Opinion: The recent looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Joburg has resurrected the latent mistrust and ethnic divisions that are prevalent in South Africa.
What began as a protest against the incarceration of ex-president Jacob Zuma, accompanied by his and the EFF’s war cry against white monopoly capitalism, rapidly descended into modern history’s largest orgy of looting against organised business.
In a manner akin to a religious pilgrimage, thousands descended upon major chain stores and their storehouses to take what they could in as a casual a manner as people on pilgrimage. They went on foot or drove in with motor vehicles of a class that were unlikely to belong to the indigent that are likely to invoke sympathy by justifying theirs as a response to unending hunger.
Media reports and social media postings abounded with claims of involvement by chief executives, teachers and school principals, and children of rich business families.
While the Free Zuma Campaign was engaging in a redistribution of wealth from white-owned stores and storerooms, that allegedly exclude Africans from gainful employment, the mayhem spread with equal fierceness to African-owned businesses in African townships too. Alexandra, Soweto and Mamelodi in Joburg, Osizweni and Madadeni in Newcastle, and Ntuzuma and KwaMashu in Durban, among numerous other places, were no less victims of this exceedingly well orchestrated campaign of economic sabotage.
The State has identified 12 instigators as potential culprits, five of whom have been arrested at the time of writing this article. Like the culprits who stole furniture, bicycles and televisions under the pathetic claim of “we are hungry”, all of these five possible culprits so far have stated that they are not guilty or that their social media sites on their phones were hacked.
The absurdity of such claims have already been dismissed by IT specialists when people try to use hacking as an excuse to be pardoned. It is also a widely suspected but unspoken allegation (in public) that many looters in these townships were shot and killed by African business owners and homeowners.
In Phoenix, however, media reporting by the SABC’s programme: Unfiltered, posted on YouTube, has harkened back to the dark days of apartheid, when “clip, lie and manipulate” by the apartheid “captured” Cliff Saunders was our only source of visual news.
We have analysed three interviews by the SABC with residents of Phoenix and compared it with what appeared as SABC’s Unfiltered YouTube posting. The inconsistency and deliberate manipulation was too obvious to ignore. For instance, a woman interviewee from Phoenix told the interviewee, that Bheki Cele’s visit there was appreciated. He promised to send police and troops to replace the community checkpoints, “but this did not happen … troops and police were nowhere to be seen.”
After two days police did arrive, but only to dismantle the checkpoints, not to replace community members there. Cliff Saunders, Unfiltered however left out the latter bit of the interview and claimed that troops and police were sent to Phoenix and continued with the conversation about how 20 Africans were allegedly killed in Phoenix. While no outright claim was made about the killings being carried out by the Phoenix residents, the blame on Indian residents was implicit.
SABC is trying to change the narrative about the extent of looting by mainly African citizens. And Julius Malema is threatening to send in “EFF troops to deal with the Indians in Phoenix if the state does not do anything about the guilty”. All of a sudden, the extent and cost of the looting by mainly African looters, as the cameras have captured, is no longer as important.
There is a simple question that must be asked of the SABC and Malema: “If 20 Africans were really killed by Indians in Phoenix, how should the State proceed with finding out about how the remaining 200 odd that were killed by stampeding in supermarkets and their storehouses, as well as in the townships? And if 500 corpses are really in the Phoenix mortuary, can the Goebel incarnates of contemporary South Africa really prove that they died in Phoenix?” Much of this gerrymandering is carried out under the cloud of free speech.
In order to understand how free speech and the media functions to keep people informed, we need to backtrack a little to appreciate its modern day genesis. A prominent advocate of free speech in the modern world was John Stuart Mill (1807 – 1873), an English philosopher, political economist and civil servant. In his book On Liberty, Mill argued that a free exchange of ideas is necessary for social and intellectual progress of the society.
His argument was compelling and approved by the English parliament: “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generations; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as a great benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error”.
Mill’s argument was that free speech elicits truth, fundamental for the well-being of all societies. At least four international bodies have adopted this an article of faith: UN Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares freedom of speech and expression as a human right; Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights; Article 13 of the American Convention of Human Rights; and Article 9 of African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights.
However protective these may be, the truth in this historical juncture is being appropriated by media houses such as SABC in South Africa, and YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter and Face Book at an international level.
Many journalists of the so-called left wing are encouraged by financial incentives to disseminate news in ways that resonate with narrative creations. Twitter in India, for instance, fell foul of recently introduced Indian laws when they refused to accept responsibility for carrying an article based on an outright lie. They defended it as free speech.
It was a fake story about an elderly Muslim man from Ghaziabad allegedly being beaten up Hindu males. The narrative added that he was forced into saying Jai Shree Ram. When counter checked, it was fake news because the assaulters were Muslim.
It is for such reasons that countries such as Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia and India have placed foreign media sites under constant surveillance. Nigeria however has banned Twitter. It is in ownership of these kind of media channels that the new capitalistic entrepreneurs of the West are emanating.
They are playing an immensely supportive role in upholding the pillars of US hegemony in the global economy. Their actions have dispensed with Mill’s idea of bringing together people with divergent opinions to convergent consensus. This is nothing but censorship. Mill’s grand idea of what should serve as a guardian of democracy in open societies is thrown out of the window like the proverbial “baby with the bath water”.
SABC’s Unfiltered programme is therefore nothing but filtered censorship that is taking us back to the apartheid past: “clip, lie and manipulate”.