News reporting connotations of burning building

14 Oct 2023

By Paul Hendler, Stellenbosch Transparency.

news reporting

Usindiso fire: hijacks and death traps in a crumbling South African building. SOURCE:

Agreed ‘facts’ in news reporting connotations:

The following facts are not in dispute between the three news reporting connotations. Criminals had hijacked the Usindiso building. These criminals controlled the tenants and collected rent. They neglected to invest in maintenance though. Thus, the building was in a dilapidated state. They exposed it to disaster risks, including fire hazard. All three articles note that this destruction of life, limb and property highlights challenges and implications for Johannesburg’s inner city as well as South Africa’s social, economic, and political landscape.

Different foci in news reporting connotations:

Each of the news reporting connotations provides a specific, different focus.

The South African article focuses on the perspective of ex-Johannesburg mayor, and leader of the political party Action-SA, Herman Mashaba and his frustrations with the African National Congress (ANC) government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

IoL article highlights the calls from the Johannesburg Property Owners and Managing Agents (JPOMA) to address the problem of hijacked buildings, emphasizing the impact on tenants and businesses.

EWN article provides updates on the building fire and the efforts of emergency services to contain it.

In the absence of addressing a range of viewpoints and/or other potential contextual causes, each article contains a potential bias. The South African one in favour of Herman Mashaba/Action-SA and against the ANC and NGOs. IoL one positive towards JPOMA and its catastrophic view of the Johannesburg inner city, and critical of the performance of the Johannesburg City Council in managing the inner city environment and bye-laws. And, the EWN one towards an emphasis on the negativity of living conditions in the inner city, drawing mainly from one source, while neglecting any sources of opinion about potential solutions and possible positive aspects of life in the inner city.

.Explicating my news reporting connotations:

My interest in the reporting of this event arises from my own study of housing and residential shelter in South Africa. And more specifically my working in the affordable rental market in Johannesburg several decades ago.

The IoL article refers to another hijacked building Platinum Place, which deteriorated into ‘utter squalor’. That building was purchased by property company Afhco in 2010. They managed to transform it ‘into affordable, well-managed housing. But the neighbouring building, Msibi House, remains hijacked and an eyesore 16 years later’. (It is unclear from when one counts the 16 years – if from 2010, the year in which Afhco purchased Platinum Place, this would mean 2026, but we are still in 2023…..) I spent five years between 1999 and 2004 working for Afhco. And therefore have been exposed to the challenges of managing residential rental property in central Johannesburg. During this time they had another building in Berea hijacked. But managed to reclaim it by patiently working through litigation and law enforcement.

The article, however, does not tell us how Afhco managed to retrieve Platinum Place and effect its transformation. This reflects its bias, picked up by AI, towards a catastrophic view rather than also exploring how certain landlords (in this case Afhco) retrieved their buildings.


I am also acquainted with the NGO Socio-Economic Rights Institute (or SERI). It champions the rights of inner-city tenants and undocumented migrants. Mashaba’s criticism of NGO’s is directly aimed at SERI. SERI has clashed with him over undocumented migrants and their security of tenure and rights to privacy and dignity in Johannesburg. The South African article however tells the reader nothing about this background. But this is an important context for understanding Mashaba pointing the finger at problematic NGOs. This reflects its bias, picked up by AI, putting Mashaba in a reasonable – and therefore favourable – light.

I have also studied urban development and historical housing markets in South Africa using a political-economy framework.  My argument is that this provides a reasonable demonstration of the combination of factors (e.g. affordability, urban policy, housing policy, land and housing development processes, ideological interpretations, etc) that constitute a context that determines the destructive outcomes of events like the Usindiso fire. Therefore my news reporting connotations signify a compendium of political and economic agents and factors.

Neither of the three articles nor AI draw on a political economic framework, although AI – unlike the three articles – does refer to the ‘housing affordability crisis’ and ‘sustainable urban development’. However, these terms taken in isolation do not lead to a political economy framework of understanding.

Political-economy of news reporting connotations:

Reporting connotations

Mass media propaganda. SOURCE:

It is interesting to reflect on understanding the determinants of the media platforms’ biases. Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their 1995 book ‘Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ put forward a framework of five filters that progressively exclude certain facts and views from a news stories about United States foreign policy. I have used these, in a slightly adapted form, as my framework of analysis.

• Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation of the Mass media: The First Filter.
• The Advertising Licence to do Business: The Second Filter.
• Sourcing Mass Media News: The Third Filter.
• Flak and the Enforcers: The Fourth Filter.
• Ideology of neo-liberalism as a Control Mechanism: The fifth filter.

Propaganda theory:

Herman and Chomsky have, to the best of my knowledge, produced the only theory of propaganda in the mass media, which does not fall into the errors of claiming (without evidence) that there is a straight-line vertical commandist control of what gets published. Their filter approach is plausible and at each level is open to empirical verification, allowing for intentional planning, coordination and planting of stories where and when this can be shown. Filters do not operate in isolation but form part of a syncretic reality. The ideology (ies) of the actors at each level influences what is regarded as newsworthy and how this should be reported. This theory allows for conflicting ideological narratives to play out in news reporting. The Herman/Chomsky news reporting connotations are also politico-economic,

Test model:

I propose to test this model for its efficacy in explaining the shaping of this – and other – news stories elsewhere, specifically in and about contemporary South Africa. My intention is to complete this article with reflecting on the ownership and control of the three media outlets whose articles I have considered here, and explore the application of the other filters in future articles about other news stories about this and other events.

Herman’s and Chomsky’s point is not that there are direct lines of vertical decision-making that control the first filtering process, but rather that filtering is built into the very free market competition between different media publishers and outlets. They argue that ‘dominant media firms are quite large businesses. And that they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-orientated forces. Finally, they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks and government. This is the first powerful filter that will affect news choices.’


This article analysed the news reporting connotations in articles of the Usindiso building fire in Johannesburg. Each of the three news articles presented a particular lense through which they viewed the event of the building fire. In considering how in each case the news was focused by being filtered, it is useful to find out which parties and interests own and control each of the media companies identified.


• EWN is owned by Primedia Broadcasting, which in turn is owned by the Primedia Group, which is backed by Mineworkers’ Investment Company, Ethos, the FirstRand Group and the Old Mutual Group (Old Mutual Private Equity and Old Mutual Specialised Finance), who are major shareholders. In addition to South Africa, Primedia has an established presence in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.


• IoL is owned by Sagarmartha Technologies Ltd, a subsidiary of the Sekunjalo Group which also owns a majority stake in Independent Media. Sekunjalo received a controversial (to some media and commentators) R2 billion loan from the state Public Investment Corporation in 2013 to buy out the Independent Media Group, then the largest media conglomerate in South Africa. Its expressed aim has been to remain critical but to engage in nation building journalism, while their critics have questioned the (partial) granting/lending of government employees’ pension funds to create a black-owned media group. Recently, conflicts between Sekunjalo and its critics suggest a disagreement among economic and political elites about the investment of public funds into private media businesses as well as such businesses having an ‘ideological’ rather than a ‘neutral’, factual approach to gathering and publishing news.

The South African:

• The South African claims to be independently owned by a private company with no affiliation to any other media group (or political party or religious organisation) and funded mainly through advertising revenue. It was established in 2003 by Blue Sky Publications Ltd, which had a turnover of $5,2 million and 20 employees (undated information). Furthermore, the South African claims to have no bias. Following the Herman/Chomsky model we would expect its news choices to be indirectly affected by its advertising-based revenue.

To link the news choices of these article to the five filters identified above requires further detailed study based on anecdotal research in respect of the potential filtering at each of the five stages. With respect to the first filter, it could be that the focus on getting the news out competitively, and rapidly, militates against interpreting the event within a political economy framework. The owners and advertisers likely do not have this mindset, focused as they are likely to be on immediate revenue and achieving their bottom lines (i.e. covering all costs and profit margins).

The news discourse of these articles is congruent with the likely neo-liberal assumptions held and articulated by the shareholders/owners of the media platforms. None of the articles offers any canvassed opinion about how to address the contextual political-economy determinants of this tragic and problematic event. Instead, they imply supporting the leaving in place of the policies of entrepreneurialism and privatisation (justified by neo-liberal assumptions). Consequently, they blamed the government’s lack of implementing law and order, i.e. failing to create a climate within which businesses and consumers can function and thrive.

To view a video recording of a discussion between Paul Hendler and Mike Hyland, about the implications of the Usindiso building fire, please click on the button below


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