/ 26 April 2012

Born-frees have precious little freedom

A mentally disabled teenage girl is gang-raped by seven men. Her ordeal comes to light after a video of the crime goes viral and is picked up by the news media. The Dobsonville teenager was missing for three weeks and was apparently held by one of the accused against her will.

In the Cape Town township of Bonteheuwel, a 12-year-old girl is fatally shot when her cousins get caught in the crossfire of a gang fight. The girl’s cousin tries to save her, but he gets shot in the jaw. So why are these children called born-frees? Is their “freedom” not a cruel irony?

These recent news events prompt us to take a critical look at the media, civil society and the state. Although the horrific story about the rape video commanded far more local and international media attention and outrage than the Bonteheuwel story, the reaction by the media and audiences followed a similar thread.

At least two major themes emerged from the coverage and reactions: revenge and retribution, as well as a moral panic about new media technologies. These narratives are misguided and lead us away from the real issues.

Readers expressed anger and outrage at both events. Some spoke of violent retribution and, inevitably, commentators pushed arguments for the death penalty. Comment threads would turn to political party bashing and the ANC received the customary insults. Attempts to introduce alternative views would lead to ad hominem attacks that do not promote debate and communication. On Twitter, the rapists were called “animals by birth” and South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, said he would be “praying for the seven rapists to find like-minded monsters in jail to give them a taste of their own medicine”.

Media descriptions fanned the flames: perpetrators were “barbaric monsters”; the mother was neglectful and a liar; her community was “complicit”. The popular culture website mahala.co.za featured a cartoon depicting the rapists tied up in a cell while two fellow inmates film their impending rape.

Now that the lines between good (“us”, the rational observers) and evil (“them”, the barbaric monsters) are drawn and our blood lust temporarily satisfied, we can return to “normal life”. Both stories will probably die down and media attention will focus on the next big story. In fact, the Cape shooting has already slipped from the front pages. The same is likely to happen to the rape story, but not before we hear more moral panic about social media causing our youth’s moral decline, or how the ubiquity of cellphones might encourage violence.

Despite gender activists’ efforts, many comments — those made online, in particular — are unlikely to reflect nuanced understandings of the ways in which gender-based violence is entrenched in everyday practice, or of the extent to which the institutionalised violence of the apartheid past shapes our present. Dominant conceptions of masculinity and violence are cemented in talk of retribution and problem solving.

The “shoot to kill” rhetoric by senior police officials does not help either. The bigger story is the failure of the state to set the “fundamentals” for positive change so that we can break with our violent apartheid past. It is worth asking whether a serious interrogation of both race and gender politics was ever high on the democratic state’s agenda.

News editors still believe “If it bleeds, it leads”. The big, sensationalist stories secure readers who can be used to leverage advertising revenue. Conflict remains a key news value in criminal and political reportage.

Hence another shooting on the Cape Flats is mundane — this is crude, we know. Violence has become banal, especially in working-class spaces far away from the suburbs.

Except for some weekly papers, we do not see news about everyday grassroots failures of the state in unsensational and proactive ways. Paradoxically, tabloids highlight everyday experiences of the state’s failures more than the “serious” mainstream press.

If crime reporters looked critically at magistrates’ courts, they could write about the dysfunctional lower courts. Overworked prosecutors might shed light on University of the Witwatersrand researcher Robyn Leslie’s contention that the lower courts, not the Constitutional Court, need to be reviewed. We need ongoing coverage of ­community struggles to overcome poverty, violence and poor service delivery. We need more media support for social movements and community initiatives that attempt to operate beyond party political power games.

In its critique of media monopolisation, the ANC argued that the media had not transformed. Editors have not really supported the developmental state. It is true. A media appeals tribunal is not the answer, though. The ANC and the Democratic Alliance both believe that the market distributes wealth fairly and they should therefore not be surprised by monopolisation.

We need to explore more thoroughly the structural and social ­factors that led to society’s dehumanisation and the erosion of our morals. The media can help to imagine ourselves in the place of others.

Dehumanising the perpetrators of these horrific crimes as “monsters”, calling for retribution or blaming new technologies isolate and make the social pathologies of violence more exotic. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed how violence not only robbed its victims of their dignity, it also eroded perpetrators’ humanity. The media should call the state to account for the structural violence of poverty, dismal education and the poor role models available to our youth. But it should not contribute to fanning the conflict further or dehumanising victims and perpetrators.

The media should help us to devise more imaginative responses to state violence, poor male socialisation and racialised poverty than retribution or shame. We owe this to the generation that is supposed to be born free.

Adam Haupt is associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Cape Town and Herman Wasserman is professor of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University.