A bum steer: The day the media became the butt of our own joke
- Xhanti Payi
- 16 Sep 2014 (South Africa)
City Press, amongst other prominent publications, recently carried reports about Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and her apparent threats to fight with her bum. Under the title “We will defend Zuma with our buttocks – Nomvula Mokonyane” the City Press reported, “Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane says ANC members and Cabinet ministers will use their buttocks to defend President Jacob Zuma.”
The predictable outrage, ridicule and eye-rolling ensued. Responding to this, however, Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a 21-year-old student, wrote calmly: “Today, the South African media proudly told the world that a woman – a cabinet minister, at that – was so devoted to President Jacob Zuma that she would defend him with her buttocks.”
Mohutsiwa went on to explain: “If you are a learned speaker of any language, it will quickly occur to you that such a statement is nonsensical. But if you are a speaker of a Sotho language, it will be immediately clear to you that this is, in fact, a direct translation of the idiom Re tlo thiba ka dibono.”
As Mohutsiwa explains, “The saying directly translates to ‘we will block with our buttocks’. It simply means that the speaker pledges to (along with some group) defend an individual or ideal with every ounce of their being, even if that means the last resort will be to use a traditionally non-confrontational body part.”
Given our current context and associations, this was clearly not something of value to the writer or editor.
Let’s back up a little. Something I deem similar to this occurred in the United States some two decades ago. In their 27 June 1994 issue, TIME Magazine published on their cover a darkened picture of OJ Simpson’s police booking mug-shot, causing a major controversy.
Commenting on this, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison told talk show host Charlie Rose of her understanding of TIME’s intentions, saying: “It was not to make a more beautiful cover. It was to make the association of blackness and criminality… To assert it as already in the material. A narrative of black pathology.”
Does this sound familiar? Indeed, our own media attempted to play at similar mischief of rhetoric and association.
It is not that it never occurred to the writers and editors of the newspapers that Mokonyane could not and should not be taken or translated directly. What did occur to them was that, if they did translate directly, it would fit the general script, the rhetoric, or what Morrison terms “the master narrative”.
Generally, the media did not translate Minister Mokonyane directly because they were too careless or lazy to investigate the meaning of her words. It was simply easier to place her words into the existing narrative. It was easier to play into an existing rhetoric of the most outrageous intellectual deficit amongst the particular group.
Quite frankly, it would be just be so simple and convenient to believe that she said those words and meant them so literally. Why not? The stupidity of ministers and government is already engraved in the minds of most South Africans. Mokonyane is already associated with outrageous utterances and nincompoops – spy tales, garlic curing Aids, voting clowns and dirty votes.
If she said she would fight with her buttocks, it would not be surprising.
It would lead, as it did for many, to that shaking-of the-head response. The “what is wrong with these people?” sigh.
As I myself sighed, I wondered if I’d fallen into the trap observed by the late Chinua Achebe.
The renowned writer recalled his own formative years of reading, when he realised that he had learnt he had completely bought into the savagery of Africans in stories and novels, and cheered on the Western explorers who were heroes. “I realised I had been one of the savages I was reading about when a white man would go into the wild. In the adventure books of the good white man wondering into the jungle and facing savages,” Achebe said. Thinking about the book The Heart of Darkness, it suddenly occurred to Achebe that he was one of the savages jumping up and down on the beach and jungle, and not Marlow’s seamen, as he had always thought.
It is easy to tell a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’. ‘They’ are the half-wits who fight with their bums, and ‘we’ are the better ones reading about them. But one has to be careful not to fall into the same trap Achebe later regretted.
The Commission on Freedom of the Press has already sounded an important warning: “The modern press itself is a new phenomenon. Its typical unit is the great agency of mass communication. These agencies can facilitate thought and discussion. They can stifle it…They can play up or down the news and its significance, foster and feed emotions, create complacent fictions and blind spots, misuse great words and uphold empty slogans.” This story proves exactly this.
In South Africa, the dangers represented by this kind of behavior in our press are not new, nor will the effect be any less venomous. In A Change of Tongue by Anjie Krog, we read of the time when Afrikaners took over power in the 1940 and 1950s. They received such “ridicule, disdain and revile” from the press that they had to find another way of doing things. “Everything we were was worthy of ridicule; our language, our political leaders, our intellectuals, our newspapers, our universities, our music, our literature, or what we dared to think of as one, even our bodies – fat, coarse women and bearded, spitting men. Nothing we had was worthy of respect. We were simply lazier, more stupid, more over the jam.”
It further reads: “…those English journalists were craft masters of humiliation. We stopped reading their newspapers - why should we expose ourselves to ridicule? We didn’t go to their universities; we didn’t listen to their radio programmes.”
Indeed, by the time the English press was reporting on the horrific abuses and excesses of Apartheid, who was listening? That is undoubtedly the brand of danger and deafness we will face now if things go on unchecked.
But, of course, this whole piece of writing could be the ranting of an insecure, overly sensitive conspiracy theorist - in which case, let us all expect the battle of the asses. DM