Social media is throbbing with the story of the violent attack of the treasurer of opposition party MDC-T, John Kinnaird. According to local news source, The Zimbabwean, Kinnaird was attacked in his home by four youths, wearing the garb of ruling party, ZANU-PF. Certainly, it is a horrifying story, which brings fears of a new eruption of ZANU-PF violence. However, I would urge us to take this opportunity to look past the horror of this photograph and into the dynamics that have it trending in social media and global news.
Zimbabwe’s past is a violent one – from the historical Chimurenga wars to the “clean up” exercises in townships in 2005, through the Matabeleland genocide and farm invasions. It continues to be a country rife with strife – contaminated by the less obvious “structural violence” of law and institutions, and seeping with unpunished rape, domestic abuse and other forms of gendered intimidation. Obviously, the primary tragedy is that these things are happening, but there is something forlorn about the fact that so many of the stories are not being told. The facelessness of the victims is not without its own history and social implications.
Is it a coincidence that the bruised, staunched face of John Kinnaird has taken over social media sites, while we cannot name a victim of Operation Murambatsvina (a violent surge of political violence veiled by a claim of restoring order and cracking down on illegal housing)? Is it appropriate that we can find any number of interviews with evicted white farmers, while disenfranchised farm workers remain a faceless mass and the victims of the Gukurahundi genocide in the 1980’s have as impersonal a legacy as their grave?
No, it is not chance, or circumstance, or coincidence. There are reasons that certain voices are more heard than others.
1) Power. Important figures get more face-time. This is obvious, and it is clear that the outrage at the attack on Kinnaird is focused on the height of his political position. However, this is not a sufficient explanation.
2) Privilege. It is seen as a uniquely American thing that money means speech, but in fact it is a universal truth. Those with more resources, access, and network have a louder voice. White farmers clearly had more access during the farm invasions, so they were heard.
3) Phenotype. Stories resonate with those who can identify with them. In the western world, a white figure of the liberal-democratic party is easy to connect with. An uneducated black labourer is not. And as whiteness remains connected with western ideals, and blackness remains foreign and demonized, the white voice is the one that is heard. People listen to those that look like them.
4) Prejudice. The world is not responsive to the black voice because black Africans are labelled instantaneously as either victim or violator. The black African is either a militant, dictator and thief, or he is a starving child, beaten wife and life to be saved. While the black man is either stripped of agency, or devilled by power, the white man is saving the victim or being crushed by the violator. He is heard because he appears to lack neither agency nor humanity, through the prejudice-tinted glasses worn by the world.
Violence is entirely racialised in today’s media, and this is reflected in whose voices we hear, in whose stories we listen to, in what we feel compelled to share with others – or rather, in what we do not hear, listen to, or share.
I do not want to urge you not to talk about the attack on John Kinnaird – for indeed it is a shocking and important piece of news. Rather, I encourage you to be aware of the other voices that we are too quick to forget.
Note: for an overview of Zimbabwean political history, see “Zimbabwe For Dummies”