Narratives of failure in South Africa: are we addicted to bad news?

Is a persistent focus on state failure a successful strategy for bringing about change, or does it become self-fulfilling?

As the trial of Oscar Pistorius gets underway in Pretoria next week, South Africa will make international headlines. Since legal processes are for the most part slow, technical and boring, journalists covering the trial will need to find new and exciting angles to keep their readers and viewers engaged. This probably means a lot of bad press for the country. The contextual stories will point to the fear of crime, the costs of keeping safe, the failures of the South African Police Service, the high level of intimate partner violence and the laagering of the middle class behind high walls and electric fences.

It is a truism that bad news sells newspapers, and the availability of horrifying facts, anecdotes and statistics to back up these bad news stories makes them easy picking for the media. Last year, outrage followed President Jacob Zuma’s chastisement of the media for being unpatriotic in their reporting of the country’s collective failures. Apart from their news value, telling these stories fulfils the need for commentators and activists to feel that something is being done in the face of an overwhelming sense of inaction by the state that is tasked with ‘delivering’ service.

In this scheme of things, drawing attention to deficits, failures and hypocrisy is a call to action. The argument in support of drawing attention to failure is simply that if we know what is wrong and draw attention to it, the state will be galvanized to fix it. In an election year, this reasoning is even more pertinent and prevalent.

Does drawing attention to failures urge the state to do better – or does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This is the same reasoning underpinning public protest. In 2011, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand undertook research to identify the factors that fuel violent public protests. This study concluded, among other things, that violence succeeds in drawing the attention of politicians to the failures of local government in addressing long-festering problems.

The increase in public protests, and violent public protests in particular, has in the past few years (and even more so in the last 12 months) led to a proliferation of papers, research articles and media reports about the subject.

The attention by non-governmental organisations and academics to the growing phenomenon is driven both by the need to document and understand the causal factors – and to draw attention to them. But, these reports also, even unintentionally, reinforce the effectiveness of violent public protests in giving otherwise voiceless communities the attention they seek.

The names of small townships like Rhelela, Kubyana,Motupa and Moleketla outside Tzaneen and Malamulele, near Giyani – places most South Africans have never heard of – soon trip off our tongues after a violent protest.

These stories create more stories – particularly about the weakness of local governance. This further reinforces the dominant narrative of failure: failure of leadership of the police; of local government; of the ANC. We appear to revel in the narrative of our ineptitude – a narrative that is incomplete without a sub-text of racism and that is expressed most viscerally through social media. And so we reinforce a view of ourselves, South Africans, as violent, inept, and corrupt – stories that play well to the bad news needs of the media.

But does this strategy work? Does drawing attention to failures and deficits urge the state to do better – or does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Consider the case of public protests. The Institute for Security Studies has recorded 843 incidents of public protest since January 2013, with 129 of these having taken place between January and 21 February 2014. In reporting these cases, we often fail to acknowledge that the number of peaceful public protests has consistently and dramatically outweighed the number of violent protests.

The number of peaceful public protests has consistently outweighed the number of violent protests

During the 2010/11 financial year the police recorded 11 680 peaceful gatherings and 917 violent public protests; a year later there were 10 517 peaceful protests and 1 882 violent protests. This year the number of violent protests will certainly increase, but will still not outweigh the number of times South Africans peacefully take to the streets to express their democratic right to protest.

Still, none of these statistics tell us about communities like Ha-Mashau, Thenga, which has not had water since September last year; or Mukhoro, which has not had water since February 2013. These villages are located in Vhembe district, Venda. Despite not having had water – which affects every part of daily life, these communities have not resorted to violence – or even protest, for whatever reason.

While this could be interpreted as the community having given up hope – it could also be a reflection of the incredible patience that many South Africans have shown over the past 20 years. This is not to celebrate silence in the face of injustice, but rather to counter the prevailing negative picture we have created of ourselves as a nation. Patience, generosity, a capacity for forgiveness and kindness are seldom the characteristics we ascribe to ourselves, and yet examples of these abound. So too do examples of South Africans getting along, succeeding and contributing to positive social change.

As activists and social commentators we find ourselves in a double bind. Blind optimism, or a denial of failure (a ban on bad news, as it were) cannot be defended. But it is unlikely that positive change will result from the consistent reinforcement of our failures; rather we can expect the focus on failure to become self-fulfilling.

In an election year we can expect the ruling party to come under strong criticism from the opposition. We can also expect vocal criticism of the opposition by the ruling party. Somehow, above the fray should sound a call to action for all political parties to locate their most competent and driven representatives at local government level to address the failures that have a real impact on development – such as the provision of water.

Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow, and Godfrey Mauludzi, Research Assistant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division

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