Monday, February 22, 2010

Anatomy of how to bias a news report.

The New York Times has an article about opposition to a municipal bus service that the city of Johannesburg wants to open, that will run from Soweto to Sandton. The article presents opposition to the bus service as racist. In my opinion the article is a bit biased and presents a distorted picture of the situation.

First, the story they run focuses on a black woman who lives in Soweto and travels daily to the Sandton area. The article refers to Sandton as the business center. This is now true since the former business center is central Johannesburg was destroyed by crime. Sandton, which had primarily been the shopping center of the northern suburbs took on greater importance as the government allowed Johannesburg to slip into chaos. Even the Johannesburg Stock Exchange left Johannesburg for the safer climate of Sandton.

The article refers to the long trip that Susan Hanong takes from Soweto. Depending on where in Soweto she lives she could be as close as 15 miles away from Sandton. Soweto is a massive township so, if she lived on the extreme south eastern side of the side she would be a long distance away. The article refers to how apartheid is responsible for causing "millions of blacks" to to "still live in townships far from centers of commerce and employment."

That is only partially true and in this case not true at all. Remember that while Sandton is now the business center of the Johannesburg area this simply wasn't the case that many years ago. The business center used to be central Johannesburg, which is as close as 7 miles from areas of Soweto. Out-of-control crime, under the African National Congress drove the business center of Johannesburg out of the city center. That doubled the distance to the business center for Sowetans. Quite truthfully, one reason that Sowetans have to travel so far to the business center can't be blamed on apartheid.

There is another important point missing from the article entirely. While the whole scenario they present is of blacks from the townships having to travel so far to get to Sandton they neglect to mention that another, very large black township, is literally minutes from Sandton, that is Alexandra. It is only 3 miles from Sandton. I have been to both Alexandra and to Soweto and have some idea of the distances from both to Sandton.

The article implies that Susan Honang is forced by the legacy of apartheid to live in Soweto and travel long distances to Sandton. This simply is not the case, not with Alexandra just a short distance away. But, more importantly, all the so-called "white suburbs" have large numbers of black residents even if we exclude the wealthy ANC elite who got rich through politics and bought homes there.

And, since the end of apartheid some years ago the entire central part of Johannesburg is now mainly black. When I first stayed in the Hillbrow section of Johannesburg it was about 60% black at the time. It is only about 4 or 5 miles from Sandton.

The idea that the legacy of apartheid is somehow responsible for forcing black South Africans to live a great distance from Sandton simply is not true. If Susan Honang's salary is sufficient for her to live in Soweto it is more than enough for her to live in Alexandra which is a a few minutes from Sandton. Apartheid was an evil system, that did many horrible things. It deserved to die. But Honang's travel problems are not a result of apartheid, not in this case.

The article focuses on a few residents of the northern suburbs who opposed the bus system. In fact the main opposition won't be from whites. It will be from the black taxi industry which is a large, thriving business. These are not taxis as we know them, but more like shuttle buses. They are minivans that crisscross South Africa offering a relatively inexpensive form of transportation. There was a municipal transit system which was boycotted by blacks. These municipal services were terribly run and the reason the taxi industry burst into existence was precisely because such government services did not meet the needs of black South Africans.

A friend of mine took the municipal service to work in downtown Johannesburg every day. And without fail I would get phone calls from him asking me to pick him up because the bus driver for that route simply didn't turn up for work that day. On pay days the drivers showed up in the morning, got their pay, and they took off for the weekend to spend the money, leaving riders stranded. This was not unusual with government transit in South Africa.

The taxi industry, however, has been rife with violence, as the Times accurately portrayed. But that violence is the direct result of the collapse of policing since the ANC took power. Law enforcement doesn't exist to a large degree so taxi drivers will fight for territory because there is nothing to prevent it from happening. If the Johannesburg metro worked on policing more it would make transit much safer for everyone involved.

The other thing that struck me as strange is that the salary listed for Honang seems to be on the low side. They say she makes $160 per month. If she worked six day weeks, as a domestic cleaner, that comes to about R50 per day. That is less than what was paid domestic workers over a decade ago. When I left Hillbrow, due to the crime, for the eastern suburbs I rented a property near Rhodes Park and within minutes of moving in had a woman at the door asking for a job. I paid her the salary that is mentioned in this article, but then it was almost two decades ago and in addition she had living quarters on the property, rent free.

I also checked the rates being requested, and offered, for domestic workers in the norther suburbs of Johannesburg. And they are well above R50 per day. One job offered R90 per day. One domestic cleaner was asking R160 per day. A houseman, who was working for an American family was looking for a new live-in position at R2500 to R3000 per month. The lowest salary I saw offered was R850 per month but that include housing and food. Another asked for someone for 25 hours per week for R1800 per month, about 33% higher than Honang supposedly gets for her full time job. I couldn't find a single domestic job, where salary is mentioned, that paid as low as what Honang was receiving.

It simply seems to me that the New York Times reporter used an atypical situation to illustrate the story, thus distorting the facts. Honang lives much farther from the business center than would have been the case during apartheid, because the business center moved northward under ANC control. The article made it sound as if there were no "black townships" near the Sandton area when one of the largest, unmentioned in the story, is literally adjacent to Sandton. And the article picked a woman who seems to be earning unusually low wages as a domestic worker, a salary that is literally two decades out of date. What is surprising is that Honang salary, supposedly after 25 years of employment for the same family, is barely above South Africa's minimum wage. And, if you want some politically incorrect information, a researcher with the University of the Witswatersrand, herself black, spent two months interviewing domestic workers in Soweto and found that most preferred white employers over black employers. (There is a large, wealthy class in Soweto who hire domestic servants.)

And, for a very funny comic strip, which looks at the relationship between domestic in South Africa and their madams (the lady of the house), see Madam & Eve. I always found the strip humorous and somewhere ought to have an autographed collection of some of the book versions of the strip. The archives are great.

Illustration: A cartoon from the Madam & Eve strip humorously looks at the plight of downtown Joburg as crime chased business away. Below is another, just because it's so true, and so funny. Clicking should enlarge the images.