Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 4 March 2014

Telling our own stories: beyond Oscar Pistorius

If an international media contingent like the one accompanying the Oscar Pistorius trial had arrived in South Africa ten years ago, the response of the general public would have been markedly different from the attitude we see today. A decade ago South Africans would have been intensely invested in the international media portrayal of the country. Today, many people in the country don’t seem to be too worried about what the foreign press say about us.

The events around the Mandela memorial signified a turning point. As a stadium full of mourners booed President Jacob Zuma in front of a global broadcast, South Africans seemed to have finally come loose from the chokehold ‘international opinion’ has had on our national sense of self-esteem.

In the first ten years of our democracy, the country was still enamoured with what the world thought of us. We adored the adoration; we loved to be loved.

The role that the international community played in the struggle against Apartheid had reached almost mythical status in the early 1990s. This translated into a sense that we mattered to the world in a way that was unique and of course the world mattered very much to us too. Some of our preoccupation with international views was about investors, but a significant part of it was about how we saw South Africa’s place in the world.

By 2004, however, the love affair was decidedly over. ‘International media’ became a dirty phrase to some among us. Foreign press raised questions about everything from crime statistics to corruption to President Thabo Mbeki’s statements on Aids. Many of these questions were, of course, appropriate. But we also feared that long before he was actually gone, the post-Madiba narrative was beginning to gather force.

At the same time that we fell out of favour with the international press in the early 2000s, the international system itself was undergoing enormous turmoil. A series of global events shattered the faith of ordinary people around the world in the international order. It was hard not to be suspicious of the media when an illegal war in Iraq was being covered by an embedded press corps and when the views of journalists were less and less critical of American actions.

At the same time the social media landscape was rapidly transforming. This transformation converged with the explosive growth of middle class populations in a number of middle-income countries, including this one.

Today, well over 12 million South Africans have access to the Internet, and over five million of us are on Twitter. This group of chatterers and opinion shapers is more cocky and confident than the generation that preceded it and by far more cosmopolitan.

This means in some ways it is more cynical. It is also more insular and less interested in what external actors think.

This isn’t necessarily a contradiction – more a mark of the kind of media and democratic robustness that you see in places like the India, Brazil or the United States.

In the absence of a strong internal culture of debate, such insularity can be dangerous. In the case of South Africa however, it signifies a vibrancy rather than a knee-jerk prickliness. There is, of course, still too much prickliness going around. Increasingly, however, it is measured, couched in terms that recognise that the stories of gloom and doom projected about South Africa aren’t having the awful impact on our economy and our national image that we thought they might.

We simply care less about what gets said about us. Indeed, as South Africa’s tourism stats show (ten per cent year-on-year growth in the aftermath of the global recession in 2012) in a media landscape where there are multiple sources of competing information there are many ways to counter ‘bad’ press and to introduce other kinds of stories.

I am not arguing that there isn’t a place for insightful stories about South Africa by Western journalists. Indeed, there is something inevitable about the Oscar Pistorius’ story as a metaphor for this country’s fall from grace. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there isn’t a compelling narrative there.

What I am suggesting is that increasingly, these frames are better articulated by South Africans than they are by outsiders, and most importantly, as a result, we care less about how we are viewed. Without projecting a chauvinism about the matter, I think this is as it should be.

South Africans are learning to get the balance right. On the one hand, we are jaundiced enough to be careful of journalists eyeing Pulitzer prizes. We are wary of those who come to our shores understanding all too well that searing portrayals of a country ‘at war with itself’ are likely to win awards. On the other hand, we are also becoming more thick-skinned because we aren’t so focused on the outside world. There is a rich, textured national conversation that is far more interesting than the global story. Whether the world is watching or not matters less and less in this context.

The New Yorker is a grand New York publication because by and large, it is written by, for and about New Yorkers. National Public Radio (NPR) tells beautiful stories about America told by Americans.

South Africans are learning that we will continue to best understand ourselves by reading our own words, and seeing ourselves through the eyes of other South Africans.

The visitors will come and go. South Africans will accept their Euros and their dollars, laugh genuinely with them and pat them on the back as they wander into our malls. But otherwise, with ever-increasing confidence, we will smile at their stories and say, ‘Ah! They are here for but a few short months. We are here to stay.’ DM


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