Selective outrage against murder is par for the course
In about seven weeks' time various organisations in South Africa will take part in the annual "16 days of activism for no violence against women and children" campaign held from 25 November to 10 December. There will be plenty of special newspaper stories designed to shock readers about the murders, rapes, and other brutalities inflicted on women and children.
Nobody is likely to be so callous as to point out that the latest crime figures published by the police show that most murder victims are men, not women, and that far more boys than girls are murdered. Nobody will ask what the "16 days" organisers are bellyaching about when women and children account for "only" 19% of murders.
Nor does anyone object to the annual commemoration of police officers murdered. At the most recent of these occasions, a month ago, the minister of police, Bheki Cele, said that the killing of police officers was a crime against the state equal to treason. Even though government promises to crack down on one or another type of crime are sometimes little more than posturing, nobody complained when Mr Cele vowed to send "specialised units" out of their barracks and "back on the roads" to combat cash-in-transit heists.
About ten days ago the minister of higher education and training, Naledi Pandor, announced that she would be organising a crisis meeting with universities after nearly 50 rapes had been reported on campuses across the country. Nobody objected to that either. Nor did anyone object when the government two years ago appointed a commission of enquiry into assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal.
Still less does anyone object when media organisations draw public attention to the killings of journalists in various countries.
There is, however, a striking contrast between the respect accorded to these attempts to highlight various types of crime and the derision – even vitriol – which sometimes greets attempts to highlight farm murders. This was most notoriously evident during the "Black Monday" demonstrations by farmers in October last year when alleged sightings of the old South African flag were used as a red-herring pretext to denounce the protest as racist.
Not only are attempts by AfriForum and the Transvaal Agricultural Union to highlight the murders of farmers subjected to derogatory comments by various journalists, politicians, and academics, but self-styled "fact checkers" also sometimes seek to undermine the credibility of farm-murder statistics.
The recent statement in America by Cyril Ramaphosa that "there are no killings of farmers or white farmers in South Africa" was not only untruthful but also symptomatic of a wider problem of denial. A former editor of a major English-language daily newspaper in Johannesburg indeed argues that the English-language press largely ignores farm murders, which are reported systematically only in Afrikaans newspapers.
There is nothing new about media bias in playing up certain kinds of murders while ignoring others. During the "people's war" launched by the African National Congress (ANC) as part of its struggle for power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the murders of black town councillors at the behest of the ANC were played down. So were the killings of hundreds of black policeman, also at the behest of the ANC. According to the Inkatha Freedom Party, some 420 of its office-bearers and officials were also killed during the course of the people's war; these assassinations were largely ignored by the media (and by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The people's war itself was largely ignored.
Apart from the fact that journalists sometimes trivialise them, two things about farm murders stand out. They are sometimes accompanied by several hours of grotesque and gratuitous torture, described in horrifying detail by Ernst Roets of AfriForum in his recent book Kill the Boer. Also, unlike murders of women, children, and police, they occur in an atmosphere in which politicians of various denominations are prone to express hostility towards the victims, hostility which now includes threats to confiscate their property. Strangely, the media inform us when politicians threaten to "kill the boer" but when the boers are actually killed the media largely keep silent.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.