The assassination in April of African National Congress leader Chris Hani illustrated this truism yet again. While South African blacks reacted with rage and anguish to the killing of a popular and eloquent leader, U.S. media were more likely to respond: What will this mean for us white folks?
For the murder of a major political figure—Hani was the top vote-getter on the ANC's executive council, and widely considered a possible successor to Nelson Mandela—coverage was remarkably fixated on the effect it would have on political negotiations between the ANC and the white government.
"Death of Popular Figure Raises Fear on Plan for Majority Rule," remarked the New York Times, which managed two front-page stories on Hani's killing (4/11/93 and 4/12/93) without once letting his name slip into a headline. (The 4/12/93 follow-up analysis was headlined simply: "Black's Killing Darkens South Africa's Dream." Would the murder of a South African government minister be described as 'White's Killing"?)
In the articles that followed, the death of Haul—described as the ANC's "most popular militant"—was analyzed in terms of how much more difficult it would now be for the ANC to sell a political settlement to the "angry young blacks" in the townships.
But the full impact of media spin didn't kick in until three days after the assassination, when a national day of mourning for Hani led to the by-now common cycle of black protest and state violence. The riot-starved U.S. media, at the time waiting for the jury to return in the second Rodney King beating trial, at last jumped on South Africa as a lead story and a Nightline topic; the general strike throughout South Africa went unnoticed as "Riots in South Africa" became the headline.
ABC News painted an exceptionally apocalyptic picture (4/14/93): "In South Africa today," intoned Peter Jennings, "what so many of the country's leaders had feared most"—not the assassination, of course, but the black response. Reporter Don Kladstrup described "a day of terrifying chaos.... Bullets and birdshot seemed to have little effect as rampaging mobs simply defied authorities." The report closed with Kladstrup narrating as "a bewildered woman watched nervously, her face reflecting the agonizing question on everyone's mind: What next?" Her face, naturally, was white.
Kladstrup's identification with white South Africans overflowed five days later (4/19/93), as the reporter, dodging police teargas canisters fired at black demonstrators outside Haul's funeral, shouted, "This is no protest! These are people looking for trouble—and finding it!" Moments earlier, he had remarked in a voiceover that "pleas for restraint were ignored" by blacks, adding with apparent satisfaction, "What could not be ignored were the buckshot and teargas fired by police."
Other news outlets, while more restrained in identifying with the security forces, nonetheless followed the same guidelines. Casualties were reported in such a way as to imply black perpetrators: "South Africa Riots Lead to 7 Deaths," headlined the New York Times (4/15/93), though the story itself revealed that "panicky police officers" had fired into the crowd in Soweto, killing several blacks. Far below their headlines screaming "riot," both the Times and New York Newsday noted that the police had precipitated the conflict by driving armored vehicles into the peacefully protesting crowd—information studiously avoided in the extensive TV coverage of the event.
The conclusion drawn by reporters was inevitably the same: The black leadership, it was said, "cannot control their followers." (Again, no criticism was leveled at the white leadership for failing to control the "follower" who killed Hani.) When Nightline at last focused its attention on South Africa, Ted Koppel spent the entire session grilling Nelson Mandela on his inability to prevent that day's violence.
There is a two-part logic at work here. First, if blacks turn to violence, it's not because of provocation, but because their leaders are insufficiently strong. And the corollary, as CBS's Keith Miller (4/15/93) expressed it: "The failure of black leaders to control their followers has damaged their credibility. And tonight, many white South Africans watching these images are wondering if the move toward democracy will bring even greater threats to peace and security." In other words, allowing blacks their freedom may be too costly.
Virtually ignored, of course, was the fear of the majority of South Africans: not fear of black protest, or even of violence by fringe whites, but of the continuation of the state-sponsored violence and repression that has racked South Africa for decades. What U.S. media (and the white South African government) call "black-on-black" violence has been documented to have a huge white element. Numerous investigations, including those by two government commissions, have reported heavy clandestine activity against the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, ranging from training camps for anti-ANC Inkatha guerrillas to government-sponsored "dirty-tricks" squads.
In 1991, a South African court found that police forensics chief Lothar Neethling had personally distributed poison to police agents for assassination attempts against ANC leaders. The following March, a staffer for the South African Council of Churches was killed by a hand grenade two days before he was to testify before a government commission. Front-page news in South Africa, such revelations have been nearly invisible in the U.S. media: the closest any news outlet came to acknowledging state-sponsored violence in coverage of Hani's killing was an oblique reference in the New York Times (4/11/93) to "the deaths of several anti-apartheid campaigners under suspicious circumstances."
Since proclaiming the "end of apartheid" upon Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison, U.S. media have presented South Africa's future as a choice between conciliation and what Tom Brokaw called (4/14/93) a return to "the bad old days [of] rage, and death, and protest."
Yet political reforms, even elections, will not eliminate structural apartheid: white control of wealth...and firepower. It is this suspicion—that political power will not translate into an end to the deprivations of apartheid—as much as anything that has brought about the frustrations of the township youth who make up the bulk of the ANC's active membership. But many U.S. reporters find it hard to understand this anger, and instead present a picture filtered through the eyes of South Africa's fearful whites.
Neil deMause is a freelance writer and activist living in Brooklyn.