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The killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba: Outrage porn simply derails the fight against police brutality in South Africa

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Zipho Majova is a UCT Public Policy Honours graduate.

We cannot continue to allow outrage culture to derail long-lasting activism for true reform. Nathaniel Julies went to go buy biscuits and Mthokozisi Ntumba was coming from the doctor. It could have been you buying biscuits and it could’ve been me coming from the doctor. I am Nathaniel and Mthokozisi is me.

Last week, the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba, a civilian who was killed by police during the #WitsProtest against outstanding university student debt, sparked national social media outrage, proving, once again, that police brutality is another pandemic we face in South Africa. I was reminded of August 2020, when 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who was unarmed and had Down’s syndrome, was shot by a police officer while standing outside his home in Eldorado Park. He died the following day. Nathaniel’s passing sparked another national outrage and raised questions about the scourge of police brutality.

Who else must die at the hands of police officers for us to continue asking questions that never get answers? Who else’s lifeless body must trend for us to truly demand something be done? For us to call for true reform?

We cannot continue to allow outrage culture to derail long-lasting activism that calls for true reform. When you realise that Nathaniel went to buy biscuits and Mthokozisi was coming from the doctor, it becomes apparent that it could have been you buying biscuits and it could’ve been me coming from the doctor. Therefore, I am Nathaniel and Mthokozisi is me. That should be aggravating enough to want to bring this country to a standstill.

Police have become offenders and this is not a new conversation in South Africa. The discourse around police brutality is a trigger for many of us. It is a poignant reminder to those who were part of the 1976 student uprisings right up to the student protestors of the 2015/2016 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movement — three years after the gruesome killing of 34 mine workers in the 2012 Marikana massacre at the hands of the police under the ANC’s leadership. There have been many other instances of communities who have been profoundly dehumanised through disproportionate acts of law enforcement.

The problem with South Africa’s law enforcement is that it presumes black people, particularly black men, are generally more aggressive and thus warrant more suspicion — therefore it is anti-black law enforcement that endangers every black person in this country.

The cases of police brutality in the country not only exhibit how we’ve inherited the culture of police brutality as a legacy of the apartheid regime, but have also inherited the acceptance of such criminal behaviour by a failure to hold the police accountable for their criminal acts. But to say that I am surprised would be disingenuous because of our leadership’s priorities. Perhaps if this article was dedicated to the lifting of the alcohol ban, Minister Bheki Cele would have a mouthful to say.

In the year 2018/19, a whopping 3,835 cases of torture and assault allegedly committed by the police were reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). Between 2016 and 2019, 393 people were killed as a result of police action. Torture and assault include beating, electrocution and suffocation. These are, however, only the reported cases, so one can’t help but wonder about the unreported and unknown number of offences committed by national and municipal police services.

As it stands, the relationship between the public and police is broken, and I worry that it’s approaching a level that is beyond repair. To diverge for two seconds, my disclaimer is that for anything to face the threat of being beyond repair I suppose it must have been whole at some point.

I do not want to be misconstrued as saying that any form of “whole” relationship has ever existed between the police and myself – a young black woman. My earliest memory and experience of the police is being catcalled by them in their van while walking down the street as a teenager. Relationally, I’ve always been skeptical about the protection that police can provide for me. Years later, the scepticism has turned into an absolute loss of confidence in any man wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.

According to the findings in “Re-Imagining Justice in SA beyond Policing”, the per capita rate of police brutality is three times higher in South Africa than in the US, yet it took the death of George Floyd for our country to be outraged. The colloquial definition of outrage culture is “a set of behaviours, usually displayed on social media, that aim to hold individuals and groups accountable for alleged political and social transgressions through public shaming”.

If we look at a comparative case between the death of American Floyd and South Africa’s Collins Khosa, we see a stark difference in reaction to the two deaths, further illustrating the inconsistency of outrage culture.

William Shoki, writing in the Mail & Guardian, posits that because the media tends to commodify people’s rage and lived realities for capitalist consumption, society is more inclined to engage and get angry with content that is violent, graphic and traumatising. Hence the #ICan’tBreathe slogan against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter became a worldwide movement. The hashtag stems from the graphic video of Floyd, who was almost whispering that he couldn’t breathe to a police officer who continued to knee him down.

The findings sum it up so well: “…the discrepancies between rampant outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and the delayed dampened reaction to that of Collins Khosa can be explained by this theory, due to the availability of graphic footage for the former but not the latter”.

Fast-forward to March 2021, Mthokozisi Ntumba’s graphic video was uploaded to social media and, yes, you guessed right, it incited rage. But what about the countless murders by South African police during and before the lockdown without footage? What about the deaths that never made it to social media and have been excluded from the public’s interest?

Every time we scroll on a newsfeed, we’re bombarded with outrage porn – a term coined by New York Times contributor Tim Kreider as “selected specifically to pander to our impulses to judge and punish and get us all riled up with righteous indignation”. It’s outrage porn because it keeps looking out for the “next hit” to feed the anger arousal. The next racist. The next sexual offender. The next bigot.

Undoubtedly, media plays a huge part, through their high-impact propaganda clickbait headlines, in getting us all riled up. Getting angry feels like the first rush of a drug, it kicks in and then you become mellow. Once we’re all mellowed down, we move on the next and indulge in another kick, again and again. Because it makes us feel good.

The intent of outrage culture, which is to call out the oppressors, those in power and bring light to social justice, is a noble cause and should continue by all means. Arguably, one of the biggest positives of social media is that anyone can be an agent of change as it gives one a voice to educate and create awareness.

However, beyond that, we need to find more sustainable ways to effect reform that can have longevity beyond digital wars and trending topics. Less consumption of people’s traumatic experiences for entertainment and popularity politics, and more committed action to reform. No one else should experience victimisation at the hands of the men in uniform because our livelihoods literally depend on this.

Mthokozisi’s life depended on this. DM

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  • Dealing with outrage porn is incredibly complex. Many people are not upset about the tragedies that take place, but are upset so they can get that dopamine fix that comes from these online social media systems. I was once a part of it, realised the problem, and closed my Twitter account.

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