MALAIKA MAHLATSI | White researchers hell-bent to profit from pains, traumas of black people

Ferguson's book on AKA written for personal gain and acclaim

Melinda Ferguson’s upcoming book titled When Love Kills – The Tragic Tale of AKA and Anele.
Melinda Ferguson’s upcoming book titled When Love Kills – The Tragic Tale of AKA and Anele.
Image: Supplied

This article is going to infuriate many people – I hope it does exactly that. But it’s about time we have a discussion about the disregard with which white researchers profit from the pains and traumas of black people and poor working-class black communities that are often studied as anthropological subjects, with no regard for the harm that such studies and research do in our communities.

Specifically, I want to speak about Melinda Ferguson’s upcoming book titled When Love Kills – The Tragic Tale of AKA and Anele, which is scheduled for release in the coming weeks.

When news of the book broke, social media went into a frenzy – rightfully so. The story of Anele Tembe, who died tragically after she fell from the 10th floor of the Pepper Club Hotel in Cape Town; and AKA, her fiancé, who was gunned down in cold-blood on outside a restaurant on Durban’s famous Florida Road in February 2023, is of interest to millions of South Africans.

Two months ago, police announced the arrest of five suspects linked to AKA’s murder. Tragically, the murder of Tembe remains unsolved and is shrouded in mystery. AKA, who could have provided many answers about what happened on that fateful night when Tembe died, took whatever answers he may have had to his grave. Many of us have our theories about what may have occurred that night. Videos of the physical violence in AKA and Tembe’s relationship went vital shortly before her death. In a South Africa that is battling a gender-based violence epidemic, this story has captivated all of us.

But while this is a public interest story, it is also a story about people’s real lives. It’s not a movie. And because these are people’s lives, we have a responsibility when writing or talking about this story to do so with the necessary degree of responsibility. Part of that means not saying or writing anything that will cause harm. Ferguson’s book, which she claims has been years in the making, is being published just weeks after the arrest of AKA’s alleged killers.

It is being published when police still do not have adequate information about the death of Tembe. This means that there are no concrete answers to the salient questions in this story. And because AKA’s family and some of his closest friends refused to participate in the project, it also means there’s an important part of the story that is missing. What harm would it have done for Ferguson to give the story more time to develop?

Some will argue that Ferguson is giving a voice to the Tembes, who participated in the book and are undoubtedly victims in this story. But if Ferguson truly believed that this story is important and its victims need to be centred, why didn’t she persuade the Tembes to write the story themselves – even alongside her? She did this with Oscar: An Accident Waiting To Happen, which is co-authored with Patricia Taylor, the mother of Pistorius’s ex, Samantha Taylor. Why, with the Tembes, is the approach that she must be at the centre of telling the story, that hers must be the central voice?

This kind of behaviour is very common with white scholars and researchers. It is a habit of extracting information from the lives of black people and black communities, for personal gain and acclaim. It’s an issue that as scholars, we have always challenged, for it reflects the epistemological violence that characterises academia. It happens all the time. It speaks to the disregard with which black lives are treated and to the extractive nature of scholarship, where white researchers go into black communities to extract and anthropologise our lives.

They then turn around and claim to have given us a voice. But black people are not voiceless, we’re silent and deliberately unheard. And we will not stop being deliberately unheard until the ethics of writing our stories are revisited.

Would you like to comment on this article?
Register (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.