Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Does media anaesthetise us to the suffering of the poor?

Last week saw the memorial of the Marikana Massacre unfold on national television, namely on eNCA, which rolled out an entire day dedicated to the miners that died in the massacre. On the surface this appeared to be a noble cause that could be celebrated as the mainstream finally seeing things from the working-class perspective. The material certainly seemed to want to elicit sympathy for the miners and their wives as scenes of the brutal massacre played out over and over again throughout the day. They even showed the list of names of the men who had been murdered brutally at the hands of our police force on August 16 last year, including the four that made up the security guards and policemen killed in that period. These were no longer nameless and faceless men.

Moreover the eNCA documentary entitled The Marikana Massacre, which is a gut-wrenching journey through seven days over the strike period, has also been showing repetitively on the channel for the past few weeks. Here we bear witness to the pain and emotional damage suffered by the wives and children of the miners, some of who watched their husbands die on television in close-up and graphic detail. One woman testifies how she had phoned her husband only hours before to finalise his plans for coming home to the Eastern Cape to perform an ancestral ceremony. A few hours later she saw him on his knees trying to hold onto his life, and finally collapsing. It is a chilling spectacle to watch him shudder, fall and die in full view of the public via television. I’m not sure it is even possible to imagine what his wife must have felt, seeing her husband die on television, which she tries to describe to the interviewer while tears roll down her face. It is an awful moment and it is impossible not to cry along with her.

The question around the eNCA coverage though, is whether it is eliciting empathy or sympathy for the miners, in the minds of the average South African conservative society, who are mostly convinced that business is innocent of any wrongdoing and should be left to police itself — and that workers are dangerous, irrational and need to be controlled by any means necessary. Responses from this mainstream stable to various articles sympathetic to the workers, reveal an outlook that feels absolutely no empathy for the miners and in fact blames them for their own death. So for this sector of society to witness the deaths of the miners on national television could simply reinforce their attitudes that the miners got what was coming to them. In this case the repetitive broadcast of workers shot and killed possibly reinforces their belief that this is, indeed, the best way in which to deal with unruly workers in strike action.

All of which brings to mind Susan Sontag’s writings on photography where she points out that, “To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more — and more. Images transfix. Images anaesthetise.”

In the case of the eNCA coverage there is an inherent danger that this visual display of suffering and death being presented as spectacle and repeated often throughout the week could also anaesthetise the public to the brutalisation of collective workers bodies. The problem too is that this coverage fails to adequately take into consideration all the key players in this atrocity, namely the state and corporate instigators of the shooting. It focuses almost entirely on the police, as if they operated in a vacuum and randomly worked alone. There is no mention of the key players in the orchestration of the massacre that have been revealed and exposed over the year since it occurred.

In an article in the Socialist Worker the shocking collusion between the state, the platinum mining company Lonmin and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is revealed. Here it becomes apparent that Lonmin came up with the strategy and that NUM officials and government allegedly backed it up as NUM requested the police presence, which was ratified by Cyril Ramaphosa.

The absence of such vital background then makes the roll out of the devastating visuals around the massacre almost pornographic. It becomes a graphic spectacle of blood and death — a series of snuff movies in a sense, and instead of creating compassion, responsiveness and outrage from the public, it, by oversaturation, obliquely creates insensitivity towards the miners, reinforcing the message that draconian and brutal measures had to be employed to quell the dangerous workers.

Also, the question of how this impacts on the families of the victims has not been factored into this roll out of “massacre media” and they are, tragically, forced to relive the murders over and over. This seemingly feeds the process of the derealisation of the bodies of workers and the emotional well-being of their families, most of who are poor. It speaks volumes about how the poor are often not even consulted when it comes to issues of their privacy and inner emotional and psychological world. The pain in these visuals is only really real for them — the rest of us are mere spectators.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag asserts that the failure of the photograph is to truly represent the reality of atrocity. As Sontag argues, the photograph can only document the pain — can only prove to us that the atrocity is “real” but cannot communicate pain because the viewer is unable to “understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like”.
In terms of the eNCA documentary on Marikana one could also assert that the horror of these images of atrocity, then, do not elicit empathy, but rather anaesthetise the public to the spectacle of horror and in fact, enure the public to the possibility of many more spectacles of this nature in the future. That is a chilling realisation.

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