When the National Press Club recently named the Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Mandonsela, and expelled ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, as “News Maker of The Year” 2011, I was rather perplexed to say the least. I’ll be the first to concede that Mandonsela’s fearless crusade as the defender of the public against unscrupulous elements, especially her report in the “Leasegate” affair that saw Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde fired as the Public Works minister and the national police commissioner, General Bheki Cele, being suspended, is rivalled, perhaps, only by comic book heroes Batman and Superman’s tireless efforts against the underworlds of Gotham City and Metropolis respectively. As for Malema, well, he’s been in the public’s consciousness since he closed a Youth Day rally by an unequivocal declaration that “We are prepared to die for Zuma” back in June 2008.
Weren’t rhinos more deserving recipients of that accolade? What with the large scale coverage the mammals received as a result of 448 of them being poached in 2011and push them further to near extinction levels. Be it wasn’t to be. Since then, the “Save the Rhino” and various like-minded campaigns have sprouted to champion the noble cause boasting cultural luminaries such as Lira, Johnny Clegg, The Parlotones, Tamara Daye and VWSA and Nedbank from corporate South Africa amongst others. The Star and Prime Media’s Lead SA initiative along with other media houses have also answered the call of the agonizing rhino as it’s being dehorned for an unprecedentedly demanding market largely resident in the east of the globe. Now, one empathizes and appreciates the extent and severity of the plight of the rhino and implications its extinction would have on our planet and human’s abilities to reach new lows in whipping out another member of animal family since we’ve, sadly, already taken care of the dodo over a century ago.
But is all the noise about the rhino warranted in the grander scheme of priorities? What is it that makes people easily rally together in support of the rhino especially in a country such as own that has more pressing issues that could do with the same kind of vigour? Avusa’s Public Editor, Joe Latakgomo, in a piece on campaign journalism, opined that “Campaign journalism is when a newspaper or journalist takes up an issue and follows it through with a desired objective in mind. It is an instrument that community newspapers, in particular, use very effectively to bring them closer to the communities they serve, and sometimes what some may consider trivial issue may be quite serious in other communities.” Latakgomo’s assertion is certainly applicable to the rhino issue and more so since they can’t organize themselves and march to minister Edna Molewa’s department of water and environmental affairs seeking more protection against the heinous poaching of the kind. However, there are sections in the republic, who despite being able to speak out on their plight, remain unheard or intentionally ignored because their concerns aren’t as exotic as those of the rhino. The Cape Town-based civil society organisation, Equal Education, has an ambitious programme that seeks to ensure that every school in the rural and township areas has a fully functioning library and other necessities, but how much coverage and support do they receive from the media, the corporate world and page 3 hoggers of our society? Education is the engine of any society. When initiatives like those of Equal Education are vociferously championed it will inevitably pressurize those who aren’t doing their jobs to starting delivering or face the chop, hopefully. Education also allows people to view the world in a better perspective than they’d otherwise do if they weren’t exposed to it and its liberating abilities; and that may lead to some people perceiving the sordid state of the rhino as nothing but an issue of the affluent class of our society. “Any campaign has to be based on facts and the truth, and should never be distorted to serve sectarian interests.” Latakgomo cautions.
We need to see the likes of Lira and the artists on the “Save the Rhino” band wagon become the voices of residents that dream of accessing water from their taps and the dignity of relieving themselves in enclosed toilets because to deprive people of water is to condemn in the worst way possible. Abadlali Base Mjondolo ,is civil society grouping that concerns itself with people who live in shacks, could do with prime time airtime regarding their frustrations on being on unending housing lists since 1996 and they may shine the light into the rampant corruption that is said to characterize the allocation of housing in the various municipalities around the country.
The argument aforementioned shouldn’t be seen as a trivialization of gravity of the rhino poaching activity but a reminder that we can’t have a skewed hierarchy of priorities that places the interests of beasts above those humans. That would be similar to employers who contribute more to their animals’ medical care cover than they pay their domestic workers. The aiding of people will eventually cascade to that of animals like the rhino and other endangered species because the poachers are outnumbered by those who are compassionate to those with whom we form the circle of life. Caroline Southey wrote in the Mail and Guardian: “Imagine if the same energy that went into keeping us up to date on the latest rhino deaths was put into keeping us informed of the latest human deaths? There are all sorts of imaginative techniques that could be deployed: a baby death watch at hospitals, with a daily tally and barometer. The premier could be on hand to fire the hospital administrator when the barometer reached a new high, or bonus when it fell to new lows. The media would be invited to capture the moment.”
So, the next time we’re told “Your rhino needs you”, we’d better ask if more pressing priorities have been attended to first.