Media's Coverage of Race Debate Flawed

6 Feb 2015

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** We apologise for the variable sound quality of this video and podcast.

As South Africa enters its third decade as a democracy, the idea of a rainbow nation, so carefully nurtured over the past 20 years, is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain with the stark realisation that the country remains largely untransformed. The lack of economic progress and social mobility for the vast majority of black South Africans means that apartheid-era social divisions have proven difficult to overcome, fuelling mistrust and undermining social cohesion.

Meanwhile, as frustrations mount, the sharp edge of South Africa’s racial divide has re-surfaced in several incidents and public debates in recent weeks.

The moment seems right to test the authenticity of South Africa’s claim to non-racialism. On Monday, February 2, SACSIS and the Friedrich Ebert South Africa Office (FES), two partner organisations that promote constructive engagement through social dialogue, turned their attention to South Africa’s racial divide by co-hosting a panel discussion on how the media covers the race debate.

SACSIS and FES were keen to examine whether our media blindly adheres to the rainbow nation script by preferentially shying away from a deeper discussion of South Africa’s racial conflict.

A high profile panel of speakers comprising writer and political analyst, Eusebius McKaiser, Editor-in-Chief of City Press, Ferial Haffajee, Kaya FM presenter, John Perlman, and Associate Professor from the University of Cape Town, Xolela Mangcu offered refreshingly frank observations on what is recognised to be a complex and seemingly insoluble problem. SACSIS’ Fazila Farouk chaired the panel.

Racism Is a Global Problem

Opening the event, FES director, Renate Tenbusch took the opportunity to talk about racism in its various forms as a global problem, from the Ferguson protests in the U.S., to Charlie Hebdo in France to anti-Semitism in Europe and heightened Islamophobia in Germany to the xenophobic attacks in Soweto - racism in its various forms, unfortunately, is capturing media headlines all over the world, she remarked.

Watch Tenbusch’s input on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to her on podcast.

We Need a Steve Biko for the 21st Century

Caricaturing the competing narratives of the race debate in its loosest terms, City Press’ Ferial Haffajee argued that the parameters of the media’s race debate goes something like this:

“So whites generally want to just move on. Let bygones be bygones. To be a shallow, happy, rainbow nation and just please do something about the potholes. So, Blacks I find are generally like, okay, just a minute there - my life hasn’t changed fockol and yours is just as nice as it’s always been… In fact your life is better. So, no ways am I moving on.”

It is at these elite concerns that the media debate starts and ends, she contended, further describing it, as fiddling at the edges of suburban complexities.

Haffajee called for a “psychology of liberation” to deal with the inferiority and superiority complexes that abound in the media. She felt that we needed a Steve Biko for the 21st Century.

Watch Haffajee’s input on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to her on podcast.

Racism Originated as an Aesthetic Phenomenon

Xolela Mangcu offered a theoretical and conceptual framework within which to understand the role of the media and how it portrays race. He said that there was a foundational and conceptual flaw in understanding the role of society in the post-apartheid era. That flaw is that we perceived of our transition to democracy almost exclusively in economic and political terms, which in turn denied racism as a cultural process of dehumanisation.

Mangcu argued that we needed to deal with racism as a social phenomenon - as opposed to an economic and political phenomenon - and locate the role of the media within this conceptual framework.

In his view, racism emerged within the natural sciences in the enlightenment era when natural scientists were ascending in the world and given the opportunity to classify and rank the social world. Thus, beginning the categorisation and ranking of people when the most important concept in the Western scientist’s categorisation of human beings was the notion of beauty: “What is beautiful?”

Consequently racism originated as an aesthetic phenomenon, which still largely informs how the media portrays black people. This, he argued, is the foundation and structure of modern discourse. The narrative of who deserves to be called “beautiful”.

Watch Mangcu’s input on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to him on podcast.

The Media Ignores Everyday Racial Prejudices

John Perlman argued that the media has a tendency to only cover race when it explodes to the surface.

He talked about the need for the media to cover the everyday experiences of racism that are far more wounding. In this regard, Perlman raised an important point about the experience of racism for black people, which is that they are often not made to feel welcome.

Perlman shifted the discussion to the role of whites in South Africa.

He pointed out that a lot of the depiction of what black people do and how they behave is structured around this idea of black exceptionalism -- and that the white community’s cherry picking of Nelson Madiba’s more conciliatory gestures, tend to serve as the standard against which black people are measured.

The roots of the problem for white people, contended Perlman, lies in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which didn’t spend enough time on the institutions that entrench the more subtle forms of white power today.

Perlman’s message to white South Africans was, firstly, that they should be wiling to listen to everything that black people say. Secondly, he argued that this society is entitled to turn around to every single white person and say, “You are responsible for what goes on in this country post-1990.”

He concluded his remarks by addressing white South Africans directly and said, “We made the mess. We were part of the mess that was made before. We have to be involved in fixing it.”

Watch Perlman’s input on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to him on podcast.

We Don’t Talk about the Nature of Racism

Eusebius McKaiser argued that we don’t do enough of, is talk about “the nature of racism”.

In his view, racism shouldn’t be conceived of simply in terms of racist action. This lets us off the hook, he said. When you talk about a racist act in isolation, you under-describe the full nature of racism, he explained.

Secondly, McKaiser also said that at the heart of racism is an incredible narcissism. And thirdly he argued that there is an incredibly important relational dynamic to racism.

McKaiser clarified the difference between racism and racialism, arguing that recognising racial difference does not necessarily entail racism. Rather it is discrimination on the basis of racial difference that was the real enemy, he said.

Finally he argued that the media reflects the race debate “badly, because people are stuck at the level of calling for debates”. He referred to the “the debate” as a rhetorical device that doesn’t force people to state a position.

He concluded by saying that there was utter laziness at the intellectual level in the media when it comes to interrogating the racial question. An additional problem he concluded is that the media perceives itself above the fray, and doesn’t display a sense of agency in acknowledging its impact on society at large.

Watch McKaiser’s input on the SACSIS You Tube channel. Listen to him on podcast.

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You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/2272.

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Jessica Verified user
8 Feb

Racism Debate

Your participants are certainly shying away from discussing the problem concretely by, it seems, coyly ignoring the elephant in the corner, far and away the main culprit that is destroying on a daily basis every single gain made against the apartheid system since the ANC takeover. Philosophizing about it in the abstract is plain dissimulation and a waste of time.

So let's not beat about the bush here; in this case it's a black elephant, the ANC alliance's reverse racist policies misdirected at redressing the iniquities of apartheid.

More pertinently: especially by putting their versions of soviet commissars and apparatchiks in charge of a chronically racist, incompetent, lazy, overpaid, corrupt and hugely arrogant bureaucratic bumbledom which has to implement this injustice, the ANC and its partners certainly aren't making any friends in the white, Indian and colored communities, who are understandably perceiving the institutionalism of it - on their skins as it were - as the majoritarian triumphalism of a gung ho commie clique. The usurpation of Afrikaans universities by the regime is only one case in point.

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