A captive audience or canny consumers? The stakes in studying advertisements in South African history
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the project I’ll be developing over the next year is about advertising in South Africa’s early-twentieth century black press.
But how should scholars and people interested in South African cultural heritage understand the advertisements created by white-owned companies and marketed to black consumers whose consumption choices were, for most of the century, very limited by segregation and apartheid legislation. An enthusiastic editorial announcement in the first edition of the Cape Town newspaper Inkokeli ya Bantu sums up the way that newspaper owners saw newspaper-publishing as a way to get Africans to buy more products:
“It is a known fact in many quarters that the potential market of this country has not yet been scratched. Many articles produced and manufactured in South Africa have become, with the advance of civilisation, “Essentials and Necessities” to the Bantu People. These Products go begging for lack of proper methods of exploitation of that market, or for lack of correct methods how best to bring to the notice of the Bantu the value of these Products.”
One of the early scholars of the black press argued that readers of commercial newspapers were a “captive audience.” Scholars today continue to discuss and debate the hegeomonic power of advertisement, and/or the ways that advertisements were part of “repertoire-formation” for aspirant middle-class buyers.
I don’t see my project as necessarily solving this debate. Rather, by collecting and presenting aggregate information about advertisements, my project will increase what we can know about who consumers were, where they lived, how they represented themselves, and how advertisers wanted to imagine exemplary consumers.
 Inkokeli ya Bantu, November 1940.
 Les Switzer, “Bantu World and the Origins of a Captive African Commercial Press in South Africa,” Journal of Southern African Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 351–70.
 Nhlanhla Maake, “Archetyping Race, Gender, and Class: The Bantu World and the World from the 1930s to 90s,” TD : The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa 2, no. 1 (2006): 1–22; Sonja Laden, “Who’s Afraid of a Black Bourgeoisie?: Consumer Magazines for Black South Africans as an Apparatus of Change,” Journal of Consumer Culture 3, no. 2 (July 1, 2003): 191–216.