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There were many red herrings thrown up in the reporting on the week that led to and immediately after the Marikana massacre at Lonmin in August: chief among them was that muti played a large role and that it boiled down to a fight between rival unions.
Later as reporters got more of an understanding of what was going – and spoke to individual miners and not union people – it emerged that at the heart of the wildcat strike was that the migrant miners at the Marikana platinum mine felt that the unions had failed them and they had no one to turn to but themselves to fight for a better pay deal.
Why this took so long to emerge is explained by a fascinating analysis of news coverage byProfessor Jane Duncan, the Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University’s journalism school.
The key finding from the analysis of news sources in 153 articles about Marikana or Lonmin published between August 13-22 (the massacre was on August 16) is that the miners (and not union people) only made up three percent of the total.
“Of the three percent of workers who were interviewed independently of the Num and Amcu (unions),” Duncan has written, “only one worker was quoted speaking about what actually happened during the massacre and he said the police shot first. Most were interviewed in relation to the ‘muti’ stories (the majority), followed by working and living conditions.”
(Click here for the very interesting article written about the analysis by Duncan to find out more about the methodology and her findings.)
“I think many journalists just assumed that if they spoke to Num and Amcu, the voice of the workers was covered,” Duncan said this week, “and that was an absolutely incorrect assumption.”
I must say I am very sympathetic to the journalist who covered the week that led up to the shooting by police that killed 34 miners as many would have gone in cold to a very tense situation that had many complex dynamics.
Firstly, there are the difficulties of reporting a volatile stand-off such as that between the Marikana miners and the police with a pack of journalists. It was very obviously a dangerous situation and it’s not easy to escape from a large pack to do your own thing. TV crews tend to dominate these kinds of situations and the big international news organisations are well practiced at watching the local guys operate to find the right people to interview and they can be pushy too.
Secondly, the mining industry is difficult to understand as it is very big and totally outside most people’s experience while few reporters today have an understanding of the complexities of labour relations in South Africa. So many reporters – understandably, I think – assumed that the platinum sector was much like that of gold or coal, in which there is collective bargaining, and that Num was very strong in the platinum sector.
On top this, the main newspaper in Rustenburg – the centre of the platinum industry – is a weekly Caxton community paper. So it would have been hard for outside journalists to quickly research the local issues as you would, for example, if you were heading to the Eastern Cape, where there are two comparatively well-resourced daily newspapers such as the Daily Dispatch and The Herald that fulfil their roles of watchdog well.
It is also fair to say that the dynamics of the North West and provinces such as Limpopo and Mpumalanga are generally off the national radar screen because they are all mostly serviced by weekly community papers. Independent alternative papers are very localised and so, even if they are doing good reporting, this information is not making it into the mainstream.
Then when it came to reporting conditions on the ground at Marikana, women were not allowed on the koppie where the strike leaders had made their HQ so that cut the female reporters largely out of the loop. Additionally, the miners were hostile towards journalists and, one reporter told me, mandated a “spokesman” to talk to the journalists so that they could maintain a united front.
Therefore, talking directly to individual miners was extremely difficult.
However, Duncan analysis really gives us a lot to think about – not least that the miners she herself spoke to told her they felt that journalists at Marikana were not telling the whole story.
Up to and during the massacre, Duncan says, the miners saw the journalists reporting very much from behind the police line and then after the massacre, the miner’s point of view was still absent until this Daily Maverick piece by Greg Marinovich on September 8.
In follow-up analysis of Marikana coverage after August 22 – which will also go beyond looking at sources of information – Duncan expects much more representation from the miners because Marinovich’s piece appears to be a tipping point.
Nevertheless, the first set of analysis does point to some serious holes in the beat system of many South African newsrooms today: crucially a dearth of labour reporters.
Duncan says she believes this not just a reflection of the downsizing of newsrooms.
“It’s a big weakness and it’s an international problem as well, I think, in newsrooms and it’s got a lot to do with the demise of the trade-union movement, whereas in the ‘60s and ‘70s… the trade-union movement was very strong and, because of that, I think a lot of trade unions had the ability to communicate constantly and effectively – and, in turn, journalists took it seriously as a beat.”
There is also an important shift in South African society that is not really being told by journalists, she says, and that is how the established trade-union federations are fragmenting.
“I’m aware that the first breakaway union that was established was in the transport sector in 1994 and ever since then, there’s been a number of independent unions establish themselves because of disaffection with the major federations – and that’s not just Cosatu. It’s Nactu as well.”
Although better covered than the labour beat, Duncan believes another under-reported area is the build-up of conflict in the different mining areas in different parts of the country.
“If you want to find out the reason why many miners armed themselves (at Marikana), you need to understand the reason why they felt threatened in the first place.
“(One Rustenburg miner) spoke (to me) about the extremely violent nature of mine security and the police as well – where the police have been increasingly acting as the security firms effectively for the mining companies.
“So the miners felt it necessary to arm themselves for the reason of self-defence and it’s these kinds of things that one needs to understand to get a deeper story and for us to be able to build up the fuller picture.”
Going forward, Duncan believes that the media needs to make more effort in investigating and asking questions about how the shooting happened.
“I get the impression that many newsrooms have said: ‘Well, let’s see what comes out of the Farlam Commission’. And I don’t think this is a prudent thing to do for many reasons.”
Chief among these is that the miners are suspicious of the government-appointed commission and, therefore, it is uncertain how many will give evidence. Further, Ipid – which is the police’s independent oversight unit, formerly known as the ICD – has demonstrated a lack of capacity in the past and investigative ability to bring police officers to book.
“My fear is that if Ipid is going to be relied on to provide the main evidence of what actually happened that there may be evidence that slips under the net,” she says.
“No one’s saying that journalists should become forensic investigators but in a situation like this it’s crucially important that we have – as far as possible – alternative sources of information and an alternative understanding of what happened so that we can assess the Farlam Commission when it finally makes its findings.”
Unfortunately, this is already proving to be difficult for journalists as, some have told me, many Marikana miners are unwilling to admit that they were eyewitnesses because they fear they will be charged.
For me, the irony here is that the ruling party has often criticised the press for not representing the lives of all South Africans. But in this particular instance – one of the key events of the Zuma presidency – the absence of miners’ voices in the early reporting on Marikana served the ANC very well as the police’s version of the shooting was able to dominate the news coverage and national debate.
Duncan wrote: “Journalists pride themselves on their independence. Yet if the first week of reporting on the Marikana conflict is anything to go by, many journalists allowed themselves to become mouthpieces of the rich and powerful, reproducing the official versions of events, and silencing the voices of the workers as rational, thinking beings with their own stories to tell.
“Such reporting is an indictment on journalism and all that it stands for. It does not help society understand the scale of the social unrest gripping the country, the levels of police violence in response, and overall, the extent of the drift towards outright state repression. A society can ill-afford to sleepwalk through a period in history when it risks collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions.”
This was published first on Journalism.co.za