Centre for Communication and Social Change Associate, Associate Professor Eric Louw, has researched and published extensively on subjects relevant to the work of the Centre.  In this Q&A he answers questions about some of his more recent work, politics, media, and communicating social change.

Last year you published a book chapter on the De La Rey phenomenon in South Africa.  How do you believe popular music can be understood as a tool for communicating social change?

Music can be very effective in promoting messages both favouring and opposing change because music is good at conveying emotions and feelings (which underpins all political beliefs).  And since popular music per definition reaches large audiences, it is a great vehicle for disseminating message (especially emotive messages) – as long as the composer successfully embeds his/her messages into the song/s in ways audiences find enjoyable.  As for successfully promoting change through music there have been many examples.  In the 1960s popular music did much to diffuse New Left ideas in the West.  In the 1980s Chimurenga songs (recorded in Johannesburg and distributed by the SA music industry) did much to generate support for Nkomo and Mugabe guerrillas in Zimbabwe.  Contemporary rap music has done much to mobilize African-American communities and facilitate the diffusion of African-American political demands into mainstream USA culture.  But for music to successfully promote a political message, both the message and the music must resonate with the audience. So studying a music-messages package can provide great insight into what a community is feeling politically (as I found when looking at the De la Rey phenomenon).

How can politicians counteract or harness the influential power of music in their own messages?

Same answer as – how does one do successful spin.  If it looks contrived it is not going to work.  It needs to feel authentic and uncontrived.  Audiences don’t like to feel manipulated…they want to feel they are genuinely sharing deeply held passionate feelings with the composer.  When sharing happens, there is human connection and the music resonates.  So for politicians to harness music they need to first really understand their audience – and what the audience feels, believes and wants. Only then can music be created that connects politician and audience in a sharing of feeling and meaning.  Once successful political music has been created it will be very difficult for another politician to try and counteract that music – because they will effectively be trying to disrupt/break an emotional bond between audience and music/composer.  And if you try to disrupt an emotional bond you are likely to generate resentment/hostility and so actually deepen the music’s political impact.

A number of your works include analysis of popular culture including mass media, film, music, and celebrity.  From your research findings, is there any one popular culture ‘tool’ that you could identify as having a more profound impact on communicating social change in recent times?

No; I think impact is always contextual.  Successful communicators understand their context; and therefore understand the correct ‘tool’ to use for that audience at that moment in time. It is an ever shifting moving feast; and what works today may not work next year. The two most successful ‘tools’ are flexibility and openness to using multiple platforms.

What can you tell us about your current research and its links to social change?

I have been looking at the concept of decolonization and how it was applied to Africa. This has involved examining:

  • the concepts birth and mutation
  • who applied it (and why), plus how its application mutated/shifted
  • who resisted it (how and why)
  • what social change was it supposed to bring about
  • what social change did it bring about (and it is still bringing about)
  • How the media promoted the discourses of decolonization and anticolonialism.

From this has grown an interest in critically analyzing the assumptions (plus discourses and impacts) of

  • decolonization and anti-colonialism
  • colonization and colonialism
  • the various agents of decolonization
  • those resisting decolonization
  • postcolonialism.

So effectively I am working on a case study of one particular ‘social change project’ and its outcomes.

A number of South African leaders – for example Nelson Mandela, F. W. De Klerk, Archbishop  Desmond Tutu, and Winnie Mandela – became internationally famous for their messages of social change.  Some of these could also be described as political celebrities, something you have also previously written about.  Is there anyone involved in South African politics at the moment that could be predicted to emerge as an influencer of social change outside of their own country?   

Political celebrities do not make themselves; they are made by the media – i.e. they are creatures of media construction within a particular context.  The folks you mention were made internationally famous because they all served the needs of a two-part narrative about South Africa and social change that was propagated by the global media. Part one was a 1980s simplified narrative of South Africa as a place of intense racial conflict due to black civil rights being massively violated. This application of American civil rights soundbite-journalism not surprisingly created a narrative that served to enmesh South African politics within the USA’s own fraught racial politics. This in turn supercharged the creation South African political celebrities who appealed to American audiences with their preference for simplified narratives of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’. Part two was the 1990s narrative of a miracle apparently occurring when conflict was replaced with racial reconciliation and a ‘rainbow’ nation.  Those leaders you mentioned were deployed by the global media as symbols hope who apparently demonstrated race could be set aside if leaders chose the path of goodwill, non-racialism and reconciliation. Tutu coined the term ‘rainbow nation’ to describe what South Africa had apparently become; and global journalists constructed Mandela as a saint-like figure (and mega celebrity) responsible for ‘a miracle’ political change away from racial conflict. It is worth noting that Globalization had created a context within which a global community had become obsessed with demonstrating that racial differences did not have to be a source of division or conflict.   Effectively the world yearned for a miracle, and so journalists gave them one by constructing the narrative of racial reconciliation in South Africa (a narrative that completely ignored the real politics being played out in South Africa during the 1980s-1990s).  Having invented the ‘miracle narrative’, the global media then invited other world leaders to emulate this path so that a ‘progressive happy future’ could be had by all.  

You ask, will South Africa produce another leader for the global media to transform into a global celebrity and ‘symbol of hope’?  Anything is possible, but I think both the global and South African contexts have shifted enormously since the 1990s in ways that now make media advocacy of simple fixes for racial/ethnic/cultural conflict seem rather naïve. This is especially so given how South African reality overwhelmed the dreams of the rainbow nation and how South African reconciliation was so quickly abandoned.  So although some journalists still try and apply the ‘miracle narrative’ to South Africa (by seeing what they want to see, rather than what is actually happening), their attempts simply strain credulity.  

These narratives seem to permeate a lot of the international conversation about political leaders (and leadership).  What does this say about the role of the media as an influencer of perceptions of social change in individual countries and also on a global scale?

The media (in its broadest sense) and education system are significant influencers of perceptions, in the sense that they are able to put some things on the agenda and leave other things off the agenda.  It is the ability to leave some information out that often has the most influence, because what we do not know we do not think about. So not knowing some information (because journalists left it out) can steer you towards wrong conclusions and misunderstandings. 

For more information about Eric’s research interests and recent publications please visit his UQ staff profile 


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