Ryanair, Afrikaans and the ‘quick flash of social media’ - Businesslive

12 June 2022 - I immediately thought of fellow columnist Anton Harber and his recent plea for the restoration of news reporting when I read the first rather poor account of SA passport-holders somewhere overseas being made to do a test in Afrikaans before being allowed to travel.

Michael Morris
I immediately thought of fellow columnist Anton Harber and his recent plea for the restoration of news reporting when I read the first rather poor account of SA passport-holders somewhere overseas being made to do a test in Afrikaans before being allowed to travel.

To be fair, news evolves as facts emerge, and it’s always a bit silly to judge a newspaper or media platform by a single report on, or a single day’s coverage of, an unfolding story. But, as the days went by and the story became clearer — Ryanair, not customs officials, emerged as the central figure in the rather bizarre affair (and, by the way, I recommend The New York Times London staffer Emma Bubola’s piece of June 7) — I became more interested in the invariably matter-of-fact statements about Afrikaans and what it was taken to symbolise, and how news is critical in framing such conceptions.

You might say Ryanair couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to select Africa’s youngest indigenous language as the medium for a procedure avowedly intended to verify the citizenship of SA travellers. 

As the Voice of America reported: “Ironically, news of Ryanair’s Afrikaans test breaks in June when Youth Day is marked in SA. The day commemorates the 1976 uprising against the language. On the 16th of this month 46 years ago, thousands of black students marched in Soweto against the white apartheid government’s insistence that Afrikaans be a compulsory medium of instruction in SA schools.”

There’s nothing to fault here, and we should never forget this history or its great costs. We ought to be able to count on “the basic meat and potatoes of journalism” — as Harber described it — to remember it well. 

The trouble, as Harber warned, is “[we] find ourselves getting used to and accepting the quick flash of social media, the rush to opinion before verification, and the resultant degradation of our discourse and debate”. Without the closely observed detail, or the unabashed record of contradiction, we do invite such degradation. 

I was looking for something else in my own ramshackle digital archive last week when I rediscovered a 1956 Cape Argus news report that reminded me of Harber’s plea, and his warning. 

It was about convoys of Black Sash members from around the country converging by road on Cape Town under the auspices of the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League, in protest against dogged (eventually successful) National Party efforts to remove people who were not white from the voters’ roll.

Not everyone approved of them; the first line of the story describes their being greeted with “V for victory signs, thumbs-up salutes and warm congratulations offset by occasional taunts like ‘vuilgoed’.”

What stands out for me was the “Free State car ... driven by Mr PJ Pienaar, whose wife had persuaded him to drive them down”. Ms Pienaar is quoted as saying: “We are an old Free State family. Our people came up with the Voortrekkers. I feel deeply religious about this; I feel that we are in danger of losing something we may never recover.”

This somehow extraordinary paragraph reveals the power of the journalism I think Harber had in mind, in bringing out “the small detail or the chance remark that enriches a story and gives you special insight into it”.

For all that has happened since, this long-forgotten news report of February 12 1956 has something meaningful to tell us about SA — then, and now. 

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-06-12-michael-morris-ryanair-afrikaans-and-the-quick-flash-of-social-media/

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