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16 December 2017 01:36 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

In the public interest? Covering SMSes, sobs and shootings

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

It may be interesting to the public that a celebrity shot his beautiful girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t make the broadcasting of that story inherently in the public interest. Deliberating about whether or not the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius should be broadcast or not, Judge Dunstan Mlambo noted that open justice was a “noble” idea. He decided that broadcasting what he termed a ‘celebrity’ trial would dispel public misconceptions about the justice system.

While I agree with the broad principle, I worry that the increasing allure of celebrity culture has skewed our sense of what matters, and what we need to see and hear. Indeed, much of the coverage I have witnessed doesn’t focus on the public interest aspects of the case at all. So while the process of justice is crucial to understand, I worry about the cost of that public interest where there are also overwhelming private interests at stake.

Justice – while serving a public interest – is always also deeply personal. It is impossible to listen to Pistorius’ wavering shaky voice giving testimony, and not wonder what right you have to be listening to this. It is equally difficult to watch Steenkamp’s parents without feeling like an intruder, like a voyeur invested only superficially in a case that means everything to a family that loved and raised a child who is no longer here.

And because we – like the rest of the world – have developed short memories in the era of short news cycles and increasingly pared-down news rooms, it is tempting to believe that the Pistorius case represents the first major event that has allowed South Africans to watch justice, live and in action. 

The first time a live broadcast of a judicial process was allowed was a mere two years into our shiny new democracy, on 15 April, 1996. In that instance, there was no question that watching the proceedings was in the national interest. This month, eighteen years ago, the SABC did a live broadcast to the South African public, of the Truth and Reconciliation’s Commission’s human rights violation committee. 

It is easy to forget how monumental it was for the public broadcaster to be beaming the stories of brutality and torture into the homes of South Africans. The self-congratulatory pats on the back that media houses have given themselves about how important it has been to screen the Pistorius case seem petty in comparison. 

It has become extremely uncool to recall the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with any fondness, but for all its flaws the TRC provided us with a blueprint for public grieving and recollection. It was a shining example of when the sharing of private pain was in the public interest. As we labour through the Marikana Commission, as we become increasingly mired in the never-ending processes related to Nkandla, and as we watch the Pistorius and Dewani cases unfold before us, it is worth remembering the things that the TRC got right.

The TRC was a brave attempt at creating a national process to dignify loss and elevate the telling of the truth. In July 1997, two months after my return to South Africa, I attended the women’s hearings of the TRC. During the hearings, many women spoke of lovers they last saw slipping out of their homes at dawn, of sons and daughters who said goodbye and headed for school and never came back. Some had come to ask if anyone had seen them, if anyone knew where they have gone. Some had just come to tell their stories – to have witnesses to their pain. 

Thandi Shezi testified during the women’s hearings. She remembered electric shocks administered to her genitals. She remembered biting her tongue. She remembered not being able to scream past its swelling when the raping began. She remembered the raping until she remembered only how the blackness of passing out saved her.

Having the privilege to watch her testimony was a gift. Like others, in the half-empty hall, I shifted in my seat, not knowing know where to put the intimacy of re-lived pain. But after it was all said and done, I was convinced that I was witnessing the end of monstrous things. I was certain that we had spent our vitriol and our violence, that as a nation, we had turned our backs on doing ourselves harm. I also knew that I had been allowed to hear Thandi Shezi’s pain because she wanted me to know it, because the state had been part of creating the circumstances of her torture and her loss.

This clarity isn’t always present as we listen in on the text messages between Oscar and Reeva, as we consider the veracity or not of his story. The same is likely to be true in the Shrien Dewani case. 

The most important thing about the TRC was that it broadcast stories that were in the public interest because they told stories that had been excluded from the public record because they were the stories of crimes against people who were not considered to have mattered until that point. Their lives, their losses, their pain, was inconsequential.

One might argue that when it comes to violence against women in South Africa, the Pistorius case is in the public interest for very similar reasons. Public interest coverage of the case would move beyond the fact of this beautiful woman's death, to focus on the experiences of thousands of women just like her. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, coverage of the Pistorius trial thus far has focused on what’s interesting, not on what's in the public interest. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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