In her latest book, Wits Centre for Journalism lecturer and acting director of the Wits Justice Project, Dr Nechama Brodie, says media coverage is distorting the facts around farm killings in South Africa, and that while very few farm murders appear to be committed for political reasons, the response to them is often political. She was recently in conversation with Prof Anton Harber during the book launch in Johannesburg.

By Anton Harber 

Some of the best books about the media are not about the media. While dealing with very different topics, they probe the central institution of our world.

A good example is Tina Brown’s Diana, which gives insight from a major journalist – the former editor of the New Yorker – into the role her profession played in creating and destroying this 20th Century royal character.

Journalist Nechama Brodie’s new book looks at first glance like it is about that all-South African phenomenon, farms murders, but it’s actually about the media: how the portrayal of farm murders have given the issue the place it has in South African politics.

Farm Murders in South Africa (NB Publishers) is Brodie’s second such apparently macabre work, her previous one being Femicide in SA. She is nothing if not prolific: apart from these two books, she has produced in recent years two novels, short stories, wonderful books about Jo’burg and  Cape Town, a PhD, and is a musician and karateka (second dan) on the side. So death is not the only thing she writes about.

Farm murders, she writes, makes up “a remarkably small proportion of violent acts overall” but because of their “unique prominence, are able to place an entire country on a knife’s edge”. They have led to other disputes: claims that these killings and the brutality that often accompanies them are part of an organized attempt to drive whites from the land, a symbol of the state’s abandonment of white farmers, a demonstration of the loss of white power, proof of black racism against the white minority and even the beginning of a “white genocide”. The murders have been used to mobilise a white constituency and to tap into a global rightwing network to protect “white rights”. This has in turn been used by black nationalists to provoke racial confrontation and mobilise supporters over land rights issues and abuse of farmworkers. The confrontation is best captured in the long-running dispute over whether the singing of the struggle song Kill the Boer is hate speech, linked to the farm murders.

But first, Brodie, tells us, you have to decide what is a farm murder. Why does the loose definition usually used in the media include many incidents that occur on smallholdings rather than actual farms and exclude many of the incidents where black farm workers and rural dwellers are the victims? The lack of an agreed definition means there has been endless circular disputes over whether that rate of farm killings is higher than other murders and has allowed it to be used and abused as a political issue.

The media’s lack of precision – or is it care? – in deciding what can be labelled a farm murder has fed into this political contestation. So has the definition of torture, used often in relation to the killing of white farmers, but less often in relation to other equally brutal killings. The reporting of some kinds of murders more than others – particularly the more brutal ones – skews our perceptions of what is actually going on.

Journalists all the time make these micro-decisions that shape the public perception of these events: which to cover, how much prominence to give it, how to label it, what context to use to explain it, who to quote, what adjectives to use … Sometimes, reading or watching the material, you have to wonder if journalists are conscious of the import of these quick, routine decisions.

Brodie’s analysis of the coverage tells us a great deal about which perspectives are dominant in our media, who gets to tell the stories and decide what is a farm murder, when there is torture and, indeed, which murders get covered and which do not. Farm murders, she shows, are seldom placed in the context of the long history and contemporary prevalence of violence and harsh inequality in rural South Africa. Our farms “began a places of violence” and still are, in many different ways.

“It is the constant presence of violence, the normalization of violence, the repeated use of violence to establish very masculine forms of dominance, that enables the landscape of violent acts that continue to this day,” she writes.

You can’t solve the problem, she says, unless you understand it. And media coverage is distorting it.

Her conclusion is chilling: “The figures of murders on farms are staggering and shocking. Yet when they’re viewed alongside violence figures from immediately adjacent and neighbouring areas, they begin to appear less as ‘exceptional’ and more as collateral casualties in much larger killing field.”

Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits and executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression.