TRUE LIES: MANUFACTURING CONSENT

It took a small and seemingly innocuous incident with a roving photographer to bring Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman’s: Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) to mind. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how we all could benefit from re-reading the text,  particularly those of us who are still involved in the practice of  journalism.

The Personal Case

I was sitting  at a table next to a window facing the street at Bread and Roses, a cafe bistro  in Melville at the corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue, typing away when I looked up to find a woman with a camera facing me. I was just putting up my head to think away from the screen as one does, when at that very moment our eyes met and  she smiled sweetly at me and asked if she could take a picture.  As usual, thinking this would make her go away I asked why? She replied that I was beautiful. I rolled my eyes thinking that if I earned actual money each time someone told me that I would be a very wealthy woman today, beauty as it turns out, does not solve many problems.

But before I could say something, she had already taken several pictures of me. So I asked feeling  less nonchalant this time, what the pictures were for? She responded looking rather annoyed herself that it was just for her own  personal use.  I wanted to ask her for her email so I can have a copy too when she started walking swiftly away followed closely by a male colleague with more cameras strapped around him which then made me think that that picture could not have been just  for her own personal use.  I was still focused on what I was doing and so I did not have the energy nor the time to run after her and ask her to delete my pictures since they were taken according to my understanding, under false pretenses.

But the picture had already been taken and she was gone.

I realized then why wildlife safaris are so popular among those who say they love and adore animals. You can take as many pictures as you like and the Giraffe will never ask why? What is it for? or What’s in it for me?

Later as I sat with an old friend, a photographer, I told her of what had just happened. I was wondering why they were taking pictures of people without any real explanation.  She said “ They’ve been doing this all day, but you know” she continued ” it’s a true lie. It’s it’s true that you may have looked beautiful sitting there working on your computer, but maybe it just made a nice picture overall not you personally, just the picture composition you know the lighting , colour etc. so it’s true but it’s also a lie.”

In short I was duped by my own vanity

So the “truth” of my supposed beauty as I typed away by the window of a trendy coffee shop in Melville masked multiple lies. The picture was not only for her personal use. I did not consent to my picture being taken, there was just not enough time for me to make a well thought out decision and if the photographer wanted that beautiful picture as she saw it  right then– she needed to act quickly, say something to distract or  placate me  so it seem  as though I have given my consent.

So what does this example have to do with manufacturing consent and the political economy of the mass media? Everything. It was economically expedient for her to lie to me about what she will use my picture so I won’t make any claims on whatever commercial gains she might make on my image in the future, it was politically expedient for her to lie about my beauty so she can get what she wanted.

This is may be simplistic but it is often  exactly how the ideological propaganda works. It is a delicate mix of truth and lies which are meant first to confuse, then to divert your attention from asking the appropriate question or probing any further. It’s that moment when someone pays you the nicest compliment as preparation for an attack meant to coerce you into doing  what they want or to believe what they say. It’s a form of psychological manipulation which is hard to pin down, identify, much less  prove.

There are many forms of deception – the local version

Let me pull up from the minutia and give you a wider angle with an example more relevant to most of us.  Let’s go back to the Marikana Massacre on the 16th of August 2012.  To say I was shocked by the public response to the incident is an understatement of the century. If I was mad, I regained the full use of my mental faculties on that day. Many people applauded police action justified by statements such as this one which littered Twitter and Facebook saying: “yeah, I mean what you would do when confronted by a mob of spear wielding men?” “I’d shoot”. Some even congratulated the police for doing a good job in defending themselves and more generally the country. This despite the fact that the previous night video footage of the murders were shown on both the privately owned E-news Channel and publicly owned SABC news broadcasts. Police were shown clearly shooting at the miners who were fleeing the Koppie. Trauma specialists and or psychologists might tell you that sometimes when people are faced with traumatic or tragic events they go through a period of denial, it didn’t happen. But despite the many interviews we conducted with journalists, union leaders and the bereaved, the official story was that the police had done their job well on that day.

Which is  true, but it is also a lie.

To drive the point home of who exactly was the guilty party, the police arrested more than 200 striking miners. The miners were wrong, they didn’t listen to instructions not to strike, they didn’t want to leave the Koppie so they had to be shot.   Soon after, a ban on interviews with those linked to the mining incident such as the bereaved was instituted at the public broadcaster for “legal considerations” including all original footage showing how the shooting happened was barred from the news on both channels, even on radio for natural sound.  Deputy President Cryril Ramaphosa came in for an interview with Xolani Gwala on SAfm – AM Live, to explain himself and his involvement in the whole saga. The wider public believed that the police were doing their job, until the documentary on the incident Miners Shotdown proved otherwise. Now almost four years later the veil has been lifted. Those who have seen the film can only cover their wide open mouths with the palms of their hands.

Who are the worthy victims?

Let’s not forget about the most important story. The terrorists attacks in the Ivory Coast in which 22 people died following an explosion at a beach front resort in Grand-Bassam. Lifeless black bodies, of men mostly filled my Facebook timeline, arms and limbs flayed and twisted with heads buried face down on the sand. Those images caused one to look away. The one person of European descent known to many South Africans of the “political class” meaning artists, filmmakers and cultural managers, remained human even after her death. We didn’t see pictures of her lifeless, bullet riddled or mangled body buried in the sand, we only saw pictures of her radiant smile and several pictures of her while she was still alive in the Ivory Coast surrounded by artists whom she so loved. Even news reports of the incident had images of her while she was still alive and the rest of the pictures were of black bodies discarded scattered on the beach like flies.  The only image that proved that there were white people killed in the incident was a picture which only zoomed on the feet of the dead while the rest of their bodies were fully covered. You may ask why is it necessary for me go into such detail. I want to illustrate the subtle yet powerful messaging contained in these  images, how people are treated when they are dead, shows you whose life is important, which life matters most. One news outlet even went as far as saying, 22 people including Europeans were killed  at a beach front hotel in the Ivory Coast. Who will you remember?

So who knows what is  actually Going On?

Today in South Africa we’re all so preoccupied (the political class) with the Guptas and their undue influence on the President of the country. When so much worse is happening to our people.  Daily, workers are being systematically dehumanized by the thousands herded like cows or sheep into taxis every morning or made to wait while angry and arrogant taxi bosses divide the loot among themselves in Johannesburg, or kill each other in Durban.   This while those who are opposed to mining  explorations in many of the country’s rural areas are  being killed, forcibly moved from their homes, starved of land, livestock and any way to make a living. Water is cut off from river streams and what is left is for coal.  Humans drink from the same polluted, stagnant waters with dogs and wild animals, because their taps have run dry. This as the Reserve bank increases the interest rates by 25 basis points making the cost of borrowing money exorbitant (more than ten percent interest on every rand borrowed). While the Rand loses currency making it so much easier for  foreign investors to take, sorry, to buy whatever they like fulfilling former president Nelson Mandela’s promise to avail the country’s public enterprises to global capital.  The coup is happening if it’s not already finished.  This as cabinet ministers with smalla-nyana skeletons in their respective closets, watch on.

No one has the courage to say: we’ve been conquered. That one vote, that one yes in 1994, meant yes to everything that is happening now.

A lie, which is  also true.

Of course there are a  million ways in which  my words can be contradicted, proven to be false,  this is after all not a monolithic argument or position. Life is infinitely more complex and more nuanced  than we could ever imagine. But it is also just as simple. Nothing is ever what it seems.  At best all the examples I have made here, serve to remind us  that we’ve all been co-opted  at some level or another into our own self-deception.  We either choose not to see  the truth because it is completely inconvenient for us right now or we just don’t have the energy to say or ask for more. Because we’re just too tired, too exhausted by the sheer physical exertion required  to get from A to B in order to  just put food on the table. So when we get home, we just want to sit down, relax ,watch some good TV and then just as the show gets really interesting  wonder why the lights, suddenly,  go off. At least this way  there’ll always be someone else to blame.

Pictured: Henrike Grohs  one of an estimated 22 people killed at the Ivory Coast terrorist attack on the 13th of March 2016.  Picture Credit:  The Goethe Institute. Johannesburg. South Africa.

 

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THE FOREIGN EYE: LETTERS FROM MY EXILE

I have so many stories about this city that I love, Stru! My histories are written from Phefeni, Orlando West, Thabethe Street to Bree Street Taxi Rank where all my journeys began. Each avenue and street corner though hidden from me at times, has a story I share with so many souls. But despite this reality, there’s so much about this city that I didn’t know – things I didn’t see which only a foreign eye could see. So in many ways I have been like a voyeur, a tourist in the city of my birth, guided through it by fresher eyes than my own. It is quite something to be detached from a place that runs through your blood, whose heart beat mirrors your own, a place as comfortable as being in your own body. There’s no other alternative, it’s like constantly wondering what it would be like to be someone else. The exercise on its own might be very interesting but it is largely fruitless because if you were someone else you wouldn’t be you would you? Even as someone else then you are still you, it is you being someone else. Since there are so many people you could be, why not be, just you, for a change?

One Day I will Write About This Place

I started reading the book wondering how in the world Biyavanga Wainaina could read my thoughts, I was going to name my first child that, when as is the hallmark of great writing I ended up thinking about my life here in this city. I started to wonder what kind of story I would tell about it.  I started to think about the first story I ever wrote about my Johannesburgness, my Joziness and realized that it is only through foreign eyes that I began to experience the real heart of South Africa. Johannesburg. This mad guy who is crazy about everything she does.  I was sitting outside the HQ (Head Quarters) table at a restaurant that used to be called Spiros – a joint which was owned by a white man called Spiro. Now the restaurant is called Poppies and it is owned by a black woman called Poppy.  I was listening to returned political activists and exiles speak about the strangeness of Johannesburg – South Africa. They were commenting in particular to the incredulity of “these young people” who “ twang” and speak English better than their own mother tongues but who simultaneously  don’t know much less understand their own history and its geopolitical context. Of course, they knew my story inside and out.

The Politics of Being : You

I was just as incredulous at their comments, I listened and wondered if they’ve ever taken the time to ask why?  How did they end up twanging? Why is it that they don’t know their history? And then listen to the answers without interrupting.  I went home that night and wrote down the answer to a question I was never asked, printed it out and gave it to them on paper – for the record. They said I’d make a good writer one day. I had interesting opinions they said, as they folded the paper away. I also folded my story away. I was not ready. So I made it my goal to experience my world and history through foreign eyes, those were the ones people listened to, trusted. Their opinions were more valid, legitimized by the words exile, African National Congress, comrades, people who out of the goodness of their hearts volunteered to fight for the liberation of South African black people – in New York, Toronto, London and Moscow. Some were in Tanzania, maybe others were in Nairobi but most went over the seas. Some didn’t make it back. Some never want to come back. All of them were vital to my freedom. Then Kopano Matlwa released a book called Coconut – which everybody loved. “Coconut” is a derogatory term used to describe black people who are fluent in English and speak with the “right” accent, like coconuts they are black on the outside and white on the inside – they are perceived to have a white-state-of-mind – to be brainwashed. I went to one of her readings at the Boekehuis which has turned into a  restaurant that sells beer to South Africans. That’s  where I read Franz Fanon for the first time.  I was grateful for her book and her eloquence. Though I never read her story. It was mine. How do you write about change? How do you stop time and look into the evolution of life, the geography of how someone’s’ mind changes in an instant or in a slow and gradual way that even when the change has already happened it is imperceptible to the human eye. Often it is only from a distant- faraway place that this change be recognized, seen and perceived in the context of everything else. What has changed?

Who am I?

 

Those who don’t know me very well seem to think that I’m an angry black. Woman. That’s also okay, I am sure there were times when I welcomed the title. But I was and still am not angry as much as I am tired of coming face to face with eyes glazed over with indifference when I explain or speak. Oh Dear! Not another sop story! Maybe if you heard me that would not be your immediate response. My reasons are valid. So I keep silent. I won’t explain anything. Because you are not listening. You don’t want to know. And for real though, it’s your right. You don’t have to listen to me. I certainly won’t force you. With Respect. Hopefully one day, when you have a bit of time and money to spare – you will find all the answers you were not ready to hear to questions you didn’t ask between the pages of a book about you. I hope you learn to laugh until you cry and laugh again and again at the silliness of it all. I hope you enjoy it, because I certainly enjoyed watching you – watch me. Please don’t say, you should have told me. I just did. It’s On The Record.

HEARTBREAK: ON GRANT AVENUE

Dear Darling

I was still wondering why I was here, there, in Norwood a small little Jewish Neighbourhood near Orange Grove in Johannesburg when I stepped on little pieces of my heart – shredded so thin they had filled up little holes in molten tar and concrete which paves the weathered street. Ouch. It was here. Then. When I received the call no one ever expects. How could I have forgotten? I thought it had been somewhere else in some other neighbourhood, somewhere far away but no. It was definitely here, right here at The Schwarma Co. We stopped to have lunch, a welcome break between our haphazard moves. From here to there. Our orders had just been taken, I remember still trying to be enthusiastic, to smile, while desperately searching for an appetite for this particular brand of Arabic fast food, hoping that  somehow it would taste different to the last time I tried to eat, it. That’s when my blackberry started ringing, interrupting the many unwelcome ghosts which were starting to grow inside my throat.

It was mom calling, in the middle of the day, 11:00am perhaps? Only, it wasn’t her calling me, it was another voice I’d never heard before. The way that lady called my name. “Are you Jedi?!” Am I? I wondered. “Are you Jedi?” Yes I am. I said, I am. Her voice continued like echoes in an empty tunnel, her words tumbling on each other like bumble bees caught in a fierce hurricane “Your mother has collapsed. She’s unconscious. We’ve been trying to wake her up for the past 30 minutes.  We called an ambulance. We’re taking her to the hospital. Are you coming?” “Are you coming?” She asked desperate this time. “Coming where?” I asked unintentionally.  Silence. “Is my brother there?” I asked. Yes she replied. I asked to speak to him. He told me everything. I told him I was coming. Remembering the thousand times I had promised to come, when he asked “Jedi, when are you coming home?”  But never did.

It is funny how a place can swallow secretes. It’s funny how the mind forgets. That which, it must remember. My life changed that day. I stopped seeing. I lived in another world. Where I pleaded for atonement, for forgiveness. Because even then  I didn’t know where to begin to fix that which had gone so terribly wrong or  right so many years ago. Grey Blue Eyes stared back at me. They too seeing nothing. In me.

I know that I have found no greater love than that which my mother poured out for me, so selflessly on that day, and every day since before our times. My walls came crumbling down, light flooded my heart and I became blind to the ordinary, to normal, to schedules and time. Is that what happened to you too? Did heartbreak dim the spark in your eyes?

Now I know why I am here. To collect my soul. My love. And take her home. To keep her safe somewhere, between the pages of a book, that we will one day read to our children, in a language of our own invention.

Money has made the word love sound so cheap, empty, even useless, but love is, excuse my language, as essential as toilet paper. And yes, you do need money for that too.

In all the ways that words will not permit me to say it  I do. I love you.

See, I needed to be here, to see this place – again. To trace the entrails of my spirit, to pick up unshed tears which  have melted in the rain. I needed to remember the shape of my heart.

What it once looked like. So I can appreciate this new one, with you in it.

I needed to know that silence, doesn’t mean,  it didn’t happen.

See you soon.

Dance Umbrella 2016: Dances Around Racism

A Two way conversation, with a third person as mediator

It took an interview with Russian Dancer Choreographer Ivan Estegneeve for the huge elephant in the room at this year’s Contemporary dance showcase The Dance Umbrella 2016 to be named. The theme for this year’s event was all about collaboration across borders and while many dancer/ choreographers admitted to the huge challenges faced in their collaborations not many were open enough to name the exact difficulty. When I sat down with Estegneev after the last performance of Hero – a male duet dance interrogating the cultural and societal representation of men and masculine identities, which was inspired by Estegneeve’s reading of Josephs Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythologies in “A Hero with a Thousand Faces“.  I asked him how he found his “collaboration” with dancers from the forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative and Estegneeve’s Russian based dance company Dialogue Dance on the last day of the dance umbrella, he said “It was difficult to work with black dancers.”  Honesty can be such a breath of fresh air. When I probed why exactly that was the case his Dramaturge JP Sabbagha, a South African choreographer famous for his issue based dance performances particularly on the subject of HIV/AIDS, immediately intervened saying “You must remember that Estegneev comes from Russia, which has been a very closed off society as you know and not as integrated as South Africa, so he’s not exposed to or used to working with black people”.

A simple question

I was wondering why he chose ordinary clothes as costumes instead of more heroic outfits. Estegneeve said it was not culturally appropriate for the black dancers (Fana Tshabalala and Thulani Chauke who were deliberately excluded from the interview) to wear heroic outfits such as those of batman or superman. He had wanted, he said,  for at least one of the dancers to walk on stage with a more outlandish super-hero outfit and then proceed to take it off as a way of metaphorically getting under the skin of a hero but he said that proved to be culturally inappropriate for the two black dancers. I asked what exactly was culturally inappropriate about it, was it being naked? Because one of dancers did strip down to his tight speedo in the piece? Culturally South Africans are used to or more aptly  they are largely influenced by  western ideas of Heroes like Batman and Superman, why new comic books were being produced with black heroes nowadays, so how was wearing a superhero outfit, culturally inappropriate? Estegneeve then looked to Sabbagha for support and Sabbagha responded that when they workshopped the idea, they just chose to go with ordinary clothes and outfits as that would be a less obvious reference to the Hero motif.

I wished he said that in the beginning.

A similar incident took place with South African born Choreographer, Jessica Nupen, now based in Germany for the past 13 years who, when quizzed about her collaboration with dancers from Moving Into Dance Moiphatong (MIDM) for her production Romeo and Juliet, Rebellion and Johannesburg responded that she enjoyed working with them although she’s not sure if they enjoyed working with her.  She then proceeded to say defensively that she’s only human and can only control so much of what other people do with their bodies. Besides, she had consulted with top academics in Germany about her chosen theme of Romeo and Juliet which was thoroughly workshop-ped for at least 18 months. With Sunnyboy Mandla Motau as her choreographic dance assistant she was able to communicate her idea to the dancers, none of whom by their own admission had read or heard about the Shakespearean romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet before. I thought it was a set work at most township schools, maybe they didn’t finish school, ah just as well. “We had no idea about the story we just worked with what Jessica told us she wanted” the dancers said. Many of them said they enjoyed the process, one dancer said the piece allowed her to express her South African-ness in ways that were impossible to do in South Africa. The piece toured Germany in 2015.

In Contrast…

South African pieces produced by South Africans were less racist in their approach, however their intellectual approaches were jarring.  From the vulgarity of obscene amounts of money in Jessica Nupens Rebellion and Johannesburg which turned money into scraps of paper and torn up black plastic garbage bags which were hung around monuments made of hoola hoops and newspaper headlines to the crassness of raw emotion in the uncontained need to spray imaginary semen mixed with blood and gun-powder on audiences in Mamela Nyamza and Nelisiwe Xaba’s Last Attitude.

A compromise

That’s what collaboration is about regardless of race says  Mocke J van Vueren who has successfully collaborated with Nelisiwe Xaba on various productions including, Uncles and Angels, which won the FNB  Arts prize in 2013. The partnership works because both respect each other’s intellect and ability to reason even if they don’t always agree. So where does collaboration begin or end in the hierarchical nature of dance? Asked Nelisiwe Xaba during a discussion on collaborations across borders and geographical spaces hosted by the Goethe Institute. Xaba, an alumni of Moving into Dance and formerly one of Robyn Orlins’ dancers is not a stranger to the intricate power dynamics of the dance world. Her experience in her early years has been just that: a black dancer controlled in her case by a white woman.  “I’m not sure where collaboration begins or ends, in the end it’s the choreographer who gives the piece its context and conceptual direction and not the dancers.”

 My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard 

Julia Burnham a dancer with Gregory Maqoma’s Vuyani Dance Company says working with Robyn Orlin in her 2013 piece “Beauty remained for just a moment and then gently returned to her starting position” was cathartic. I told her that a group of us; writers attending the Dance Writer’s Workshop sponsored by the Goethe  Institute  found the piece disturbing. From the sex scene in the middle of the hour long performance where all dancers were reaching a sexual climax, to the part about her extremely large boobs which were fully exposed towards the end of the piece. The sex scene was a dancer’s idea she said. “When we were exploring what we found beautiful, she told us that the only time she feels beautiful is when she’s having sex and that’s why we included it, it was not Robyn Orlins’ idea” she told me. “See the part with my boobs, I was tired of them, they were not my idea of what’s beautiful, they were very large and heavy, you can’t see them now” she said pointing at her chest with her chin. “I do a thousand push-ups a day so now they have a shrunk a bit, but that part were I exposed my boobs was all me. I wanted to do it, to rid myself of something I didn’t appreciate. It was a breakthrough for me”. She continued to say that “Many people don’t understand why we’re all (dancers) attached to this piece, it’s because Robyn Orlin engaged us emotionally, she pushed us to the very limits. In fact she asked me a thousand times if I was sure I wanted to do that, and I said yes. We cried, we laughed it was special. Collaboration is about sharing. We learn something, she learns something too.’

In the end there’s always a Protest.

I felt like saying we have real struggles today. As I watched four old men prancing around the stage singing old struggle songs in black and white all-star converse shoes and overalls. Their performance was a poetic disaster. One audience member said they seemed to enjoy themselves more than the audience watching them. But Toyi Toyi, a collaborative choreographic piece by the dancers of the French Hors Série and Via Katlehong Companies about struggle songs with stories told by three dancers from Katlehong was rather poignant.  The French government through (IFAS)has been a principal custodian of the arts in South Africa, followed closely by the German government through the Goethe Institute. With that in mind it is no wonder that racism though apparent was not confronted in any of the performance pieces with the exception perhaps of The Last Attitude which received support from the South African Arts Council.  But then again that was never the premise was it? Racism does not exist in South Africa, it is quite frankly old news. What did Thomas Sankara say? “He who feeds you, controls your mind.” Yes, at this year’s Dance Umbrella it was rather obvious that he who pays the piper calls the tune and we all, happily, danced to it.

 

 

photo credit: Cristiana Ceppas.