Rian Malan’s article on the unrest in Coligny in the wake of the suspicious death of a teenage boy punched me in the gut. I had read the article shortly before going to bed – yes, the routine of masochists – and for a few minutes I was awash with terror. There was going to be a race war. The violence was going to land on my doorstep.
I felt, pre-emptively, like a victim.
This experience may not be surprising for some. Many white people feel like this all the time, and many black people are accustomed to living with the consequences of white fear. But it’s not usual for me. First, because, as a white person who does not live in an exclusively white world, I know enough to be appalled by Malan’s inclusion of quote by a Bangaladeshi trader whose shop was burned down, that “a black person has no heart”. Second, because I am an academic who specialises in analysing the politics of race and fear in the media. This sort of thing is my bread and butter.
Yet Malan’s article worked on me. It poked the long dormant slumbering troll of racial paranoia, the idea that “they” are out to get “us”, an idea that many white South Africans of my generation ingested along with our morning Weetbix, and that still lurks deep in the back of my lizard brain no matter how hard I try to slay it with the twin swords of reason and empathy. This is true, by the way, of even the so-called white educated metropolitan elite. It’s just that some of us know it and try to work on it, while others waft about insisting they’re colourblind and their domestic is a member of the family.
Let me be clear from the outset: I have no idea what happened in Coligny. This is not an article about the horrible and unnecessary death of a 16-year-old called Matlhomola Moshoeu (whose name, by the way, only appears halfway down Malan’s piece). Rather, it is an article about coverage of that death: about bias, ideology and the way in which the media can use fear to stoke racial tension – ironically, the very thing Malan accuses politicians of doing in Coligny.
I also have no idea whether the two accused are murderers or whether Matlhomola’s death was a tragic accident. I do know, however, that – as Sisonke Msimang pointed out on Twitter – Malan’s claim that the accused “are said by their supporters to be decent young men, raised in Christian homes, responsible and well-mannered” is ragingly irrelevant. It would be shooting fish in a barrel to find examples of decent, polite, Christian murderers. If Christianity was an automatic counter to violence then apartheid would never happened. Nor, come to think of it, would colonial genocide.
As we teach our students in media studies, the language and images used in a text are crucial to understanding whether and how a certain worldview is transmitted. In this article white people are “terrified”, “polite’ and “brave”. They believe in God and “put their faith in the essentially good nature of their black neighbours”. Much of Malan’s information about the initial unrest comes from “cellphone videos shot by apprehensive whites”. Once the violence begins nearby Afrikaners come armed and ready to “save their brethren”. Photographs show white people loading food on bakkies to support struggling neighbours. There is no sense of the intense irony here, of white people providing food to white neighbours while black children are so hungry that they risk the wrath of the local landowner, his enforcers and the police to steal sunflowers.
Black people, meanwhile, are “mutinous” and “militants”. They “harbour deep resentment” but are “oddly friendly considering [his] white skin”. Is it really so odd to have a black child be friendly? This happens to me all the time. They break windows and kick doors, they loot, they create “anarchy”. More than this, they are individually voiceless. Those interviewed include white residents who are mentioned by name as well as Bangladeshi and Indian residents who are spoken about as individuals. When black residents’ voices are heard, they are groups of schoolchildren who chant slogans. Where is the family of the dead boy? Where are the individual, named, humanised black residents of Coligny whose lives may also be affected by this disaster?
Perhaps most telling is the way Malan characterises the different forms of violence on display in this small town. The article’s description of the practices of the two accused is astonishingly mild and does not account for the intense fear a child must have felt in that situation. The suggestion is clear: these men are morally innocent, even though there seems to be no doubt that they were somehow involved in the circumstances that led to Matlhomola’s death. A white farmer attacks a black journalist who was not responsible for burning down his house; he is sympathetically described as “unhinged” by the loss of property. The race of the journalist is not stated, unlike every single white victim of violence mentioned in the piece. Meanwhile, black protesters attack white people who were not responsible for Matlhomola’s death and are not-so-subtly suggested to be savages.
Before the gnomes of the internet emerge to crucify me for reverse racism, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that white residents of Coligny did not experience horrible and unnecessary violence over the past few days, or that white people’s suffering and loss are not important. What I am suggesting is that Malan’s characterisation of what went on in the town replicates a longstanding apartheid trope of differentiating between illegitimate violence performed by blacks and legitimate violence performed by whites, either in reaction to or to pre-empt black violence. What else was Vlakplaas but a blood-soaked claim to the moral justification of certain types of state-sanctioned violence? Since you ask, I am in the camp that believes that violence in general should be avoided.
Similarly, in this article black and white poverty are equated, as though the situation of those who live in town and struggle to sell their dilapidated houses is the same as the situation of those who live in shacks without running water. Malan admits that the “position of blacks is even more desperate” than that of the town’s “racial minorities” – a linguistic backflip that deserves its own analysis – but his tone suggests that all residents of Coligny, whether town or township, are in the same boat. And this just isn’t true. Ask anyone who’s tried to make a home for their family in something made of corrugated iron and cardboard.
Malan’s argument that the local ANC is inflaming anti-white sentiment for its own political gain may well be true. It is not at all unlikely that the citizens of Coligny are disposable collateral damage in larger national currents – although one should then acknowledge that the same applies to AfriForum sending in private security. His points about the disaster visited on the foreign traders whose shops were burned and looted are heartwrenching and deeply disturbing, and I agree that these people need to be a much larger part of the story. I don’t doubt the veracity of his conclusions. What bothers me is the way in which he draws them.
In my department we try to teach our students to be thoughtful, critical consumers of the media, to understand that most news necessarily contains some sort of bias, and to engage their thinking selves rather than being swept away in the hyperboles that some segments of the press indulge in. But here I failed my own test. This skilful and beautifully written article, which characterises white and black poverty as equivalent, and which draws on old ideas about rampant black savagery and new ideas about innocent white victimhood, really worked its nasty magic on me. For a moment I felt terrified, afraid for my safety in my nice house behind my nice walls. This is how the politics of fear operates: it polarises, it isolates and it adds to the confusion and anxiety that lead to divided and violent societies. Journalists, especially highly skilled, award-winning journalists, should know better.
Professor Nicky Falkof is associate professor and head of department at Wits media studies. She tweets (infrequently) as @barbrastrident.