The media’s response to racism

This week there has been international media outrage against a racist incident in South Africa, where four students at the University of the Free State recorded an initiation ritual where they humiliated black workers by, amongst other things, forcing them to eat a concoction into which they had urinated.
In an insightful response, Sean Jacobs hopes (but doubts) that we will see a serious discussion of the events in the media. It seems like the dominant responses emerging in the days after the incident still fail to connect this incident with larger, structural problems which continue to create the climate for racism in the country to persist. While the Mail and Guardian has done a good job of explaining the official attempts at transformation and student attitudes at the university, one hopes that they will continue to follow up with investigations into larger issues like the prevailing student culture that allowed a space for these type of initiations to take place. The M&G is also hosting a discussion event where the media’s coverage of race will be discussed, which is a laudable step in self-reflection and civic engagement. But ‘race’ is not something that can be covered as a topic in isolation. It should be analysed in its relation to broader societal issues, relations and conditions. The M&G’s report cites a posters at a protest march on campus: “Don’t blame the students, blame their parents”. The fact that children can grow up in a democracy with such a sense of historical amnesia or oblivion to the structural privilege they still enjoy to think that serving urine-infested dog food to people is somehow a justified response to having to share their residence with black students, says something quite worrying about South African society. The media could be the place where the conditions that cultivate racist attitudes and create the opportunity for them to be manifested in the first place could be interrogated. The media should continue to remind the public of the vast power imbalances in the country that put idiotic white kids in a position to tell black workers to obey their commands, for the privilege of being able to clean up after them. It should continue to ‘make strange’ the social hierarchies, held in place by economic disparities, that South Africans often take as given. We need reports that relate these individual experiences and incidents with larger structural questions about the transformation of education in the country, access to secondary and tertiary institutions. The media should continue to provide hard figures about just how (un-)integrated campuses like Free State are. (A little symbolic touch is that the students could quite literally not even spell the Afrikaans word for ‘integration’ correctly in the video. Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek, indeed). We need reporters to spend time with students (not only on the historically Afrikaans campuses, but the historically ‘liberal’ English ones as well) to conduct ethnographies of student attitudes and interaction. We need to know what are the social processes and institutions that have been shaping young people growing up in a democratic country to engage in the violation of human rights. In short: the media should report the Free State incident not in typical event-based style (‘he-said/she-said/this happened/then that happened’), but use it as a springboard to do the long, hard and difficult work of understanding the complexities and contradictions of a society that was supposed to have been democratised almost 15 years ago. The other response we are seeing in the media is that the event is constructed as (yet another) ‘isolated incident’ for which a couple of individuals were responsible. Sometimes it even seems that judgement is reserved as to whether this is really ‘racist’ or just misguided fun. The Afrikaans media has given space to the students’ parents to accuse the media of ‘blowing things out of proportion’, and Die Burger even dared to ask the question in a poll whether the incident should be seen as ‘racism or innocent student fun’ (with the results overwhelmingly in favour of ‘fun’).
This is not an isolated incident and the media should take care not to report it as such. By framing the incident as an shocking, outrageous event rather than as a symptom of more widespread, persisting racist attitudes in the country, the media reinforces the notion of racism as something individual rather than systemic. It then gives us the opportunity to voice our moral outrage (vicariously by framing the events as deplorable or directly by devoting web page or letter page space to responses). In rejecting the racist behaviour we obtain catharsis – of course we all deplore racism, of course we all find it disgusting and we all hate individuals like these who shatter our dreams of a new South Africa. Of course. So let’s continue as before in the rainbow nation.
The point is that incidents like these show that the myth of the ‘rainbow nation’ continues to be exploded. Rigthwing extremism does not only take the form of a white schoolkid going on a shooting rampage in a township. It feeds off discourses, however subtle or disguised – on the web (racist rants from YouTube and Facebook to the blogosphere, where the Digital Divide ensures white voices are dominant), in popular culture (e.g. the De la Rey saga last year where young Afrikaners celebrated a Boer general who would symbolically deliver them from their perceived oppression), in sport (look at the response to the ‘political appointment’ of the new black Springbok coach as if redress automatically excludes merit). Instead of reporting events such as the Free State racist video only as scandals to be managed, punished or met with a political response, the media should start connecting the dots. Viewing these events as isolated incidents means that we can continue to cling to the dream that the South African transition to democracy is something that happened in 1994, rather than as something that is far from complete. Why are we surprised if we are confronted by the messy, bloody, ugly face of history that still stalks our social lives and our public discourse like a zombie that refuses to die? Because we treat incidents like the Free State race video as shocking but isolated incidents that run counter to our treasured belief that South Africans live in a new country, rather than interrogating the evidence that suggests that, in many ways, they are not. The Free State incident should create the opportunity for the media to take a long, hard look at the state of the nation. Let’s see daily, weekly and monthly investigative work uncovering the attitudes, the economic structures, the social conditions and the institutional practices that continue to create a space for people like the Free State Four to somehow think that what they were doing was fun, or worse, a legitimate response to ‘integration’ that was forced upon them. The very fact that integration has to take place through quotas and and places in a university residence should already be an indication of how far South African society is from the widely celebrated rainbow ideal of integration. No wonder the students didn’t even know how to spell the word.
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Filed under Free State Four, integration, racism, racist video, residence, students, urinate

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