by Hannes Wessels


Watching the human tragedy unfold in Ferguson comes with an awful sense of déjà vu for me. As a child, in the early 60’s I remember the adults on the porch banging on about ‘this bloody Mrs Phombeya’s toe’! It was all a bit confusing to me at the time but they were bitching about the press creating a problem through misreporting or maybe one could term it; ‘over-reporting’.

This was in the heady days of de-colonisation and the world media was in full flight trumpeting the new dawn ushering in the ‘liberation’ of Africa from oppression under us ‘white pigs’ while eagerly willing our demise and destruction. The problem for the world media was they were struggling to find facts to fit their fictional reports of brutish whites behaving badly so they ended up zeroing in on Mrs. Phombeya’s toe.

What happened was a demonstration took place outside Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre in what was then known as Nyasaland, (now Malawi) calling for the lifting of a banning order on future dictator Kamuza Banda. Fleet Street’s finest along with the BBC and journalists from around the world swooped on the event but the spectacle was underwhelming giving them little to work with and that is why Mrs. Phombeya’s toe became a digit of global significance.

Emerging from a throng of mostly well behaved demonstrators, she and a handful of other ladies surged forward to dance ahead of the protestors and in a bid to keep control a white policeman stood on Mrs. Phombeya’s toe causing her to trip and fall. The kindly cop helped her to her feet and Mrs. Phombeya and her impromptu troupe continued wailing and waggling their bottoms down the street.

Then all hell broke loose. The photograph of the policeman helping poor Mrs Phombeya to her feet was morphed to inform the public that this was him slapping her to the ground and this provided the pretext for a litany of lies that were telegraphed to the world. ‘Sickening spectacle’, …. ‘white police stomping on bare feet with heavy boots’…. police officers ‘who went berserk… seizing innocent Africans indiscriminately ….punches and whip slashes..’ … ‘hysterical white settlers’. These  were some of the reports and a dumb world rose as one in angry outrage.

Such was the reaction from the press reports a full debate in the House of Commons was called and the opposition demanded immediate action against ‘stupid and truculent’ white settlers. Reeling politically, The Colonial Secretary Mr. Ian Macleod called for a judicial commission of inquiry and this was chaired by Mr. Justice Southworth of the Nyasaland High Court.

In his submission, the good judge apologised to the public for what he saw as the unnecessary expense involved in the inquiry which required the testimony of 81 witnesses, then went on to explain the facts as he had concluded upon.

There were between 50 and 80 demonstrators and 13 policemen with a Land Rover and a truck and seven of the policemen were carrying swagger sticks. The policemen wore light walking shoes and not boots. In the course of the event three demonstrators kicked white policemen and one lady (poor Mrs Phombeya) had her toe stood upon. He summed up by reporting the total skin lost by both police and demonstrators would be ‘insufficient to cover the area of a penny postage stamp’ and the amount of blood lost ‘would be sufficient to test the capacity of an ordinary mustard spoon’.

Needless to say Justice Southworth’s report received no attention from the world press. Public anger was unassuaged, The British departure from Nyasaland was expedited, Banda assumed power, established a dictatorship and Malawi today is a beggar-state.

While the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri is more violent it’s clear the poisonous press are playing exactly the same game. The world has been led to believe a racist white cop shot an innocent, unarmed black teenager who had his hands in the air. The photo flashed to viewers is one of a young African American with a soft smile wearing a ‘mortar board’ who would not hurt a fly. This was good enough to set a town a fire, anger millions and transfix the world with the weight of public opinion firmly of the view the cop is a killer.

No Justice Southworth here sadly but again the facts that have not been broadcast paint a very different picture. Officer Wilson was actually on a mission of mercy to attend to an African American infant in distress which is why he was in the area in the first place. At the same time a report reached him of a robbery in the vicinity with details of the suspect. When he spotted a large man approaching who fitted the description he reacted. A fight followed with the suspect overwhelming the cop and forcing him into his car. Wilson, feeling the power of Brown and his hand grappling for his weapon fired two shots and Brown fled a way before turning and charging Wilson who shot him dead.

A Grand Jury has done its duty and decided Wilson acted within the law and no charges will be preferred triggering another outbreak of violence, wanton destruction and further polarising an already divided nation.

Just as the press motivated world opinion to loathe White Africans and drive them into political and economic oblivion through denying them a fair hearing and rendering them too frightened to defend themselves such seems to be the agenda for the great nation that is the United States. Does that mean America will follow the same route as the people who live in the shadow of Mrs Phombeya’s toe?