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Who is Shooting Who in South Africa?

By Duane Jethro Ryan Anderson, writing for the anthropology blog Savage Minds, recently raised the question of the usefulness of authenticity as a methodological tool in the social sciences. Invoking Edward Bruner’s observation that, “authenticity is a red herring, to be examined only when tourists, the locals, or the producers themselves use the term” (Culture on Tour, 2005:5), Anderson argues that authenticity can be constructive in so far as it opens up possibilities for “empirical investigation [into] how different people create and imagine what is and what is not authentic”. Drawing on the controversial case of the Damon Winter’s manipulated photos of American soldiers in the Afghan war, for which the photographer won a prestigious award, Anderson’s post asks us to think about what criteria we should use to evaluate the authenticity of images.

Significantly, in South Africa, the truth of images was recently thrown into sharp relief when the Sunday Times ran with the story of “Wanted – Facebook Racist”. The article centred around an image culled from the popular social networking site, Facebook. It depicted what appeared to be a rifle-bearing white hunter kneeling proudly over his prize, a lifeless black toddler. The Sunday Times claimed that the image had been found on the online profile of a user who had identified themselves as ‘Eugene Terrorblanche’ – a pseudonym that played on the name of the late leader of the right wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), Eugene Terreblanche. ‘Terrorblanche’ had a well established online presence. He had previously operated under the online name of ‘AWB Wit Wolf’, and claimed that he was self-employed, selling self-defence products such as “stun guns and pepper spray”.

Subsequent investigation, however, revealed that the ‘Posing Hunter’ photo had already been covered by another well established newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, almost two years before. Using the headline, ‘Ek is Wit en Trots Daarop’ – I am White and Proud of It – the Mail and Guardian drew on the image as an entry point into right-wing, racist social networks operating on a range of internet platforms. As reported at the time, one Facebook group called “Ek Laaik Nie a Houtkop Nie Sou What” – I Don’t Like Stupid Blacks So What had employed an image of “a young white man, posing next to what appeared to be the body of a black youth, like a hunter with a trophy” to affirm the group’s values and ideals. Employed in these fora, the ‘Posing Hunter’ seemed to signal a roiling undercurrent of racist discontent stirring among South Africa’s Afrikaner youth.

As far as the ‘Posing Hunter’ was linked to the online profile of ‘Terrorblanche’, the image also seemed to register the death of Eugene Terreblanche and a broader debate about rhetorics of violence that had shot through the South African public sphere. On Easter weekend, 2010, Eugene Terreblanche was murdered on his farm near the town of Venters Dorp, North West Province, allegedly by two of his black farm labourers. Right-wing Afrikaners latched onto Terreblanche’s death as evidence of a widespread pattern of farm murders that was indicative, more broadly, of a slow genocide being perpetrated against this apparently threatened proportion of the population. That Julius Malema, the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League leader, had revived the controversial struggle song ‘Shoot the Boer’ in the run up to Terreblanche’s death – despite making no direct reference to Terreblanche – only added impetus to these claims. Malema was taken to the Equality Court by the Afrikaner civil organisation Afriforum who argued that in the context of the violence being perpetrated against white farmers, the singing ‘Shoot the Boer’ boiled down to hate speech. Subsequent media coverage of the protracted court battle sparked heated public debate about these rhetorics of violence, values of reconciliation and judicial measures of freedom of speech.

What of the ‘Posing Hunter’ and the child that he so proudly lay claim over? A week after the Sunday Times broke their story, City Press was able to report on the circumstances surrounding the production of the image: “On a sunny afternoon on a farm in Bloemhof, in North West, a 19-year-old man carrying a rifle sees a little eight-year-old boy sleeping in the grass. He stands over the boy and one of his companions photographs the scene with a cellphone. The little boy’s father and three of the boy’s friends stand by, laughing, while watching the incident unfold”. The hunter was identified as Mr A.C Strauss, a farmer from the North West province, while the child, was revealed as being the son of the foreman on Mr Strauss’s family farm. Mr Strauss appeared to be the real world contrast of the white Afrikaners who had appropriated his image online. As the child’s father explained, Mr Strauss was a “cool person” who “likes playing around with the black children and takes them along when he goes around the farm”. Mr Strauss also seemed to be engaged in intercultural dialogue and exchange with the young people on the farm, as, during the course of these trips, the children taught him “Setswana and he [taught] them Afrikaans”. But it was the foreman’s son that Mr Strauss had singled out for special attention. “He loves my son” the foreman said, adding that “when he does well at school he gives him money”. As the ‘Posing Hunter’, however, Mr Strauss could be seen as taking up beyond his farm on a tour demonstrating the mysterious transvaluation of images as cultural artefacts that circulate in a range of different meaning systems, and hence referring us to type of authenticating register that transcended debates about the intentions of image producers.

Duane Jethro is a PhD student at the department of anthropology and member of the NWO project heritage dynamics. He is working on cultural heritage in South Africa, specifically on Freedom Park and the Sunday Times Memorials. He published earlier on standplaatswereld on post-Apartheid memorials and the soccer world cup in South Africa.

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