Emerging consensus of the Usindiso tragedy

18 Jan 2024


News reporting functions to develop emerging consensus about the meaning of news events. In an earlier article I explored ways in which the fire in the Usindiso building in central Johannesburg, on 31 August, was reported by three news publishers, The South African, Eye Witness News (EWN) and The Independent on Line (IoL). This fire resulted in the deaths of at least 63 people, including children.

In that article I stated my intention to read a broad range of other news publications. This was to ascertain how reportage of that event in a fuller range of media publications had been playing out in the weeks after the fire. The purpose of these articles is to explore a news event through the biases of the media reports. And to reflect on how reporters and editors filter certain aspects of the event. To this end I described a model of five filters. I argued these could be useful in explaining how the media frames the meaning of multiple events. In order to manufacture emerging consensus about society, economy and policies.

Jo’burg inner city – example of the problem…. SOURCE: reddit.com

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This article reflects on the manner in which a further three news publishers, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) News and the Sowetan, reported this event. I did this by reading and assessing a further 21 news articles. As in the earlier article, this second reflection provides readers with a view of each publisher’s slant on this news event. I will follow with further reflections on how future reporting of the event plays out in a third article about the fire. In the course of these articles, I intend to point out what questions we need to address about this event. The answers which could contribute to an objective, holistic understanding of its causes.  As well as its rectification (i.e. remedies required to prevent a repeat building-fire event).

The significance of SABC, BBC and Sowetan emerging consensus:

The SABC News, BBC News and the Sowetan reach a significant percentage of South Africa’s media readership and viewership (see table below), far more than the three publications assessed in the earlier article, none of which make it onto the top 15 media publications/platforms, graded in descending

eorder by the percentage of media readership/viewership in South Africa. Therefore, I reasonably conclude that the SABC News, BBC News and the Sowetan contribute significantly to the emerging consensus – or dissension – in South African public opinion, about the meaning of news events.

As with the earlier article this article analyses the content reported as well as the style of the reporting. This is based on summaries that artificial intelligence (AI) provides. AI has its own built-in biases that one should always be aware of. The AI summaries are in response to my key questions about article sentiment, political leanings or biases, and socio-political implications. AI enables me to make comment and analysis on trends emerging from a significant number of articles by a range of media platforms. I would be unable to complete this manually in a relatively short space of time.

Emerging consensus of the SABC, BBC and Sowetan content:

There is an AI summary of the latter 21 articles. Five are BBC articles (BBC article 1, BBC 2, BBC 3, BBC 4 & BBC 5). Eight are SABC articles (SABC article 1, SABC 2, SABC 3, SABC 4, SABC 5, SABC 6, SABC 7 & SABC 8). And, eight are Sowetan articles (Sowetan article 1, Sowetan 2, Sowetan 3, Sowetan 4, Sowetan 5, Sowetan 6, Sowetan 7 & Sowetan 8).

The summary reinforced and developed some of the key takeaways in the emerging consensus of the first three articles. These were that parties hijacked the Usindiso building. Criminals controlled the tenants and collected rent. They neglected to invest in maintenance though. Thus, the building was in a dilapidated state, and exposed to disaster risks, including fire hazard. There was severe negligence of safety measures in the building. This reflected a broader systemic failure to address unsafe housing in hijacked buildings, exacerbated by complex legal and administrative obstacles.

After the event government failed to support survivors. They protested about being moved out of temporary shelters. The event exacted a high emotional and physical toll on survivors. Community activists’ relief efforts stood out in contrast with government inaction. Vulnerable and undocumented migrants seemed to add to hindering the relief effort. Some officials disclaimed government responsibility to provide relief to foreigners. Government established a commission of enquiry to investigate circumstances surrounding the fire and hold the culpable responsible. But the enquiry was delayed. The event raised the need to address deep socio-economic divides, migration, urban decay and crime. And the role of public policy in this process.

Political-economy drivers of emerging consensus:

In the earlier article I referred to a framework of five filters that progressively exclude certain facts from, and permit others to be in, a news story, i.e. the filters of emerging consensus:
• Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation of the Mass media: The First Filter.
• The Advertising Licence to do Business: The Second Filter.
• Sourcing Mass Media News: The Third Filter.
• Flak and the Enforcers: The Fourth Filter.
• Ideology of neo-liberalism as a Control Mechanism: The fifth filter.

Analytical framework

Jane Duncan in ‘South African journalism and the Marikana massacre: A case study of an editorial failure’ (2013) explored a political economy framework for analysing media news stories. This was in order to understand why and how these were shaped into identifiable narratives. I refer to Duncan’s article specifically. It unpacks the structured components of what I in my earlier article referred to as the political economy of the mass media. The detail of this structure and these components is congruent with the five-filter model. I gleaned this model of news filtration from Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s iconic work, ‘Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (1994). Herman’s and Chomsky’s work is the basis for the notion of emerging consensus of news. Below I have mapped Duncan’s structure.

The framework of emerging consensus in news reporting

Structured process of reporting. SOURCE: self-constructed from Duncan, J (2013).

Duncan’s 2013 paper applied this structure to an analysis of reportage of the Marikana massacre. I have replaced some of this with relevant content from the 2023 reports of the burning Usindiso building. I drew this content from BBC news, SABC news, and the Sowetan, and the earlier articles in the Independent on Line, Eye Witness News and the South African. Duncan usefully distinguished between forensic reporting and social reporting. But she emphasised that in practice there is no hard and fast distinction to be made between these two modes of reporting.

She also noted how South African news reporting – including in SABC News which she also focused on in her paper dissecting the Marikana narratives – emphasised the former at the cost of the latter. She commented that this results in a focus on uncovering abuse within government at the cost of paying scant – if any – attention to the social and historical context of an event or series of events. A similar trend can be seen in the news reporting assessed thus far in respect of the Usindiso fire.

Quantitative and qualitative analysis

Duncan’s structure also usefully distinguished between quantitative and qualitative analysis. In the case of the Usindiso fire event, sources were primarily governmental officials (from all three spheres, national, provincial and local), and a business organisation representing Johannesburg inner city property owners. Importantly, the primary definers of the five themes were government officials, political leaders and organised business. The five interviewed Usindiso tenants did not feature in defining the thematic content. Significantly, like the Marikana massacre news stories, the Usindiso fire news stories lacked concepts of social and class power. Duncan used this to contextualise the content and the implications thereof within contemporary neo-liberal capitalism.

When sourcing information from the Usindiso tenants, articles of the latest three platforms framed them as victims with little if any agency. These articles emphasized that the city government grossly neglected enforcing the health occupational safety requirements for this and other inner-city buildings. Criminal landlords take advantage of the situation for rent racketeering. And the law gets weaponised by human rights NGOs to prevent evictions. Primary  definers argued that evictions were a precondition for establishing a healthy and safe environment.

Duncan (2013) also did a finer-grained analysis identifying external and internal pressures. These set limits to journalistic freedom to be creative, and shaped stories that reinforce the hegemonic ideologies prevalent under neoliberalism. The detail of these pressures is set out as six factors in the graphic below.

Limiting factors that directly shape emerging consensus in news reporting.

Factors setting limits to and shaping news reporting. SOURCE: self-constructed from Duncan, J (2013).

Market forces

The above graphic shows how through a set of factors operating in combination, market forces effectively shape the media system and frame what is reported and how it is reported, to produce an emerging consensus. Where public funding is available, through licence-fee income, charged to individual citizens – as with the SABC and BBC – the framing of news reporting is often susceptible to government control.

In any event the SABC is forced to raise significant funds from advertising. Advertising revenue means that news needs to be reported in a manner that attracts the highly prized (by advertisers) upper income brackets, as press audiences. Duncan made the point that through the advertising funding process social inequalities shape the emerging consensus of the media system. Duncan also noted that a corollary of this was that tabloids (as niche media) had extended their footprint into black working-class audiences.

Financial viability

In the neo-liberal economically competitive environment cost cutting is necessary to ensure financial viability (‘financial viability’ meaning that revenue exceeds expenditures), and this results in downsizing the journalist workforce to a core of editorial and reporter staff, outsourcing job descriptions (e.g. proof reading) to contract workers (without benefits) and increasingly relying on agency copy – in South Africa this refers to the South African Press Association (SAPA).

As media platforms increasingly come to rely on agency copy the content of their reports is homogenised, Leading to the term ‘pack journalism’ to describe this sameness. This is captured by the term ’emerging consensus’. Duncan noted that the concept of objectivity as the cornerstone of journalists’ professional ideology, played a key role in the framing of the news. The principle of balance is problematic because under competitive pressure it runs the risk of extremely superficial news stories, with official narratives taken more seriously than the voices of workers and socially marginalised groups.

Impartiality as balance

An analysis of the BBC’s paradigm (2016) of ‘impartiality as balance’ concluded that this method tends to reinforce institutionalised preference for elite and official sources. This analysis included content on the BBC News website but also through BBC radio and television programmes and claimed that it also applied to other channels like ITV and Channel 4. This article also noted that the understanding of objectivity as balance holds true for journalism around the world.The analysis concluded that the BBC achieved a juxtaposition of the positions of the Conservative and Labour political parties, which meant it failed to give a broader range of opinion on contentious and important issues. This analysis of the BBC News is based on several key concepts in Duncan’s framework referred to earlier. As with Duncan it identifies ‘sources used’ and ‘primary definers’ as key elements in a structured reporting process.

It also refers to the shaping of reporting (and limitations on focus) through reliance on resourced resources (in this case mainly official, governmental, sources), organisational demands and occupational elements. As with Duncan the analysis identifies pressing news deadlines, and reliance on official sources as the defining organisational demands, and elite source newsworthiness and the indexing of newsworthiness to the duration of party-political conflicts, as the key occupational elements.

Within the political parties, the source frequency is concentrated amongst leadership (e.g. the prime minister, leader of the opposition, etc), pointing to increasing personification and presidentialisation of politics and making it difficult for groups and individuals outside of the main political parties to get a voice. The latter means that the journalistic occupation in the United Kingdom (UK) has come to rely on the presentation in its news reports of opposing, polarised viewpoints rather than a broader range of opinions, some of which might overlap in certain aspects.

Conclusion – emerging consensus about solutions:

In concluding this article, I would like to raise three questions, which should in no way imply that I am exonerating government officials and administrators of health and safety regulations, of blame.

  • Why was there systemic failure to address unsafe housing in hijacked inner-city buildings?
  • Why – and how – did legal and administrative protocols hinder the health and safety regulations from being properly implemented, or implemented at all?
  • Why was there lack of support from governments for the survivors?

Solutions proposed

Most of the articles pose the above questions to the relevant spheres of government but provide not even a clue of an answer. This leaves governments as the culpable agents and fits with neo-liberal ideology that to be effective and efficient ‘we’ (meaning individuals and institutions) need to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and implement entrepreneurial practices. This will keep expenditures within realistic bounds, and transfer risks to those most willing (and qualified) to take them on.

But what if the very cost cutting implied in the neo-liberal entrepreneurial approach (and increasingly implemented in practice) undermines the capacity of governmental spheres to carry out their respective regulatory functions and enforce health and safety standards? What if the focus on developing governmental administrative functions on an entrepreneurial basis has the effect of focusing officials not on due diligence over private sector health and safety measures but rather on enabling and facilitating profitability (including surpluses for governmental accounts)?

It is clear that the national, Gauteng provincial and Johannesburg local spheres of government have not invested the human resources and funding required for solutions (or rectification) to the problem of dangerous, unhealthy and fire-prone Johannesburg inner city buildings. This reflected the fact that public rented housing comprises a mere seven per cent of the approximately 4,7 million rented units in South Africa nationally, as indicated in the table below.

Share of rental sector. SOURCE: self-constructed from project research for Social Housing Regulatory Authority. Details of this policy research and proposals for rental housing will be published shortly on our sister organisation INSITE’s website.


Public rental gap

The asterisks following the description of the rental sub-sector, indicate public rental housing. The state’s tiny footprint reflects neo-liberal assumptions that ideally all housing delivery, for ownership and rental, should be privatised. The state initiated the social housing programme, in the mid-1990s. Social housing is the subsector to provide decent affordable rental accommodation in urban areas. Arguably it has a significant role to play in inner city accommodation. However social housing accounts for only one per cent of all rented housing in South Africa.

The explanatory value of a political-economy analysis is that it does not elide examining how the system as a whole (through its economic, political and ideological instances) contributes to determining disasters like the Usindiso fire. On the basis of a political economy analysis we could also develop rectification policies, that include increased welfare transfer from government for affordable rental housing and job-rich industrial sectors. South Africa requires policies that create the institutional base for governments’ active engagement in the implementation of housing projects (e.g. building refurbishment) and facilitation of internal industrialisation on scale. This is opposed to the current debt-funded and consumption-demanded speculative economic activities, in which the privatised real estate sector plays a key role). (For more on the ideology and practices of neo-liberalism, see ‘Neo-liberalism – Urbanisation Housing’).

Private ownership and eviction

Instead, organised property owners in Johannesburg’s inner city as well as some government officials say (or at the very least, imply) that mitigating the risk of building fires starts with the eviction of tenants from unsafe buildings. They say nothing about  the need to provide alternative accommodation. The legal title holders, they assume, would then take back these buildings. They assume that owners will rehabilitate these buildings. But they do not  consider what incentive there would be for the original owners to make the necessary investments to do this. And whether afterwards thousands of inner city tenants who live in severe income poverty could afford the economic rentals.

This view also fails to say where and by what means the authorities will accommodate the evicted – and homeless – tenants. It is likely that in such a scenario they will transfer the very poor inner-city tenants and concentrate them far from the city. This would violate the human rights-based South African constitution. And return us to a similar state as in the past when the apartheid government forcibly removed populations.  Only now they would remove those households on the basis of their being unable to afford private rental rather than because they are black people residing in areas prescribed for whites.

To view a video recording of a discussion between Paul Hendler and Mike Hyland about the reporting of the Usindiso building fire, please click on the button below.


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