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.