A peaceful protest at Fairview Racecourse on Saturday afternoon by irate Nelson Mandela Bay residents was quickly dispersed after police threatened to arrest protesters. Picture Werner Hills
A peaceful protest at Fairview Racecourse on Saturday afternoon by irate Nelson Mandela Bay residents was quickly dispersed after police threatened to arrest protesters. Picture Werner Hills

In the last week of 2012, there was one SA story that made headlines all across the world. The New York Times, CBS, the BBC, the LA Times, Agence France-Presse, South China Morning Post, Der Spiegel, The Telegraph, Voice of America — the list goes on and on. The story? The UK Daily Mail’s headline probably captures it best: "Owning a Dog ‘Is Not African’, Declares Jacob Zuma: Racism Row after SA President says Black People with Pets are just Copying White Culture".

As with all stories that play upon certain stereotypes, the individual headlines often tell you as much about the publication’s ideological stance and presumed readership as they do about the story. One wouldn’t want to get too Close Textual Analysis 101 about it, but it’s fairly striking.

It’s hard not to infer a race-based point of view, from local news site IOL’s "Pet Dogs Not for Blacks — Zuma", to Australian news site The Advertiser’s "Anger after SA President Jacob Zuma says Pet Dogs are for White People". And, of course, you can rely on the good ol’ BBC to tread the middle ground and not take sides, with the measured: "SA’s Jacob Zuma in Dog Ownership Row".

I was reminded of this old story by the September 17 protests at the Fairview Race Yard in Port Elizabeth. According to news agency GroundUp, "workers and surrounding community members stormed the stables and began attacking the horses with stones, pangas, sticks and knobkerries. Police were called to disperse them with rubber bullets and stun grenades."

The protest was allegedly over the nonpayment of Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits.

As with the Zuma pets story, a comparative juxtaposition of the headlines is instructive. TimesLive went with the almost fact-free "Horse Slaughtered with Pangas as Racecourse Labourers Feud". Daily Maverick had the more nuanced "Workers who ‘Stabbed and Stoned’ Horses in Labour Dispute Face Legal Action", while News24 had the more factual "Racehorse Killed as Disgruntled Ex-workers Protest on Racecourse Grounds in Port Elizabeth".

It doesn’t take a media analyst to see the difference between "slaughtered with pangas" and "racehorse killed", and the quotation marks in the Daily Maverick headline indicate that this is a quote to be checked, rather than a proven fact.

But these minor differences in the bias of real journalism organisations pale when we consider the hot takes of the faux-journalists we are cursed with on social media.

I refer, of course, to the many podcast heroes who have set up shop in an effort to monetise the people the mainstream media don’t pamper — those who prefer their news with more racism and less middle ground, and their analysis with more confirmation bias and less complexity.

So on the day of the protests, we had the various podbros tweeting things like: "This is happening at Fairview Race Course in Nelson Mandela Bay. The protest is allegedly due to non UIF payments. They have killed numerous horses with pangas."

To which another podcast hero replies: "Animals kill to eat or to breed. These things kill because they didn’t get handouts."

I don’t normally name these alt-right-lite hate-shills, on the principle that you should never feed the trolls. But I might have to make an exception for that last guy, one Willem Petzer.

Petzer is a dedicated fighter against the genocide of white people in SA that is taking place as we speak! Please send money now!

His payoff line on Twitter is: "Truths in a world of lies, and ideas in a world drunk on ideology!" Which is proof that you can have a punchline without having to tell the joke.

Leaving aside the "animals kill to breed" bit (though it’s a weird thing to decide to focus on, and doesn’t speak well of his notion of mating rituals), the rank racism of calling protesters "things" stands out.

What also stands out is the knee-jerk reaction of the racists on social media. You can sense their almost visceral pleasure at being able to dehumanise black people, based on their belief that cruelty to animals trumps racism every time.

Those who gleefully embrace the opportunity to paint desperate, poor people as savages are racist scum

They immediately leap at the chance to tell us that black protesters are less than human, because to be human is to love animals. And in some cases, with these brave white warriors, to hunt them down and kill them for biltong — but let’s not drag irony into this.

As police spokesperson Col Priscilla Naidu said just after the Fairview protest: "Police are warning social media users to refrain from posting false information relating to the incident as this can cause the current situation to escalate into confusion and retaliatory conduct by the community.

"Any person who publishes, distributes, discloses, transmits, circulates or spreads false information or fake news is guilty of an offence and may be prosecuted."

In his famous "Let loose the dogs of whiteness" speech in 2012, Jacob Zuma said that those who love dogs more than people have "a lack of humanity". I wouldn’t go that far, because people aren’t exactly loveable. Cats, sure — nobody should like cats more than people.

But I would say that those who gleefully embrace the opportunity to paint desperate, poor people as savages are racist scum. And that the luxury of having an octopus as your BTF (best tentacular friend) is just that — a luxury and, moreover, one that you shouldn’t assume is the litmus test for civilisation.

Yes, I had to go there. The current SA success story on Netflix is a documentary about a man in Cape Town stalking an octopus for a year, and learning life lessons along the way.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this concept, of course, but it is a vivid example of how one needs time, money and power to be able to create nature in your own image.

One of the funniest pieces of satire I’ve seen for ages is a parody video of the trailer for The Octopus Teacher by comedian Glen Biderman-Pam and creative director Mike Sharman. It’s called My Kreepy Teacher, and features Biderman-Pam in a slightly saggy Speedo, swimming in a large suburban swimming pool that’s attached to a large, expensive suburban house.

In the trailer for My Octopus Teacher, the voiceover says: "I remember the day when it all started, seeing this really strange … thing. A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien. But when you get closer to them, you realise that you’re very similar, in a lot of ways."

In the parody video, Biderman-Pam says, in the same slow, awestruck voice: "I remember the day it first started, seeing this really strange … thing. This incredible rubbery, tangly, just majestic creature. A lot of people say that a Kreepy Krauly is like an alien. But the strange thing is that we’re so similar, in so many ways. In looks, in movement, and often in intelligence as well."

It’s a devastating putdown, and entirely correct to suggest that being able to afford to date an octopus is pretty much like being able to afford a swimming pool. And we can let it stand as a metaphor for how issues of nature and animal welfare are sometimes used for evil ends.

This is not to suggest we shouldn’t abhor cruelty to animals, and fight it as much as possible. But it is to say, let’s expend as much energy on calling out those who use instances of cruelty as a convenient stand-in for racist propaganda.

Ironically, these racists are playing the same card as Zuma did — just with a different coloured suit. It’s squid capture vs state capture, and in both cases it is divisiveness disguised as indignation.

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