The fallacy of a ‘free media’ in South Africa

Over the past few weeks, the phrase ‘free media’ has been used to characterise the media landscape of South Africa. Although the phrase has been in use for quite sometime now, it was catapulted into the national conversation again after the Black First Land First (BLF) movement picketed outside the home of Tiso Blackstar Editor-at-large, Peter Bruce. The organisation has consistently maintained that the white owned media in South Africa is inherently anti-black and its white journalists, like Bruce, are racists hiding behind journalism to entrench the status quo.

As a prompt response to the picket (a response which was absent when black journalists were physically assaulted), the civil society formation, South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), interdicted BLF at the Johannesburg High Court, citing the infringement of Bruce’s right to freedom of speech and that the picket was a danger to South Africa’s ‘free media’.

In 2015, black students in South Africa spoke with a resounding voice, saying that the negotiated settlement of 1994 had changed little for black people. The more radical splinters of the Rhodes Must Fall movement not only advocated for the removal of the statue of racist imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes from the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, or even for the changing of names of universities, but correctly identified that this country was still structurally racist, patriarchal and deeply capitalistic. They correctly located this unfreedom for black people in land theft and slavery. The problem, for them, was the stealing of land and black bodies, and the creation of these into commodities for white labour, integrity and enjoyment.

There is no point in rehashing some of the correct theoretical leaps that the RMF movement made here. They have been the subject of discussions across the country for the past three years. But, it is important to touch on these because they give a glimpse of the context within which we currently operate.

Media (un)freedom: Black death and a not-so-free South Africa

“Black death is the modern bourgeois-state’s recreational pastime, but the hunting season is not confined to the time (and place) of political society; blacks are fair game as a result of a progressively expanding civil society as well,” writes Frank B. Wilderson when speaking of Gramscian Marxism and its inability to think of the black subject as one that creates and maintains (through slavery and gratuitous violence) the logic of ‘civil society’, instead of taking part in civil society, in the way that a white subaltern does. Put another way, black and white people do not occupy the same plane in the structure of society. Black people occupy the plane of death, denigration, and humiliation, while white people are on the polar opposite end – representing life, honour and freedom. Wilderson’s main point is that black death is not only confined to the workings of a political society, but “a thriving civil society” (as most white liberals and radicals like to allude to) is as equally fatal for black people, as it needs their death for its coherence.

This limping structure of relations between black and white people maintains the functioning of the media landscape in South Africa today. That is why it is both surprising and predictable to hear people (even black people) speaking of a ‘free media’ in South Africa.

The proponents of ‘free media’ make the first assumption incorrectly – that South Africa is ‘free’ or that you can have a ‘free media’ in an unfree society. As black revolutionary, Assata Shakur once said, black people, the world over, have never known freedom – we can only imagine what it is like. But, on the other hand, white people – whose Human status and existence is legitimised by the subhumaness of blackness, are the epitomy of freedom. They can easily claim the title of a ‘free media’ because they know what freedom is.

In the context of the media, this translates to white people not only having hegemony in the ownership of major media companies in South Africa, but also having the hegemony on media language, narrative creation and cultural dominance. It is this freedom – which is only reserved for white people – which Bruce exercised when he called black people “idiots” and illiterates.

Media for white power

Media is a powerful tool for those in power. As the famous Marxist saying goes, “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” and the media is the perfect space to disseminate those ideas. A 1988 text by two white intellectuals is quickly becoming as famous as the previous quote. The work on a “propaganda model” to explain the “behavior and performance in structural terms” of the media, by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman is again increasingly finding important expression from radical scholars, who are interested in deciphering the disparities in the South African media landscape.

From Herman, writing 15 years after the propaganda model was proposed, we can take the explanation that “the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); and they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.” In the South African context, one sees such in media entities such as eNCA which is partly owned by billionaire, Johann Rupert, Media24 owned by Koos Bekker, and so-called ‘investigative unit’ Amabhungane, which receives generous funding from sources such as the Soros Foundation. These same funding sources, in turn, fund and constitute media ‘monitoring’ facilities like SANEF and the Freedom of Expression Institute.

The useful material from the white scholars above prove the fallacy of a media freedom. A media funded and supported by a white elite will inevitably serve the interests of that white elite – as demonstrated by the white owned media’s lack of coverage of white corruption.

As Steve Biko poignantly pointed out in the introduction of the black consciousness Black Community Programs (BCP) publication, Black Viewpoint, “a lot of us have forgotten that the values and attitudes of newspapers are governed largely by the values and attitudes of both their readership and of their financial supporters – who in the case of the white press in South Africa, are whites.” Biko goes further to say that “[t]herefore, when we read of a report of any speech or incident which focuses on blacks, we usually find it accompanied by interpretative connotations in terms of stress, headlines, quotations and other journalistic nuances, that are calculated to put the report in a particular setting for either consumption or rejection by the reader.”

Immediately after the SANEF case, it was excruciating, listening to a black woman, Mahlatse Gallens, who is the chairperson of SANEF, speaking at the stairs of the Johannesburg High Court after a white judge had just ruled against BLF – in their absence. Gallens was speaking passionately about the freedom of the press and how SANEF’s victory in court was a ‘victory for democracy and a free press’. I laughed (only to stop myself from crying) watching this sister, not because of the resounding faith she had in this idea of a ‘free’ press, constitutionalism and democracy, but at the utter disdain with which she (and other black journalists present) viewed BLF activists. Clad in all black, she said “media freedom” and I heard “media free-to lynch black people-dom”. Black on black violence. White power had won. Or rather, it was continuing with its mundane daily task of muzzling radical black voices – using other black people to do its dirty work.

Originally published on the Black Opinion website.

Notes on Moonlight the movie: Black men in love and the dangers of patriarchy

Moonlight is a movie which tells the story of a black man (and many black men to be honest) growing up in the ghetto, while struggling with sexuality, trauma, violence and love. I wrote these notes while watching the movie for the second time in less that 24 hours.

The story is that of a young boy, Chiron, whose nickname is ‘Black’ (not for any political reason, as far as I can tell, but because his skin is dark, beautiful and leathery), who grows up in a cold, abusive home. His dad is absent, we are never told who he is or where he could be. He is just absent. A reality for many black homes – fathers who disappear like the Great Houdini. His mother struggles with substance abuse. She loves him, but is not loving. The trauma of not being loved adequately eats away at Chiron’s self confidence. He walks with a hunched back and his eyes are always on the floor.

Chiron is bullied nonstop but finds solace in silence. In water. In the wind. And in a friend.

Violence, in the form of physical violence through showing the very real effects of bullying is explored. Usually in media, bullying is preserved for white children because they are perceived to be pure and possess child-like vulnerability. But, narratives are crafted such that black and poor children are incapable of being bullied, and if they are, they are always able to deal with it. Which is obviously false. So, seeing a film which is anchored on the idea of bullying and the deep psychological scars which it inflicts on black children is important.

Moonlight delicately touches on the structural violence of white supremacy and how it inevitably reproduces itself in the black community. The fact that Chiron is called “Black”, because of how dark his skin is, and the skin tone of the person Black gets attracted to, is indicative of the colourism in the black community. The complicated presence (or absence) of black men in the lives and community of black folk is excellently explored. Black’s father is absent, but he gets a father-figure, Juan, who is loving, warm and kind, but is also problematic in how he feeds into the continuation of intra-community violence. It is an old question within the black community, how do we continue loving and taking care of each other, when (unknowingly sometimes) we aid in killing each other?

There are only two prominent women in the movie, Chiron’s mother and Juan’s girlfriend. As mentioned above, Chiron’s mother is cold, calculated and unloving. On the other hand, Juan’s girlfriend, is as kind as Juan, if not more. She invites Chiron into her home with no questions asked. She cooks for him and takes care of him with her whole heart. The dichotomy of black women we are shown in this movie is tired, old and stereotypical. It’s like, if black women are not taking drugs and abusing their children then they are holier than thou and are the epitome of the ‘strong black woman’. While the movie is based on challenging stereotypes associated with black manhood, there is little nuance in looking into the complexities of black womanhood and motherhood.

As he grows, Chiron’s hard life hardens his heart, such that he doesn’t let anyone “touch” him in a sexual way. He has a veneer of confidence and self-assuredness in the world, but like most black men, he crumbles in his vulnerability. He lays alone in his bed and his muscles shrink him. On the street, he is the man. Alone in his room with his thoughts, he is still the little boy who is crushed by memories of his unloving mother and non-existent relationship with his father.

His only solace, throughout his life it seems, is his relationship with his only friend Kevin. Chiron and Kevin have a weird sexual tension from a young age, but before it develops into something worth writing home about, violence tears it apart, and leaves long-lasting scars on both boys/men. But, it seems, the only time Chiron experiences the beautiful relief and sordid pain of love, is with Kevin.

The last scene of the film is one of the most tenderest scenes between black men I have ever seen. It is beautiful, as it is unexpected.

Originally published on the Black Opinion website.

The 18th Cape Town International Jazz Festival in pictures

This year was my second time attending the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. I attended as part of the festival’s photojournalism programme, which trains photographers on how to take pictures in a jazz/concert setting. I spent most of my time at the Rosies stage, where I took pictures of artists like Buddy Wells, Tune Recreation Committee (TRC), Thandiswa Mazwai, SkyJack, Siya Makuzeni, etc. I went into the festival with a knowledge of the kinds of images I wanted to come out with – hence I stuck to the Rosies stage. I wanted intimate, classic, moody pictures. But, when in a festival like this, one with a line-up so diverse and legendary, I took to other stages where greats like Jonas Gwangwa performed.

#FeesMustFall: An interview

I was interviewed by Sophie Schasiepen for the Austrian feminist magazine an.schlage in 2016. The interview covered issues surrounding #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and feminism within the movement. It was originally published in German here. This is the English translation of the interview. The translated piece is longer than the German version.

In April 2015, the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement achieved the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes* from the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Debates leading to this event soon included demands for much more radical and extensive changes than just the removal of a statue: the protests were aiming for the decolonization of South African universities – and the country as a whole. Out of these discussions, many more initiatives were founded on different campuses throughout the country, amplifying the momentum of RMF. In October last year, a new climax was reached when students, parents and staff protested against an increase of tuition fees in, forming the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement. All major campuses in South Africa were temporarily shut down. Jacob Zuma´s promptly following promise for a 0% increase of tuition fees has not put an end to the struggle – on the contrary, this year, at the beginning of the new term, protesters have been interrupting the registration processes and are continuing to take their demands to the streets.

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History Begins With A Garden – An exhibition by Khaya Witbooi

“Sometimes we ask flowers to speak for us, to tell our love, jealousy or gratitude; but flowers can reveal other truths if we let them. They can tell about the love and hate of our past and the controversies of our present, unlocking the political history of their beauty and poetics. The same inquiry would unveil the sinless space of the garden itself as a place of symbolic and material production. It is here where the sublime beauty, accessible to few, emerges as the surplus value of the dirty hand labor of the many.

History Begins With A Garden is an exhibition by Khaya Witbooi curated by Mariella Franzoni, that explores the colonial genealogy (or counter-history) of gardens and gardening in South Africa, bringing to light its relation with slavery, land dispossession and nationalist propaganda. Questions like, “how the beauty of South Africa’s nature is produced, protected and celebrated? For whom? At whose expense?” motivate the exploration of the notion of garden as an ambiguous space of beauty and violence.”

History Begins With A Garden is showing at Gallery MOMO from 16 March to 16 April 2017.


Music and Career Live Performance: Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Annually, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, hosts a career development workshop for high school students who wish to make music their career. The Music and Career Live Performance is “aimed at high school students with an interest in event production and performing.”

Throughout the process, the learners are imparted with basic stage production, arrangements and stage etiquette.

Schools that participated in the performance were Livingstone High School, Worcester High School, Wynberg Senior Secondary School, Alexander Sinton High School, Heathfield High School, Groote Schuur High School, Cedar High Scool and Settlers High School.

The live performance happened at the Artscape on 26 March.

#BLF26 portraits

On 18 July 2016, 26 members of the Black First Land First movement (BLF26) engaged in protest action at the Office of the former Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, which resulted in them being arrested and subsequently imprisoned for 8 days in the Pretoria Central Maximum Security Prison.

BLF had been putting pressure on the former public protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela to investigate and report on the complaint of R26 billion as indicated in the CIEX report, stolen by white capitalists including ABSA bank, which was lodged at her office in 2011. They also wanted her to investigate and report on State Capture by white capital.

BLF26 are appearing at the Pretoria Regional Court tomorrow. Click here for the full details.

I took portraits of the BLF26, which were originally published on the Black Opinion website.

The day I met the man with the trumpet: Ambrose Akinmusire


A previously unpublished story I wrote after an interview in 2013 with African American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

“Oh my, I think I am going to cry. This is too beautiful” The lady sitting next to me whispers in my ear. We are sitting right in front of the stage, on the hard-floor, cross-legged, wide-eyed with eager ears. As the Ambrose Akinmusire quintet serenades us at the 15th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival, my mind wonders and I think of the history of jazz. From its inception in New Orleans in the 1920’s and 30’s, the radical years of the 1960’s and 70’s, to the innovative musicians of the 2000’s. I ask myself, do jazz musician consider this rich history when they make their music? How do jazz musicians respond to our current social and political climate using music? I decided to speak with Akinmusire about my questions; an award winning African American trumpeter, bandleader and composer.

We met on a Sunday afternoon at the Cape Sun hotel, where most of the artists performing at the festival were staying. The lunch time buzz of the hotel restaurant combined with the racket of exhausted musicians checking out made it a bit hard for us to hear each other, but because when Ambrose speaks, he is committed to a conversation, listening attentively and picking his words intelligently, the noise slowly died away as we became immersed in our conversation.

After briefly talking about the rise in the number of protests in South Africa, the Marikana massacre – where 34 miners were fatally shot by police – and about the minimum wage in South Africa versus America, I decided to kick off the official interview by asking him whether he felt any pressure creating his new album considering the resounding success of the previous one. “When I create an album, I really try to figure out what that album is missing or what I’m missing, then I try to address those in the next album. I didn’t feel any pressure, but I do more than ever feel a sense of obligation because I can no longer convince myself that people aren’t watching me or that I don’t matter…” the trumpeter confesses. “I feel a sense of obligation for my community that I grew up in, I’m starting to feel a sense of obligation for, I haven’t formulated it yet and I don’t even know how to explain it, for Africans… I want to bring people together, especially black people.”

Ambrose’s father is Nigerian, so he grew up with some connection with his African side of his family. “You know it’s so cliché to say, ‘you need to go back to Africa’. I’ve heard this all my life but coming here I’m like oh shit, it’s true!” Refreshingly though, Ambrose also realises how cliché it has become for American artists to think of Africa as ‘the motherland’, without making an effort to learn about African history and how that connects to Africans landing in America through the slave-trade.

We then later walked to Greenmarket square, an African market in the Cape Town city centre that is always buzzing with vendors eager to get their display items purchased by fascinated tourists. Interestingly, the market is filled with exactly those people Akinmusire speaks off, that exoticize Africa.

As we walk through the market we discuss some of the hardships that befall young black men in America and the world. One of those is the high rate of young black men being brutally murdered by the police. He addresses this problem in Roll call for those absent, a song where a little girl reads out the names of various young black men who were victims of police brutality and an unjust system in the States. He explores the same concept in a song from his previous album called My name is Oscar. There is a confrontational posture to the song, it could be the vibrant drums or Akinmusire’s repetition of Oscar’s name, as compared to Roll call… which is much calmer, meditative even as it awakens a sense of loss.

These songs then drive home the message that in the current social and political climate, black people dying in numbers with no action – or justice – is nothing new. His concern with his community and expression of that concern through music reminds me of the zeal and commitment of the Black Arts Movement in the 60’s and 70’s. A sister to the Black Power movement in the States, it focused on radicalising art so that it represented what the people were going through at the time. I therefore find it important to listen to Akinmusire’s work with an open mind, not only to the different, engaging sounds he brings, but also to what he is saying about his social and political environment.

I’m Tired

My eyes are betraying me these days.
I see painfully.
My brain mashed up.
Seeping through my ears.
My bones feel like they are too heavy for my body.
Weighing me down.
Pulling me closer and closer towards the earth.
Where my momma is.
I drift along these days.
Unaware of space and time.
Trying to lift my head from drowning in a sea of blood.
I need to get out.
I’m tired.