Marikana – get noticed or die trying

Wednesday 22 August 2012
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Koppie_claims

A tweet by Michelle Solomon last night contained a link to an article, that if true is even more disturbing than what we already know about events at Marikana. I will mention some of these claims in a moment. But this article is not about whether indeed these claims are true. Some of them has such frightening implications, that they seem at a glance, fanciful. But this article is about the fact that even though we all are becoming media because of media’s inexorable democratisation, we don’t all command equal attention as media entities. And this is profoundly disempowering.

So what are the Marikana claims? An article in the UK based Socialist Worker by Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope and Peter Alexander claims that: It was the police that attacked the miners. It also claims that many people were shot and killed not in the place where the TV cameras were, but while they were running away or hiding. It claims some were crushed by armoured vehicles.

There are other claims in that article and more in another here.

Now, when I saw this article I was sceptical (**) about perhaps most of the claims. Partly because they appear in The Socialist Worker, which is regarded as a curious and not credible publication by many (including me – not that I have read them much mind). Michelle Solomon informed me that one of the people responsible, Peter Alexander is an academic. OK, that perked my interest a little. Upon a little more digging I discovered these tweets by Sipho Hlongwane who has been doing some otherwise excellent reporting from the scene.

It struck me that the main actors in this event – the miners – they themselves are making these allegations, yet they have not been mentioned (as allegations) in any of the mainstream media (MSM). Only the throwaway tweet by @comradesipho. And a so-called @reply at that. Twitter has the peculiar affordance that only individuals following both the persons in a conversation will see a tweet in their stream. Hlongwane obviously did not not think these allegations deserved wider purchase.

That the MSM is stum about these claims is very odd. Is there an argument to be made that they should not have been aired?

I was the TRC investigator into several Vaal massacres like Boipatong. There were several wild accusations that came with each of these massacres. Often they contradicted each other. And often, on the face of it there was no evidence that indeed these claims were true. What’s more, more often than not these claims were actually false. But these claims did find their way into the media, at the very least as allegations.

And sometimes they had some truth in them. And even these partial truths were enough to shake the foundations of the whole country. It bears repeating that crucially and unlike now, at least some press like the Weekly Mail published these allegations as such. Thus changing the nature of public debate and the level of scrutiny under which the police and government had to operate.

Lets for the sake of argument presuppose these claims are false. Does it matter that the MSM did not mention them? Yes it does. For one if these allegations had been made prominently it would have been harder for the government to appoint a ministerial and not an independent commission of enquiry. Secondly, claims of torture against the police would have been taken more seriously. Thirdly a new level of scrutiny of the crime scene would have followed.

MSM media power

In a country like South Africa the MSM, and particularly the broadcast media is still by far the the most important way people get their news. More importantly the MSM get to decide what is news, and whether your news is everybody else’s news.

It’s not that the media ecology is not changing. Some of us can now go directly to the public, bypassing MSM. It’s a theme I’ve written on before, the new hierarchy of people created due to their status and ability to get their messages out via social media. The flipside to this attention riches is a new poor. They do not have an audience, or are unable to get attention if they need to. But in some developing countries like South Africa the situation is worse. A significant proportion of people are not  connected to the internet or even worse – illiterate.

And this ‘attention’ poor can not depend on the MSM. Our professional mainstream media unconsciously panders to the communities who pays it bills: The middle-classes, and corporate interests. (Eek – I’m sounding like Chomsky!) This is a new inequality, because many of the miners’ middle-class compatriots now have access to the media in ways they did not have before (I for example could speak to several editors of South African papers via Twitter the last two days). Some citizens wield considerable media power in and of themselves via social media.

So I’m left wondering. Is the South African media just holding its fire, investigating, before they publish? Perhaps, but I doubt it. From exchanges I had last night and this morning on Twitter (published below) they are aware of these allegations, I think they have already dismissed this line of enquiry. (Bar Ferial Haffajee that is.)

The Head of ETV (an independent news channel) news:

This response of mine I’m not particularly proud of:

Ferial Haffajee the editor of City Press.

This morning other South Africans chimed in.

This response is heartening:

Some closing thoughts from me. It could be that the South African poor, no longer hitched via an Africanist elite to the grand project of the struggle has even less of a voice in media than they had during apartheid.

Or could it be that the SA media thinks the situation in the country is so volatile that its irresponsible to publish these allegations before they have more information?

Some possible pointers that the media might be scared of fanning flames in a tinder box. None of the South African broadcasters (independent or state) carried Julius Malema’s speech live at Marikana the other day, which is significant in recent SA media history. And some evidence that the SA media now defer to the police, Phillip De Wet, the Mail and Guardian reporter at the scene was asked to delete his pictures of shot miners because “it was a crime scene” – and he did!

What does this say about the place of media in today’s South Africa? Not only are they reporting, investigating, they are the guardians of civil order while the state flails or looks the other way? This requires some hard decisions from editors. Or have the SA media just drunk the New South Africa cool aid? Or perhaps the allegations of poor miners are to the minds of the SA journalists just less credible than what they themselves witness, or what the police say happened. Miners’ point of view don’t even get a mention.

Fear, complacency or dismissiveness? It could of course be a combination of these factors that makes the media shy to publish these allegations.

Lets for the sake of argument presuppose these claims are false. Does it matter that the MSM did not mention them? Yes it does. For one if these allegations had been made prominently it would have been harder for the government to appoint a ministerial and not an independent commission of enquiry. Secondly, claims of torture against the police would have been taken more seriously. Thirdly a new level of scrutiny of the crime scene would have followed.

There is one lesson to learn. The miners’ invisibility in media, and the fact that they don’t publish their own or have access to the MSM, is an incredible disadvantage. If one of them was mildly eloquent, had a smartphone (there’s 3G where the massacre happened) and a Twitter user, then they would have had their own channel to put forth their version of events.

They are disenfranchised in more ways then they might have thought.

UPDATE: 8 days after I wrote this blog post the independent online only publication the Daily Maverick posted these same allegations. One day later the first established publications, the Mail & Guardian published them. Also see News 24.

* I contacted Peter Alexander and he sent me one of the pictures the Socialist Worker did not publish.

** Perhaps not the ones you imagine. The police in 1990 ran over a far rightwing Tukkies student – Jurgen Globelaar – with a Caspir , when he stole rifles and tried to flee across the Botswana border. My point being the violence in the SA police can be intitutional, not ideological, and quite unreflective.

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