Coverage of the Muizenberg lockdown protest

Nobody will be surprised to read that journalism leans toward sensationalism in terms of topics chosen for coverage, how topics are covered, and (especially) the headlines chosen to represent that coverage, seeing as the headline is what makes people click through to (maybe) read the story.

In case you aren’t aware, the author of a newspaper article almost never writes the headline for their article, so when you see “Sarongs see off stun grenades as Capetonians defy beach ban“, roll your eyes at the subeditor rather than the author unless otherwise informed.

The article itself, though, carries the byline of the person who must take the bulk of the responsibility for what you are reading (and the editor must of course take a portion of it too, after commissioning and/or accepting the piece for publication).

It’s a given that they — and most of us — are working in an attention economy, where we might feel the need (and, need) to present things in a salacious way in order to attract and keep your eyeballs and wallet aimed in their direction.

However, many of us are embarrassed when doing so, and regretful that it has come to this — that our task has become one of saying what people want to hear, rather than what we think they need to hear based on our journalistic (or in my case, pedagogical) virtues.

Furthermore, it’s a given that TimesLive (the publication linked to above) is tabloid-adjacent. It’s not quite a red-top, but it also doesn’t (often) pretend to be a newspaper of record. Despite this, their “news” section can still usually be expected to present a fair and reasonably comprehensive account of its subject matter.

So, how does one cover a protest against South Africa’s lockdown regulations, and in particular the prohibition on citizens being able to access our beaches? One could start by investigating the nature of the protest: is it an expression of a general sentiment of civil society, led by credible community organisations, or is it instead the brainchild of organisations like “WokeNation” and the biker group “Ride to Freedom”?

Would (and should) the origins of the protest change how you report on it, given that some campaigns start (and end) with posters shared on social media, while others start with groups of people in city halls or churches, or with community activists going door-to-door in a neighbourhood, rallying people to join a march or some other form of public expression of disaffection?

This is not to say that social media activism is always futile or facile. It’s simply to note that pointing to photographs of the Muizenberg protest and saying “look, it wasn’t only white people who were there!” does not address the question of whether something is a serious event that enjoys widespread support, and where reporting on it is in the public interest.

And maybe it’s not worth reporting on at all. I don’t believe this to be the case, but I do believe that a fair representation of this protest would need to include an awareness of how utterly bizarre it is to read about people protesting their inability to go to the beach with “yoga and prayers” after hearing about a flashmob on social media, while in other parts of the country, people are struggling to feed themselves and probably rank “beach access” pretty much at the end of their list of priorities.

But then, those people are not “armed with logic, sarongs and sunscreen”, as these protesters apparently were. And here again, the coverage of the protest strikes me as woeful, in that these people were not “armed with logic”. The examples of “logic” we find are mad claims like:

  • Since there’s sand in our gardens, we all live on sand. Please define the word.

We are told that the “Covid-19 lockdown regulations prohibiting access to beaches failed the test of enforceability”, thanks to the power of those sarongs and those prayers, without any (apparent) awareness of how there was really no serious attempt to enforce the regulations — when polite requests to leave the beach failed to disperse the crowd, the police did… very little. The water cannon that had been summoned was never deployed, and few arrests were made.

Why is that, do you think? And would newspaper coverage of this event perhaps be expected to look into that detail, maybe by asking a police officer on the scene, or following up on it, after the fact? Police fired a water cannon at disabled people trying to collect social security grants in this same month, after all, so perhaps it is worth investigating how sarongs have gained this sort of power.

Perhaps it’s the case that sarongs and prayer correlate positively with money, cellphone recordings of police action, media access, and generally the ability to make a visible (and embarrassing) fuss.

But they certainly correlate positively with whiteness. Another anecdote, via a caller to the radio station CapeTalk, had some person agreeing that “the masses” should be controlled on the beach, but that her grandmother needs beach access to get a bit of exercise.

As we can all infer, “the masses” are defined by not having a surfboard or a sarong. It’s entirely race-neutral, and always has been.

Back to the police. Well, it turns out that “their training and equipment had not been designed to resist a crowd of scantily clad women and children”. And “logic”, of course.

I don’t write this to shame the author. My tweet yesterday said

and all of those aspects — politics, reporting, policing, and governance — are problems here. Of course this is a subjective interpretation of the coverage, and other people can (and will) disagree with this interpretation.

However, my general concern is that a possible lowering of the baseline for reporting on this sort of thing, that gives marginal, uninformed, or fringe views undeserved credence, and also largely ignores the South African context of how race and class inform these events, should not go unnoticed or unchallenged.

Finally, because it probably needs to be said in these times of instinctive dis/agreement, I am not expressing any view on the legitimacy of the beach closures (or any specific lockdown regulation).

My point is instead that this event was only very tenuously newsworthy in the first instance, and to the extent that it was, the coverage in the article linked above is poor. Others disagree, and they were retweeted more, so I guess that settles the debate.

Jacques Rousseau lectures critical thinking & ethics (University of Cape Town), and co-authored “Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience” (Springer 2016).