Defend Truth


How to write about the deaths of people who don’t matter


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

I was asked this week what it takes to tell the stories of black lesbians killed in the townships in South Africa. The answer, in some ways, lies in Ferguson, Missouri, far away from South Africa, in an American community that has been burning all week.

There is much that South African journalists and editors can learn from the coverage of the protests that have arisen in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Under normal circumstances the shooting death of a black teenager from a segregated community in the Southern state of Missouri would not have garnered much attention nationally, let alone globally. After all, two black men are killed every week by law enforcement officials in the US – most of them unarmed. Indeed, until he died, it is unlikely that Michael Brown mattered much to anyone except those who loved him. In his death he has come to matter a great deal to a great many people in America and beyond.

Brown has come to be a symbol of the nature and effect of everyday oppression. The response by the police to those who protested his killing has also shone a spotlight on the ways in which once activated, the systems of policing and repression mimic one another across contexts. Connected by tactics and technology, Gaza and Ferguson mirror one another. Both echo the scenes of militarisation and police aggression South Africans saw as Marikana flashed across their screens two years ago.

Michael Brown would have mattered less if Trayvon Martin hadn’t been killed in cold blood in 2012. He might have mattered far less if scores of journalists hadn’t trooped to Ferguson, drawn by the stench of America’s inner city decay and lured by the drama of a police force armed to the teeth against a citizenry that it has been trained to denigrate and demean.

But he does matter now. His death has sparked protests across America. This week, as I have pored over accounts of what happened to Brown and why, I have come across some of the finest writing I have seen in US journalism since 1992 when the police who brutalised Rodney King were allowed to walk free.

Because there are finally a few senior black journalists working for outlets of national significance in the US, to ensure that Ferguson is covered as an event that matters, Brown’s death and the subsequent protests have been covered with a sensitivity and intelligence that is rare in events related to racial minorities in the US.

Prominent writers like Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker and Ta-Nehesi Coates at The Atlantic have been consistent critics of American segregation. The explosion of Ferguson allows them to weave their considerable gifts of narration into the telling of this particular tragedy.

They have been joined by a chorus of other voices including Buzzfeed’s Joel Anderson, whose haunting account of his first night in Ferguson is avisceral read. Alongside John Legend (yes, the singer has been prolific and smart on Twitter), Melissa Perry, and other public intellectuals, they have demonstrated the extent to which the story of Ferguson – its neglect and its community spirit, its unacceptable levels of unemployment and its history – is part of the broader and on-going story of America’s struggle to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded.

They have been particularly compelling because despite his rocky tenure in office, the person of Barack Obama has managed to change the narrative of racial equality in America into one of triumph rather than one of pathology and dereliction. This has been important in some ways, even as the deaths of black boys at the hands of white men remind us that Obama’s America is not the only America. The soaring mobility of his family, the manner in which their perfect noses point to the sun – these have obscured the complex reality of racism in America’s cities in the last seven years.

Brown’s death allows America to do what it does best – to plumb the depths of its soul in search of meaning. That she seldom learns the lessons that her poorest citizens teach her is another matter altogether, but for those wanting to learn, Ferguson’s critics offer many instructions on how to report with grace and dignity about people no one is supposed to care about.

On Friday last week a lesbian named Gift Makau was found dead in Ventersdorp near her home. She had been mutilated, which is not unusual in hate-motivated crimes against gay people. She died in the way that many other lesbians in Gauteng have died in recent years. Her body bore the marks of loathing. A wire hanger, a hosepipe; the details of what was done with them do not bear repeating.

The lack of in-depth coverage of her death is yet another reminder that our media are still learning to cover the daily struggles of people who are unimportant. We have world-class investigative journalists who write fine pieces about corruption. The resources of our newsrooms, the energy of our best anchors and most seasoned journalists are reserved for the corruption stories. The scoops about governance and other sorts of political malfeasance hog our headlines and dominate our national discussions. There is no question that these corruption stories are essential. They tell us something about the state of our nation.

But they are not the only stories that speak to our collective health. Yet editors make choices every day, and most days; the stories they assign to their best and brightest are not about lesbians and children and pit latrines and hostels.

Our press doesn’t seem to know what to do with the murders and violent deaths of poor people. And so they either leave them unreported, or detail them with clinical distance. Just the facts: two teenagers found dead in a field outside White City. A man charged with burning a woman alive appeared in the magistrate’s court today. He was denied bail.

On television, Gift’s family cries. Their daughter has been murdered. The local councillor says that it is because “the community doesn’t accept gays”. The journalist makes no comment. This is as much analysis as we will get in this story.

I pore over the papers. I want to know whom she loved. I would like someone to tell me whether or not she wrote poetry. Who was her first love? What are the names of her siblings? Was she the first- or the lastborn? These questions do not explain the crime but their answers render Gift a subject. They will tell me about the contours of her heart and perhaps these are the facts that matter the most. These are the kinds of minutiae that stick in your head, that stay lodged there long after you have turned off the radio.

They are the sorts of details that make old ladies in church suck their teeth dismissively when their pastor suggests that homosexuality is unnatural. They remember Gift and her poetry or the way she protectively walked her brother or sister home each day and then had no one to protect her when she needed it. These are the ‘facts’ that make ‘lesbian’ mean something that is flesh and blood and breathing. Something that is as soft as it may be hard, something that is tender and belongs to us all.

Telling the stories of black lesbians or sex workers or drug users or car guards or homeless men can only happen when the lives that they live are respected. But in the end nothing will change if we continue to obsess about how people die and neglect to write about how they live. DM


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