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Harber, Anton (2002) Journalism in the Age of the Market. Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture : September : -.

Caxton Professor of Journalism and Director of the Graduate Journalism Programme,
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

I first went to University in that momentous year, 1976. One of the first things I was given to read in my Nusas education was Harold Wolpe’s essay, “Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa from Segregation to Apartheid”. It was an eye-opener for me, a seminal article in the development of the political thinking of a naïve 17-year-old. I am proud and grateful to now, some 26 years later, be making some small contribution to the spirit of independent intellectual debate represented by that article, a spirit which was so important to the anti-apartheid struggle and which should be more important to the process of creating a new South Africa.

I was originally asked to speak about Media in the Age of the Market. I asked to change this to Journalism in the Age of the Market to highlight the fact that I am not a real academic, but a mere journalist in the newly acquired garb of academe. I have, after all, been a journalist for some 20 years, and an academic for only a few months. I hope you will excuse me if I speak primarily as a person passionate about the role that journalism can and should play in enriching the national political debate, promoting independent thinking and views and building a culture of democratic participation in the national discourse. I hope that in doing so I can do justice to the noble intellectual tradition we are here to re-invoke tonight.

I have been asked to talk about the market and journalism. This is a discussion about the public sphere and the nature and quality of debate within it. In South Africa, we have an awful irony – that much of the journalism and the public debate (even when it had to be conducted secretly) was richer under the repressive conditions of apartheid than it is in a free South Africa. George Orwell, in his famous essay on censorship said: “One thing we now for sure it that the mind, like certain wild animals, does not breed in captivity.” In fact, we proved him wrong in South Africa. The mind did breed in captivity – whether it was in the cells of Robben Island or the newsrooms of the alternative press – there was a powerful use of the imagination, of innovation and of public debate and discussion about waus to survive and destroy apartheid.

It is harder now to see the same depth of public debate, imagination and intellectual innovation. We as journalists have had great difficulty dealing with freedom and the opportunities it presents. Our newspapers, our journalists have all grappled with the role of the media in a free and open democratic South Africa. We seem to have divided ourselves into two crude camps: one which says that the sole role of journalism is to act as a vigilant watchdog of government, and one which says it is our role to assist the government in nation. Both are inadequate positions; both put their adherents into political corners where they tend to produce predictable and shallow journalism.

I think you could say, that, to paraphrase Orwell, like certain wild animals, we have found it difficult to cope with being reintroduced into the wild.

But first, let me place this in a global context. All over the world, there is a raging debate around the impact of the marketplace on journalism. The issue is raised at three different levels.
The first centres around the effects of the emergence of a handful of companies which dominate global media. The six giant companies – General Electric, Viacom, .Disney, Bertelsman, Time Warner and Murdoch’s News Corporation – now have a size and presence in a range of media which gives them an unprecedented reach into homes across American, Europe and Asia. And writers like Bagdikian and McChesney have been powerful in their analysis of the impact this has on the quality and range of our media. The biggest merger of all time was, of course, last year’s AOL-Time Warner merger which looked set to create a $350-billion empire, “the most powerful global advertising force across all media, including Internet, publishing, television and music.” It would have 100-million global subscribers, 20 million homes on cable, 30 major magazines and the 75-million homes which receive their cable networks CNN, TBS and TNT.

More recently, we have seen this merger run into trouble, and other major media companies severely weakened, but I suspect this is no more than a bump on the road to continued media agglomeration.

While this debate is important, we have had something of a lucky exemption from this consolidation in this country because our broadcasting legislation has kept a tight hold on cross-media ownership and promoted empowerment and diversity in a way which has led to the creation of new owners rather than the consolidation of existing ones.

The second issue which has taken centre stage in international debate around the future of journalism, centres around the intrusion of commercial decisions into the setting of news agendas. This argument has recently been given added impetus by a new book by two longstanding and senior Washington Post editors, Leonard Downie Jnr and Robert G Kaiser. In their News about the News, they carefully examine the effect of changing business standards, the merger of news and entertainment and the Internet explosion on how reporting is produced and consumed. Their purpose is to explain why so much American journalism is bad, parochial and shallow and what can be done about it. They demonstrate how the media preoccupation with celebrities, entertainment, sensationalism and profit often makes a mockery of news. They demonstrate how the need to make local television or radio profitable – driven by ratings – pervades the decision-making and culture of these newsrooms.

But significantly, they also provide an argument – which is certainly easier to do from the lofty heights of the Washington Post - that there is still space for the serious, incorruptible, revelatory reporting so important to a democracy. And they argue that such reporting will still flourish alongside the mass of useless and incorrect and unfiltered information flooding us from the Internet.

A third focus of concern is best encapsulated by a book called Warp Speed, by well-known former editor Bill Kovach and his associate Tom Rosenstiel. They focus on the impact of technology, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle of live television on the standards of journalism. In particular, they take apart the coverage of that all-time low-point of American journalism, the Monica Lewinsky Affair.
In the introduction to the book, David Halberstam writes: “The past year has been, I think, the worse year for American journalism … What is disturbing about the bad odour of journalism today is that, I think, many of the critics are right, and the people who have been performing as journalists in the past year have in fact seriously trivialised the profession, often doing what is fashionable rather than what is right. Very simply, like many of my colleagues, I think that the proportion of coverage given to the (Monica Lewinsky) story – compared to the rest of the news budget - is hopelessly out of synch, and that the standards for verifications, so critical to serious and fair reporting, have fallen dramatically.”

Kovach and Rosenstiel talk about a media in which the cultures of entertainment, infotainment, argument, analysis, tabloid and mainstream press intermingle and merge. “It is a culture in which Matt Drudge (the internet gossip who boasts that he is happy with 80% accuracy) sits alongside William Safire on Meet the Press and Ted Koppel talks about the nuances of oral sex, in which Hard Copy and CBS news jostle for camera position outside the federal grand jury to hear from a special prosecutor.”

They point to five effects of a media which demands instant live, 24/7 response to events:
- A never-ending news cycle makes journalism less complete, they argue. Faced with the demands of live news, the media is increasingly oriented towards ferrying allegations rather than ferreting out the truth. Gone are the days when an allegation is tested and checked before being aired; it is rushed out, then vamped and revamped until a response – perhaps an outright refutation – emerges.

- Sources are gaining power over journalists. By shopping around between competing media outlets, sources increasingly dictate the terms of their interaction with the media, thus circumventing many of the traditional checks and balances

- There are no more gatekeepers. Information is moving so fast, news organisations are barely able to keep an eye on a story before it is out there being canvassed by their competition.

- Argument is overwhelming reporting. The rise of 24-hour television and internet news means one has to fill space all the time – and do it cheaply. We therefore see the space and time filled with commentary, speculation, opinion, chat, argument, controversy and punditry because this fills time cost-effectively.

- The blockbuster mentality. As media audiences fragment, media can occasionally reassemble their mass audience only through the big formulaic stories such as the OJ Simpson trail and Monicagate, hardly examples of great American journalism.

But you have to contrast this with some of the extraordinary coverage of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their aftermath, for example. And you do have to bear in mind that the US – as well as London, Paris and Bonn – are able to sustain some extraordinarily good and powerful journalism. A notable example is the NYT running an obituary of every single victim of 9/11 – an extraordinary feat which can only be achieved by a great newspaper with huge resources.

I think you have to conclude that the marketplace is at different times the worst enemy and the best friend of journalism – it is the latter when it can create the space and resources for this kind of extraordinary display of the power and value of great journalism; it is the worst enemy when it subjugates this to petty commercialism and infotainment.

In South Africa, the issue of the market and journalism is particularly apt these weeks, when we see being debated in parliament a Broadcasting Amendment Bill which is intended, inter alia, to:

- Remove the guarantee of freedom of expression from the SABC’s statutory charter.

- Have SABC draft policies on editorial matters for ministerial approval

- Have the government authorise two new public service television channels, thus circumventing the position and authority of our independent regulator, Icasa, who would normally make such decisions.

There is a lot to be said against these misguided actions and the threat they pose to the system set in place in the 1990s to open up the airwaves and ensure the democratic exercise of authority in the broadcasting arena. It is difficult to see why the government believes that the way to deal with the problems of the SABC will be dealt with if the minister has more personal control, or by circumventing the power and authority of the independent regulator which lies at the heart of our democratic broadcasting system, or take for itself even more broadcasting channels in a situation where it already controls four of the five free-to-air channels.

But I want to focus on the assumptions which lie behind this Bill.

In justifying these actions, the Minister of Communications said she believed the SABC was not fulfilling its public service mandate. This from a government that has consistently forced the SABC to serve, first and foremost, the demands of the marketplace. This from a government that has not been prepared to put money into public service broadcasting, to fund African language programming or local drama and documentary.

And in this we see the fundamental contradiction at the heart of this government. It is a government that can never quite choose between its historic social responsibilities – the values of equality and justice which brought it to power – and the fiscal restraints imposed on it since then. It is constantly trying to balance these impossible pressures, usually satisfying neither. So it is not prepared to fund public broadcasting, and throws SABC to the market wolves, and then is upset when our airwaves are dominated by soaps and so-called reality television. We have a public broadcaster expected to compete in the open market as well as deliver extremely demanding public services – in other words, caught between two stools, not knowing whether it is a commercial or a public service broadcaster, with the result that it does neither very effectively.

The government has been able to bend the fiscal rules to buy a jet for the president. And to give a huge boost to our military capacity. But it has found it difficult to do the same for the cultural industry which sets us apart from the rest of the world, that defines our uniqueness, that gives us pride and self-confidence in what we make with our hands and imaginations.
I am not opposed to the government’s fiscal policy. I am certainly not suggesting they should be profligate. But it also has to make decisions on the priorities of where it spends. And if it chooses to spend its money on luxury jets and military weaponry, then it is unconvincing to complain about the soaps and so-called reality television which dominates our screens.

Of course, the government does have a serious problem with the SABC which spends R400-m a year on television news and has one of the biggest and best-resourced news operations in the world, yet struggles to get a half-decent news bulletin on the air. One can well understand the government’s frustration with this, but the current Bill before parliament is a particularly ham-handed way of dealing with it.
In the printed media, we have seen in the last few years devastating cut-backs in newsrooms and their resources. Financial pressures on our newspaper industry – arising out of the proliferation of other media, depressed advertising markets, rising costs of paper and distribution, and related factors – have led newspaper owners massively to reduce their staff numbers, their resources, and the skills levels of remaining journalists. Particularly hard-hit has been Independent Newspapers, partly because the decline of our currency has made it harder and harder to meet the expectations of an owner counting it in Irish pounds. Every time the Rand dips, the only way to give the investor the return he expects is to cut costs.

The results have been devastating. One of our serious quality newspapers does not even have, for example, a fulltime editor. It has a reporting staff of two-and-a-half. Another major Saturday newspaper has one-and-a-half reporters.

At one of the biggest newspaper newsrooms in this country, the management were upset with staff surfing the Internet. So they put in place only one online terminal, thus depriving journalists of their primary research base, particularly since this newspaper no longer has an active library.

Newsrooms have fewer and fewer experienced specialist journalists, and more and more green generalists. And these reporters have to produce at such a rate, given the shortages of staff in these papers, that they have little time to give substantial research and thought into most of what they right.

We have certainly seen the breakdown of the traditional barriers between marketing and editing, with commercial considerations no longer kept out of editorial decision-making. The Editor of Business Day recently wrote a column about how well things were going for him: he didn’t cite any great stories, any editorial breakthroughs, all he said was that the paper had a better operating margin than ever before. The editor of a woman’s magazine was recently hailed by a leading advertising industry guru as “a new breed of editor: the editor-as-marketer”.

It has to be said too that there is a long history in South Africa of the combination of market forces and political interference reeking havoc with our media and with the practice and quality of journalism.

The pioneer black newspapers of the early 1900s – the newspapers of Plaatje, Jabavu, and Dube - fell victim to the market. None of them were huge newspapers, all of them struggled financially from month to month, but they played a key role in the articulation of the protest politics of the period. They were subsumed with the emergence of the more commercial Bantu World in the 1930s, with much more financial, distribution and advertising clout, and it wiped out the smaller, weaker independents. These papers died because they were on the economic fringe, reflecting the fact that black people were being kept on the economic fringe, and when faced with the strength of white capital entering the black newspaper market, they folded under the pressure. The victor, Bantu World, quickly became a part of the leading Argus Company, and proved a much more conservative voice than the independent, black-owned, black-edited press of earlier years.

If you read the left-wing press of the 1950s and 60s, most notably the Guardian and its successors, New Age and Spark, you will find a constant battle for financial survival with constant appeals for donations, support, etc. But what killed them in the end was the political repression of the early 1960s.

The press that remained was constrained thereafter by the fact that they could only survive – both politically and commercially - by staying within the bounds of the politics of that period, the period when resistance voices were silent and parliament defined the limits of political debate.

When I became a journalist in 1980, there was a culture in the press – even in the most liberal of them, the Rand Daily Mail - that circumscribed our journalism. Politics was white politics; it happened in parliament; the Opposition was the parliamentary opposition; there were whole areas of South African life, the crucial areas like prisons, about which it had come to be accepted after the persecution of the Rand Daily Mail for the prison expose of the 1960s, which could not be covered at all. But even what the RDM did to pander to the sentiment of the time was insufficient – and once again you saw the combination of market and political forces closing that paper.

Overlayed in our market place is the complication of the difficult issues of empowerment and transformation. The issue of empowerment has in many ways enriched our media. It led to broadcasting legislation that promoted diversity and the emergence of new owners, which ensured we have avoided the gross consolidation and homogenisation, which other countries have experienced.

The issue of transformation is more complicated. The debate around it has, at least moved on from where it began about a decade ago. In the early years of the new democratic order, debate around transformation was almost entirely focussed on changing the racial composition of our owners, managers and journalists. This was the agenda set originally by the ANC and by Nelson Mandela in keynote speeches on the subject in the early 1990s: the media gave a narrow and distorted view of the country because it reflected the views of a narrow band of ageing white males who were distant from the political and demographic realities of the country. Since then it is widely acknowledged that there have been significant shifts in the racial composition of owners, managers and journalists. There is less consensus on the significance of this. Keyan Tomasselli has argued that it is mere “racial substitution”, that will not “automatically provide increased access or diversity of opinion in the media”. Our media make-up is more racially inclusive, he said, but still is class-based. Guy Berger has taken issue, arguing that there have been significant race and class shifts. He talks of “mammoth positive developments” in the first six years of transformation, though acknowledges that this is just a first stage and there is still some way to go.

The ANC itself has shifted its view on this. Having given the first shove, and focussed original attention on racial composition, the ANC’s assessement of five years of its own rule in 1999 concluded: “Little has changed in the media environment. The ANC is still faced with a primarily hostile environment …” This view was probably best summed up by the Black Lawyers’ Association, the body which led the call for the Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in the media, which said: “Despite recent changes at ownership level, the political agenda of the media remains the same.”

But the ANC’s latest analysis, contained in the draft policy papers for its conference in December of this year and published just last month has a different tone: “Considerable progress has been made and some significant milestones achieved”, it said, with respect to ownership, the licensing of new media, the increase in black and women journalists, editors and managers, and the repositioning of the SABC.

But these are now what the ANC calls “putative first steps” towards transformation. “They have not altered the environment and practice of media in any fundamental way,” the ANC says. The problem is now defined differently: it is that there is insufficient diversity of views in the media; there is insufficient access for many South Africans, particularly the poor and the rural; there remains a watchdog attitude which the ANC considers hostile and inappropriate; and the media is setting an agenda out of keeping with the nation-building tasks we face.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point really worrying the ANC: “Most probably, it is in South African where a political movement that enjoys almost two-thirds of electoral support does not have any media outlet which supports its programmes and functions editorially within its political ambit.”
One can debate the veracity of this, but you should have no doubt that the ANC places the highest importance on this concern. Just two weeks ago, Smuts Ngonyama of the presidency wrote of the “urgent need to address the unbalanced reporting by the media in this country …Any delay in this regard,” he wrote,” can only be to the detriment of our young democracy.”

If you look at this rhetoric alone, you might be quite alarmed. In fact, the measures proposed by the ANC and by Ngonyama are more considered and tempered: they call for a boosting of the public and community sectors of our media. This is why the government has tabled a Bill to deal with the SABC’s public service role and has formed the Media Development and Diversity Agency to fund community media. One may criticise the crass way it is being handled – particularly the reform of the public service television - but I cannot see any grounds to attack the desire to fix and strengthen these sectors.

But it is a mistake I think to put too much faith in this. For one thing, I think it quite likely that the ANC will find that the community sector – being the one that will be closest to the poor and the rural - becomes over time much more critical of it than the commercial sector.

For another, problems of access to media – why only 25% of South African read newspapers, for example – are enormous social problems that cannot be solved by the media alone without the concomitant socio-economic change.

But, more fundamentally, I don’t know of any great journalism which has emerged with government funding. There is value in boosting the public and community sectors in order to get more people consuming and participating in the media. But don’t expect to achieve better journalism by giving government more direct influence over these sectors.

But my main concern about the current debate over transformation over the media is this:
Firstly, I fear that we will have a constantly changing definition of the end-goal of transformation, and we will be constantly battered for not achieving it. Whenever the government is unhappy with the media, they will tell us it is because we have not transformed enough. Whenever we transform, we will be told that it is not enough. If you start by saying transformation is about corrective action over representivity, then when you achieve that you say it is about letting that filter through to the culture of the media, then you say it is to ensure the media reaches a wider audience … then you are going to be able to point finger at the media constantly and without end for failing to transform enough.

My second concern is that this debate is creating an atmosphere and culture that is inimical to free expression and good journalism. It is in the end an attempt to shape the output of the media and encourage a conformism built around the notions of nation-building. I know that as an academic I am expected to quote people with fancy French names, but I am going to resort once again to good old Orwell, and note that he wrote this 1946 when people were celebrating the freedom gained by the end of the Second World War: “Any writer or journalist who wishes to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. Everything in our age threatens to turn the writer into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling the whole of the truth.”

We see pressure from above to transform the culture of the media, we see newspaper groups and key people in the SABC willing to go along with this, and the danger lies not in outright repression of opinions, but in the kind of caution and conformism inimical to good journalism.
I would argue that South Africa’s most interesting journalism has always come from what you could call its “fringe”, “alternative” or radical press. This press has been characterised by its vigorous opposition to apartheid, its outspokenness and defiance of dominant conventional wisdom, its willingness to give voice to the voiceless, but most fundamentally by its non-commercialism. It is this factor that repeatedly made it the most interesting, dynamic, outspoken, democratic and lively media – and doomed it to a short-life.
South Africa has also always had journalists who have striven to break through the restraints of the market to produce outspoken and vigorous journalism – not just on the so-called alternative papers, but to various degrees in the mainstream papers as well, struggling to get their voice heard, to sneak stuff into the newspapers, to keep a spirit alive in those newsrooms.

These people showed that it does not always take a lot of money to create great journalism. Whether it was the independent black press of the 1920 and 30s; the leftwing press of the 1950s; the black consciousness publications of the 1970s; or the alternative press of the 1980s, with which I was associated, I believe that these papers emerged because they added something significant to the intellectual and cultural landscape and each one of them reflected an important emerging political tide.

The one over-riding characteristic these papers had was that they were non-commercial. They existed, in a sense, outside of the commercial demands of the publishing world. And yet each of them had an enormous impact – way out of proportion to their size - on the mainstream newspapers and on the society around them.
One further point about this alternative media. A major factor in its existence through every period of South African history was technology, the emergence of new capacity which enabled cheaper, simpler production. In the late 19th century, the black press was enabled by the importation, largely by mission stations, of relatively effective printing presses. In the 1950s, the emergence of new and cheaper printing and typesetting technology made it possible. And in the 1980s, it was driven by the importation of the first generation of desktop publishing.

This leads to an obvious question: will the emergency of the Internet mean that this is the vehicle for the new voices of the future? Certainly, the Internet boom of the 1990s led the gurus of cyberculture to predict that it would give every writer access to every reader, it would lead to a proliferation of voices and opportunities. The truth is that the Internet has produced precious little good journalism and the breakdown of the gatekeeping function – which would ensure material is selected, edited and checked before we have to read it – has not helped.

There are, however, signs worth watching. Have a look, for example, at Health E-News, a foundation-funded health site which has about four high skilled and knowledgeable specialists producing copy about one of the central issues of the new South Africa – it’s health, particularly issues related to HIV/Aids. Interestingly we are seeing their copy used increasingly by the mainstream media, such as The Star and the SABC.

It is an interesting phenomenon – maybe the beginning of a noteworthy trend. Specialist writers, unable to find the space to work in the mainstream media, are getting support to create specialist reporting Websites, and then offering the material to the mainstream media, who find it cost-effective to use it when they do not have their own senior writers covering such stories. You could comment, no doubt, on the morality of large and profitable media groups getting free material by courtesy of the subsidy of international foundations, but at least these stories are getting coverage as a result.

Health E-News does not have a viable business model, but it is starting to have an impact on coverage of health issues.

So where are our alternative voices of today? Let me hasten to say that we would not be looking for the same voice as before. Great journalism would not longer, I believe, be defined by defiance and bravery – as it had to be during the years of repression, when getting something said was often more important than how one said it; courage will be required, yes, the courage to swim against the tide, to probe uncomfortable wounds; it is now about telling stories which get under the skin of this complex and difficult country; it is about material which – through careful research and thoughtful compilation - leads us to understandings which are not apparent on the surface; it is about writing which makes us think more carefully about this country and its people.

I fear the debate about transformation steers us away from this. So involved are we in debates about what our attitude is to the ANC, or to development, or to the new South Africa, that we forget that if a piece is thoroughly researched, well-written and insightful then the reader will not care too much if it is pro- or anti-government, or if its conclusion is critical or complimentary.

To summarise, let me say that the enemy of such journalism in our newsrooms is, firstly, the cutbacks which deprive journalists of the resources to spend time, develop knowledge, do extended research and develop substantial journalism. If we are to overcome this, newsrooms will have to make some resources available for it to happen. We will have to convince owners and editor-marketers that an investment in quality journalism will pay off in the long run in higher readership and greater credibility.

Secondly, we will have to fight back the tide of conformism which is sweeping our polity and infiltrating our newsrooms. We will have to take the debate to the ANC, telling them that our overwhelming concern is with the quality of our journalists’ output; that we want to foster the standards of public debate, and you don’t do this by constantly questioning the bone fides of journalists. We will have to encourage individual journalists who are prepared, even at their own cost, to give time and energy to doing in-depth, substantial and well-written material. And we will probably have to assist them in fighting the resistance of their managers, editors and many of their audience.

We live in a society in which books are considered a luxury, even for students; in which lotto tickets are cheaper than newspapers; in which our biggest celebrities are Big Brother rejects; in which children are dying of starvation when we are spending R60-billion on arms; in which our cities are spending less on libraries than they did 20 years ago. We are also a society which knows the power of words; words, after all, are all that Desmond Tutu used to fight apartheid; Mandela was more effective when talking than fighting; last year’s Sunday Times expose of the cheap-cars-for-arm-dealers scandal was more effective in countering corruption than all the laws, policemen and courts put together. We know the value of words in this society; Harold Wolpe himself taught us the value of ideas, carefully crafted, in countering the myths and falsehoods of tyranny; when the government resisted the scientific truth about HIV/Aids, they were won over by the force of argument, research and pressure, in which the media played a crucial role. Tyrants hate words, it is the first thing they ban. Democrats love debate and argument and disagreement – and do not seek to limit it within the parameters of nation-building or correctness. Democrats love even the words they hate – because it is a sign of hope that people can publish and speak out even when they are horribly wrong and misguided and even offensive.

We have fought long and hard to enjoy a rich and open public debate; now we have to fight as hard to make sure that we do not squander what we have won.

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