I first heard of the National Press Club (NPC) via Twitter when the news that they had declared the rhino the newsmaker of 2012 hit social media. My immediate reaction, probably like many other journalists, was a mixture of surprise and anger: How could the rhino emerge as victor in the year of Marikana?
In a more inebriated state I perhaps unjustly accused the rhino of being the media harlot of the year, the Kim Kardashian of the animal kingdom, minus the sex tape and forthcoming Kanye hellspawn.
Surely, the worst act of state sponsored violence since the fall of apartheid and the heroic resistance of miners across the Platinum belt which followed would be the story of the year? It certainly was for me, it was all I could think about for months. When the anger subsided however, I realised it operated according to a twisted logic. It made sense, in the same way that Henry Kissinger and the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize did. It exposes the entire spectacle for the deception it is.
This logic was not the pathetic defense offered by the NPC (“We agreed Marikana was the biggest and most shocking news event but the Rhino story ran throughout the year!”) but rather a logic which defines the range of acceptable opinions in much of the mainstream, which was perhaps best reflected in the coverage of the Marikana massacre. This is demonstrated in how much of the press continues to describe it as a “tragedy” in the style of a natural disaster rather than the massacre it clearly was.
As I have written elsewhere, one of the important stories which emerged in the aftermath of the massacre was the failure of the mainstream media to investigate what happened or even to engage with the actual victims of the massacre. This in turn both created and reproduced distorted narratives of the event which largely justified the massacre and defended the police. According to research conducted by Jane Duncan of the Rhodes University Journalism Department, only about 3% of the stories on Marikana bothered to quote actual miners for example.
Let alone the shameful SAPA stories which portrayed the miners shot down on that day as a muti-crazed rabble who charged the police in a murderous trance forcing the police to use maximum force to protect themselves from their Heart of Darkness style blood lust. There was even a story which blamed an unfortunate rabbit for the massacre.
Other narratives which dominated the coverage sought to portray the massacre as a result of a union beef between The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), with AMCU being portrayed as a rogue union intent on stirring unrest in order to undermine the established and reasonable partner which was NUM. The truth was that the AMCU president broke down on his knees on 16 August imploring the miners to return work, in order to avoid what was to follow. NUM even initiated the violent turn of the strike, when officials opened fire with guns on a column of miners who marched to the NUM offices the Saturday preceding the massacre.
Other coverage invoked the figure of our own ex-Gucci Chavez and now Versace potato farmer Julius Malema as the source of the labour unrest. According to these paranoid and mendacious reports Malema was inciting the miners to insurgency in an attempt to overthrow his nemesis Zuma. The truth was that Malema was the first politician on the scene and the first public figure to offer solidarity, while the rest were busy attempting to pass the buck for the massacre.
It took the courage and experience of Greg Marinovich and the Daily Maverick to actually inspect the site of the massacre and bring forth the truth of the second kill zone or the “killing koppie” into the equation. Through actually talking to miners and not simply reproducing press statements and the blatherings of the power elite as news, they managed to expose the truth behind the murder of 34 miners.
The responses of many journalists to the NPC’s award in the form of a mixture of outrage and criticism has been encouraging. But that doesn’t purge the profession of the collective culpability for the criminal negligence present in most of the coverage of Marikana. If not for the Daily Maverick and perhaps the most incompetent police cover-up in South African history, we would probably be still buying the police, state and capital’s propaganda.
In each case the narratives produced eliminated the agency of the striking miners and reduced them to a blind irrational mass rather than people responding to their social conditions and the failure of their official representatives by taking matters into their own hands.
But to get back to the rhino, I wrote a column last month that argued that the save-the-rhino fad was a symptom of the divorce between social reality of post-apartheid South African and White South Africa. I suggested that rhinos took the place of the struggles of poor and working class South Africans as the vogue cause of the middle class and that animal life mattered more than black life for many of the rhino groupies, who mounted a plastic rhino horn which closely resembles a cheap red dildo on their vehicles.
I received a plethora of enraged responses from some Finweek hack known as Garth who used his god-gifted ability to confuse ignorance and irreverence to suggest that I was attempting to argue that wanting to save the rhinos was racist. I didn’t expect anything more from someone who thinks overuse of the word “douche bag” and its derivatives passes as wit. I was actually arguing it was a symptom of a wider social malaise. I don’t particularly want the rhino to die out, but to be honest I don’t care that much.
The reason that the rhino is such a popular cause is because it is a safe one; it doesn’t force one to reflect on one’s own class position or inherited privilege. Corporate South African can donate tens of millions of rands to the World Wildlife Foundation in order to earn the corporate social responsibility badge without actually threatening their own interests.
A rhino conservation industrial complex of sorts has formed. The same goes for white South Africa, the same concern for the rhino here is burdened with a racist discourse which focuses on the savagery of black rhino poachers and the insatiable oriental desire for rhino horn.
As others have noted, the National Press Club is not really national or even occupied by that many journalists. Instead it appears to be the haunt of PR men and women who straddle the thin divide between corporate propaganda and reporting. This I feel is, if anything, symbolic of how the media is implicated like in Marikana in our current social malaise. The logic beyond the awarding of the prize to the rhino is indicative of this. In the midst of a similar struggle in terms of the farmworkers strike still ongoing in the Western Cape and reports of widespread police brutality, South African journalism and society as a whole can’t afford another failure.
* Image: the “rhino whisperer”.