Of Conferences and UKZN Profile
Conferences are usually stressful, rushed affairs where academics pout and position themselves; eyeing out the competition and missing each other during breaks.
Many are product displays where presenters parachute in and out after presenting their papers. Learning is not necessarily the object, but brief exposure/branding is. In the older, less hectic days, conferences would organise an outing; a day in the country, or paddle up the creek, to enable delegates to destress and refresh. Nowadays, there is no time. It’s too costly and conferences are perhaps considered distracting by academic auditors.
Not so in Cape Town. Having participated in international events in the city, I was struck by the lack of attendance after day one: the wine route, Table Mountain and Robben Island are compelling competitors. The tourist delights trump boring sessions.
This brings to mind the World Media Economics and Management Conference held in Cape Town in May organised by Rhodes University. This now 15-year-old event was well-attended and the delegates cheered impressively when told at the gala dinner that the next conference would be located in the eternal city: Rome. What a way to see the world and interact with one’s peers from everywhere at the same time. I had never previously heard of this conference but it seemed a good stop off for a few days. But when I and the UKZN delegation arrived in Cape Town, we were carted by shuttle into an industrial area where our hotel was located on the bay. Slipping off down Long Street or to the Waterfront was not an option, especially as the event coincided with the few days of rain not experienced by Cape Town for many years.
The delegates were mainly economists and media managers, largely located in business schools. One of the presentations by the Head of Digital at Tiso Blackstar on how they deal with fake news was astonishing. Tiso, the publisher of The Sunday Times, has reorganised its offices, editorial and national networks to maximise the effect of its network of trusted and experienced journalists. The company has instituted a number of steps to mitigate against fake news, including vetting sources via a news WhatsApp group, exiting from a deal with Outbrain to minimise the spread of disinformation (as this genre used to be called) and mounting legal challenges to domain squatters and aggregators. Predatory journals and conferences are small potatoes compared to what legitimate news media have to deal with by the minute.
At the conference themed: Media Management in the Age of Tech Giants, were several UKZN CCMS (Centre for Communication, Media and Society) graduates, all of whom gave import to the value of alumni relations. They were Professor Musa Ndlovu (UCT), Dr Mashilo Boloka (SA Communications Department), and Dr Nirvana Bechan (CPUT).
Following a masterful presentation by Ruth Teer-Tomaselli and Mpume Dludla on how the Cape-based Naspers media group has become a global behemoth muscling out and rivaling Facebook in Asia, Boloka, who is a long-time policy analyst in the Communications Ministry, commented to newly-capped MA graduate Mpume, who was sitting between me and his UKZN supervisor: ‘You are in good hands.’
Other CCMS graduates now working at various universities, approached us - sometimes through colleagues - to reveal how appreciative they are to have received a UKZN education which positions them to interact with scholars globally. They were especially excited with Mpume’s consummate skill in presenting a very dense and theorised political economic analysis of Naspers/Tencent and its Chinese, Indian, Russian and Brazilian forays.
Dr Francis Mdlongwa, the conference Organiser, told me that Mpume and his supervisor in fact became the stars of the show. When the Chair of our plenary, Percy Makombe of the Open Society Initiative, thanked us three presenters, he revealed that this was the first time that Mpume had spoken at a conference, an international plenary nogal. Loud applause followed. The conference organisers had taken a risk and backed an MA graduate to hold his own. Now that’s what I call tactical empowerment. Mpume, I am pleased to say, is now registered in CCMS as a PhD student.
A couple of years ago, a well-known Australian keynote speaker, Tom O’Regan, commented that CCMS MA student, Piwe Nota’s presentation at the SA Communication Association conference was a “game changer”. When Yonela Vukapi arrived in Columbia last year to participate in the International Media and Communication Association conference, no less than the Association’s President rolled out the red carpet for her, organising dinners with dignitaries. I have heard similar extraordinary tales from many CCMS students and graduates when they participate in international meetings.
My intention is not to polish CCMS’s achievements but to use these to illustrate something deeper. UKZN has experienced tough times over the past decade. Just getting through the day can be an exhausting trial. In the process, we sometimes lose sight of the constituency that we are tasked to educate: our students. Graduate students especially are our intellectual heirs, recognised by our peers everywhere as our apprentices, successors and legacy. As alumni, they continue to identify with their alma mater and are its best advocates at public events.
Where I am currently located, at the very well-resourced University of Johannesburg, no less than 16 folks, tutors, PhD students, lecturers, post docs, associate professors and SRAs in the huge School of Communication have been directly associated with UKZN in one way or another. On the one hand, this could be regarded as a regrettable outmigration from UKZN. UKZN did not have the resources to retain them and they have found homes elsewhere as actually should be the case.
On the other hand, this presence is clear and compelling testimony to UKZN’s enviable success in impacting the national education and research scene. That’s something for a small centre in the College of Humanities at a coastal university located on the elbow of a crooked dog’s leg. UKZN can bat with the big leagues that are connected by the more well-known Gauteng-Cape Town academic axis. I am sure that this experience is replicated across UKZN.
Take a bow, UKZN.
• Keyan G Tomaselli is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Johannesburg and a UKZN Emeritus Professor
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.