Our latest Editors’ Roundtable looks at Barry Bearak’s story “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” from the New York Times. Bearak won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and he has just finished a three-year stint in the Times’ Johannesburg bureau. In this email interview about his story, Bearak discusses the dynamics of mob justice, his use of the first person, and a theory of “readers as prisoners during a jailbreak.”
You mentioned that you’re moving. Are you leaving South Africa and your position as the Times bureau chief in Johannesburg? If so, is this story on the murder of Farai Kujirichita your last from the region?
My wife, Celia Dugger, and I are co-bureau chiefs for southern Africa, a territory that includes South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique and several other countries. And yes, we are in the final weeks of a 3 1/2-year posting.
The magazine story was not my last one from the region but it did allow me to sum up much of what I’ve learned about South Africa: the horrendous legacy of apartheid, the stunning inequality of wealth; the multiplying numbers of informal settlements; the appalling violence in many of those shantytowns, the brutal attacks against immigrants who are easy scapegoats.
You wrote of seeing the video of Farai’s death and how watching led to an obligation to answer questions about it. The story unfolds almost like a police procedural that seeks to answer those questions. Did you find what you were looking for?
After seeing the video, I knew I had to find out why this man was killed, whether it led to a story or not. Even though I was watching Farai’s death secondhand, I felt an obligation. Who was going to get to the bottom if I didn’t?
But after months of digging, I was still only partially satisfied with what I understood. Three of the people who delivered the deadlier blows went on the lam almost immediately and still haven’t returned. So I never got to speak to them. I doubt that they’d have talked anyway. A key person in handing Farai over to the mob was someone I’d known from before. We’d sat in his shack once and drank beer. But this was a murder, and he was crafty enough to avoid telling me the whole truth. Had he done so he’d have probably gone to jail.
Many people in Diepsloot believe mob justice is the right thing to do, and even if they kill someone innocent, they consider it collateral damage in a worthy cause. I know a tavern owner in Diepsloot named Walter. He was robbed and beaten one night, and the thieves got away with not only all his money but some of his clothes, including a favorite T-shirt. The next day a mob killed a man who was found wearing that shirt. Later in the week, I asked Walter if the right guy was dead. “I’m not sure about the man,” he told me, “but it was the right shirt.” He said he felt OK about it.
Siphiwe has the opening and closing scenes, though I could make an argument that the story is really about Farai (the murdered man), Diepsloot (the settlement where the murder occurred), or even post-apartheid South Africa itself. What do you think is at the heart of the story?
You’re right about that: I wanted the story to be about more than this one incident. But if your question is multiple choice, I’d say the heart of the story is Diepsloot itself, and all the heroes and villains who live there, including so many people who are a little of both.
I wish I’d had space to weave in more characters. Before I began working on the story of Farai’s death, I was considering a piece about Mama Jaq, this amazing woman who runs a makeshift orphanage. She has a roomful of tiny babies, and it seems more of them arrive all the time. Desperate women in Diepsloot call her when they’ve discarded their newborns, telling her where they’ve left them, in the road or wherever. If I had to wait around for awhile, I’d sometimes go to Mama Jaq’s and hold the babies.
Your piece feels both epic and granular. The descriptions of the murder are almost cinematic, offering sweeping views of the mob on the hunt. Yet you include these memorable close-ups of tiny details: the different color laces in Siphiwe’s tennis shoes, the girl in the pink top raising a block of cement over her head. How did you think about pacing the movement between close-ups and more sweeping perspectives?
Good storytellers – and I hope that includes me – have a feel for pacing. I sometimes think of readers as prisoners during a jailbreak; they can’t wait to escape through any open gate. If you bore them even a little, they’re gone.
Sometimes, by necessity you have to include some information that’s on the dry side; it may contain interesting facts but it’s a side trip from the narrative. That’s when I envision the readers rushing away, and I know I need to hurry to get back to the storytelling or I’ll lose too many.
In this particular piece, the bigger problem was selecting what material to use. I only had space for a fraction of what I wanted to include. The story ran close to 8,000 words. That may seem a lot, and in most cases it is. But I really regretted all the description, characters and dialogue I was leaving out. There was a guy named Mashamplan, who was sort of a warlord in the squatter camp where the murder occurred. I spent a lot of time with him. He was very colorful, probably too colorful. Some of his enemies murdered him toward the end of my reporting. When I sat down to write, I would never have thought that Mashamplan would end up on the cutting room floor, but that’s how it worked out.
I saw that video of the murder appears on the Times site. Do you think including that video adds to the overall story?
I think video always helps, as do photos; I’ve written for newspapers since the 1970s and I wish I could redo every story I’ve ever done with some multimedia component.
One thing to emphasize: The Diepsloot article may be built around a video of the actual murder, which was taken by my friend Golden Mtika, who lives there and who witnessed the event. But the video that ran with the magazine piece is quite different. Though about six minutes long, it shows only 12 to 15 seconds of the actual beating that Golden recorded. These snippets are gruesome and alarming but their use is very restrained; the content was carefully calibrated by editors at The New York Times. This is hardly a “snuff film.”
The video was done by Dave Mayers, an American colleague in Johannesburg. He’s excellent. Dave joined me in a lot of the reporting, and the video benefits from his own knowledge of Diepsloot as well as his strong relationship with characters in the story.
You place yourself in the story as an American journalist who lives in a community that is affluent and secure but has some knowledge of the settlements. How did you weigh and use your presence in the narrative?
I am a reluctant practitioner of first-person journalism. But in this story, it seemed unavoidable. Farai’s murder was not a widely reported crime, and I needed to explain how I came to know of it and why I felt compelled to discover what had happened. The affluent community where I lived, Dainfern, is only a 10-minute drive from Diepsloot, and mentioning the disparity of circumstances between the two places was an easy way to get at the level of inequality in South Africa, which some economists say is the world’s worst.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the story or writing it that we might not know from reading it? Any particular challenges, setbacks or surprises?
Foreign correspondence very often involves the guiding hand of one or more local individuals who serve as interpreters not only of language but of culture. I hope the story successfully conveys the important role Golden Mtika played in the reporting.
Many of the interviews were conducted in Shona, Xhosa, Pedi, Zulu or Tswana, and Golden’s fluency in all the languages of the region was vital in connecting with people. I went very few places without him, and while the nature of our questions made many people uneasy, it’s fair to say that without Golden being there very few would have been helpful at all. He was also a walking lie detector machine. When we’d finish an interview, he’d help me parse through the whole truths, half-truths and no truths.
Image of Barry Bearak by Steve Connors.