The media has been criticised for the way it portrayed students in the #FeesMustFall protests as “ungrateful hooligans” but few have criticised the manner in which the media capitalises on black students’ pain and vulnerable moments to sell papers and make money, writes JODI WILLIAMS.
This year, South Africa witnessed a rebirth of student activism on university campuses across the country with the nationwide #FeesMustFall campaign, which called for free education. This wave of activism speaks to the mission of my generation, the widely criticised youth, to construct the type of society we envision which ought to be grounded on ideals of social justice.
The campaign has been widely documented, with the media capitalising on the mass actions of students across the country. The media has been widely criticised for the way in which it portrays students as nothing but “ungrateful hooligans,” yet few have criticised the manner in which the media capitalises on the pain and vulnerable moments of poor black students, to sell papers and make money.
This is the untold story of how the media audaciously captures moments of pain and agony from a comfortable distance while sensationalising those very moments.
As a black, queer woman, the #FeesMustFall campaign was not without its challenges. Often platforms for social change incubate safe spaces for hyper-masculinity and end up being dominated by voices of cisgender, heterosexual black men. While the campaign was largely centred on socio-economic issues, there were clear intersections with questions of gender equality. Navigating these spaces, therefore, was challenging to begin with: having to deal with the commodification of pain by the media presented compounded challenges on pre-existing difficulties.
I think back to the day where I experienced physical violence at the hands of the riot police who removed us from a building we were occupying. Stellenbosch students had occupied the admin B building – which we renamed Winnie Mandela house – on 19 October so that we could have a headquarters to work and campaign from. I was one of many students who gave myself up for peaceful arrest but instead was met with brutality while the media captured every moment of it from a comfortable distance.
I think back to the day when we went face-to-face with the riot police during the height of the protests. We had staged a march across the town in solidarity with what was happening nationally and the university had called in the police and taken out an interdict against us.
Our march called for the interdict to be dropped but we were met with riot police, preparing to fire stun grenades at us and prevent us from marching peacefully to the police station where our comrades had been held after arrest. It was during this moment of pure torment that a camera was pushed right up to my face to capture the moment of vulnerability when I burst into tears. In the moment, I didn’t think much of it. It was only after the protest that I started to realise how unsettled I had been by my encounters with the media.
Journalists are at liberty to remove themselves from the chaos, observe events passively, and then write articles comfortably from behind their computer screens; far removed from the pain they aim to capture. Photographers use our pain as a subject of art but capture it from a safe and cosy distance. This left me wondering, is watching black people cry entertainment? The idea of suffering is nothing new to black people; it is no secret that we have a painful history.
But the idea that this pain is something to marvel is what I find problematic. Black pain is not a source of curiosity. Journalists get to hide behind the guise of reporting the story and thus remaining distant from the captured moment. Often, reporters are white, which speaks to a number of privileges, one of which is that they are at liberty to merely capture the story without being directly involved in or affected by it. For them, black pain remains a source of news or entertainment, something to gawk at.
While I understand the need for journalism to get up close and personal, I fail to understand the exploitation of black pain to sell news. Perhaps a new method of story-telling should be looked into; one that places students at the helm of the narrative.
Beyond the audacious manner in which the media capitalises on the pain of black students, the media remains critical of our methods of protest and manages to paint us as nothing but violent hooligans. This is ironic because it is this very same “hooliganism” that remains the core subject of their work; the stories of students across the country have been used by the media and turned into sensational pieces to sell papers.
South African students are only just getting started. While many believe that the movement has seen better days, I predict that 2016 will be a significantly turbulent year for institutions of higher learning as well as the ANC administration. We, the students of South Africa, will remain adamant in our pursuit of the realisation of the promises outlined by the Freedom Charter and the expectations of democracy.
Students will not be deterred by the criticism of our mass actions or our methods of protest, or by the relentless manner in which the media has capitalised on our struggle to make money.