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While the South African Department of Trade and Industry has stepped up criminalisation of pirated books, movies, and music, consumer patterns show that obtaining pirated media is widely accepted. In fact, a case study in Hanover Park, a poor neighbourhood outside Cape Town where the APC investigated CD piracy, most residents made no distinction between pirated and legal goods.

The case study by Dr Tania Bosch revealed deeper patterns associated with media piracy, such as the social nature of the media experience, and the bridging element it brought between those who can afford to purchase legal goods and those who cannot by giving them a sense of social inclusion.

Hanover Park is located on the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town. Dubbed the “dumping ground of Apartheid”, it is one of the urban ghettoes to which black South Africans were forceably removed. Today it is a working-class township, “coloured” (of mixed race) with a large industrial zone to the East and a middle-class “coloured” neighbourhood (Lansdowne) to the West.

Piracy in Hanover Park can be found in many different forms, but the most common is the purchase of pirated films from neighbourhood vendors.

These vendors, who have a modest social status, either own computers and CD-burners and create copies in response to demand, or act as retailers by purchasing goods from larger urban markets.

In a context where people’s options for audiovisual media are often limited to free radio and TV, pirated movies on CD are in demand.

“Most people in the community access their pirated films via a family member or close friend. Such pirate networks are informal and highly dependent on trust,” says the study. Disks are generally chosen by the male head of the family, who selects which films are appropriate for themselves and their family, and are often later shared within family and social networks.

“Access to pirated media, in these contexts, feeds practices of viewing and sharing that reinforce links across families and within communities,” says Dr Bosch.

The pirated CDs in Hanover Park are cheap, generally good quality, highly consumer-oriented and their purchase involves zero risk on the part of the consumer. “It’s not illegal because [when] the police see me with the CD they don’t stop me,” said one buyer.

Piracy as the norm

The anti-piracy industry has chosen to depict piracy as a criminal activity and consumers of pirated goods as criminals.

In Hanover Park however, consuming pirated goods is considered a normal, every-day activity.

Some people interviewed found the concept of piracy completely foreign, and all respondents felt that their use of pirated goods was legitimate, given their economic situation. Average consumers feel they have no choice but to turn to cheaper alternatives because the price of original goods is simply too high for them to afford.

“The morality doesn’t really play a big factor because in America they don’t feel that 80 rand that they’re losing from me because they can afford it. They all live in big fancy mansions whereas I live in a flat here in Hanover Park and so it doesn’t really matter to me what they think about me being a pirate because my circumstances are different from them.” – Vendor )

The working class of Hanover Park feel they are limited in terms of the entertainment they can legally consume. Piracy has become a fact-of-life that is deeply embedded in the working class lifestyle, and being able to view films at the same time that they are released in the US gives consumers a feeling of belonging to the global entertainment community.

“I know piracy is a crime, but we will go for it because we’re a less fortunate people, irrespective of whether it’s a crime, just to give us comforts, so we can say I am also part of the crowd, I also watched that movie.” – Consumer

Watching movies, a social affair

In middle-class communities watching movies is an increasingly private experience because people own more personal media players, headphones, TVs, etc., but in Hanover Park watching movies or TV series on CD is a social activity that takes place with friends and family.
“This collective dimension of viewing is not described as a necessity in these interviews, but rather a basic part of the media experience that anchors other forms of sociability,” says Dr Bosch.

One person interviewed comments that “What I normally do is I invite my mother down for a nice cup of coffee and I put on a Bollywood movie. And all of us, we’re seven children, we all come together and talk about that afterwards.” “Many pirated goods arrive to viewers second or third hand,” reports Bosch “and this is why consumers also see value in viewing media that had filtered through the community.”

Piracy: A social bridge between classes

In recent years, besides the adoption of cultural trends from the USA, a new international Indian culture has also emerged, and Bollywood films rank high on the list of foreign films viewed in Hanover Park.

However on deeper questioning, viewing preferences almost always tended towards Hollywood, and to explorations of black culture and gang life in particular.

“Gangster movies figured high on the list, as it resonates with the local hip-hop culture and interest in black American culture,” explains Bosch and “Viewers do not blindly consume the foreign American cultural products, but often engage in quite sophisticated negotiation of the cultural terrain, acutely aware of racial dynamics and politics; and able to draw parallels with the South African situation.”

Yet, when residents of Hanover Park were asked about South African media, only two South African movies were mentioned ( Tsotsi and Jerusalema), along with a few TV shows ( Generations and 7de Laan ).

Pirated goods may diversify the media environments in which people live however “very few South Africans live in the ‘long-tail’ media environment characteristic of high-income, high-bandwidth countries,” concludes Bosch.

The primary function of South African pirate networks, is to make popular culture and mass culture more accessible to impoverished areas, more quickly.

While being able to watch movies at roughly the same time as more economically-privileged consumers may seem like a trivial concern, however the study suggests that it is part of “an increasingly powerful experience of inclusion in a globalised media community”.

“Such forms of inclusion are especially powerful in countries like South Africa, where real and perceived marginality—geographic, economic, racial, and other—is written into daily experience on many levels,” says Bosch.

This article was based on the report “Piracy as counter-hegemony: A Cape Flats case study”, commissioned by APC and written by Dr. Tanja Bosch of the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the Universty of Cape Town, South Africa. It is part of APC’s work on studying media piracy.

Read the full South Africa report as written for “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” from SSRC Books. Authors: Natasha Primo, Libby Lloyd

Contributors: Natalie Brown, Adam Haupt, Tanja Bosch, Julian Jonker, Nixon Kariithi

Full publication: Karaganis, Joe (ed.). 2010. Media Piracy in Emerging Economies. SSRC Books.

Photo by Urban Adventures. Used with permission under Creative Commons 3.0 license.