Preposterous that rhinoceros is newsmaker of year

Ben Fogel
I first heard of the National Press Club (NPC) via twitter when the news that they had declared the rhino the newsmaker of 2012 hit social media. My immediate reaction, probably like many other journalists was a mixture of surprise and anger: How could the rhino emerge as victor in the year of Marikana?

In a more inebriated state I perhaps unjustly accused the rhino of being the media harlot of the year, the Kim Kardashian of the animal kingdom, minus the sex tape and forthcoming Kanye hellspawn.

Surely, the worst act of state sponsored violence since the fall of apartheid and the heroic resistance of miners across the Platinum belt which followed would be the story of the year? It certainly was for me, it was all I could think about for months. When the anger subsided however, I realised it operated according to a twisted logic. It made sense, in the same way that Henry Kissinger and the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize did. It exposes the entire spectacle for the deception it is.

This logic was not the pathetic defense offered by the NPC, "We agreed Marikana was the biggest and most shocking news event but Rhino story ran throughout the year!" . But rather a logic which defines the range of acceptable opinions in much of the mainstream, which was perhaps best reflected in the coverage of the Marikana massacre. This is demonstrated in how much of the press continues to describe it as a "tragedy" in the style of a natural disaster rather than the massacre it clearly was.

As I have written about elsewhere, one of the important stories which emerged in the aftermath of the massacre was the failure of the mainstream media to investigate what happened or even to engage with the actual victims of the massacre. This in turn both created and reproduced distorted narratives of the event which largely justified the massacre and defended the police. According to research conducted by Jane Duncan of the Rhodes University Journalism Department, only about 3% of the stories on Marikana bothered to quote actual miners for example.

Let alone the shameful SAPA stories which portrayed the miners shot down on that day, as a muti-crazed rabble who charged the police in a murderous trance forcing the police to use maximum force to protect themselves from their Heart of Darkness style blood lust. There was even a story which blamed an unfortunate rabbit for the massacre.

Other narratives which dominated the coverage, in particular sort to portray the massacre as a result of a union beef between AMCU and NUM, with AMCU being portrayed as a rogue union intent on stirring unrest in order to undermine the established and reasonable partner which was NUM. The truth was that the AMCU president broke down on his knees on 16 August imploring the miners to return work, in order to avoid what was to follow. NUM even initiated the violent turn of the strike, when officials opened fire with guns on a column of miners who marched to the NUM offices the Saturday preceding the massacre.

Other coverage invoked the figure of our own ex-Gucci Chavez and now Versace potato farmer Julius Malema as the source of the labour unrest. According to these paranoid and mendacious reports Malema was inciting the miners to insurgency in an attempt to overthrow his nemesis Zuma. The truth was that Malema was the first politician on the scene and the first public figure to offer solidarity, while the rest were busy attempting to pass the buck for the massacre.

It took the courage and experience of Greg Marinovich and the Daily Maverick to actually inspect the site of the massacre and bring forth the truth of the second kill zone or the "killing koppie" into the equation. Through actually talking to miners and not simply reproducing press statements and the blatherings of the power elite as news, they managed to expose the truth behind the murder of 34 miners.

The responses of many journalists to the NPC's award in the form of a mixture of outrage and criticism has been encouraging. But that doesn't purge the profession of the collective culpability for the criminal negligence present in most of the coverage of Marikana. If not for the Daily Maverick and perhaps the most incompetent police cover-up in South African history, we would probably be still buying the police, state and capital's propaganda.

In each case the narratives produced eliminated the agency of the striking miners and reduced them to a blind irrational mass rather than people responding to their social conditions and the failure of their official representatives by taking matters into their own hands.

But to get back to the rhino, I wrote a column last month that argued that the save the rhino fad was a symptom of the divorce between social reality of post-apartheid South African and White South Africa. I suggested that rhinos took the place of the struggles of poor and working class South Africans as the vogue cause of the middle class and that animal life mattered more than black life for many of the rhino groupies, who mounted a plastic rhino horn which closely resembles a cheap red dildo on their vehicles.

I received a plethora of enraged responses from some Finweek hack known as Garth who used his god-gifted ability to confuse ignorance and irreverence to suggest that I was attempting to argue that wanting to save the rhinos was racist. I didn't expect anything more from someone who thinks overuse of the word "douche bag" and its derivatives passes as wit. I was actually arguing it was a symptom of a wider social malaise. I don't particularly want the rhino to die out, but to be honest I don't care that much.

The reason that the rhino is such a popular cause is because it is a safe one; it doesn't force one to reflect on one's own class position or inherited privilege. Corporate South African can donate tens of millions of rands to the World Wildlife Foundation in order to earn the corporate social responsibility badge without actually threatening their own interests.

A rhino conservation industrial complex of sorts has formed. The same goes for white South Africa, the same concern for the rhino here is burdened with a racist discourse which focuses on the savagery of black rhino poachers and the insatiable oriental desire for rhino horn.

As others have noted the National Press Club is not really national or even occupied by that many journalists. Instead it appears to be the haunt of PR men and women who straddle the thin divide between corporate propaganda and reporting. This I feel is, if anything, symbolic of how the media is implicated like in Marikana in our current social malaise. The logic beyond the awarding of the prize to the rhino is indicative of this. In the midst of a similar struggle in terms of the farmworkers strike still ongoing in the Western Cape and reports of widespread police brutality, South African journalism and society as a whole can't afford another failure.


Submitted by David Robert Lewis on

Its not that I find the antropocentrism disturbing, or the logic of the piece unintelligent, in fact I agree that the Marikana Green Man should have been Newsmaker of the Year, its just that there's a part of me that is screaming every week when yet another magnificent creature gets gunned down because of international trade. You seem to forget the implications of global demand for resources destroying the planet in the short space of a few years. Sure, we need to adjust our focus, our political systems, our nation's inequalities, but at what expense? 2012 was also the year that Fracking became an international newsmaker along with a host of environmental issues. Our Rhino population hit the charts and looks set to stay there for the foreseeable future. In fact I can see militancy in the Rhino Revolution. Rhinoceruses want Rights, Ungulates in Unity against Species Oppression. These are sensative, misunderstood creatures who are finally coming out about their centuries-old persecution by human beings. We do not have any greater right to live in Africa than they do. And so what if there's a Rhino Stereotype doing the Conservation Rounds? I attended a demonstration outside Parliament last year and was surprised to see young black South African's beaming with pride. Rhino Rights should be a non-divisive issue when it comes down to cooperation amongst ethinc groups, as too it should be amongst species.

Submitted by Neil Goodwin on

You know it is true that for many people animal life matters more than.. well you say 'black' Ben, but really ALL human life. I can well understand why, especially considering all the terrible suffering (factory farming, vivisection, blood sports etc) that humans dish out to the rest of the animal kingdom. And, to be honet, saying that you 'don't care that much' about the rhino's extinction really confirms all you need to know about our Ben . Ignorant.

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Submitted by neil goodwin on

This un-snidey piece by Chris Roper is actually more like it in terms of tone and substance. He could've been writing about you here Ben - 'That’s the opening you’ve given to the myopic trolls of South Africa, who can now gleefully claim that caring about rhinos equates with not caring about people. It does the rhino a disservice, it does black environmentalists a disservice, and the only good thing might be that people stop putting those stupid plastic rhino horns that look like erect dog pizzles on their cars.'

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