Media underplaying police, state brutality
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South Africans are still reeling from shock after a clash between the police and striking mineworkers that left dozens of workers dead. The dominant narrative up to this point, supported by camera footage and other media accounts, has been that armed workers attacked the police, who retaliated in self-defence after at least one miner shot at them.
However, in the past week, an alternative narrative has emerged that suggests that, rather than being motivated purely by self-defence, the police killings of miners was more premeditated than initially thought.
Academics based at the University of Johannesburg, have interviewed workers who pointed to a second “kill site” away from the media focus, where miners were allegedly killed as part of a planned attack to crush the strike.
According to Professor Peter Alexander, who led the researchers, “the media haven’t been talking to right people and they don’t ask the right questions. They haven’t interviewed workers. Where were people standing when they were killed? They haven’t asked that. It’s not just the unions that are cut off from people, but the media, too.”
Many have already dismissed Alexander’s claims, preferring to believe that the police could not have been capable of such actions. At worst, the police may have used excessive force, but to argue that they deliberately set out to kill dissenting workers is, conceptually, a bridge too far for them.
What makes the dismissal of these claims easier is that many South Africans are simply not aware of the slow but steady increase in cases of politically biased policing aimed at suppressing dissenting voices, especially (but not exclusively) those outside the tripartite alliance.
The problem predates the remilitarisation of the police, although remilitarisation has undoubtedly intensified it.
Since 2002, local authorities and police officials have increasingly misused the notification procedure in the Regulation of Gatherings Act to deny “permission” to protesters critical of the government (not that permission is even needed in terms of the act). This abuse of process has led many protesters to take to the streets anyway, which on many occasions prompted the police to act violently to break up the “illegal” protests, even if they were peaceful.
Over this period, softer, more facilitative, policing was gradually replaced by harder forms of policing involving the use of rubber bullets and even live ammunition. The police developed other techniques to harass government critics, including making arrests on flimsy grounds, only for the charges to be dropped many months later for lack of evidence, and the imposition of overly restrictive bail conditions.
Social movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM) are well acquainted with these tactics, but these are largely urban movements.
Small-town and rural activists are particularly susceptible to official harassment as these actions generally fall under the media radar, and many have harrowing stories to tell.
When two LPM activists alleged torture at the hands of the police when they were arrested in 2004, many journalists scoffed at the allegations and were reluctant to report them. As is the case with many torture cases, the charges were withdrawn for lack of evidence.
Since the intelligence services became entangled in the succession battle between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, a media spotlight has been thrown on the abuse of intelligence services to advantage sections of the ruling elite.
But activists have been complaining about intelligence harassment for years.
Evidence of inappropriate intelligence surveillance of political critics emerged as far back as the World Conference Against Racism in 2002, and then again during LPM preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2003, as well as in the wake of service delivery protests in Harrismith.
Long before the Lonmin conflict, the police have been known to act effectively as private security guards for mining companies, repressing dissent against abusive mining practices.
Jubilee SA activists in Limpopo and Mpumalanga have complained for years about police harassment, arbitrary arrests and police violence against protests, as well as death threats.
In 2009, 12 members of Abahlali were accused of the murder of two people in the Kennedy Road settlement, but the State’s case against them collapsed.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute, which defended the Kennedy 12, argued afterwards that the “charges were based on [State] evidence which now appears almost certainly to have been manufactured”.
With important exceptions, elite and media responses to these events have all too often involved a “yes, but”. The fact that several movements have participated in illegal activities like road blockades and illegal electricity reconnections has been used as a reason to brand them as criminal, and to justify state crackdowns. But this branding has prevented a proper examination of the policing and intelligence practices used to contain their activism, which has been targeted at legitimate expressions and actions, too, and has, beyond question, been repressive.
Under the circumstances it is hardly surprising that activists complain of experiencing persecution twice over: first at the hands of the police, then at the hands of the media, whose failure to recognise the reality of state repression left them vulnerable to further harassment. This frustration at not being heard was also expressed by Lonmin miners at a public meeting at the University of Johannesburg on Wednesday night. At the meeting, workers who spoke were very, very angry at the media.
The media have simply not done their due diligence on state repression of dissenting voices. As a result, South Africans have been deprived of information that allows them to develop a full understanding of the extent to which repression has become an entrenched feature of the political landscape.
Why have these problems arisen? Undoubtedly, there is a class dimension to the problem, as journalists still tend to be drawn from a social base that does not experience the realities of working-class life, which includes a creeping de-democratisation of society that has manifested itself most starkly in poor communities.
The routine processes of news in commercial media organisations also place constraints on journalists. Commercial media organisations tend to legitimise as “common sense” the world views of those who are most attractive to advertisers, leading to reporting and commentary being sucked to the political centre, in the process marginalising more politically radical viewpoints.
Furthermore, given the commercial pressures on media organisations, the sources that are the most widely legitimised by other media tend to be the most used, leading to a form of pack journalism. These sources usually have access to power and money already, which includes the organisational capacity to maintain a constant flow of information to the media.
Organisations representing working-class viewpoints, which are generally less well resourced, can easily be overlooked.
In the case of the Marikana story, this has led to journalists relying overwhelmingly on official sources in the police and government, as well as the unions and their own eyewitness accounts for “balance”. But the voices of workers who have important stories to tell have been largely silent.
These trends are uneven, but to the extent that they do exist, they create an environment where the police can literally get away with murder. South Africans can remain suspended in a state of disbelief, continuing to deny the increasingly obvious fact that society, with its massive inequalities, can no longer be held in equilibrium through consent and that coercion is becoming the terrible – if not entirely unpredictable – state response.
When the allied forces invaded Iraq in 2003, and the embedded media dutifully churned out reports that legitimised their actions, Noam Chomsky urged US citizens to develop what he called a “sceptical reflex”, as part of a course of intellectual self-defence. This course requires doing some hard, intellectual work and developing the ability to think independently and critically.
According to Chomsky, “you’re going to have to compare today’s lies with yesterday’s lies and see if you can construct some rational story out of them. It’s a major effort. You have to decide to become a fanatic. You have to work, because nobody’s going to make it easy for you. [You have to show a] willingness to look at the facts with an open mind, to put simple assertions to the test, and to pursue an argument to its conclusion.”
If SA is to face its problems head on, then citizens are well advised to develop these skills.
n Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, Rhodes University