IN THE NEWS: MONEY DECIDES, ALL THE FACTS

I recently came across an interview with city press editor Ferial Haffejee on Ruda Landman’s show Love Change (March,5,2015)  in which she spoke about the future of journalism. It was quite a revealing interview  and there were a few elements of that interview that struck a chord with me. But two topics stood out.

  1. The future funding models for not just any but “good/worthy” journalism addressing fundamental social issues such as education, health, transport, employment, public policy issues etc.   2.  The women’s voice in the newsroom. In the interview she said she teaches women journalists that “it’s okay to speak up, nothing will happen to you”.

These two subjects struck a chord with me because I am, a woman, a journalist thinking about the future of my chosen career and trying in some small way to create a space for not just my voice in the media sphere but more importantly the voices of a cohort we’ve all come to call “ordinary people” or the ‘masses”.

This week I will focus on the financial aspects – funding for journalism and next week I will focus on women voices in newsrooms.  I think these are subjects we need to think about more often. All things being equal:

MONEY DECIDES

Regarding the funding model for good journalism Hafajee said she believed strongly that the future of journalism lies in the non-profit sector.  She said jokingly that if we don’t want to only read about the Khanyi Mbaus’ and the Kim Kardashians of the world we will have to rely on the altruism of wealthy people to fund those worthy projects or “good” journalism. She admitted that it was indeed a very tricky balance to maintain, but insisted that it was one worth exploring seriously.

The interview touched very briefly on this subject, but it got me thinking deeply about what other forms of funding for journalism are available to us. Of course I thought a lot about my own experience in the industry which has been rather tumultuous in recent years. This piece is not meant to be a critique of her views in particular but a reflection on what is possible based on some real-life examples.

Dans le Epoch

I was a proponent of this idea (non-profit-journalism) until I was on the receiving end of such grants and realized that – financially speaking – they are structured to support established news organizations (the mainstream media) or journalists who write or report for large media conglomerates.  This support or funding is granted under conditions that serve the special interests of those philanthropists (funders) some of which are not explicitly expressed in contracts but tacitly accepted to be understood. They are not meant to support good, independent journalism necessarily.

I also had the opportunity to observe a variation of this not for profit funding model in detail as an editor at a developmental news agency in which NGO’s dictated where, when and how a story is to be covered. While this seemed to work because they did not directly interfere with editorial content and we did focus on the “worthy” stories, the downside is that this skewed our focus only to those stories which were already funded.

This created a climate of the news agency becoming more of an extended public relations (PR) news agency for the NGOs instead of an actual independent news organization which was not only setting the agenda of what is important but reporting on issues which are important to the people. Instead we were reporting on the interests of NGO’s who felt that their work was under covered or under-reported in the mainstream media.  I worked for this development news agency because, I thought I could do more there than at the public broadcaster but the opposite was true.

While working in Senegal I also had another opportunity to experience how a non-profit funding model could work, this time at a radio-station which was wholly funded by the George Soros foundation (OSI /OSIWA). Which offers the best example. There I found that while the staff experienced freedom from overt “censorship”, the had freedom editorially they paid for that freedom in salaries and working conditions.   The conditions were so appalling that some staff passed out from exhaustion while on duty, others were so ill that they would throw up in secret between bulletins but continued to work anyway because there were too scared to lose their jobs. The working conditions there were no different to those of sweat shop employees. This may seem like an exaggeration but there is an example closer to home.

The working conditions and pay were similarly harsh at the newly established TV News channel ANN7 where I worked for a short-spell.  Though there, some individuals (Brands Names) were paid well above market trends, most of the work-force was not duly compensated and the working conditions were worse than those at the radio station in Senegal, because of a climate of utter tyranny imposed by those in charge. All of these are different forms of non-profit funding models for journalism. Some work better than others.

To be sure and clear. Nothing is perfect in life and neither are newsrooms – editors and  journalists, and sometimes being under resourced can produce some brilliant journalism. But if the future of journalism lies in the hands of wealthy families such as the Guptas who own the New Age Newspaper and the African News Network (Infinity media) both of which have been operating like non-profits, then we are in trouble indeed.

I don’t think that those who give money to journalists should be the ones to decide how it is used. I think news organization or journalists should be the ones who motivate for certain stories to be covered or funded. Non-profit should mean just that, money with no hidden agenda.  Of course the problem here is obvious, If I am to give away my hard earned money or however I got the money, I would  like it to go to a cause that I believe in, my special interest. If you’re going to take the money then you must do as I wish, at the very least right? So regardless of these good intentions wealthy people do not just give money, one always has to wait for the other shoe to  drop,  it’s just a matter of where and when. Why would this then be the sustainable way to fund good journalism?

I guess the question is: Good Journalism for Who? Who cares?

The National Public Radio  in the US is a great example of what we could do because it’s just a great product and offers good meaty stories, but unfortunately it’s not the most listened to station in the US. Yes with a listener ship of about 34 million listeners a day – a third of South Africa’s population –  that may sound huge at first but considering that the US has a population of over 500 million people you can see how that is just a drop in the ocean. NPR’s structure is a little complex, but simply put its structured on a syndication model and it receives its funding from the state (federal government) donations and licencing fees from member stations.  This has meant that what we consider real news has become a niche special interest in the US and not a matter of public interest. Issues of public interest unless brutally violent don’t make it to the mainstream news. Paid for commercial news outlets dominate but they too are very thin on actual news and they focus on the latest Kim Kardashian exploits.

So while this may seem like the best option, I  don’t think it’ll be a good fit for South Africa. I think that whatever difficulties we may currently face with the public broadcaster: that is where the future of good real journalism is and should be. We cannot leave it up to the state to run and we cannot leave it up to big business or wealthy people with special interests to decide what will constitute news which is in the public interest.  The evolution of the “media” as a fourth estate is not only to tell people what government is doing, but to hold that same government to account to the public, the people who elected them into office in the first place.

Yes I’m an idealist : The truth is the SABC belongs to the People not the STATE!

We can’t have ministers dictating what should or should not be covered by the public broadcaster.  That is not their job.  Because it is ours (the nation of South Africa) our tax money built it, and sustains it. We should decide, when, where and how and therefore we cannot abandon it and start something new which will have the exact same structural problems built into it. I don’t believe, although it may not seem like it, that the SABC is beyond repair.

ALL THE FACTS

In journalism we cannot let money decide what is news. We should decide what’s important and then put money there. If we let money decide we will have a Mail&Guardian situation where we throw away the baby with the bath water. Financial constraints at the MG ( and many other newspapers in South Africa in fact) have led to a  deterioration in the quality of news, a significant drop in circulation figures, the mass exodus of talented and experienced journalists into the abyss or niche  news markets in small internet news outfits such as the Daily Maverick, The Conmag, The Conversation, Africa Is a Country, Code for Africa and Africa Check most of whom don’t pay their writer’s for their stories (it’s for the love of it ) or if they  do pay, it’s very specific, special interest i.e.  “data-driven” stories which is the new buzzword in the news. Most of their writers are not even journalists at all – which seems to be a global trend led by global newspapers such as the Economist. Most of them attract writers who are already employed on a full time basis in other professions so they can afford to write, opinion pieces for free, a trend some people call vanity journalism. The result of this is that a large number of South Africans are left out of important debates about the future of the country. And only the elite – or those with the money have a voice to influence what we see and know to be true.

Hafejee rightly said that this a scary time to be a journalist in this digital world of twitter, facebook, Instagram, youtube, instant celebrities with even shorter attention spans. So where does that leave us? How can we fund good journalism? With minimal commercial or  political interference? Is it still worth it?

I personally don’t have  answers to these questions.  I think  though that we can at the very least  vote with our money where newspapers are concerned. So much more of course is at stake with the  public broadcaster and I think , that’s one place we should never neglect.

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THE CHANGING ROOM: A FITTING CONVERSATION

There’s something about fitting rooms in clothing stores. There’s something about the way you brace yourself, subconsciously for what is to come. How you hold the items you spent hours or sometimes just moments inspecting, feeling, touching, close to your chest. As if in prayer for something miraculous to happen after you fit them. Some of the items you choose because they’re fashionable, because you love the look, you’re curious, you need them or you just want to try something new. At other times it’s an outfit you’ve wanted for a long, long time and have finally gathered enough courage to try it on for size.
There’s something about going into a changing room that is a little cathartic. 

Like going into a confessional booth for those of you who are Catholic. Not that I’ve done it before, I’ve always wanted to do it, wondered how it must feel to confess all your sins to another person, but since I am not catholic I never did. So the changing room is the closest thing to a confessional I can possibly imagine.  Because whether you like it or not, ready or not.  It is in this tiny little room in the middle of three full length mirrors with the bright florescent light that you can see the truth about yourself. You can see your body in all its dimensions, every bump, bulge, blemish or stretch mark. It’s like seeing yourself again with new eyes, comparing what you actually look like in reality to the latest version of what you think or hope you look like.

In today’s terms the fitting room can be  a place where you go to update  your “software”. 

Sometimes you find exactly what you’re looking for and it does everything you’ve imagined a garment should do for you when you wear it.  In those times you’re very happy, excited even, pleased to be yourself. You can even start dancing, imagining an occasion in which you’ll wear it and how awesome you’ll look. Or you could fall so deeply in love that you don’t even want to ever get out of this garment, it has become a part of you, essential like the air you breathe. Perhaps you start to dance and even strut your stuff. And smile, and the happiness that you feel draws people closer, because now you’re confident enough to walk out of the changing room, you already know you look good. You can feel it. The compliments you receive are just an icing on your already very delicious  cake.  It was during one of these rare but beautiful moments watching my mother change from one garment to another with youthful abandon, with each one bringing out a surprising side of her, from mature elegance to a youthful, sporty, dancing queen that I started to view the fitting room in a different light.

As a metaphor perhaps,  for life itself.

The changing room can be an emotional space. Where strangers commiserate with one another, like patients in doctor’s waiting room.  Here they can, if you allow them, bare witness to your struggle, tell you that you look good, or to try another size or colour or style, length. Or even notice something about yourself that you can’t see or were never aware of or  thought of as beautiful. I started to see it like a special space, a special time. And just as I was musing on this idea, the lady at the fitting room came to see what my mother was so excited about. They knew each other, because my mother is a regular at the shop.  Both in their late fifties they started talking about how age is nothing but a number. How they spent most of their lives taking care of husbands and children that they never quite had time to enjoy just  being, women.   The fitting lady went further and started to share her story with us in one single breath…

“I was not always this size”

She says with pride. “My breasts used to be double this size, my family used to call me Dolly Parton because I had such huge big breasts” she says motioning over her already large boobs tucked into a tight and short maroon store uniform. “You see my thighs?” she says pointing down at the legs “they were double this size, I was huge big! You see?” she says as she leans against the partitioning walls. “I was big because I had lost too many people in my life” She says and started counting, while my mother looked at her through the mirror “My first husband died at work, he was a head of the bakery at checkers, my second husband died just here, he was a Chubb security guard, My brother, My sister, My son, too many people. So I got depressed and I was on anti-depressants which made me bigger and bigger and bigger.  I was always ill. Until one day I said God help me and threw them all in the toilet. Look at me now!” she said showing off a long light skinned legs. “My sons are doing well, I’m happy. One of them is married to a Zulu Girl, another is  about to get  married now, and the other one just finished matric.  This just st teaches you to never give up on yourself, my house if full of people they come, even famous people come, and hang out with my sons, because I’m down to earth” she said in conclusion then she looked at my mother and said “ I’m proud of the woman you are, well done”

I was moved by her open confession, her vulnerability. 

Suddenly it become rather obvious to me, that some of the biggest changes in our lives, happen in small rooms like this one which I shared with my mom. Something spiritual, soul deep which, when it happens requires no endorsement or validation from anyone. I realized then that this is where some of the more imperceptible changes in our lives can occur. That  the very act of taking off the old clothes and putting on new ones can be a physical representation of what goes on in a persons heart, some kind of an unofficial ritual to prepare for change. It’s the place where you can decide that it’s okay to look in the mirror, to accept those part of yourself that you cannot change, that don’t make sense.   To love anyway to tell someone your truth, to be honest. I started to think how freeing that must be to  be seen, to be known to someone and to be loved and accepted with every scar, blemish, bump and curve. I started to think how beautiful that can be, to approach life with a certain naked innocence of a child. And when someone loves you like that, something happens behind the curtains that makes you want to change, to update your old software. You come out a little different each time.

I also realized that sometimes and I have found this to be true in my own fitting room experience, you’ll never know what you want or what you look good in, or how good a change can be until you try something on. And this for me is the ultimate paradox of this ever changing life, my own light bulb moment  in the chaging room watching my mother fall in love with her new software; and it is this –  real lasting change can only happen, once you commit to it. You have to  be committed, to change.  Needless to say, I’ll never look at a fitting room in the same light, again.

AN ICONIC CULTURE: PAUL NDLOVU vs DAVID BOWIE

Today I’m sitting down writing these letters with Louis Armstrong the African-American Jazz Musician serenading me with his version of “You go to my head” in the background. His soothing trumpeting and delicate piano notes on which he lays his zesty voice is calming to my shot nerves. I need him you see, because I have been in over my head, trying to compartmentalized my life into neat little boxes, to sort out the papers and stories which have been piling up. I have been restraining myself,  refusing to let myself go and allow  my feelings to spill  like water all over the keyboard smudging the lines of stories stenciled with ink on paper. I need to know what I’m doing.

DAVID BOWIE.

Naturally it’s been hard to ignore the news of David Bowie’s passing (69), last week.  This British pop, music,art, film and fashion icon of the 60, 70s, 80s and 90s seems to have shaped a lot of people’s lives and by extension mine. I was never part of his fan base and was quite frankly surprised to discover that he enjoyed a massive cult like following from every sector of society. His repertoire is impressive.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t know of David Bowie, I knew of him and heard his endless list of songs sung word for word by an ex of mine who had a near fanatical adoration for him. I now  realize that he emulated Bowie in every single way. Everything he did from the ways he dressed or more aptly how he curated the clothes he put on his body, to the way he approached and spoke about art, culture, politics, fashion creativity and life in general – including his androgynous nature,  were all inspired in the main by the Bow.

But I realize this, of course, only in hindsight.  David never meant anything to me, I had no cultural references to him. I never thought of him as an icon or followed his acting, singing or performance art career or played his music. The only song I know of his, is the more mainstream “Let’s dance”,  simply because that’s the one song my ex and I enjoyed dancing to together. Tellingly, Bowie confessed to the Interview Magazine  in 1995 that he had come to loath the success of this track in  particular “I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance,” and it was driving me mad—because it took all my passion for experimenting away. [David Bowie, Double Trouble!!, September 1995]”. Ironically I ended up feeling the same way about our relationship, too, toward the end, essentially boxed in.

So when stories and news of David Bowie started flooding my timeline, I thought of him and how he must be feeling.  I thought of how we loved to dance together and how he was quite possibly the only person who could dance with me.   I thought of our life together, the moments that we shared, which at the time felt as if they were going to last forever but now seem like a flicker of light in an attic full of memories.  I danced once again in my mind with him enjoying his raspy laughter and seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm for life. In some far-fetched way, I grieved. I cared about David Bowie’s death only because I once loved someone who adored him.  There were times, private moments when he would sing along with David Bowie with such passion I wished he could love me like that too.  Or that I understood the sheer significance DB in his life. Nevertheless we shared a story together dancing to David Bowie and those were always, happy times.

It is incredible to observe how ingrained David Bowie’s lifestyle had become in so many people’s lives, from multiple generations and how his influence in their world left no stone un-turned in art, fashion, photography,  music, films etc. He was in fact, a movement, a revolution continuously evolving and re-inventing itself  in one single human body. I did not know when I first  met my ex, that I was in actual fact meeting them as a variation of  DB, and not really as they truly are themselves, because who are we if we’re not copies of each other to some extent? Even Bowies’ own style was “inspired” or copied from a colourful neighbour he once saw walking down the street when he was younger.

A sobering conversation about politics with my father brought on a rather insightful conversation about how culture is transferred, primarily though language and of course through music. My father relayed to us a story of his life in a remote part of Mozambique where he had to learn to speak Portuguese pretty fast in order for him to do his work efficiently.  That’s when, he said, he saw the power of language, and how it can open doors and break down even the toughest walls.   To clarify his point he used a long forgotten South African example of someone who was able to dismantle certain prejudices through music in a very tangible way. And this of course was not a minor achievement in Apartheid South Africa where in some areas it was illegal to speak African languages.

PAUL NDLOVU.

For many years many black South Africans despised Shangaan speaking people.  They referred to them as MakwereKwere,  foreigners, people who did not belong. In fact during the 60s, 70, and 80s comparing someone to a Shangaan was considered  the ultimate insult  among black South Africans living in Johannesburg Townships in particular.  Back then being a Shangaan was frowned upon, it was the lowest you could be as a human being. This discrimination and hate stemmed, according to some social anecdotes, from the Shangaan people’s inability  to adjust to township life. The men never brought their wives to live with them in the city, they never bought any furniture, anything of value or comfort such a bed or a humble bench to sit on because they considered their stay in the city of gold to be temporary. They always spoke of returning home.  The Zulu’s, Sotho’s Xhosa’s and others who had already acclimatized to township life could not understand the Shangaan people and their threadbare, nomad-like way of life, let alone their language. They were for the most part considered to be dirty people or people who didn’t  care for  personal hygiene.  With time Shangaan people began to assimilate to township life, brought their wives to live with them, they soon started families and their children attended local schools just  like everyone else, but the stigma remained.

Until Paul Ndlovu, of course,  known as the Shangaan Disco King came to the scene with a song that  single-handedly changed all if not most of the negative perceptions people held against Shangaan people and made the Shangaan way of life enviable to most. His most important contribution however, was not his dress sense which was quite dapper, nor his dance moves which everyone tried to emulate, nor in fact the traditional   (tutu/motsheka) dresses worn by his back-up female singers. His most important contribution was singing in his language, Shangaan, which made people want to learn more about the language and its people. Suddenly the hit song “hita famba moyeni Katanga” changed people’s perceptions of Shangaan people. Shangaan people were no longer dirty and despicable, they were people who travelled to Giyane or their hometowns  in planes, something which was unheard of for most black people at the time. Paul Ndlovu became a household name and his song became the soundtrack of people’s birthday parties, stockvels, wedding celebrations or Shebeen get-togethers’. Understanding the Shangaan language became a plus, a positive addition to the township lexicon.  But as quickly as he rose to fame his light dimmed just as fast. He was killed in a car accident but rumours surrounding his life and death sold newspapers and magazines for month’s even years after he was buried.

Today one cannot find a more prouder nation than the Shangaan and with them the Venda and Tsonga people who take pride in speaking their languages without demeaning other people. They have also since found their own music awards  for musicians who promote  their culture through language. Of course Shangaan people were not aliens who landed from far away planets as many believed. They are in fact descendents of the Zulu nation and are named after Soshagana, a Zulu Warrior, who was sent by the Zulu King, Shaka to conquer the Tsonga people in area of present-day Mozambique. Soshangana found a fertile place inhabited by scattered communities of peace-loving people, and decided to make it his home rather than return to Shaka.

With all this in mind I started to imagine what South African airwaves would sound like today, had the late-former-President Nelson Mandela elected to speak in his mother tongue exclusively during public speeches as a rule upon his release from prison in 1990 and throughout his tenure as President. And this not because he could not speak English or Afrikaans, but because that would have sent a signal to all black people in South ( Africa) including our former oppressors and colonizers  that our languages matter – to us the people who speak them, that our culture, our way of life and ways of thinking are just as valid.  Other people would have been  forced to learn our languages in the same way we were forced in the past to learn theirs. We would not be insulted for failing to pronounce English words.  Engela Merkel does not address Germany or the world in English, neither does Francois Holland, the Chinese president, or any number of statesmen who lead non-English speaking countries and that’s not because they can’t understand English.  It’s because they understand the power of language  as a primary tool to transfer culture and to change people’s way of thinking and points of reference. They know who they are speaking to.

Sadly there’s nothing online featuring interviews with Paul Ndlovu although I’m sure there are many in the analogue archives of the SABC, Bona and Drum magazine including the Sowetan newspaper.  And so, with respect to the dearly departed, perhaps David Bowie should have the last word. “You know you can’t put down anybody. You can just try to understand. The emphasis shouldn’t be on revolution, it should be on communication.”[David Bowie Tells All and More to Patrick Salvo, March 1973].

 

THE POWER OF WORDS: ONE #EPITOME @ A TIME

Tweet, Tweet #soyouthinkyouknowaguy?!

My mother once told me a story of a young boy we shall conveniently name “Gareth”.  Gareth was friends with my youngest brother. He loved coming over to my mom’s house to play with my brother and often slept over. He ate meals at our house, he treated my parents with respect.  My brother  and he would play for hours with the toys he hauled to the house every time he slept over. He was practically family.  One day as my mom was driving around town doing her errands with Gareth, my brother and others in tow she stopped at a  set of traffic lights near the local taxi rank.  Suddenly Gareth became panicked with fear and started screaming while pointing at the crowds of people crossing and milling about the street outside “Black people! Black people!” He shouted “Quickly, quickly close all the windows, lock all the doors” he shouted frantically.  Bewildered my mother asked everyone to close the windows and lock the doors just so he could calm down, after which she began to laugh heartily at the irony of Gareth’s outburst. He was the only white person in the car.

On the Other Hand…#canblacksberacists?

Many years ago I was on a fellowship in the US and it included a two day trip to Atlanta, Georgia. While there we visited the slave market to shop for souvenirs. I found leather wrist bands that fit my arms perfectly. I had been searching all over Jo’burg for them and these were just the right fit and texture, they  were perfect. But the guy who sold them was not  at his stall and after  waiting with me for a while, my group decided to head back to the hotel without me, they couldn’t wait any longer.  I waited for the trader to no avail until I too decided to go back to the hotel because it was getting dark. So I gave the lady manning the next stall  the money and took two the wrist bands with me. When I got out it was dusk and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of the hotel we were staying at. I couldn’t call my people because I discovered to my horror that I had no money left on me. What I had was for a cab back. But I didn’t know where or how to get one. So I walked around the city in the dark trying to think of a solution, I ended up near the station filled with homeless people, most of them on wheelchairs, many were drinking out of brown crumpled paper bags, most were smoking, some were chatting, others were sleeping in what was to me then  a large congregation of  forgotten people. It felt as if I had  stumbled into someone’s open house and I was the intruder. The majority of them were black. So naturally, I panicked  because I was afraid of them and didn’t know what they were capable of even though almost all of them  were in wheelchairs,  had missing limbs or were using walking sticks to get around. I  started walking  as fast as I could while looking straight ahead as  if I knew where I was going,  even though I was completely lost. Because there were hundreds of them and it was pitch dark. I followed the glimmer of street lights on the horizon until I emerged in an area of town full of white people all of them walking in the same direction towards the stadium. There was a famous rock band playing that night.  As I was walking among the crowd of white people under a very bright street light I stopped cold and began  to freak out, because I realized  where I was. In Atlanta, Georgia, in America, the only black among  a crowd of white people! Images of the Klu Klux Klan appeared in white hoodies among the crowd like a mirage so I ran across the street feeling afraid and uncertain of what to do.

I promise I’m not crazy  #AngaziButImSure

I saw an Irish bar and went in and used my last money to buy beer while I thought of a way out. I noticed that the bartender, who was completely white was also queer so I struck up a conversation. She gave me a paper straw to drink the beer and listened to my  story. She then  told me of a mixed bar around the corner. She met me there after her shift and then, she  took me to her house to meet her beloved cats and her housemate she then took me to a  go-go bar which featured 80 year old strippers of all races.   I have never seen anything like it in my life. The sun rose with us having coffee and picking at breakfast at one of the local diners like typical Americans trying to figure out how to say goodbye and thank you for one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. She dropped me off at my hotel in time for me to pack my bags and catch the next flight out to New York with my group.  I did not sleep a wink.

But then Again, What is a #pantyprenuer?

This race story in South Africa could well be some kind of Hegelian Dialectic aimed at ultimately restricting free speech.Opportunistic, coincidental, you decide.  Because what has it done? It has birthed calls to criminalize racism, which on the surface sounds perfectly justified, but wait. What would be the appropriate punishment for someone who compares black people to monkeys or a child-like Gareth? How does one explain “Gareth?”.   It clearly must be something he got from his parents, that’s what they normally do when they pass areas were black people are in large numbers; they lock their doors quickly and drive off fast. I know of black people who won’t venture to certain areas in town or anywhere near the taxi rank, including  historically black townships because they too are afraid of black people. Call it crime.  How about me in Atlanta Georgia, afraid of poor blacks with disabilities and other whites? Should Gareth and I be arrested? Jailed? Are we racists? Or is that not a function of our (societal) conditioning; what we’ve read, heard, seen how our parents, friends’ people we admire, trust and adore behave when they relate to people who are different from them? My mother’s response seems to be the most appropriate in this case.  Laugh. All I can think to say, using Trevor Noah’s voice when he mocks  black South African accents is “Fun-nnie  Guy!”:  Because if my idea of freedom conflicts with  your idea of freedom then neither of us can be free until everyone agrees to be a slave. Of hoe?

Come on Gooi, Gooi it! #letstakeitbacktothebeach

Unfortunately this post has no conclusion(s). But perhaps the story of the newscaster who belittled the education minister for failing to properly pronounce the word “epitome” is a perfect example of a possible solution to our problem.While he criticized her for her poor English he didn’t realize that he too had failed to properly pronounce the minister’s seSotho surname.  SeSotho is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. The education minister could have easily delivered her speech or address in it,  her mother tongue or any one of the 11 languages she is most proficient in – and let the  news channels do their  own perfect translations. She is no longer forced nor compelled to speak English and if she chooses to do so, she must accept correction when she fails to pronounce certain words right. The same goes for newscasters (anyone) who mispronounce people’s names and surnames. As for the monkey saga; we all know who cleans the beach. Check? #Mate.

SUNDAY LUNCH: IS SOUTH AFRICAN FOOD BORING?

A CONTEMPORARY FOOD LOVERS’ MARKET EXAMPLE

Forgive me for coming so late to your party, I was stuck in the past doing boring but very necessary work. How are you? Good? I’m glad. Hope you didn’t miss me too much.

So, I recently found myself confronted with a question I have never asked myself before. Is South African food boring? Is South African, African – black flood bland?  This bizarre question came to mind after a friend expressed their surprise at the lack of variety in South African food compared to the variety and complexity found in traditional Indian food.   It was the second time someone made such a comment, the first time another friend concluded that Ethiopian food was much better compared to South African “traditional”- African black cuisine. In fact she said: Black South Africans don’t have a “cuisine” to speak of. We might as well be eating grass as far as she was concerned.

On both accounts I felt as though there was an underlying expectation that I must agree with this suggestion as it was a fact not just an opinion. Which is how I ended up asking myself if South African food is boring in comparison to most other foods around the world? Was that a fair question? Should it be the same? I had never up until that moment questioned South African black food, I had never compared it to anywhere else, and I had never felt compelled to. South African food was South African Food, Indian Food was Indian food as was German food.  So I let my mind wonder a bit….

I started thinking about a question which has been a mild, read, very mild curiosity in the past several years since I left home.  I’m talking about a place my family and I went to almost every day for our daily and or weekly supply of vegetables, carrots, beetroot, lettuce  potatoes, green peppers, grapes, apples, oranges, mountains of spinach and the list goes on and on and well on.  That place was called Fruit and Veg City. Each visit yielded trolleys or boxes full of fruits and vegetables. Some of it was destined to be juiced, some of it was eaten raw, and some was cooked. Even though I myself am a self-confessed non-shopper, I used to enjoy trips to Fruit and Veg, because I could pick on some grapes here and there, sample some nuts or the latest cheese as we moved along examining the latest harvest of tomatoes or avocadoes. Also the trips didn’t last too long for my mother in this case, was often very specific about what she wanted. So when I moved to back to Johannesburg 13 years ago I began asking myself, whatever happened to Fruit and Veg City?  They didn’t seem to have as many outlets in Johannesburg or perhaps I was not going to or living in the right areas.

I wondered more frequently about the where abouts of fruit and veg city when I had my own place and was finally in a position to host dinner parties. I never quite verbalized this missing link in my life but I quietly substituted it with whatever produce I could find at Woolworths or Pick and Pay which never seemed to be adequate. The fruits and Vegetables didn’t feel like they were harvested from the same soil. They didn’t have that “marketplace of old feel, where farmers brought their fresh produce from their farms to be sold to the public”  As brothers Brian and Mike Coppin intended when they first opened a Fruit and Veg Store in Kenilworth, Cape Town in 1993.

Soon enough though I started hearing about this amazing place called the Food Lovers Market, everyone was raving about it. It was an upmarket place to shop for food. “Mostly rich people go there” I was told. And since I was not rich I never went. Even though people told me they sold good food for some reason I never felt targeted by the brand. Who are they? Where do come from? The name sounded catchy enough, it had the right words, food, love and market.  In 2013 while on a work trip in Limpopo my crew and I stopped there for lunch. The food was good but pricey. I was in such a hurry to leave I forgot my laptop there forever. The next time I went to the shop was a few months ago with my sister and her husband who were buying fruits and vegetables for juicing. Oh they sell fruits and vegetables too at Food lovers? I asked. Yes, my sister replied. “They are fruit and Veg”. “As in fruit and Veg city?” I asked incredulous. Yes, my sister responded. I didn’t know that, I told her. In all this while I thought the Food Lovers Market was something completely new, a new brand in the market and not an evolution of an old one.  My mother knew that, which is why she no longer goes to Fruit and Veg. She now buys her vegetables at Woolworths and other places.

For whatever reason my brain never linked the two. The Food Lover’s Market is bold, slick and modern. Fruit and Veg City, was rustic, utilitarian and farm like.  It felt affordable. Now walking into Food lovers’ with dimmed lighting, shiny chrome finishes, minimalistic clean designs felt as if I was walking into a place that aspired to be a Woolworths. Everything is starting to look the same like most international airports and duty free shops.  Even though fruit and Veg City still exists, it is now on a far and receding background of the Food Lover’s Markets’ more fashionable brand “where food aficionados can  indulge in a range of gourmet foods”

So why am I telling you an old story as if it were new? Sometimes we need to change and experiment with a lot of things in order to understand the reason why things worked the way they did or were the way they were in the first place. The first time around.  As you well know by now organic food is the new rage.  By organic I mean the “organic produce and other ingredients grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Which includes, animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones”. And the way things are eventually only the richest will afford to eat the freshest, real food on the market. After all the processed foods, all the synthetic flavours and colourants, all the advancement in technology which has allowed us to produce a lot of food fast, all of it has brought us here. To eating “organic” fruits and vegetables grown locally, in season, with very little to no chemicals, because that is what benefits our bodies.  This is what works not always but a lot of the time.  Let’s not forget that this is the same diet that produced the strongest, healthiest slaves (in all history) who helped built Africa and the free world.

So how does this story answer my initial question, is South African, African, Black food boring? It doesn’t.  I think “traditional” South African food is boring in the same way healthy food is boring. Meals without additives, colourants, fat etc., simple and clean. Three colours on most days and 7colours on a Sunday, if you’re lucky. Although of course this diet is fast changing from household to household into a global diet of high fats and sugars.  In reality cooking does not begin in the kitchen, it begins with the soil on which the seeds are planted. By the time the food is ripe and ready to be eaten it already has all the ingredients and the necessary nutrients we need. The spice is in the soil. The sauce is in the rain the flavour is in the seeds.

As we all know the food we eat on the daily basis is influenced by a number of factors including  but not limited to; time, culture, economy, politics, the environment and finally – personal taste.  What ends up on our plates on a daily basis is influenced by one or all of those factors, most of which are systemic to free market, capitalist, democracies.  In general South African food in my opinion is as diverse as the people who call South Africa home. Regarding South African traditional black food – it is a simple diet, the food is as good as the soil from where it was planted and the person who prepares it. If the soil is not good, then there’s very little a chef can do to increase the nutrient content. Most chefs know this, everything else is just a tool to fool the eye and the palate into thinking it is consuming nourishing food because it looks and tastes good.

Today, many have forgotten what the Food Lover’s Market once was, a family run business with the aim of bringing the freshest most affordable fruits and vegetables to the market.  This in many ways is no different to the African/black way of life before colonialism.   This is the lesson I have been learning; the past is the future we don’t yet understand. It is because we didn’t understand or appreciate our own way of doing things that we were led astray. It is because we didn’t understand why our diet was structured in the way it was in the past that we can be easily challenged by others who believe themselves to be far superior.  It because of this that we are back to the future. Now we are all buying into these “new” trends as if they are  new inventions or “white people stuff ” when  “they” are copying what they found us doing here before they convinced us  that our way of life was backward and evil. This from people who have dedicated their lives to the study of the African, black way of life for centuries. It is only by understanding the past that we can fully evolve.

So yes, if you are used to eating Indian food, real South African Black food might not be interesting for you and that’s ok. Taste is not after all, an objective science. It is what you like.

Bon Appétit!