Battle of the Newsmakers – Rhino vs Marikana

2013-01-22 14:56

The National Press Club was ‘gored on twitter' on the weekend, and lambasted by every major newspaper editor it seems, over their announcement of the Rhino as ‘newsmaker of the year’. Coming under a heavy beating for placing animal rights above human life, editors and journalists referring specifically to the deaths of miners at Marikana, have slammed what they call the self-mandated, self-styled National Press Club for speaking without authority on their behalf.

Described by Chris Vick of the Daily Maverick as ‘an embedded, compromised and conflicted group of decision makers’ the press club, managed by PR practitioners, is largely touted as irrelevant. Whether they are or no, I leave the pukka news hounds to debate. ‘National Press Club, it is time for you to change your name!’ decries Mandy De Waal also of the Daily Maverick, as she vociferously challenges the presumption that the National Press Club represents the SA Press. Brendan Boyle of the Daily Dispatch, amongst other editors, thought the announcement was ‘a joke’.

The furore revolves largely around the issue that, as put by Andrew Trench, editor of media24’s investigations team, the nomination ‘...creates the impression that all journalists and the media are strangely detached from the realities of our country.’

Part of that reality is that civilian deaths at the hands of police point not only to ineptitude and mismanagement in the service, but to a national crisis of leadership.

Yet year after year reports by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) now renamed the Independent Police Investigations Directorate (IPID), tasked with presenting stats of police malfeasance, fail to get the attention they deserve. In 2011/2012 there were a total of 4923 investigations into alleged South African Police Service (SAPS) wrong-doing, most seriously for wrongful actions in 720 deaths.

If one simply plays a numbers game, the number of civilian deaths at the hands of police outnumber the number of murdered rhino. The number of civilians killed by police should shock our socks off. What should shame, surprise, and outrage is that only now, it seems, after years of ICD reports, do we take seriously that police mandated to protect citizens are in dire need of proper training, support and that elusive leadership. Police can't go around killing people no matter how unruly they are.

As for the wrongful death of the rhino, to be confronted with photographs of the suffering animal in her last moments is acutely disturbing. And while no one in their right minds would undermine the tragedy of the killings of the 34 Marikana mine-workers - and I’m not arguing for or against the rhino as newsmaker of the year - it does feel to me as if the rhino, amid the fray, has been sorely dismissed.

Photos of mutilated rhinos are regularly aired on the news, are shoved in our faces on facebook feeds. We’ve seen close-ups of the bloody oozing mess left after horns are hacked off. The rhino is lucky if she’s shot to death before trained ‘triggermen’, often with military backgrounds, escape with her bloodied horn in a bag; her calf is left mewling alongside. More often than not the suffering rhino is left alive so that the vultures don't circle, which would alert game-farm staff to the death. The cruelty is mind-numbing.

The wise leader Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.’  Points raised in this debate show how easy it is to dismiss any life, whether it be animal or human.

The 720 civilian deaths at the hands of the police during 2011/ 2012 hardly caused a ripple, it seems, and the Marikana 34 will simply swell those numbers. As for the rhino, if only its status of newsmaker of the year would help to stop the carnage.

The horn is exported to China in particular, where syndicates grind it into powder and sell it on at exorbitant prices. It’s not sold as an aphrodisiac as is commonly believed but as a traditional medicine. Although the medieval philosophy known as the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ postulates that natural substances are used to treat whatever they resemble (in this case ‘horn’ equals erection) it’s a myth that the Chinese use rhino horn to enhance virility.

In searching for truth intensive testing has proved that rhino horn has no magical nor medicinal powers whatsoever. Websites discuss finding after finding: rhino horn, made of keratin, or ‘agglutinated hair’, can’t reduce fever, prevent convulsions or cure cancer. The commodity's as worthless as toenail clippings.

And obviously it can’t cure a hangover. In Vietnam, powdered horn, more expensive than cocaine, is all the rage at parties as revelers stir it into drinks as an antidote for boozing it up.

Yet even though the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other organisations are at pains to educate users, disturbingly 2012 saw a record number of 668 rhinos poached in South Africa. Even as international accords are signed outlawing the sale of rhino horn, the demand rises on the black market. Worldwide, with three out of five species extinct, surely it’s imperative to keep drawing attention to the plight of this magnificent beast.

And not only is the rhino exploited, but tourist ‘smugglers’ stow rare lizards and tortoises in their pockets; sophisticated syndicates find ways to take what they want without a prick of conscience. Speaking bluntly, to steal or murder our wildlife undermines our national heritage and shows profound disrespect - particularly by a nation to which we kowtow - for the natural treasures of South Africa.

Our wildlife is a unique jewel in the crown. It’s our responsibility to protect our rhino population from those who would butcher and bleed it dry. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it’s our responsibility to speak against the exploitation and torture of these sentient beings who can't do it for themselves. ‘I hold that the more helpless a creature,’ said Gandhi, ‘the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.’

On 5 November 2012, Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, was sentenced in a Johannesburg court to 40 years in jail for orchestrating the slaughter of countless SA rhinos. Judge Prince Monyathi, in handing down the sentence, elevated the rhino as a ‘symbol of African pride’. An attack on the rhino, in a sense then, can be understood as an attack on the very essence of what it is to be African.

So as fingers point at the National Press Club, as they're blasted for impartiality, for ignorance, for ignoring the cardinal rule of independence (their sponsor, Aon South Africa, provides rhino insurance cover), as the media fraternity ‘cringe’ at the choice of rhino as newsmaker of the year, the hacking to death of rhinos can yet surely be acknowledged as a heinous crime. Against our rhinos and against our very fibre. We should stick up for the animal, though human life is as precious.

I'm on twitter  @JoanneHichens

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