By: Gcobani Qambela*
In his memoir, “Decoded”, American rap icon Jay-Z explains the history behind his song “Where I’m From”. In the opening lines of the song he tells us “I’m from where the hammers rung, news cameras never came”, meaning he is from the lower echelon of society: the ghetto. He brings our attention to a October 2, 1990 New York Times story where “Two young men who admitted that they had raped and sodomized a 39-year-old woman and then thrown her from the roof of a four-story building in Brooklyn last year were sentenced yesterday to terms of 6 to 18 years in prison… Her case, whose shocking brutality was comparable to that of the Central Park jogger, which occurred only a few days earlier, prompted some harsh criticism of the news media, which did not devote comparable attention to it, in part, critics said, because the Central Park jogger was white and the Brooklyn victim was black.” (1)
One can’t help but remember this anecdote from Jay-Z’s memoir as we observe the extensive news coverage of the recent fire in white suburban St Frances in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The area was struck by fire on Sunday the 11th of November 2012 which is said to have damaged (and destroyed) 75 buildings, 68 of which were houses, six of which were flats and the other one being office premises. (2) The homes in the exclusive area are noted to have been priced between one million South African Rands to sixteen million Rands, solidifying the status of the area as the holiday destination and playing ground for the white upper class. (3)
In another part of the Eastern Cape just a few days earlier before the St Francis fire, two black children burnt to death in their shack in the predominantly black populated area of Libode. (4) While in this case there was an element of neglect on the side of the mother, one cannot wonder how different the situation would have turned out if they had electricity, for a candle that they used for light was the cause of the fire. Like a large number of South Africans, some people in Libode are still without electricity, let alone adequate housing. This case however went without much national coverage beyond a few news blogs, while the St Francis fire which burnt insured homes, and left no serious injuries, let alone death, received major national coverage both in social media and mainstream national news.
The recently released results of the 2011 South African census shows that 18 years after apartheid, South Africa is still a country deeply economically divided along racial lines. (5) The report issued by Statistics South Africa shows that while black household income has increased by an average of 169 percent over the past 10 years, the annual earning are still at R60, 613 (about $6,987): only a sixth of that of white households. This means that despite the fact that 80 percent of the 51.8 million of South Africa’s population is made up of blacks, the majority of the black population yet to receive their slice of South Africa’s economic cake.
This background is important when we start to look at the politics of invisibility in what lands up on our evening news in mainstream media and what does not, and why a fire in an affluent neighborhood makes national news, while shack fires that kill poor black people don’t. This is important because shack fires in poor areas are common in South Africa, and a basic Google search for instance of “Shack fire South Africa” reveals about 102,000 search results.
One may make a case that perhaps maybe it is because of their common feature, that they remain largely ignored in South African media, and that while devastating fires affecting wealthy areas are rare and hence the widespread coverage of the St Francis fire. A case may be made that because tragic fires are so widespread in South Africa’s poor neighborhoods, South African media is increasingly becoming immune and developing a numbness to the suffering of black communities. If there is a fire every week in the townships/ the ghetto, eventually it becomes not newsworthy to cover, unless there is a dimension of scandal to grab people’s attention because of the frequency of the same narrative.
News houses operate on news values, with relevance at the top of these, it is a serious misdemeanor that the suffering of the majority remains muted and invisible, while the news of the rich and privileged take precedence. And what happens when this becomes the norm? Even us as the general public become numb, and we convince ourselves that it is okay even if we do not care. The media reflects the priorities of the society, thus, if we want issues to become visible, it is up to us to not make them the norm and demand they be given the time they deserve. We need to care.
Dwight David Eisenhower once said “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both”. I believe that the media has an important role not only to give an opportunity for the wealthy to be voyeurs on world affairs, to also form part of the solution in uprooting inequality and highlighting injustice and helping to bring the ‘powers that be’ to account. Let’s not become a people that value its privileges over principles.
*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum / BLF contributor. Read his short bio and previous articles here .
1. Jay-Z. 2010. Decoded. Virgin Books: United Kingdom, p. 215
2. St Francis fire damage runs into millions (News 24): http://m.news24.com/
5. South Africa’s Racial Income Inequality Persists, Census Shows: http://mobile.