Criminal Media

South Africa's mainstream media has a blindspot: It mostly covers crime as it affects the suburbs and whites. No wonder the readers are misinformed.

People walk in downtown Cape Town (Rodger Bosch/Media club, via Flickr CC).

The South African Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld has historically been regarded as the more liberal cousin of its more conservative Cape Town-based sister paper Die Burger and Volksblad operating out of Bloemfontein. It has in recent years however also received criticism for what can be seen as an obsession with crime reporting (and readers of South African media will know that this means reporting about crime in the white suburbs, or on farms).

Of course it is not only Beeld that provides us with what the political analyst Steven Friedman called the ‘view from the suburbs’. The South African press in general (excluding the tabloids, who have their own prejudices, but that’s a different story) have a bias towards the middle-class that affects the way they see things like crime, the economy and politics.

The cliché goes that a picture says a thousand words, and last week one such picture summed up this editorial position neatly.

On 14 September the newspaper published a picture of a blonde woman photographing a young black man. Her face was hidden, as she was photographed from the back, but the face of the person being photographed – police file style – was clearly visible. The picture accompanied the report about an initiative by security companies and the Community Policing Forum (CPF) of the Pretoria suburb Villieria to ‘curb crime’ in the area. The report approvingly tells how ‘members of the community’ went around the streets of the suburb at night where homeless people were sleeping, photographed and fingerprinted them. According to one Susan Andrews, a member of the CPF, her own experience as a victim of crime prompted her to ‘do my bit for a safer environment’ by contributing the data gathered in this way to a database which will help identify perpetrators of crime in the area. The homeless people were referred to as ‘sluipslapers’, a neologism that can be translated as ‘stealth sleepers’ or ‘prowl sleepers’.

I wrote a letter to the newspaper, as follows (translated from Afrikaans):

A blonde woman is shown from behind while photographing a young black man, in an ‘attempt to curb crime’. The man, whose face is not masked by Beeld – immediately takes on an allure of criminality, like a suspect in police photographs. We are told his fingerprints were also taken. What was the crime? He is homeless. And because his is poor, and do not have a roof over his head, he is automatically a suspect and we are allowed to stare him in the face, accusingly. How would the homeowners of Villieria have felt if they were also woken in the middle of the night, made to stand in the street so that their fingerprints can be entered into a database and their pictures published in Beeld?

I continued,

The only difference, after all, is that they are ‘home sleepers’ instead of ‘stealth sleepers’ (what a cute little word to immediately attach a connotation of dishonesty and suspicion to homelessness). Do the poor not also have the right to privacy and dignity? Does the right to property extend so far that you can now accost people on the street and declare them to be potential criminals? Perhaps the residents of Villieria could rather ask Beeld to help them start a campaign to erect a night shelter and soup kitchen. That would do much more in the long run to ensure the ‘safer environment’ than racial profiling and criminalization of poverty will.

The letter was published, and one or two SMS responses were published that supported my view. But these two responses (translated) probably sums up the view of the majority of Beeld readers, who felt compelled to air out their opinions:

‘Herman, do go ahead and start a campaign for the prowlers. But remember the thousands from our neighboring countries that are on their way.’


‘Dearest Herman Wasserman, Do come and see what our fountains look and smell like, come and smell the human defecation. Come and look where they come and break everything they pick up or steal, where no human or animal can dare to walk. Come and look at the billows of smoke that blows across the houses and how everything inside smells like burnt plastic. The people are taken to shelters from which they simply walk away. Rather go and ask your ANC friends to put less money in their own pockets and care better for the poor.’

Will Beeld’s new editor, the young Adriaan Basson currently at City Press (another newspaper owned by News24, but focused on a black readership), break with this tone in coverage when he starts October 1?

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