Editorial: We must topple the hierarchy of suffering

The impact of floods in Sierra Leone. (Reuters)

The impact of floods in Sierra Leone. (Reuters)

A mudslide in the populous Mount Sugar Loaf in Freetown, Sierra Leone, has killed about 500 people in the past two weeks. Hundreds are still missing. And with sporadic downpours continuing, parts of the city remain flooded, washing away more mud containing unrecovered bodies. In Niger, torrential downpours have killed at least 44 people since June. In southern Yemen, 18 people were killed in flooding caused by heavy rains this week — and aid organisations have warned that the rainy season could exacerbate a cholera epidemic.

Since it began four months ago, the epidemic has infected more than half a million people. We’re going to repeat that: half a million people have been infected by cholera in Yemen. It has already killed nearly 2 000 people, the World Health Organisation said.

The scale of the tragedy in Yemen, as in Sierra Leone and Niger, is mammoth. The effects will continue to be felt long after the rains stop — these are people who are already counted among the poorest in the world.

In Sierra Leone, one harrowing despatch by Al Jazeera from Freetown details how few survivors could afford the bus fare to the state’s memorial service. Most remained at the site of the landslide, searching through the rubble, calling out the names of their loved ones.

It is a haunting image.

Yet it is the deaths of 15 people in Houston, United States, in the unfolding drama of Hurricane Harvey that has captured the attention of South Africans and much of the rest of the world. It’s similar to the way a terror attack in Europe will receive front-page treatment across the world, inspiring our collective ire at the perpetrators, and heartbreak for the victims, yet a terror attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, told in the form of a few lines from the international news agencies, leaves us unmoved.

There is a hierarchy of suffering.

But it is not enough for us to call out the inconsistencies of our sympathies and leave it there.

It is imperative we interrogate how these inconsistencies are built and used to maintain an unjust world. Because this is a broken world.

For all our purported progress as human beings, we have failed to do something as basic as establish a sense of shared humanity. What we think of as “global” is actually the province of a few in North America and Western Europe. It is mostly European bodies that are global. Some American bodies are global. The great mass of humanity is, however, local, regional, “ethnic”.

Our sense of the “global” is perpetuated by a well-constructed sham.

The media is complicit in entrenching this falsehood. In South Africa we can blame our pitiful resources on our inability to reflect the lived experiences of people in the rest of Africa — though we are trying to do better at the Mail & Guardian — but at some point we cannot continue to blame resources for the decisions we take to prioritise some stories over others, feeding the idea of the “global” as the province of a privileged few.

The media’s complicity in these issues cannot be reduced to a question of which stories do get told, but rather how these stories are told, from where these stories are told and whose voices are revealed in the course of our storytelling.

The victims in Texas have been conveyed to us as more human, more complex, more like us, than the nameless, faceless victims of similar disasters in Yemen, Niger and Sierra Leone.

We must do better.

So the launch this week by the Media Development Investment Fund, in association with the Open Society Foundation South Africa and the Omidyar Network, of a generous $4-million fund to support innovation in independent media in South Africa is welcome, not just because it may give our depleted coffers a much-needed boost. Opportunities such as these give us the freedom to explore new modes of storytelling, new techniques of distribution and new ways of conveying the news.

But innovation can never be for itself alone. The best innovations must solve our problems. And Jesus, who art in heaven, and State Security Minister David Mahlobo, who art listening to our calls, know the media in South Africa have problems aplenty.

Our problems are not restricted to shrinking ad revenues, rapacious duo-polies and dwindling circulation. One of our biggest problems is our inability to tell the story of the person in Freetown calling the names of her relatives across the debris in such a way that she is heard as loudly as US First Lady Melania Trump in stilettos at the scene of a hurricane.

Our thoughts are with all the victims of flooding and mudslides in Texas, in Sierra Leone, in Niger, in Yemen, in South Asia. And our thoughts are also with all those whose suffering will never truly be acknowledged because the rest of the world has failed to realise humanity as a unified entity.

We need to talk about the multiple biases underpinning these inconsistencies. But it is not enough to talk. We must demand better of our media, of our governments, our aid agencies, ourselves.

We must do better. 

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