Why the rhino is Newsmaker of the Year in South Africa

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”.


16 thoughts on “Why the rhino is Newsmaker of the Year in South Africa

  1. “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.”

    Wrong. Both isuess are unconmfortable reminders of inherited privelage. People are animals too. Conservation forces us to reflect on an inherited privilege even more because it spans thousands to millions of years, and expands the circle of empathy beyond the human species. The choice implied by Marikana or the Rhino is a false dichotomy. We’ve reached the point where getting conservation right means getting social justice right. Conservation will fail without also solving social ills. And saving emblematic species like the rhino means we’ve managed to preserve biodiversity on which we still depend. Not that we should need that as a reason: “Wildlife is wonderful. We don’t need any other excuse to protect it” http://goo.gl/7PsBR

  2. Great post! For some of us, it confirmed what we’ve suspected and denied to ourselves for a while. There’s something very wrong with our media in South Africa. This was a travesty. And this is from someone who’s not unsympathetic to the plight of the rhino.

  3. I don’t think it is fair to make assumptions based on peoples outrage to Rhino poaching. I think your opinion on it being the ‘safe choice’ is a rather one-sided opinion and perhaps that is the case for some people, but I offer another thought. Could it not possibly be that Rhino poaching seems like a more surmountable problem? Perhaps it is something that the ‘White South Africa’, as you put it, tends to focus on more because it is something they feel they can actually do something about. Perhaps you should take a moment to think of it from a human perspective (rather than a racist one) and try to understand that people who are not in the media as you are, the general population of ‘White South Africa’ (the ones with their Rhinose horns driving around Sandton, as you mentioned in your previous post) are not actively involved in politics or farming or mining or any of the things that are related to Marikana. There were no easy or manageable ways to get involved in doing something about Marikana and the ongoing extortion problems that have infected our country for decades! In fact these problems infect the world! I can be as outraged as I want, but where does one who is not actively involved in any of these things, go to help? How do I help? I am sure MANY people (the same ones with Rhinose horns) have asked this question. And the reality is, that in any problem, once you feel helpless, you stop talking about it. No one wants to feel helpless.

    I don’t think it is fair to judge a group of people (in a very racist way) by saying that they care more about Rhinos than the Mine workers who where mercilessly killed in Marikana. In my opinion that is incredibly ignorant and negative. Everyone cared about what happened. But due to all the drama is this country, all the hatred, all the past issues, all the FEAR and all of the inequalities and feelings of being alienated. It causes people to shut out their compassion. To say things like “Oh well, it’s not my problem, I can’t do anything!!”.

    There are many, many simple minded ways to put all of these very complicated issues and your “the ‘White South Africa’ cares more about Rhinos than people” is just as simple minded as the counter argument that those miners (and cops and security guards) that died, all voted for the government that is allowing exploitation and not doing enough to grow our country but rather spending money on elaborate housing and big salaries, etc, etc.

    Very simple-minded indeed. I would suggest we stop seeing stereo types and instead of moaning about nonsense and making negative statements regarding causes that happen to be getting media coverage, why don’t you perhaps start researching some solutions to the cause you care most about and write about that? Give us another way to help and to make a difference rather than judging others and thinking you are somehow better than the rest.

    • Well said Trevor and Dewald. To add, its an example of the senseless nature in which these animals are hacked to death. Sick. For greed. Outrageous. To feed some ignorant fools that believe in ancient medical cures. The same idiots that will kill children for body parts, rape virgins to cure Aids…its that INSANE mentality. Its about bloody time the we conserve and care about our planet. Its the most decent thing we have left and we have damaged so much, cant we give a little back? Maybe WE as a human race should learn to be more humane.

  4. “I don’t particularly want the rhino to die out, but to be honest I don’t care that much.” I suppose that’s how I feel about people with your attitude really. You or a Rhino, simple choice. No contest really.

  5. U are an idiot u go on about Marikana what about all the women getting rapped what about farm murders what about hi-jacking what about all the corruption in our government oh wait you are the kind the glorifies Malema the one and only piece of dung that has stolen from his own ppl but hold on I forgot you the type that could not give a crap about the environment and the beautiful country we have you ate the exactly like a rapist my boi all you interested is sucking all our recourses dry by enriching yourself and empowering urself grow u idiot

  6. Not sure if this is just to provoke a response. No rhinos – pretty much a global issue. Police behaving in an untoward manner – hmmm think that one can be filed as a local story. Lazy journalism most definitely – but you are “one” them so stop bleating about it oh sorry your apathy for Rhinos has spread into your sincere blogging. Oh well maybe when there are no more Rhinos to cull for their horns we can persuade people that idiot bloggers and lazy journos make a very satisfactory substitute.

  7. I am very interested to know where you were when the Marikana tragedy happened? Being a journalist, I would have imagined that you raced up there to save the day from all the other journalists that you don’t seem to respect and that you find incompetent. Where is your eyewitness account? Your unfailing attempt to report the unbiased news on Marikana is glaringly absent. Were you there fighting the good fight? Your shame at being white seems to shine through with dazzling brilliance, even outshining your vitriol on the rhino. Were you not educated at a “white” university? It is an absolute shame that with all the tragedies that happen around us all the time (rape, murder, child trafficking etc.), that you would choose to focus on the rhino and try and portray it as a symbol of white apartheid. We all choose the battles or causes that we are comfortable with and are capable in helping with, it has nothing to do with the colour of the skin you walk around in. All sentient beings deserve life and it is up to the govt. to rectify what happened at Marikana. Unfortunately you seem to believe that all whites were born into privelege ( you could not be more wrong!), only because you seem to be one of the lucky few who did enjoy such an upbringing. Economic inequality will always be a part of the South African capitalist landscape when you are not willing to combat fraud and corruption in you own government. Maybe you should rant on that! Greed is perpetuated by the media, so people will always want more and more will never be enough. Everyone wants to earn a good living, but what happens if you do not have the educational level to support earning that good living? The platinum mines are a good example of not biting the hand that feeds you. When you strike, the company has to increase the cost of the end-product to maintain profits. This results in increases in various other products down the line, which at the end of the day means that the consumer has to fork out more at the end of the month for essentials. Who is the consumer at the end of the month who now has to pay more? It is the striking miner and everybody else trying to get by. Unfortuantely the strike at the mines has resulted in the imminent loss of 14000 jobs, because even a big corporation like Amplats cannot sustain the losses suffered during the strikes. This has certainly not gone unnoticed by the rest of the nation, and for you to assume that no-one cares is ignorant. This will all naturally have a negative and knock-on effect on our embattled economy. If you find the rhino so disturbing, maybe you should move to Vietnam where the rhino has become extinct. Just to let you know though, South Africa is not the only country with economic problems, you should perhaps google the poverty in India for a start. You should also take note that it’s not only white people who are fighting for the rhino, but every South African with a love of animals, including the black game rangers who are out there with their firearms willing to shoot and kill the poachers. The rhino does not belong to whites only, it belongs to Africa. The rhino is certainly not a symbol for all that is dismally wrong with our country. It is a symbol of life and strength and survival and Africa as a whole.To equate the rhino wtih apartheid only stems from your misconception as to the real issues at hand and has absolutely nothing to do with miners. South Africa’s problems are far more complicated than buying a red rhinose and will certainly not vanish in our lifetime and if buying a piece of plastic will go to a worthy cause, you cannot fault people for trying. Maybe you should come up with a Marikana-badge that people can purchase to help those families who were affected. I think though, that you will probably not waste your time, because the next big newsmaker is probably around the next corner and you are ready, salivating with laptop in hand to comment on a situation you were never at. You should have put your parents money to better use by studying politics, because only a politician can spew drivel the way you do.

  8. Well done babe you hit the nail on the head. I must however say that it takes a big man to admit his faults, those being that the little if any coverage of Marikana was no fault of the white people but the lack of journalistic coverage. This week I think I will take the time to reflect on the plight of the dune butterflies of St Lucia and the glow worms in the Kalahari,if there are any. Oh yes Rick don’t speak about his cock, it’s a HORN and he’s a Rhinose.

  9. Sorry I couldn’t get through the whole article with it verbose ramblings and pseudo intellectual posturing it really does numb the mind. As a full time conservationist it is deeply troubling to find yet more policies on a subject that will ultimately determine your own survival. The depth of ignorance sometimes puts me in despair for the human race. The rhino is one species and it is indicative of a planetary attitude which has brought us to a point were we only have 2500 tigers on this earth and around 500 wild dogs. And if you see those species only in isolation they fade into obscurity along with everything else but if you realize that all of nature is interdependent you will soon come to realize that when the wild dogs go and the tigers and the rhino, it will not be terribly long before we do. When there is no water to drink and air to breath (trust me these things are related to nature), it will not matter how many people die in school shootings or Marikana (this is not meant as a lack of care or respect for these terribly sad incidents) because we will then see man on the path to extinction. The rhino is important and if it is not very important to you I challenge you to learn more about your dependence on this planet because one day you may wish you had taken it a little more seriously.

  10. You don’t need to like any animal. I said it a thousand time and will probably say it, another thousand times. I will rather save animals,than humans. The animals will be thankful all their lives, but the human you save now, will stab you in the back tomorrow. People can make choices, and they must live with that choices. Animals must live by choices,make by humans. Probably, choices, they don’t like.

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