What is the role of a journalist in our society? I believe that a journalist's duty is to complicate the headlines and bring us the elements of truth that have been buried beneath in a nexus of disinformation and deception - otherwise known as “spin”. In other words, breaking through the double-speak. By JARED SACKS.
In an age in which we no longer lack information, but struggle to sort through and analyse that information, journalists cannot simply act as a parrot of official narratives, but must go deeper and seek out the contradictions that underlie such alluring propaganda.
Conceptually, learning to ask the right questions is a great place to start and there can be no question more important than asking whose interest is being served by these narratives. Journalists (at least in theory) exist to uncover the truth; spokespersons in PR departments on the other hand are paid to invent it or at least steer it in the ‘right’ direction.
It is also valid that in each situation there remain multiple truths, depending on one’s point of view – which is why it is so easy for spokespeople to, in a calculated fashion, express outrage when their facts are confronted with alternatives.
So how does one sift through those truths to find the most pertinent one to report on?
Some years back, as a community worker in Delft, I had the unfortunate opportunity of bearing witness to the eviction of thousands of poor Cape Townians who, with the written permission (mass fraud) of a DA councillor, had occupied thousands of homes in Lindiwe Sisulu’s flagship (but now failed) N2 Gateway housing project. At one level, it was about opportunistic ANC/DA politics. Yet, the underlying story – and I believe the more pertinent one – was the politics of poverty, of dispossession, and of people who were merely trying to make a better life for their families.
The government responded the only way they seem to know how: large-scale evictions backed up by a formidable police presence. Many occupiers responded with a fairly ineffectual tactic of non-violent civil disobedience: a street sit-in. Others, desperate to retain their furniture and other belongings, tried to prevent their things from being loaded onto flatbed trucks – they rightly feared that their property would get damaged, lost or dumped.
But all this merely slowed down the eviction operation and a frustrated police force eventually, and without warning, opened fire on hundreds of community members, sending at least a dozen to the hospital with rubber bullet wounds. A child (an innocent bystander riding through the scene on a bicycle with his uncle) sustained life-threatening wounds in the the foot, leg and shoulder.
Dozens of journalists were present on-scene and saw that the police action was unprovoked and unwarranted as the crowd was clearly peaceful. Yet, on television and in the papers the next day, the majority of media outlets and particularly the South African Press Association continued to quote a police spokesperson who claimed that officers were acting in self-defence when they were “pelted with stones” by “violent” residents.
Here, it was the responsibility of journalists to tell the truth which they saw with their own eyes and still they failed miserably thereby allowing trigger-happy police to get away with their abuse of power.
While many journalists are not doing their jobs, the media itself – through their singular pursuit of profit and their reliance on a deadline driven reporting culture – is also failing to support good journalism. Even more worryingly, though, they are failing to protect journalists from recurring threats and intimidation by government PR departments.
For instance, it is common knowledge amongst many journalists in Cape Town that if you criticise the actions of City officials, you do so at your own peril. Reporters in the City’s bad books regularly get threatened to be taken to the ombudsman, with legal action, and even with being blacklisted from receiving comment from officials. The example of a Sowetan journalist named Anna Majavu is a case in point.
More recently, my news report and follow-up Opinionista piece on the recent shack fire at BM Section in Khayelitsha have incurred the City’s wrath. Richard Bosman, Executive Director: Safety and Security, City of Cape Town even went as far as telling his entire staff to never speak to me again. Since journalists must get comment from government officials for their stories, the threat of blacklisting can become a simple bread and butter decision. Economically, we are forced to remain in the good graces of the powerful. No comment, no story. No story, no job.
It is ironic that a political party such as the Democratic Alliance, which claims oppose the ANC’s crackdown on the ‘right to know’, is actually just as disparaging of critical media. Vilifying journalists, accusing them of lying, and shutting down the debate on important issues is hardly any different to Julius Malema’s famous ejection of a ‘misbehaving’ BBC journalist or the SACP’s call for legislation against insulting the president.
All such inhibitions on freedom of expression are undemocratic and move us further and further away from ensuring transparent, responsible and accountable governance. The DA might be more polite, when they attempt to shut down the debate, but in the end, the threat against freedom of speech is the same.
And now, to sort through the many holes in the City’s response:
Fire truck response. The City of Cape Town now seems to claim that 17 fire engines responded to the BM Section fire. Yet, when I received an email response from the city on 2 January, Mr Bosman is quoted as saying that only seven fire trucks arrived on scene. On the other hand, it is disingenuous for the City to claim that seven fire trucks responded to the brush fire in Camps Bay because it ignores the fact that Wildfire Services also dispatched a number of vehicles and as many as 42 of its own members. Still, why if the City claims the response time was under 20 minutes do the residents I speak to in BM and QQ Section claim the fire trucks took hours to arrive? This is what the fire victims are claiming; I was simply repeating the accounts and views of residents.
Firstly, it is the City’s responsibility to speak to the fire victims themselves and find out why they are making these claims. The major failure here might not actually be the response time of the fire department. Rather, it might be the complete lack of communication and accountability when it comes to the thousands of victims. (Please note: consulting only to unaccountable community leaders is not acceptable).
Secondly, if the Cty believes in transparency and is as indignant about these claims as they make themselves out to be, they should release the official radio communications of the fire trucks’ response thereby clarifying the story once and for all.
I challenge to city to do both these things. Regarding the former, I challenge the City to commit to a sustained and meaningful consultative process with residents.
Helicopter response. The City rightly claims that “it is not safe to dispatch a helicopter using ‘water bombings’ while it is still dark”. I was told the same in discussions I have had with members of Wildfire Services. Yet while the City claims that the “helicopter was employed at first light”, they fail to mention that on the 1st of January, sunrise actually occurred at 05h39 – meaning at very latest, the helicopter should have been dumping water in the fire before 06h00. However, residents who were trying to save their homes from the spreading inferno as well as volunteers from neighbouring QQ Section all have told me that the helicopter arrived just before 08h00 – a two-hour discrepancy. The city has so far been unable to account for this discrepancy. Again, they should speak directly to the fire victims.
Using helicopters for shack fires. An interview with two senior members of Wildfire Services explained that while national government has two helicopters on standby for brush fires, the City of Cape Town only has one chopper for an array of purposes including firefighting. In other words, this is why only one helicopter responded to the Khayelitsha fire while two were used in Camps Bay brush fire. Additionally, the City’s helicopter is too large and therefore quite dangerous when responding to shack fires. Instead this helicopter is mostly used for crane-lifting at the port and occasionally to fight City fires; only reluctantly is it ever used to fight shack fires.
Assuming the City is reluctant to use the helicopter for this legitimate reason, it raises deeper questions of why the city invests in a pricey and unwieldy helicopter unsuitable for fight shack fires. Why doesn’t the City have two safe and more affordable helicopters dedicated to fighting shack fires considering that this epidemic kills more than 100 people each year and renders thousands homeless? Are shack fires really a priority for the City?
Temporary Relocation Areas (TRA). The City claims that all 854 families who were affected by the BM Section fire will be relocated to a transit camp “within the surrounding area”. But what does this actually mean for the residents? Firstly, the said TRA is Bosasa near Mfuleni which is difficult to get to transport-wise, far from jobs, children’s schools and medical clinics. Secondly, once in the TRA, the residents will not actually be allowed back to BM Section or Khayelitsha in general. This means that they are effectively being sidelined from the promised upgrade of BM Section. As the history of TRAs such as Blikkiesdorp (now almost six years old) has shown us, once you have been dumped in a TRA, it can become your permanent home.
Finally, moving over 800 families into the already busy Bosasa TRA is likely to become a social nightmare. As the experience of Blikkiesdorp has taught us, putting families in new locations without support networks and amongst new people they don’t know can lead to significant increases in crime, other forms of violence, school dropouts and is akin to intentionally constructing an impoverished ghetto. As the former pavement dwellers of Symphony Way always remind me: Blikkiesdorp is hell, “I am not going to lie to you, it was better on the road” where they felt safe, could rely on their neighbours and had built a strong community where they were “like family”.
Development is not merely about the delivery of certain services, but also about how and why those services are delivered.
So I wish I could agree with the City that “there is no fault or blame in this situation” and that “the City works with all concerned stakeholders, most importantly with the communities themselves”. But the truth is very far from that. While I have made about twelve visits to BM and QQ Section since the 1st of January, I still have yet to see any government official or anyone from Disaster Management at the scene of the fire. Granted, I haven’t been present when Helen Zille or Patricia de Lille have shown up to make their quick political speeches. Yet, when I have been around, I have only found government services sitting around at OR Tambo Hall where it is safe and comfortable for them to coordinate relief efforts which are actually primarily being run by NGOs.
The City can hide behind certain truths: they may have met with this or that unaccountable ‘community leader’. They may have given out letters to fire victims informing them of the City’s chosen plan. They may even have held a mass meeting of group of fire victims telling them of their options. But these are all stage-managed ‘consultations’ that are top-down in nature.
One month after the fire, however, the City still does not realise that the fire victims themselves still consider the fire response a failure, still believe the city is not listening to them and still don’t quite understand the long-term consequences of being dumped in Bosasa. There still has been no meaningful engagement by the City because there are too many aloof technocrats who continue to think that the experts are only the people with degrees and not the residents themselves.
They would do well to change their approach and heed the social movement call: “Nothing for us, without us”. DM
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