Defend Truth


Casualties of Cola: Why even a flawed media is worth defending


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

As you read this story you will recognise that the economic system that continues to keep black people very, very poor in this country has been broken for so long, and the private sector has been so strong for so long, that we have a vast imbalance that has been allowed to flourish unchecked. We the people have not been demanding when it comes to scrutiny of corporate conduct. The media has led us and also followed us in this silence. It is a mutually reinforcing culpability.

There is a lengthy local tradition of the sort of writing you will see in Daily Maverick Chronicle’s Casualties of Cola. But in the new South Africa we have forgotten some of our finest traditions of resistance and activism. Journalists these days focus on politicians as though they are the only bad guys left. They must be held accountable of course, but there are rules and ethical requirements and we cannot allow a company worth trillion rands to conduct itself as though it has no responsibilities.

This story is important because of its content but also because of the context in which it has been written. It forms part of a rich history. Ruth First and Joe Gqabi did a series of investigations into the conditions of farmers in Bethel in the late 1940s. They wrote about the lives of people hidden from view. Later, in the 1950s, Henry Nxumalo wrote about similar issues. His exposes included interviews with over 50 farm workers. He posed as a labourer and risked his life to tell us the truth. Zubeida Jaffer did the same thing in 1980. She spoke to the family members of protesters who had been killed by the police in the Cape. She walked house-to-house and door-to-door and then published a full-page story. As a result, the slaughter of ordinary people by a murderous minority government was exposed.

This story – this one you will read about Coca-Cola – is part of a rich canon. It exists because of First and Gqabi and Nxumalo and Jaffer and countless others.

It is a story that reminds us why we need the media, with all its flaws and inconsistencies, with its not-good-enoughness; untransformed and full of warts, with its wrong facts and its mistakes. Only journalists can give us these kinds of stories. Citizens can take pictures and they can document events, but journalism is an art and a science and it matters because it makes our country more honest and true. A normal person cannot dedicate the time and resources to interviewing people and phoning lawyers and securing documents. Only a person who does this for a living can. Stories like this force us to stop dismissing people with power simply because we think they are too big to fight and they remind us why journalists matter.

Important journalism is careful and slow and difficult. Important journalism is possible because the writer dares to ask a question and is patient enough to sit through the answer, although it may come through tears and snot or from the rancid mouths of the dying or through the sickening breath of the wealthy. Important journalists stitch words together and tell us what we had not known before. They are more interested in the mundane than they are in the spectacular. Because the spectacular will always reveal itself while the mundane requires exposing.

Once you have read and understood this story, ask yourself if you want to live in a country where this kind of exposé is not possible. Remind yourself that stories like this don’t write themselves, and editors like this aren’t born every day. Remind yourself that big companies withdraw advertising from outlets when they publish stories like this one.

Say all of this out loud so that when the media tribunal comes – which it will –you’ll stand up and say “no” to the sorts of people who want to shut down such stories. Defend the flawed and still far-too-liberal media. Defend the journalists and the photographers, and the columnists. Defend them – the ones you hate and the ones you love. And at the same time, because no struggle has ever been fought and won on the basis of a single issue, hold the media to a standard higher than what it delivers. Insist that we cannot continue to have a racialised media landscape in which the leaders are white and the underlings are black and the texture of black lives is bumpy and uneven. Do all of this but by God, acknowledge that having a media that writes stories like this one is necessary and, yes, as we strive to be a better, more just country, is also priceless. DM


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