By Aarti Bhana

The annual South African Communications (SACOMM) conference, held at Wits University from 14 -16 September was attended by media, communications and journalism academics from a range of South African and African tertiary institutions.

Professor Bruce Mutsvairo, Chair of Media, Politics and the Global South at Utrecht University in the Netherlands delivered the keynote addresses entitled Towards an Architectonic Explication of Technology: a south-south standpoint. Mutsvairo emphasised the need to acknowledge the advances on the African continent which have contributed to the global information economy such as fact-checking organisations such as as AfricaCheck in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Mutsvairo also said that citizen journalism and citizens themselves should be co-opted in the fight against misinformation and disinformation. To this end, he encouraged conference attendees to to “develop Afro-centric digital tools which speak to African experiences and African contexts”. Mutsvairo also tackled issues of data regulation, the importance of dialogue in advancing social and civic change and rethinking the meaning of the Global south all of which set the tone for three days of debate and discussion.

Hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism, the Wits Media Studies department and the Wits Film and Television department, the conference drew some 130 participants to consider and discuss topics related to the theme of Unravelling Big Tech: Power and the Global South. A recurring theme in the various presentations was the impact social media and digital technologies have on the field and industry.

The need for media literacy in Africa, for people to know where their information is going and how it is being used also featured as a strong theme along with the possibility of regulation as a mechanism to tackle the monopolies of big tech companies. Additionally, scholars were forced to think about how they should incorporate digital technology in their teaching – a space which Covid-19 catalysed.

On day two of the conference, delegates held a round table discussion on the positioning of big tech in the industry, and how academics can become thought leaders in the field of digital media. The University of South Africa (UNISA) used the SACOMM platform to launch its very own newsletter, the Unisa Communication Review.

A new wave of scholars

The conference provided a space for new scholars in the field to share their work and present new perspectives and methodologies in media research.,

Anthea Garman, an associate professor for journalism and media studies at Rhodes University who has been attending SACOMM from the early 2000s, said that the discussions and work presented at this year’s conference showed that the scholarship is in good hands.

“There’s a lovely sense that there’s a really strong upcoming group of young scholars who are really, really doing great work and it’s very impressive and very exciting.”

One of the aims of #SACOMM2022 was to situate global issues in an African context. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was interrogated through critical race theories and African history, while other researchers looked at racial, sexual and gender representations in the media.

Sinakhokonke Bikokuhle Ncongwane, a Master’s student from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), presented a paper on The Disproportionate Practice of Skin-Bleaching, Lightening and/or Whitening amongst Women Populations in South Africa, a paper which was well received.

This was her first time attending SACOMM and as a young scholar, she said she felt very motivated by the more experienced scholars, adding that their passion encourages and validates her work as a researcher and an academic.

Following three days of insightful discussions, networking, as well as a charming gala dinner hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism at Wits Club, one of the event coordinators, Dr Catherine Duncan from the Wits School of Arts said this year’s conference was “inspiring and a much needed and fresh beginning after the last two years,” adding that they are fired up for more intellectual engagements in the future.