Knowledge is the new black.
29 April 2017 19:27 (South Africa)
Opinionista Nathan Geffen

Media: Cases like Rowan du Preez's are slipping through the cracks

  • Nathan Geffen
    Nathan-Geffen.jpg
    Nathan Geffen

    Nathan Geffen is the editor of GroundUp and the former treasurer of the Treatment Action Campaign. Twitter: @nathangeffen

Media publications have to make choices about what we report. We all have limited resources: there simply is neither enough time nor reporters to cover everything. Thus questions relevant to the lives of millions of people in South Africa are largely going unanswered.

Rowan du Preez was an albino. We don't know much about him. He made a living as a petty criminal. He probably encountered prejudice his entire life and had few if any opportunities for a decent education or career, though we don't know this for sure.

We know he lived in Mfuleni. His criminal activities which included breaking into people's houses and stealing their belongings were a cause of distress in his community.

In the early hours of 13 October 2012, he was probably kidnapped. Then in a field near where he lived, someone or some people put a tyre round his body, and doused him or the tyre in petrol. And then lit it.

This mode of murder, necklacing, was used frequently in the 1980s against collaborators with the apartheid regime. Rowan must have suffered excruciating pain. Experts in the court case that followed testified that in his final hours, while he was still conscious and being taken by ambulance to hospital, that he would have been dehydrated and desperate for oxygen, breathing 26 times a minute instead of the usual 12. He would have likely been groaning, and pleading for water. And he died soon thereafter.

Angy Peter, her husband Isaac Mbadu, and two other people – Azola Dayimani and Christopher Dina – were arrested and charged with kidnapping and murdering Du Preez. Peter was a leader in the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) and at the forefront of the organisation's efforts to improve policing in Mfuleni. But she had actively campaigned against the vigilante justice that had been taking place in her community. She knew Du Preez. In August 2012 he had allegedly stolen her television. Apparently too, Peter had tried to reform Du Preez.

Peter had for a while before her arrest had a deeply conflictual relationship with the police. She accused them of being in cahoots with criminals, including Du Preez, and she was part of the SJC's campaign to hold the police more accountable which ultimately resulted in the commission of inquiry into policing held in Khayelitsha. The police harassed Peter, regularly raiding her house on flimsy pretences.

In the ensuing trial, Peter's defence alleged that she had been framed, that she and her co-accused were innocent of Du Preez's murder. Instead, their theory went, the police had more motive to kill du Preez, because at least one of the officers in Blue Downs police station was buying stolen goods from Du Preez, and protecting him. The police were now worried that Du Preez, due to Peter's intervention, was going to expose them, and they also wanted to get rid of Peter who was a constant thorn in their side.

The police on the other hand, argued that Du Preez had made a dying testimony to them at the scene, in which he named Peter and Mbadu as his murderers. Expert medical witnesses testified that this was unlikely, that Du Preez would have been in no condition to give such testimony.

The judge in the trial did some – let's say – interesting things. He was continuously antagonistic to the defence advocate and Peter. He discounted expert testimony. Most observers felt there was so much reasonable doubt that an acquittal was definitely on the cards. Yet the judge found Peter and her co-accused guilty.

While they sat in prison waiting for the sentencing hearing, the judge was perhaps racked with doubt about his decision, because he then indicated that he wanted to give a restorative justice sentence, which effectively means that Peter had to meet Du Preez's family, and ask for their forgiveness, but there would likely be no prison sentence.

Now restorative justice sentences make sense for, say, stealing a television, even negligent homicide like knocking someone over with your car. But for murder, for a necklacing, one of the worst kinds of premeditated murder? It's absurd.

Lawyers I've spoken to believe the judge had perhaps realised his guilty finding was a mistake and was now trying to undo the damage. This is a judge by the way who has made some very poor decisions that have been overturned on appeal.

Anyway, apparently Angy Peter wasn't much interested in asking for forgiveness for a crime she says she didn't commit. The restorative justice process broke down. The judge then sentenced her to a prison term. She and her co-accused have appealed, and are currently out of prison pending the appeal.

It's almost three years since the murder. The appeal is pending, and we still don't know who committed it.

Now most of you, most people in South Africa, and unequivocally most people in the world, have likely not heard of Angy Peter or Rowan du Preez. This trial received very little media coverage.

Most of you, most people in South Africa and possibly most adults in the world have however heard of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.

The Pistorius trial was ongoing during the Peter one. While the Pistorius trial was one of the most reported in human history, there were few reports of the Peter trial. We regularly reported the Peter trial in GroundUp. There were occasional dispatches in other media but nothing consistent.

So which trial was the most important? Obviously the answer to that question would be highly contested and to some extent subjective. My view is that the Peter trial was of much greater public interest, if not as interesting to the public. The Pistorius trial was certainly titillating, touching on issues of fallen 'heroes', domestic abuse, macho culture, and attitudes towards unseen home invaders by upper middle-class people living in expensive security complexes.

But the Peter case was much more. It goes to the heart of the relationship between police and poor communities in South Africa, vigilantism, the role of police in crime, the relationship of deprivation to crime, and, also, prejudice against albinos.

The fact that the Peter case received so little reporting, so little investigation raises questions about how news is prioritised. Why did the Pistorius trial receive so much publicity by comparison? Is it because the protagonists in the Peter case were black? Possibly, but cases involving black protagonists have received significant publicity (eg 'Jub Jub', Donald Sebolai). Is it because they were all poor, living in a bleak township on the edge of Cape Town? I think that's a more probable explanation.

Media publications have to make choices about what we report. We all have limited resources: there simply is neither enough time nor reporters to cover everything. There isn't enough money to cover much in depth. Most publications have to base their decisions on what to prioritise on what makes sense from a business perspective. I won't dispute that Pistorius and Steenkamp were always going to get more website hits, sell more newspapers and therefore more advertising than Peter and du Preez.

There is so much more we could still learn about the Rowan du Preez murder. GroundUp's coverage, despite being more consistent than any other media when it came to reporting it, merely scratched the surface.

Who was Rowan du Preez? Where did he go to school? When did he turn to crime? What was his relationship with his family, and his community? Who are the police in Mfuleni and Blue Downs? Are they indeed involved in crime and protecting criminals? Were they intentionally harassing Angy Peter? If so, did anyone give the orders to do that? Were the cops involved in Du Preez's murder? How good are they at solving crimes in Mfuleni and Blue Downs? And is this story unique to Mfuleni and Blue Downs, or are there similar ones being played out across the country? Is what has happened here a microcosm of the systemic problems facing the South African Police Service countrywide?

These are the questions that as journalists we should be answering. They are of immense public interest. The answers to these questions are relevant to the lives of millions of people in South Africa. Yet we're largely not answering them. These are potentially such interesting investigative projects for young reporters.

In the US, there's a radio show called This American Life. They publish their broadcasts as podcasts. They were responsible for the highly acclaimed series called Serial. They've recently published a brilliant podcast called The problem we all live with which deals with segregation of schools along racial lines, a problem that continues to exist in South Africa too by the way. Their reporters sometimes spend months doing in-depth investigations. Their work is inspirational, excellent, the very highest standard of reporting. They are non-profit, funded primarily by donations. As journalists we should be asking how do we do more of that kind of work in South Africa.

Of course, the problem is resources. Few if any publications have the money to put reporters on a project for a long period of time, to assist with in-depth fact-checking, transport and other costs.

Anton Harber and others have written at length on the resource challenges facing the South African media. I'm not going to traverse their arguments in any depth. But we are facing severe challenges. Advertising from the private sector has to a large extent moved away from hard news reporting. Classified advertising, the lifeblood of many newspapers, has largely moved to Gumtree. Government advertising appears to come with a string attached: loyalty to the government, as shown by the scandal of The New Age receiving nearly as much advertising as The Sowetan, despite the latter having more than 10 times the number of readers. We have the takeover of Independent Newspapers from one unsatisfactory proprietor that was bleeding it dry by another unsatisfactory one, who uses the Cape Times and other titles for self-promotion.

And because of the increased financial constraints on newsrooms, we have an explosion of opinion websites. Hard news is often expensive. It takes reporter time and transport costs to put together hard news stories. (It can also take experience and perseverance as when Greg Marinovich exposed the truth behind the Marikana massacre.) Now more opinion and analysis is not a bad thing at all. But opinion decoupled from hard news is a problem, because it means that opinion and analysis becomes skewed to the few remaining news priorities like the Pistorius case, and it can often be uninformed on important but harder to report, or less profitable, news stories, which have been ignored.

These problems are not unique to South Africa. Publications across the world face them. How does hard news make a profit or even break even in the age of the internet?

A few publications such as GroundUp, AmaBhungane and Health-e are pursuing a different model. Like This American Life we're relying on donations to support our work, and consequently we're largely free to report stories that we think are important. Our model doesn't come without problems either. And how sustainable our organisations are for the long run is an open question.

Despite these resource constraints, the need for hard news reporting is as great as ever. For those of you who want to become investigative reporters, there is so much possibility, and many lifetimes worth of fascinating, important and society-changing news stories to report today. There are reporting institutions in South Africa that offer opportunities to do great stories. I hope some of you will take these opportunities, and go on to be excellent journalists whose stories change the world. DM

The author is the editor of GroundUp.

  • Nathan Geffen
    Nathan-Geffen.jpg
    Nathan Geffen

    Nathan Geffen is the editor of GroundUp and the former treasurer of the Treatment Action Campaign. Twitter: @nathangeffen

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