geared more towards technical aspects or intellectual ones? Ghanaian media scholar, Professor Kwame Karikari pointed out that in 2013, colloquia of American and European universities debated the issue and concluded that the weight should be placed on intellectual rather than technical aspects. In other words, graduate (rather than undergraduate) training was the way to go.

A key media and journalism education that became a discussion point for the conference is the UNESCO model curriculum incorporating syllabi. Largely, there was consensus that the UNESCO model could serve as a framework for the Africa-inclined curriculum transformation. The UNESCO model could be adopted and domesticated into African contexts. Such a transformation would seek to inculcate African approaches. African philosophical and cultural sensitivity was particularly held up as an important agent for the sought-after transformation. Training journalists in the use of indigenous languages would for instance Africanise the profession and practice and overcome the legacy of colonialism that inspires the decolonisation drive. Other aspects such as the development of teaching materials (currently more that 70 percent being Western) – including books and digital resources – would also fit into a framework developed on the basis of the UNESCO model.

Bringing “birds of the same feathers” as it did, the workshop risked being a discussion of the “converted” imbued with utopian ideas. It was therefore befitting that participants were often “brought back to earth” with advise that media and journalism curriculum transformation cannot be the preserve of media scholars. Quite apart from the media academia, students as “the clients” would be important stakeholders in the transformation process. What do the students want, was a key point of discussion. The “industry”, namely the media houses are also pivotal to the extent that they are the platforms where the journalists ply their trade after graduating. Governments were pointed out as important players by dint of the fact that they not only set and oversee policies but also dominate news coverage on the continent. It was ultimately agreed that the next steps in the development of the curriculum would have to incrementally bring on board the various stakeholders who are critical for the success of the initiative.

The journalism and media fraternity in South Africa keenly awaits a comprehensive workshop report. It is likely to capture the specific communications, media, journalism and media history themes that were debated. In the meantime, it is gratifying to note that the workshop is not one of those talk shops that end at the end of the event. At the closing of the workshop, a task team was established to pursue the many ideas that were brainstormed. In short order, the taskforce is expected to come up with tangible steps. It would appear that South Africa is on the cusp of an Africanised media and journalism curriculum.