It’s time to be offended

Middle class South African inertia and the police murder of activist Andries Tatane during a protest in town in the Free State province.

Hout Bay, Cape Town (Bertrand Duperrin, via Flickr CC).

If the murder of Andries Tatane is a watershed moment in public perceptions of state violence after Apartheid and how the ruling ANC responds to dissatisfaction with its rule, it is also teaching us a thing or two about South Africa’s media. Had this police murder happened in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, we would probably all be glued to our TV screens, praising the BBC or Al-Jazeera for their coverage in bringing images that brought home the extent of the oppression in those countries and the bravery of protesters.

So, what do we do in South Africa?

Elites mostly complain about how upsetting it is that the SABC, the main public broadcaster, is showing violence on television. The media insert “allegedly” before “killed” in news reports, denounce the protesters as “mobs” (as the Sowetan did) and run nonsense opinion polls on news websites to find out if the police brutality really was brutality.  Timeslive (that’s the collective news portal of daily newspaper, The Times, and Sunday Times) ran a “poll” on its site: “Were the police justified in killing the Ficksburg protester?” This was one of the lowest points in the reporting of Tatane’s death over the last few days.  Who in the paper’s editorial leadership thought it was a good idea to publish a poll asking whether the police was “justified in killing Tatane”? Was there no editor on duty that could point out that there could be no possible situation in which the beating and shooting of an unarmed citizen by a police force set up to protect him, could be seen as “justified”?

Its’s noteworthy that Tatane’s killing was brought to us by traditional media: the much-criticized and chaotic SABC at that. It happens that the SABC’s nightly news bulletins are also the most watched TV news programs in the country.  Unlike other injuries and deaths from police violence in the almost eight thousand protests from the last six years, Tatane’s shocking death played out on prime time news.

Traditional media aside, it would be interesting to research the extent to which the protests themselves were organized via new media technologies. Twitter and Facebook were unlikely to play a big role and access to smartphones, while growing, is not yet widespread among the majority of South Africans. However, chances are mobile phones were probably instrumental in organizing the protesters (The Sunday Times on 17 March published Tatane’s last SMS to his wife, asking her if she would join the protest). Twitter and Facebook did however play a role in amplifying the news of Tatane’s killing to the middle classes, who now no longer can claim that they didn’t know of the war being waged against the poor in post-apartheid South Africa. Those of us who don’t watch SABC, heard of or saw the footage via Facebook and Twitter or watched it on Youtube.

But what Tatane’s death also brought to light, was how mainstream media’s narrow understanding of journalistic conventions such as “objectivity” and of social responsibility as “not giving offense,” can hamper the media’s ability to portray the realities of this country in the stark colors needed in order to bring about social change.

Media Monitoring Africa criticized the media for violating Tatane’s privacy and dignity by publishing an image of him “as he lay in the arms of a man [a comrade], who was clearly stricken with grief.”  The MMA’s ongoing concern for the dignity of news subjects is legitimate, but their application of standards of privacy in this case is questionable in the light of the importance of the image in terms of reframing dominant narratives of protest in the mainstream commercial news media.

Where their criticism is especially misguided is what they seem to regard as an unnecessarily graphic portrayal of violence which might shock and traumatize viewers. MMA criticizes the newspapers Business Day, Daily Sun and Sowetan for making “no effort to protect the public, including children and sensitive readers, from exposure to violent and traumatic imagery.” Here, the MMA displays a narrow understanding of ethics as being primarily about not giving offense, instead of upholding a larger value system with regards to the media’s role in a democratic, transitional society. The argument in favor of publishing a shocking image such as this one is not merely a consequentialist one (to argue that the pain caused to individuals may be justified in terms of the good consequences it might hold for the majority of the public), but can be seen in terms of meaning-making. The shocking image might be crucial in bringing the media-consuming public to a deeper understanding of the nature of our democracy, the right to freedom of expression and how power operates in post-apartheid South Africa.

A friend has suggested that this is one of those times when the pictures and video footage of Tatane’s violent death could galvanize reform or dissatisfaction with the direction of the ruling ANC. Tatane’s death may become and iconic image like those of a desperate Tunisian fruit seller setting himself on fire or the Mozambiquan immigrant Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave who was set alight during the xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008.  “These images got to the core of stories that are tough to explain in 500 words,” he wrote in an email.  “I would think that someone in Waterkloof Ridge eating their Weetbix and reading a Pretoria News story about bad local councillors in Ficksburg won’t bat an eyelid, but an image of Tatane’s death may convey the sort of anger brewing across the country.”

It appears Tatane had done media studies classes at the University of Cape Town and Wits, but never graduated.  Such was his faith in the media that he reportedly started his own newspaper in his town, “The Voice.” The biggest dignity that the media could afford Tatane after his death is to let this voice be heard. It is time for the people of South Africa to be offended.

Further Reading

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For all the grief Afropunk gets, including its commercialization and appetite for expansion, it still manages to bring people, mostly black, together over two days for a pretty great party.