It’s Time To Be Offended

If the murder of Andries Tatane is a watershed moment in public perceptions of state violence after Apartheid, 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.

What do we do in South Africa?

Mostly elites complain about the SABC showing violence on television, insert “allegedly” before “killed” in news reports, denounce the protesters as “mobs” (as the Sowetan did) and run nonsense polls on newspaper websites to find out if the police brutality really was brutality.  Timeslive (that’s the website of The Times and Sunday Times) ran an online 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 thought this 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 his own police force could be seen as “justified”?

Its’s noteworthy that Tatane’s killing was brought to us by traditional media – the much-criticised and chaotic SABC at that. Just as Al Jazeera proved one of the most insightful platforms for reporting on the pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

That Tatane’s death did make the reactions it did – unlike other injuries and deaths sustained in the almost eight thousand protests over the last six years– was probably partly because the SABC was bold enough to broadcast the shocking video of Tatane’s murder.

It would be interesting to research the extent to which the protests themselves were organised 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 organising 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 the footage via Facebook and Twitter and watched it on Youtube.

But what Tatane’s death also brought to light, was how the mainstream media’s narrow understanding of journalistic conventions such as‘objectivity’ and of social responsibility as not giving offense can hamper its ability to portray the realities of this country in the stark colours 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, 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 traumatise viewers. MMA criticizes 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 favour 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.

An acquiantance, a close observer of South African politics, 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 ANC. Tatane’s death may become and iconic image like those of a Saigon police chief, who collaborated with American occupiers, shot a Vietnamese nationalist during the Tet offensive, a desperate Tunisian fruit seller setting himself on fire, a necklaced Askari, or the Mozambiquan immigrant Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave who was set alight during the xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008.  “All these images got to the core of stories that are tough to explain in 500 words,” he said 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, “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.

Herman Wasserman, Sean Jacobs


7 thoughts on “It’s Time To Be Offended

  1. Brilliantly said. Violent and traumatic imagery is the reality of the South African everyday, just as anywhere else. That people can be outraged at SABC but praise Al Jazeera for doing the exact same thing shows a deep cognitive dissonance – its trendy and politically progressive to applaud the scenes of violence being shown, but in truth some South Africans haven’t critically considered what that actually means. They’re uncomfortable with coming face to face with the brutality of the South African state; corrupt sure, but brutal, no never and not over my dinner.

  2. – Who are the “mostly elites”?
    – And regarding “But what Tatane’s death also brought to light, was how the mainstream media’s narrow understanding of journalistic conventions…”
    This is never elaborated upon. It seems that you have more of a problem with media monitors and how news is interpreted than with the mainstream media itself.

  3. Personally I was not offended by the SABC broadcasting the story (but DID every time they said “allegedly” and “killed” scream at my TV that thre was no “allegedly” …. Andries Tatane was murdered by SAPS, end of story!)

    “MMA criticizes 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”. The MMA are idiots… this is the South Africa that we live in, violent to the end! News is news and is to be reported as such… what about the children and public that were there on the scene and saw the murder first-hand? Remembering that SABC is a government-controlled entity (and therefor largely a ANC controlled-entity), I am surprised that they actually did show the footage, but also applaud them for it… not the subsequent reporting though…. SABC here is a heads-up… if one has video footage of a killing there is no “alleged”….

    As for the polls, really in bad taste… there is never a time that any policeman or any other person can be justified in killing an unarmed person! If the SAPS were properly trained in crowd-control (as we were all led to believe they were prior to the SWC) they should have been able to diffuse the situation and place Andries in handcuffs and detain him!

    Yes, it is time for SA to be outraged! Not for the images broadcast, but that people who were demonstrating for basic NEEDS, not rights even, had to actually even do that… where are all the ANCs promises 17 years later? In 1976 it was a picture of Police Brutality (Hector Petersen) that brought the deeds of the apartheid government to the attention of the international media and governments, and the ANC used this to the hilt, now they complain about the same thing being done by their own stormtroopers being shown in the media?? “Shoot to Kill!!” Those were the words of your Minister and Chief of Police, and now that it has been done you want to make the protesters and the Media out to be the bad guys???

    Time to re-think strategies, ANC, or although our President doesn’t think that what is happening in North Africa could happen here, believe IT WILL and sooner than you think! Time to stop making pre-voting promises and deliver services to all, and to STOP the corruption!

  4. Very interesting and valuable contribution to the debate many points I would agree with. It is unfortunate however that MMA’s statement (available on our website was only selectively quoted by the authors. MMA cane out in full support of the SABC for leading with a story on police brutality and our major concern with the use of the image by some media was that it’s use should have been explained. Other media as pointed out in our statements emphasized the issue of police brutality. The danger in using the image without explaining it’s use and Contextualising it is that loses it’s meaning and falls into the trap the authors highlight.

  5. Its so weird that the name of your blog is africaisacountry, when just days ago i wrote a post stating that Africa is not a country. check it out here when you have the time..
    Now the problem with most Southern Africa media is that they hide too much, they choose what they want to show the viewers, in turn meaning that journalists end up not having any freedom of publicizing important news what so ever.. Perfectly said. 🙂

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