Sensationalist reporting obscures complexity behind the violence

The appalling events at Marikana will affect the country for a good while yet and naturally continue to dominate public discussion and news coverage. There is no shortage of themes: besides developments as they unfold, there are the implications for the unions, the economy, politics, the role of Julius Malema, and much else.

A fundamental question is: How serious is the situation really? Is this the beginning of a slide into chaos, or a storm that will blow over? Will the country's body politic, its civil society and other institutions, prove strong enough to face down this crisis?

The ANC and the government have worked hard to reassure us that the situation is under control. Yet the message was undermined by the defence ministry's hysterical response to Malema's attempt to address disaffected soldiers. Putting the military on high alert seemed silly when, in the event, his audience was a handful of people.

The morning after these events, two Johannesburg newspaper front pages offered opposite readings of the situation. One declared, on the strength of the poor turnout for Malema's intervention, that his campaign of revolution was slowing. The other placed the country on a "knife edge", breathlessly quoting intelligence sources as saying Malema had a "well-orchestrated" plan for regime change.

On the one hand, it seems too early to write off Malema's campaign. On the other, it is sensationalist to turn what may be his fond hope into an imminent danger.

Last week's Mail & Guardian at one point fell into a similar trap. A headline declared  "Conditions ripe for revolution" and the report offered a useful account of the thinking behind Malema's plans for a mining revolution, making the important connection to the fundamental issues of inequality and discontent. But the headline presented the analysis as fact: simple quote marks would have indicated this was somebody's view.

Reading too much into things
The challenge in much of the reporting of these events is one of tone. It is about resisting the temptation to read too much into things, of turning every twist and turn of events into hard evidence for a favoured interpretation. Signs are often confusing. Journalists should ask themselves if the fact that two leaders share a platform can only mean they belong to the same faction. Maybe there are other explanations?

It is also about keeping reporting distinct from analysis. In the last while, I have seen Malema described several times as President Jacob Zuma's nemesis. A nemesis is a rival who cannot be overcome, the dictionary says, the important word being "cannot".  Just as it was too early to write Malema off when he was expelled by the ANC, it may be too early to do the opposite and discount Zuma's political ability. Formulations of this kind collapse a complex dynamic into an appealing but overstated phrase, with the chief benefit of making their authors feel clever.

Difficult times such as these need hard-edged, unflinching reporting of events, context and detail. Among the useful results of the crisis has been the attention paid to the reality of life in South Africa's platinum belt. It has become clear that, despite its mineral wealth, the living conditions for many people in this area are appalling and there have been accounts of patterns of repression by chiefs who have seized the lion's share of the area's mineral wealth.

It has become trite to say that in-equality matters more than poverty in breeding discontent. Social patterns of deprivation are the real reasons behind events such as the xenophobic violence of 2008 and the mining crisis of 2012.

The media need to keep the fundamental causes of these outbreaks on top of the agenda. It is too easy to allow our attention to be completely taken up by the minutiae of the fight for position in the ANC.  Those stories remain important, but need to be kept in perspective.

The current crisis may well be overcome, but nobody should be able to say they are surprised when the next violent crisis hits us.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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