Stymied Rights

Late last year, the world’s media rightly beat up on their US colleagues for their shameful coverage of the damage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But let us remember the old saw about living in glass houses. The South African media has had more than its share of Katrinas.

“Natural disasters,” not surprisingly, are perfect candidates for the kind of neglect, complacency, and victim-blaming that characterised the initial coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I offer as an example a study of media coverage of a massive rainstorm that wreaked havoc on the Cape Flats that I conducted with a colleague, Ron Krabill (a media studies professor at the University of Washington and a visiting professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal).*

The “Manenberg Tornado,” as the series of rainstorms accompanied by fierce winds was dubbed, swept through that township and the neighbouring Guguletu and Tambo Square, destroying homes and leaving thousands homeless on the night of 29 August 1999 (the official count stood at 2,850 families affected by the storm).

We showed how coverage of the event – especially in the case of the popular local dailies, the Cape Times and Argus – and the subsequent rescue operation as well as partial rehabilitation of the affected area, exposed serious flaws in the media there.

For one, the obsession with labeling the windstorm a tornado served the needs of authorities by allowing them to treat the poor as victims and the storm as a natural crisis, rather than as a physical breakdown in the provision of housing.

Heavy storms are not unusual in Cape Town, and every winter leaves hundreds in squatter camps and overcrowded housing projects homeless and exposed to disease. This storm was in fact a perfectly predictable, almost routine occurrence. It could only develop into a disaster, natural or otherwise, as a result of official neglect and unsatisfactory public policy.

But the public authorities were portrayed as the beleaguered saviours of innocent victims, struggling to provide blankets and other “charity”. In one respect, then, politics was absent from the coverage. In another, however, politics intruded in essentially irrelevant ways, particularly an emphasis on the competition between political parties, such as who should claim credit for relief work and who sat where at a press conference. Not included in this debate? The citizens of the affected areas.

When these people were allowed to speak, they not unpredictably expressed anger and frustration with the slow pace of the rebuilding process. In this case, the media consistently portrayed them as “unruly” and “undeserving”.

Furthermore, their actions were associated with “criminal” activity (parallel to the hysterical focus on “looting” in the case of New Orleans). Indeed, “criminality” largely became associated with groups of residents openly clashing with the City Council over the slow pace of relief and reconstruction efforts. Not covered was that later, after the storm was no longer news, it emerged that the vast majority of these crimes were never investigated or substantiated.

What we found could easily be dismissed as an expected outcome: poor people have less access and little say in their own representation within mass media. This is hardly a new or unique conclusion.

But the more significant conclusion of our study was how citizenship claims play out in the media: residents of the townships were allowed to make only limited claims for emergency assistance in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Once they pushed for long-term, structural change in the provision of social services after the immediate crises had passed, their claims to socio-economic rights as citizens were stymied. We don’t have to wait for Katrina to figure that out and find that it happens really close to home.

* See “Mediating Manenberg in the post-Apartheid Public Sphere: Media, Democracy and Citizenship in South Africa,” in Steven L. Robins (ed.), Limits to Liberation after Apartheid (2005, David Philip and Ohio University Press).

Sean Jacobs is The Media’s correspondent in the United States.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, founder and editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow

The recovered remain cautious

People who have survived Covid-19 are not going through life carefree. They are still taking all the preventative measures

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

Senwes launches Agri Value Chain Food Umbrella

South African farmers can now help to feed the needy by donating part of their bumper maize crop to delivery number 418668

Ethics and internal financial controls add value to the public sector

National treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles

Lessons from South Korea for Africa’s development

'Leaders can push people through, through their vision and inspiration, based on their exemplary actions'

Old Mutual announces digital AGM

An ambitious plan to create Africa’s biggest digital classroom is intended to address one of the continent’s biggest challenges — access to education

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday