Let's Think

South Africa’s dangerous mix of gossip, rumour and fear

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 A dangerous mix of gossip, rumour and fear, often fuelled by social media, is currently poisoning South African society.

Many South Africans are allowing themselves, unwittingly and unnecessarily, to become victims of this poisonous mix and be robbed of some normal and healthy pleasures in life.

How this process operates is best illustrated by a real-life experience some two weeks ago, related to me by a very close friend who is living in Gauteng. I’ll call him ‘Peter’ for purposes of this narrative and to protect his privacy.

The story also illustrates how even experienced journalists, like myself, are battling to come to grips with the new realities and challenges of the massive influence that social media as a news platform has become.

Towards the end of February, Peter and his wife were invited by one of their married children to visit them and their grandchildren in what can best be described as a small hamlet in Mpumalanga’s Lowveld. The occasion was a birthday celebration.

A number of the small Mpumalanga towns they had to pass through recently featured prominently on especially Facebook and in the traditional media for protest and unrest connected to a lack of service delivery. We too only last week related a Facebook post calling for prayers for the people of a small Mpumalanga town that “has been closed down. No one can get in or out”.

Peter decided it would be prudent to make some enquiries first, before they embarked on their journey. Using social media, he made contact with people he knew are members of an organisation fearing a white genocide and are preparing for survival.

The overwhelming message he got back was: “Stay at home, it is too dangerous for whites to travel through certain towns. You might even be prevented from entering some towns.”

It looked as if Peter and his wife’s hope to see their children and grandchildren again would be dashed. A feeling of anger and frustration took hold of him.

He brooded over it overnight, not able to sleep much. In the early hours he decided “To hell with it. I will not be intimidated in my own country.”

The next morning they started preparing for the journey. He put his .38-revolver in the car and his wife packed her pepper spray where it could be reached easily. Car packed, offerings to the kids and all, they set off on their daytime trip of a few hours to Mpumalanga.

Just before they entered the first town Peter had been warned about, he stopped and took the .38 out of its case and made sure it was close at hand. He and his wife resolved to be as observant and alert as possible.

As they entered town he noticed a police vehicle at the filling station, with two police officers standing next to it, involved in relaxed conversation, taking no notice of him. A block or two further on, before they turned to head to the next ‘dangerous town’, a group of black people were laughing on the stoep of a shop.

It was a normal, peaceful and slow-paced morning in a typical platteland town. The next ‘danger zone’ of the following town, some kilometres away, was no different and soon they arrived at their destination – totally incident free.

After a relaxed and rewarding family weekend, with its traditional braai and fun with the grandchildren, they headed home. This time the .38 stayed in its case and the trip back to Gauteng was no different from the one out to Mpumalanga.

Tuesday, on the phone to me in Cape Town, Peter asked: “What is happening to us? If we had stayed at home, we would have turned ourselves into victims of other people’s fears, feeling sorry for ourselves and blaming innocent people for it.”

Conclusions

Just think of the implications of what could have been a dangerous, even lethal, misunderstanding based on projected fear, involving that .38 revolver.

It is time for of us South Africans to chill a bit, to show some understanding for one another’s fears and frustrations.

It is time for political, protest and civic leaders to be more mindful of especially inflammatory language used in public.

And it is time for us, involved in the media, to come to grips with the reality of what has become the largest, mightiest platform for the dissemination of ‘news’ – the social media.

What appears on social media platforms is mostly uncorroborated and untested information by non-professional ‘journalists’.

These platforms are also vulnerable to manipulation by groups, of all stripes and persuasions. Repeating social media ‘information’ in the formal media, unwittingly lends it the aura of credibility and calls for increased vigilance by professional journalists.

It is equally dangerous for especially political leaders to simplistically ascribe what is happening to the fabric of South African society to conspiracies. It speaks of an inability to come to grips with the complexities of our society. It is a simple mind that oversimplifies every problem, or something you disagree with, to a ‘conspiracy’.

by Piet Coetzer

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