Many people blame the media for inciting racial hatred. Stephen Grootes considers whether this is true in a story first published by The Media magazine.
Recent events concerning the British media should show us that media reflects the society in which it exists. South Africa is no exception. So it should be no surprise that from time to time, we are going to find ourselves, as the media, talking about race. And given what’s at stake, it shouldn’t be shocking to any of us, to discover that when it comes to that most South African of subjects, we all lose our tempers occasionally.
In the beginning there was the City Press newspaper. It’s a paper in the process of changing its identity. It’s going from a paper that identifies itself as “black African” to “South African”, if you prefer political terminology, from PAC to ANC. And one of its biggest selling points of late has been its investigation into the workings of the Malema finances. This was always going to be contentious. You don’t get to go up against the biggest newsmaker of recent years without breaking a few of your eggs.
But it was probably still a surprise for the paper’s editor, Ferial Haffajee, to open her copy of The Sowetan and read Miyeni’s column. Miyeni is a complex character, with a slightly potted history. Sacked from SAfm, after being accused of general naughtiness, the author of the gently insightful The Only Black at the Dinner Table, he is someone who is capable of nearly anything. And thoughts about race are a huge part of his make-up.
It’s common to see people condemning the language in his column, and the language in David Bullard’s piece about Africa before colonisation. The racial stuff that’s got people in trouble over the last few years has tended to come from columnists because the opinion section of newspapers is the most personal part where people have the most latitude. At the same time, race is possibly the most important of our debates, so it’s only natural that’s where the trouble is going to lie.
While columnists may indeed by responsible for most of the racial controversies with stories, race being news here, from time to time we are going to be confronted with front-page photographs like the one in the Sunday Times recently. As racially problematic pictures go, it was probably the worst possible picture one could find: a white man with a rifle sitting over what looked like a dead black child.
Arguments about the timing and exclusivity aside, it’s the kind of picture that on balance, is probably justified in its placement. It’s a shock horror photograph. The shock and the horror are supposed to be on the part of readers horrified that someone would do such a thing. Unfortunately, you can’t have that shock horror without the shock horror anger that it would provoke in those who could see it as a justification for some kind of violence.
It is here that everyone needs to tread carefully. Would it have been possible to have that picture with a large red warning strap line across it perhaps? Or could it have been presented in a more neutral way that keeps the shock horror that someone would do this in the image, but takes the provocation out of it? With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that could have been possible. However, there is surely also a duty upon us all to expose the fact that some people thought that kind of picture acceptable. In the end though, the real issue is presentation, not just content. And racially divisive content needs to be presented with real care.
At the same time, we are a country that fiercely debates anything. Although the elephant isn’t always mentioned despite the fact it crowds out every other aspect of our room. So when Julius Malema stands up in front of 91 000 people and says, “The DA is for white people, the ANC is for you”, any radio person worth his salt is going to recognise it for the sound bite it is. Unpack the statement. With apologies to Derek Hanekom and Lindiwe Mazibuko, how is it wrong? There is a reason he said it, it wasn’t something he just thought up at the time.
Then there is Malema’s hate speech trial. It’s impossible to not mention this in anything to do with race. There you would think when the lyrics contain the phrase – depending on your translation of – “Shoot the boer” that society would unanimously condemn him for singing it. But instead, media pundits have criticised Afriforum, and in particular the behaviour of the advocate for TAU, Roelof du Plessis. His hectoring racial superior tone reminded many of us of the bad old days. It was this behaviour, broadcast across the nation that was anathema to many of us, no matter what race we were. You’d think the problem with covering a trial such as that is that it’s impossible to not split things along racial lines. Instead you had a split between the small minority who supported Du Plessis, and everyone else.
South Africa’s media generally is one of the more cosmopolitan professions in the country. When the people accused of killing Eugene Terre’blanche first appeared in court just two days after the killing, tensions were rising. There was a group of white people, and a group of black people, at times advancing on each other. Holding each side back were police. And in the middle, happy in their own multi-racial bubble were the reporters and photographers, muttering about the hot sun, the crap Wimpy and how the beer in Ventersdorp was incredibly cheap.
However, people who write columns are often “in” rather than “of” the newspapers in which their columns appear, they don’t tend to work day to day in the newsroom.
It’s only in columns that newspapers can push the line. They have to be careful and follow the usual rules of reporting when it comes to news coverage. In editorials and opinion and analysis, there has to be some level of consistency. Columns are different. They are often the biggest drawcards to a paper, because they bring a variety of viewpoints. And they’re usually fun, because they push the boundaries. And in a country where race is the primary object of discussion, that’s always going to push buttons. So in fact what’s really surprising, when you consider where we are, is that this kind of thing only happens once in a blue moon. Rather than more often.
Follow Stephen Grootes on Twitter @StephenGrootes
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