Towards a Positive Black Image

By Unathi Kondile

I can, no longer
stomach South Africa’s media.

I can, no longer
click through the News24s.

I can, no longer
buy Sunday newspapers and all papers alike.

I can, no longer
subject myself to the sickness that resides therein.

I can, no longer.

Open any newspaper in this country and you will be confronted with corruption, crime, politicians and hoards of complaints; complaints ranging from the public right up to the editors themselves. Nothing else. And it’s the same thing over and over and over again.

Our news media – from print to broadcast – have become nothing but glorified masturbatoriums that will never impregnate society to do anything beyond the scope of stereotypes.

For how long will we continue to undermine how the media intentionally or unintentionally reinforces the negative stereotypes of this country?

For example:

What is the general image of blacks in South Africa’s media?

– They are largely criminals
– They are largely corrupt
– They are largely incompetent
– They are largely poor
– They are largely needy victims of self
– They are largely more than this list can accommodate

Of course the general image of whites in South Africa’s media is the exact opposite of the above.

Put simply: blacks are inherently inferior in how they are positioned and represented in the media. There’s a limited scope of expression and representation of blacks as humane, on par, equal, in the media. A media with a paucity of positive black models/images that go against pre-1994 stereotypes. The black South African’s image in the media is critical to how they are imagined by an other, and most importantly by themselves.

Take a look at news. If black people are always on the rampage, destroying things, stealing from state coffers and generally represented as social deviants with an inclination towards the worst – how do we suppose the black audience imagines itself? Tell people they are corrupt, corrupt, corrupt and it becomes common to such an extent that corruption doesn’t shock – owing to the extended desensitization to it, afforded to us by the media. Crime too is headed in this direction – we have become used to it, to such an extent that it no longer shocks. Black people dying is also another thing that has become deeply devoid of “another life gone!” – because of the rate at which such news fleet through our eyes and ears.

Just going back to the image of blacks in the media; it would seem that blacks are corrupt dumb savages with no moral GPS, if what our media serves us daily were to be examined closely.

Now, it becomes really easy to fall into the trap of saying, but the media mirrors society. It’s their job. These things are happening out there. Don’t blame the media, blame the people. Black people are like that, they are doing these things, they are corrupt etceteras – the media’s role is to provide accurate verbal, written and/or visual records.

They might teach journalism students the above paragraph in Media schools. But I am prepared to stand alone and say there is something horribly wrong in assuming such roles for journalism. Journalism, today, more than ever requires conscious journalists – not just empty vessels passing on news. It needs people and editors who’s main objectives surpass sales. We need human beings in newsrooms. Not those whinging morbidly depressing churnalists who are led by editors that were probably bullied in primary/high schools and are now venting their frustrations at anyone [read: government] who tries to control them.

Within the context of South Africa we cannot merely push accuracy in news or reflection of day-to-day actions without taking into account the audience’s understanding or what mental representation it stimulates. That would be to be irresponsible. So much so that you will now find people, like mam’ Mamphela Ramphele saying “That’s us! We are like that!” upon reflecting on the black’s image in the media. That, I am afraid, is the height of ignorance. We have somehow come to accept things as they are with scant regard for codes embedded therein, that leave no room for counter-schematic thought – thought that highlights that not all blacks are like that. “That’s us!” is not us. There are deeper areas we do not want to go into with regards to the media’s [mis]representation of the black image in South Africa. It’s very easy to show people news as they are, but seemingly hard to think about how this bodes for the national psyche. Our media convicts us in the confines of our past.

We need a thinking media.
We need a media attuned to the complexities of the societies they serve.
We need a media that is prepared to facilitate racial comity.
We need a media that is less commercially driven.
We need a media that doesn’t serve “imagined communities”, but Real Communities.

It is very easy to report. Very. Even a toddler can report on what they saw. If we limit ourselves to just reporting as we see it, we undermine conceptual and normative complexities of our times.

We need to think carefully about these things and submit ourselves to deeper self-critical awareness in our thinking. We cannot bumble about consuming information without understanding the side effects.

Taking the News pill, daily, comes with side effects that are not written on its packaging. No newspaper or broadcaster warns you that they are going to desensitize you or reinforce stereotypes in your head. None of them do.

And that’s the problem. We are not thinking on that level – on the level of images of one another that we have of one another in one another’s minds. Who reinforces and provides a steady stream of those images?