What kind of ‘Mother City’? What kind of media? What kind of people?

So we woke up this past Sunday morning to the ominous smell of fire. Not the usual smell of a grass fire somewhere, or that clean smell of burning vegetation we get when the fire is somewhere high up in the kloofs. This was an acrid smell with hints of burning plastic. And soon it became apparent that not only was the entire mountain shrouded in a haze, but that the whole city was covered with a pall of smoke. What was happening?  Online media only slowly began to give reports of a fire in Imizamo Yethu (the informal settlement also known as Mandela Park) in Hout Bay, with reports emerging that two people had died. It was to be many hours before the electronic versions of our newspapers included reports of two other deadly fires in the city; and it was not until well after mid-day that one of the national television channels consistently started reporting that nine people had lost their lives overnight to fires in the Mother City. Nine people!

Even then the story was only the second news lead of the day, with a story about an abducted baby in first place, and the cancellation of the Cape Town cycle tour in third.  The cancellation of the race was called, incidentally, because of dangerously high winds – not out of any sense that a truly horrific, unthinkable tragedy had occurred in the city.

This morning, on only the second day after the catastrophe, one of the local newspaper’s street pole banners certainly carries a stark reference to the nine people who are dead, and the hundreds who have been left homeless. But on the very next pole, the banner is about the bike tour; and by the next it is about the dozens of pets that were rescued from the fires. If you go online to one of the country’s main news websites this Monday morning, you will find a list of the most-watched items. They are:

  • Cyclist blown backwards by epic winds!
  • Durban beach closed as ‘massive waves’ wash over Promenade
  • ‘Inconsistencies’ in Baby Siwaphiwe kidnapping leading to mom’s arrest
  • Baby Siwaphiwe’s mother arrested for kidnapping
  • Cape Town cycle tour cancelled

For any updates about the victims of the fires, you have to search the website. If you take the trouble to do this, you will read that 15,000 people are now reported to have been left homeless. 15,000 people!

What is the matter with us? What is the matter with our media: who do they speak for, and who do they speak to?  Is the criterion for newsworthiness in Cape Town that an issue should affect or interest the tiny sector of the city’s sheltered middle classes? Is the ongoing lack of decent housing for all our citizens simply not one of these issues?  Do black lives simply not matter?

As most ordinary Capetonians will know, the phrase imizamo yethu means ‘our efforts’ or ‘our struggles’. The name of the settlement in Hout Bay reflects the spirit of the people who live in it – people who have built themselves the most modest of homes, quite literally with their own hands, as a base from which to go out every day in efforts to support themselves and their families through any work they can find. But it seems the saddest thing that any of this should still even have to be a struggle for so many people. Have we forgotten the Freedom Charter? There is a line in it that reads ‘All people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security’ …

I wonder: if we allow our city to continue caring so little about a freedom so basic, what kind of people are we?


About Menan du Plessis

I am a Research Associate in the Department of Linguistics at Stellenbosch University. My first studies in Linguistics were with John Coetzee and Roger Lass at the University of Cape Town in the 1980s, but these were difficult times, and it was only much later that I was able to resume my postgraduate studies. I received my PhD from UCT in 2009 for a thesis in Khoesan Linguistics, and have since been most happily engaged in further research, writing and teaching. I particularly enjoy collaborating with scholars from other disciplines, such as history and archaeology. I have conducted fieldwork to obtain recordings from two of the last speakers of Kora and am preparing a book on this nearly extinct Khoesan language, together with colleagues from elsewhere in South Africa, and Namibia. I have previously published two works of fiction, A State of Fear and Longlive! (both David Philip). Other interests include African History, the History and Philosophy of Science, and developments in Open Access publishing. I am married, with two daughters, and our small garden of indigenous South African plants is cheerfully frequented by sunbirds, glass-eyes, bulbuls, Cape thrushes, Cape robins, fiscal shrikes and Cape turtledoves.
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