ON THE CLOCK: THE FUTURE OF (SELFIE) JOURNALISM

I have been thinking about my chosen profession recently. In fact for the past 14 years. Each day I have asked myself if this is something I want or wish to do for the rest of my life. I have asked myself this question on every occasion I have returned from the heat of the field, still half listening to the interviews in my head, still getting accustomed to the characters in the play let alone sorting out the facts from the truth. I have asked myself this question while still trying to find the words to describe the mood, the cadences of ordinary scenes pregnant with nuances beyond logical description.  The scars in someone’s soul.  Hours after the interview(s) I would still be listening, trying to find the best way to include into my script all the silences between words in the interviews, to find the words that could describe feelings that were never expressed, thoughts that were never uttered, the hopes and fears that were caught somewhere in someone’s throat or which silently gathered behind brave round eyes or spilled over in a moment of weakness onto curled eyelashes and leaked without a sound on firm cheeks. Spreading across someone’s face in a distant smile.

I would still be thinking, wondering if there is a way to write about the sound of a silent tear drop, the weight behind each one, and how each tastes different to the other. Some are as light as mist while others heavy and thick like a pound of dead flesh, drop loudly on quivering cheeks like a thunderstorm. Other tears flow slowly as fluid as crimson lava from a raptured volcano etching pigments of memory on tired faces long after the eyes have dried up. Each tear contains a story. A story which seconds on the clock could never contain.  In order to write I tell myself, I can do it.  I close my eyes to the silent tick of the clock, each red dot marking a second, a minute, an hour before the show is over. I close my eyes and in the darkness tell myself that somehow I can do it. I can make them hear the sound of falling a tear drop.

The pressure is sometimes so strong I need a song that can help me silence the critic inside. I need music to initiate movement. To silence the white noise. In all honesty I cannot remember a day when I didn’t ask myself if this is truly what I have chosen to do with my life. Because in many ways I didn’t fully believe or accept that journalism and I are well suited.  The pressure to file a story every hour was both a wondrous thrill and a heavy burden. It was superb when the story pumped like the inaudible flow of blood in your veins, when you knew all the elements of the story as well as you know your own name, when you knew the subject inside-out, when it was a subject you believed in, when love took over and you found yourself floating on water like a surfer who has just caught the largest wave, the highest tide, flying. In those moments time would be irrelevant, in fact, when you reached the point of equilibrium between yourself and a story it felt as though time herself was bowing to you, waiting for you.  It stood as if in an eternal salute to a master creating a timeless experience balancing the past and future fully in the present moment.  Everything would be in sync, synergized and you would never ever want time to start its relentless drill again. Tick Tock. In fact you didn’t even think about it.  But those days and moments were rare, because you were not a specialist you had to learn a story from scratch every day, like cramming for an exam every single time you go to work.  Most days putting a story on air would be as hard and tedious as trying to squeeze milk from an old-cow whose udders have lost their youthful lustre.  In those moments time would always be against you, either too fast or too slow.  In my early days as a journalist, I  found myself quite perplexed, both at myself and the nature of what I was attempting to do every day,  to write down stories I was never told.  I would have to shut my eyes tight. Forget about time, write what was not said with varying degrees of success. At times I thought I put too much pressure on myself,  which is why at least once or twice a week, I would find myself  immobile unable to move, because I was still waiting to hear the splashing sound of  a falling tear drop as it hits the floor. It never has.

Today, I would like to believe that I can look at what I do with a certain level of professional dispassion.  Perhaps I am mature enough to capture a tear-drop and tell a timely story.

Technology is ever-changing the way we consume and understand news and current affairs. To a large extent, the tools we use, the technology itself has become news.  What makes the headlines today would probably have never made it onto a national news bulletin when I started working with words and silences over ten years ago. What would make headlines ten years ago, is not even considered news today.  Reporting/Journalism has never been as fast as it is today, it has never been so easy nor so convenient for any journalist, reporter or ordinary person with the right tools to break a story and make headlines.  There are a multiple ways in which stories can be told and often new reporters and journalists are expected to have an ability to use all of them with equal competence. From filing radio hard copy, voice reports from the field, capturing video footage,  taking photographs, getting the interviews, tweeting about it, posting (selfies) with news makers on Instagram, Facebook, liveblogs and podcasts while simultaneously conducting live television reports with a selfie stick for a camera operator. Then there are infographics, photo snacks and hashtags, meant to compress everything to 70 characters and 30 second videos.  Your value as journalist is embedded in your ability to do all these successfully, and by success we mean your tweets must go viral, your story must be shared by millions, reposted by a hundred thousand more, tagged, favoured, and retweeted, liked, by your followers around the world. That has become the bottom line. Any errors made we can apologize for later.

There’s no time to pause before we report what we see.   The story of the sound of a tear drop is out of sync with the times, it is old news. What  we are asking journalists to do today, is like asking someone who was trained as a  General Practitioner, to start doing brain surgery, be a  vet, an obstetrician , an ophthalmologist among other things all in the course of one day. Any self-respecting medical professional would refuse such an assignment not only because it is impractical but simply because such an assignment is a recipe for failure and the worst case scenario would result in one of the patients suffering from lack of attention and or expertise advice. Whatever the outcome we can all expect the results of this to be average at best.

While it sounds very impressive to say you can and have been able to do all of those things, it is ultimately not sustainable. Perhaps not so much for the corporation itself as it operates on the belief that it can just as easily “replace” you with someone younger and more eager to not only do all of the above, but to also run and build a website from scratch and do marketing and publicity while you’re still trying to figure out how Twitter works.  The question is not whether one person can  perform all those functions, it is whether doing so would be in the best interest of the profession and the bottom line.

I understand. I was trained in all the imaginable methods of reporting from what we called desk top publishing (DTP) at the time, to photojournalism, TV, radio journalism, online journalism. I’ve learnt how to edit words, moving and still pictures, design websites, edit documentaries, write scripts, shoot video footage, and produce essays, learn history, politics, and a few foreign languages in three years.  I know how it feels like to be turned into an octopus with suctions on every imaginable aspect of journalism, a jack of all trades but a master of none. It is wonderful to have a working knowledge of these tools of telling stories, but ultimately what matters most is the story. You can have the best and most technologically advanced story telling tools – but they will never tell a story like a human being can.

So in the past four years as freelance journalist I have seen how amazing it can be to be a one man show on the rare occasion that it works, and how devastating it can be when everything comes falling apart like a deck of cards. Because in the end we only have two hands, two eyes, two ears and two feet.

I have enjoyed working in solitude as a radio reporter for eight years. Yet nothing is sweeter and is more wonderful and fulfilling that embarking on a creative project with like-minded people. I have tasted the undeniable high of working with others. Nothing surpasses a High Five with another hand at the end of a long day.  No technology can replace another human being. The Technology we use is just a tool, it will never replace another human’s eye, another person’s perspective. It is a delicate balance between being independent, versatile and being unreasonably narcissistic.  An inanimate object, no matter how technologically advanced and innovative it is, can never replace a human mind heart or soul. And if one day we wake up and think  it does, then we will do so at our own peril.

The bottom line is,  life is better when we’re doing it two-gether.

HEALTHY SUCCESS:  WHEN LOOSING MAKES US ALL WINNERS

Is that even possible? I mean everyone wants to win and the more you win the more addictive it becomes.  No one bats an eyelid to the addictive nature of winning, of striving to be at the top of your game all the time because, everyone either wants to be a winner or to be permanently associated with winners or people who come highly recommended by champions. In fact we’re all encouraged, urged, to win at life. So what am I even talking about here?

THE PITCH

Consider the story surrounding the death and funeral of late Bafana Bafana and Orlando Pirates captain Senzo Meyiwa.  At the time of his untimely death Meyiwa had earned six national caps playing for the country, a promising international career which started a year ago.

In the field of soccer he was considered a winner, someone who was flying the flag high for South Africa.  But  the story which made headlines, which captured the imagination of the nation, which literally had the country divided in two camps on Facebook and Twitter and even national newspapers, radio talk shows and news bulletins was neither his career as a footballer nor how he died: he was followed and shot and killed as if by hired hit-men.  The story which dominated national discussions was his marriage and extra-marital affairs. On one side the country supported Senzo’s long suffering wife, on the other  side the country supported Senzo’s publicly shattered mistress Kelly Khumalo. Tongues wagged until it emerged that Senzo and his wife were actually either separated or separating.   They were already living separate lives. The minister of sports and recreation came on national radio to honour Senzo and apologize on his behalf  saying “We all make decisions that those close to us may disagree with, but who is to judge, Senzo did what made him happy”.  President Jacob Zuma shared his sentiments in news bulletins with a special message meant to comfort the nation at a time of mourning.

Meyiwa was given a provincial state funeral which was broadcast live on national Television. Moses Mabida stadium was packed as if a soccer-match was underway.

LOOSING SIGHT OF THE GOAL

But his private life is what took centre stage. Simply because his private life was scandalous, better than the drama in two of South Africa’s most controversial and most watched soapies, Generations and Skeem Saam combined.  His mistress and sister were arrested and appeared in court for assaulting his estranged wife and were due to appear in court a day before Meyiwa  was buried.  Senzo for his part apologized a month ago, admitting that he and his wife of seven years had been living separate lives. He also  admitted that not telling his new girlfriend about being married was a mistake and he apologized to his fans.

But Meyiwa is not the only successful person whose personal life surpassed all the achievements they had made on the professional arena. We really don’t have to go too far for examples of this: – our very own Olympic medalist Oscar Prestorius is a leading international example of when winning defeats the purpose. When winning amounts to being a loser.  Cyclist Neil Armstrong is another example what winning at all costs and by any means necessary can do to a person and to those that love them. When that discipline and the single-minded, religious focus of achieving one single goal can lead to psychopathic behaviour or become unhealthy.  At each stage these winners – had to chip little parts of themselves away, to compromise  everything in service of their goal, in order to stand at the podium with their shiny trophies.  What they had lost in the process was their integrity. They have learned to be in control of everything in their lives so much so that they believed they could in some ways also  control others, or manipulate situations in order to win and while they succeeded for a time it was never sustainable. Perhaps Oscar thought if I can run and win a medal without legs then I can make people love me. It is  this  inability to lose or to see loss as a possible outcome, which destroys a winner.  It’s the inability to have limits, and see your own limitations that ruins even the best of intentions. Passion and Obsession from a distance can a look alike but they are two very, very different things. One comes from a place of love, of worthiness and security , nurturing of sharing and giving– Passion. While the other comes from a place of fear, insecurity and a need to control everyone and everything – Obsession. They are very close but the two  never actually touch.

THERE’S NO RUSH

Many years ago when I was young, I gained a very bad reputation in the office after I became completely obsessed with winning against a colleague on the opposing team during a night out bowling  – an office team building exercise.   I hadn’t dealt with the reasons why this particular person made me so uncomfortable or “got on my nerves” but subconsciously I was hungry for a chance to put her in her “place” so to speak by winning at all costs at the bowling game. The result of that is I ended up screaming and shouting  at my team mates urging them, pushing them to go faster and harder  against the other team, to such  an  extent that I ended up snatching a  bowling ball from one of them when it was not even my turn to play because they were not  “doing” it right  or winning in my opinion. I ruined the game for everyone.  Needless to say, no one wanted to go bowling with me afterwards, my team lost, and I turned out to look pretty ugly after the game. I later asked my boss why he put us on opposing sides when being in the same team with my office rival would have been a more strategic “team” building exercise, his response was “there’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition”.  But I didn’t like what I saw in me. My competitive side had brought out the very worst in me. I was ashamed of myself and my behaviour and that team building exercise revealed a side of me I found repulsive. It revealed to me a person I never ever wanted to become or thought I could be. I learnt how a bit of healthy competition can become a bit toxic. That experience helped me to grow.

THE PURPOSE. WHAT DRIVES YOU?

As fate would have it, life brought the three of us together again to work under one roof a few years later.  My former boss and my former office rival and I, all working under the same team. By then I had dealt with the reasons why I behaved in that way. And they had nothing to do with her.  I was unhappy with where I was and she represented the kind of drive and passion for her own career development that I wished I had. She had the kind of influence over people (especially men) which I admired. Those things came naturally to her and I was angry with her because I didn’t have them.  I mean it’s not easy to admit that to yourself and let alone to  tell the world that I had allowed jealously, bitterness and anger, fear, a low self-esteem and a lack of love to take over me, cloud my judgment and make what could have been  a healthy, fun game into a nasty cat fight. It’s not easy to acknowledge my flaws, failures, but acknowledging them is what makes me human. My willingness to be vulnerable, to be weak, showed me that I was not perfect nor will I ever be. And that is fine because no else is perfect.  Being perfect is the grand illusion and trying to be a perfect person – who is never sad, disappointed, confused, lost, hurt, angry, jealous, insecure, unsure, or doesn’t know– to pretend that I don’t have these  feelings is what makes me hard, callous, angry, bitter and jealous. Facing these feelings and moving on from them is what makes me beautifully human. I had to learn to love myself for who I was, not who I hoped to be, wanted to be, or aspired to be.  I had to love me for me because no matter how hard I tried I could never ever be anyone else.  And more than that I  learnt that I could never complete another  person nor could another person complete me or make me happy.   I learnt that life is not a just black and white.   I can always try something else, find another way, I can start again. I can find what I am good at, I can use my skills in another way. I don’t have to be right. It’s ok to be wrong. I can learn from others, I can teach what I know. I can love again.

So that by the time she was giving me instructions to do this and that in office I was fine. By the time she was watching my work and sending me constructive feedback I could take it, I could listen to her, because she knew something I didn’t.  She could do something I couldn’t do and I  was grateful for that.  I was actually happy to have her on my side. I respected her, because I had learnt to respect myself. I accepted her for who she is but more importantly I had accepted myself for who I am and that has made all the difference. I also had to forgive myself for being so hard on myself and with others. While I admire who she is, her talent, value her work and strategic thinking, I didn’t want to be her. I was happy being me. She in turn recognized my strengths as a storyteller and gave me an opportunity to do a story close to my heart through her influence in the newsroom.  We worked together as a team and this brought-out a side of me that I was proud of. and happily surprised to see that we actually worked well together and our differences – the reason I didn’t like her became the reason I appreciated her and admired  her more.  I had so much fun I wanted to do it again and again Her strengths complimented my strengths, it was amazing to see how fear blinds us to our own gifts.   I had changed and I was happy with the person I had become.

THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES

The reason(s) I live my life, and why I continue do the work that I do have become much more important to me (than winning any prize). So that even when something looks good on paper or in words, or feels good,  but  goes against my principles, if it is not good for me or the collective or the bigger picture it is not something I am willing to do. Perhaps there’s another way of achieving the same goal  which causes less harm, to myself and others? There must be another way. It is true that I can not eat principles for supper and I am certainly not without my flaws,  I don’t know what I am doing on most days.  But for as long as I can sleep at night, for as long as I can look at myself in the mirror and smile,  I know I have already succeeded. And for as long as I am alive, there’s always an opportunity, always a chance to try again, to learn,to create, and finally to love over and over and over again.

NB:  With that said I am very happy to announce that I will be taking a holiday from blogging to attend to matters of the heart, love and family.

‘The art of living is neither careless drifting nor fearful clinging. It consists in being open and wholly receptive to each moment’ Alan Watts

 WHAT’S NEWS TO YOU?  LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST

 

Keeping notes

Keeping notes

This month on September 11 I marked 13 years as a journalist. So I thought I should dedicate this week’s blog post to an activity that has dominated my life for the past 13 years. Of course, it’s a long story.

IN THE BEGINNING: WHAT AM I?

I had many dreams and aspirations before I decided on a path to become a journalist. In fact I wanted to be a great many things. I had dreams of becoming a cartoonist: working as an animator for Walt Disney, I also dreamed of being a dancer, a singer, maybe even an actress. Everyone in my family had at some point stood silently near the bathroom watching me talk to myself on the mirror while trying out different facial expressions. They would watch me practice over and over at the mirror, talking in a language even I didn’t  understand until I mastered the art of crying and laughing on the spot.  During those times I took on different characters, a broken-hearted lover, maybe some kind of a star, a teacher, maybe a university professor at an academic institution of high repute, a writer, a mother and so on. At some point I tried competing for the Miss South Africa Title. Alas.

 A  WHOLE WORLD IN MY HEAD

The list was (still is) endless. One of the options I considered to my mother’s chagrin, was joining the army. I thought then than it would be the easiest way for me to acquire a driver’s licence at no cost to my parents. I wanted to learn how to be disciplined because I had a short attention span and would find myself wondering to foreign lands in the middle of tasks, while washing dishes  for example, studying or trying to pay attention during Math class. I was intrigued by the story of numbers .  By suggesting I join the army  I hoped I would reign in the dreamer in me, and become more like my father who is disciplined, hardworking and always on time. As my mother and I poured over alternatives for my future career while lying on her bed, looking dreamily into the ceiling like lovers planning a future together, the word journalism surfaced. My mother acted as my career guide and told me:” you like to talk; to write, you are very curious, you enjoy reading, finding information and you want to travel, so journalism would be perfect for you. Plus you enjoy asking questions and you can be on TV  too if you want to”. It had never occurred to me that I could be a journalist. I was more than a  little overwhelmed with the number of things I could do or be for rest of my life, and at 17 the world seemed to contain an infinite amount of possibilities. But when my mother mentioned journalism I thought this would be a good career choice. It seemed the best way to contain all my aspirations. So I enrolled at the best institution for practical journalism at the time and here I am today.

WHAT IS JOURNALISM ABOUT?: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

An online definition of a journalist reads as follows:
A person who writes for newspaper or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio and television. Synonyms include: a reporter, correspondent, newsman, newswoman, newspaperman, columnist, writer, commentator, reviewer, blogger, investigative journalist, photojournalist, war correspondent, lobby correspondent, editor, sub-editor, copy editor, paparazzo, pressman, legman, wireman and the list continues.” 

I think that’s the  best definition. Even journalism professors  struggle to define who or what is a  journalist. So to keep it simple we will go with the above description. My entry into journalism was a very frightening event for me. I was never sure of myself at all. I was always scared and intimidated by fellow students and later colleagues who always seemed more intelligent, knowledgeable and more  experienced  than I was. My favourite subjects included History, Business Economics and Politics. History because it was fascinating,  it put current events into context, Business  Economics because it made sense to me (I understood the basic principle of supply and demand.) Politics because our third year Politics lecturer Ashwin Desai was so passionate about his subject he brought the world into our lecture room and made what we were studying real and tangible. Writing essays, however, was my worst fear. I really could not imagine how I ended up studying journalism after all. A profession which at its core involved copious amounts of writing. I remember I once broke out in hives while writing an essay during an exam because I was so nervous. It took me 13 years to gain control over my nervous condition. Even today I have to work up the courage to start writing or  even to speak  when I am live on Television and or  Radio. Each time  I write, it feels as though I am writing for the first time.

 TOO MANY QUESTIONS…

While studying journalism I learnt that the point of being a journalist, at least as far as I understood it was to ask questions. Who (did) What, Where, When, How and Why. And after you have answered all those questions ask the most important one of all: why should anyone care?
Imagine then my surprise when I discovered years into the profession that: asking questions, the very reason for my existence as a journalist was the worst thing one could do in this profession! I finally discovered that while I was taught/learned to be a journalist, someone who asks questions, in order to give context to current affairs. No one cared about the history of why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. In the real world journalists were merely reporters. People who merely presented you with the most basic answers to the five questions. A reporter for me was similar to a minute-taker at meeting,  someone who takes minutes of a meeting. It’s a great skills to take great notes, but it’s not journalism. The more you questioned the status quo the more you were ignored, or became less popular with the officials. To get ahead in the profession you had to choose sides and not the middle ground as I was taught. Journalism had become a cross between public relations and reportage. More over in many cases as a general reporter even if you wanted to give context to your work there was never the time to. Newsroom were so that you had to jump from one story to another, and sometimes even do multiple stories a day. Which were ultimately identical to your competitors. Journalists or reporters were often recruited into high level communication positions in government and business so that, journalist often just  copied and pasted  text from  press-releases without question as if it were their own original writing. Spokespeople who were once journalist were even harder nuts to crack.

I always refused to be called a reporter, always thinking in my heart that I was a journalist not a parrot. But the industry dictated otherwise. Each Media house has an agenda, is politically affiliated to a number of people in powerful positions and the merit of the story was always weighed on these factors. The higher up you go – the more compromises you had to make. At the end of the day, you didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you so to speak, even if the chain of command is as far as the distance between Johannesburg, South Africa and Timbuktu, Mali.

BEYOND THE QUESTIONS: ETHICAL JOURNALISM

So when I finally decided to work independently as a journalist I discovered an even darker side of journalism which I would not have believed existed,  had it not  happen to me. I was on more than one occasion offered an exclusive story that could potentially put me in the league of award-winning journalists. “All you need to do is just put your by-line (name) to the story. You don’t have to do anything I will write the story for you” He said. I was incredulous, and looked at him laughing because I seriously thought he was joking. “How do you think journalists get leaked documents? Do you think all those famous investigative journalist you read about, write their own stories? “he continued realizing that I had no clue. “ Do you think they just stumble on documents?” This is how they do it he said. You just let me write the story and all you have to do is add your name to it.” He pleaded. I refused his offer and suddenly felt relieved. Until that moment I had never doubted the integrity of journalists – I being one them of  course.   I understood that some days are better than others, as some stories are better than others, but never had it occurred to me that journalists or reporters could participate in ghost writing, pass –off articles or stories they had no hand in writing and pretend it was their own hard work.

I always admired journalists who won awards, because I understand the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a great story. It has been my daily struggle for the past 13 years and each year I hope to write better than the last. I had up until that moment no idea what’s so ever, that journalists were capable of that, more  people I had looked up to. For the first time in my life I was proud of myself – proud that even though I had never won an award or been acknowledged for my work by any organization or editor in the country, all the work I had done as a journalist had been my own original work. I was not winning someone’ else’  award. And if I were to ever win anything, it would be  based on my own original work. The man in question  eventually refused to grant me an interview, but in the end, I was able to write the story without his help, I had to think of other ways of finding information, I had to depend on my own eyes and ears, and finally I had to trust myself. I finally had to ask myself how much do I want to win anything, and is it worth it and is that why I was a  journalist in the first place. There is a cost to everything.

A THIN LINE: OUTSIDERS LOOKING IN:

Perhaps I was inspired by the movie starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts called the Pelican Brief. Where the journalist (Denzel Washington) worked in collaboration with an economics student – an informant (Julia Roberts) to write a story which uncovered corruption within the american judicial system. It was  dangerous but it’s the story that caught me, the potential power in being a journalist, that you can change history, or someone’s life.  Perhaps I thought I could travel around the world, go places I would not otherwise have access to and meet people who would pass me by the next day. A word of caution: not everyone who says they are journalist is actually a journalist. Perhaps I got into this profession for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right ones. I believed in justice, in the right to know, in providing people with information that could change their lives, help people tell their own stories, uncover the hidden side of things – how they work or don’t work. In fact truth be told, I approached this profession naively, thinking that everyone had the best intentions at heart. So what have I learnt? That all those years spent in the mirror have helped me to keep a straight face in the face of danger – even when I  was shaking inside.  Words are numbers. And numbers are words. So If I love words it means I love numbers too!!! The more I write the more I realize that it’s a mathematical equation. It is ultimate all about numbers which are words.  I could tap into any career imaginable just by writing about it. I am in the right profession. But here’s a fun list of things I learnt in the past 13 years of being *flinch * a reporter – journalist:

 

13 LESSONS FROM A 13 YEAR OLD JOURNALIST:
1. Information is key: read money.
2. Spokespeople/Media liaisons/ Public relations personnel are information gatekeepers. In other words they are trained to manage information: their purpose in life is to feed you only the information they want you to know. They are trained to stop you from asking probing questions or from finding out information they want to hide.
3. Politicians are trained to be creative with the truth – and only tell the truth (leak information) when it serves their interests
4. There’s an infinitive number of ways to obtaining information. Officials ideally should be the last the last point of contact.
5. It’s the “invisible” people, that you don’t pay attention to who can give you amazing stories – which are true – family and friends, the homeless, etc.
6. Everyone has an agenda. Including your editor, your organization, you, every one.
7. Ultimately journalism – is about storytelling – the stuff that Novelists do without having to back it up with proof.
8. Asking (critical/simple) questions can be a career limiting exercise ( Choose carefully who you work for)
9. Sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. The truth is not always convenient. So your great expose can be conveniently ignored.
10. There are many truths.
11. Journalism is fun ( choose wisely who you work for)
12. You can go to most things   and places for free. ( if you don’t mind doing PR read marketing and public relations)
13. Acting is a great skill to have as a journalist (use at own risk)

 

A sneak preview to my upcoming project…

 

QUIET DIPLOMACY : MY SECRET LOVE AFFAIR WITH WEST AFRICA

30-LOVE

” You will look back at this and be proud of yourself, you will come out of this stronger and wiser” said my  older sister – looking lovingly at me in the plane. We were on an  early morning  South African Airways (SAA) flight  to South Africa from Senegal in what is arguably the most  extraordinary life-changing experience of my life.  I was surprised she didn’t  shout and scream at me  or ask  ” what were you thinking?!”  I was in tears, barely able to say a word without crying. She looked at me lovingly though with the kindness I didn’t think I deserved. She smiled and laughed with that sweet giggle that seems to go on forever… when I heard her laughing  I knew that everything would be okay … eventually. I wasn’t  crazy and I had not imagined things.  Having her sitting next  to me  eased my nausea.  I was so heartbroken  I was sure I was going to throw up  my heart, crushed to pieces like  shards of  glass in a pool of blood and gore all over the airplane’s floor – I was so hurt. I couldn’t for the life of me  understand how my best laid plans could have gone so horribly wrong.  Why I had to leave. Why my dreams came crushing down on me like the like the twin tours, on an ordinary Sunday.

We went through all the  different scenarios on the flight home. I kept going over and over what had happened. I had to make absolutely sure for myself that I had made the right decision to go home.  She assured me I had.  Still  I wasn’t sure that leaving Senegal, the country of my  re-birth  made  for a bright idea. But I had doubts, many doubts in fact about a lot of things and needed someone better skilled in the art of diplomacy and crisis management  to help me figure things out.

IN HER FOOTSTEPS…

I was there in part because of her, my sister.   She doesn’t know this because I’ve never had the courage to tell her. She was (is) my inspiration – she was (is) the reason I wanted to do TV reporting and not just on any old subject. But on the subject of African Politics or should I say the  Politics of Africa.  I used to watch her  religiously on  Television as she reported from one country after another. She would come back briefly, and I would joke with her  little just to see her smile or  offer to make her coffee just to be near her. I admired her work. I admire who she is. But she was always busy and always on the road. In the early 2000’s working as a radio journalist I often  read up on the Organization for African Unity ( OAU) the formation of the new body the African Union, the formation of  the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)  the PAN African Parliament,  South African Development Community (SADC).  And  tried as much as I could to keep myself informed about issues relating to Africa’s re-birth, though at the time I thought I had no practical use for the information. I always made a mental note to research any story or country she reported on. If I had an idol in TV  journalism she would be the first  Ms MS, then  Christiane Amampour  and Paula Slier.  She made journalism  beautiful, lyrical, a moving living, tangible history lesson. My love for her was intensified by a common vision and life purpose. It has been my best kept secrete love affair, until now, because I’m telling you.

So that is why when the opportunity presented itself back in  2011 to visit  Senegal in West Africa I did not hesitate.  Up until then I had not travelled to West Africa or Senegal and had no experience of the region. I called everyone but her  letting them know I was leaving.  I knew that the best way to learn anything is by doing (experiencing it) at least that has been the best way  I learn.  Though I had planned to  visit  Senegal  for a month-long holiday,  at the back of my mind I was prepared to stay for as long as possible and thus do some kind of “soft launch”of my free-lance  career as a  West African Correspondent. So I packed accordingly. I was prepared to give my all in pursuit of  a dream. Purpose.

WAAW!!!

The first six months were a whirlwind romance. I could not have hoped for a better landing.  It was full of exciting adventures  and nights filled with milk and honey on cloud nine. I mean I could not believe how beautiful the Senegalese  were. Inside and out. I found myself a new home, I loved the language, and enjoyed the general lifestyle, the tea, food,  dancing, the art, reggae, fabrics, fashion,  I didn’t have to wear a watch as calls to prayer would tell me exactly what time it was, fish and rice were abundant…the beach was always around the corner, the streets were a sight for sore eyes: colourful, bright and full of  well toned men with lean muscular bodies,  similarly tall skinny, well-shaped women in colorful dresses and elaborate hairstyles. There was a  gentle harmonious, peaceful rhythm to Senegal that made living and being alive there a pleasure.  I made a million and one radio sound-scapes and documentaries in my head.  I could step right out of my room into a cab or car-rapid, I could turn a corner and get tea or coffee at less than a rand a piece, airtime was being sold at all corners…fruits, vegetables everything I could think of was at my fingertips.  All of it made absolute sense to me. I was HOME. Even the things I would not ordinarily “agree” with or “accept” back in South Africa would not bother me so much here in my very own paradise.  Even their working hours – late nights – were more in tune with the natural rhythm of my physiology.

DOUBLE- SPEAK

South Africa and Senegal at the time still enjoyed a cordial diplomatic relationship even though relations had soured  bitterly  under former Presidents Abdoulaye Wade and  Thabo Mbeki  who were engaged in a  protracted  tug of  war over who had a better plan for Africa:  President Abdoulaye Wade with the Omega Plan  or Thabo Mbeki with the  African Renaissance.  Eventually it was agreed that both documents  which had slight differences be merged into  one plan  called the New Plan for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).  A plan  which President Wade later  became one of its  fiercest critics accusing the body of wasting money in talk-shops  instead of putting NEPAD’s plans into actions on the ground in other words implementing, this despite him being a sitting chairman of  NEPAD.  Never the less South African citizens during this time did no require visa’s to enter the West African nation famous for its friendliness. Which is another reason why it was an easy choice for me.

SENEGAL CHOSE ME….

By February 2012, three months in the country I was working as a free-lance  journalist for  South Africa based media houses, I had already auditioned and landed the job anchoring a  Weekly current affairs TV show called E-mag on Radio  Television Senegalese (RTS). I was also working as a producer and anchor for a  local regional radio station, West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR)  funded by OSIWA. I was having a great time actually. I knew – despite the many  obstacles and challenges which faced me each step of the way, I knew in the pit of my stomach that  I was meant to be there.
Senegal Celebrates it’s Independence on the 4th of April – my birth date. We were meant to be.

I was just about to say “I do” when my mother called to say I should come home before I make any major decisions.  I agreed. And soon found myself back home in South Africa, unsure of  how to proceed with my vision. I found work  and decided in my heart that I would save up and let everybody know that I was going back.   I kept this dream alive everyday and  worked hard with a single-minded  focus of going back “home”. Making sure to plan everything better this time. The first time I went at the invitation of a friend – armed only with a dream in my pocket and nothing else.  This time would surely be better…

DARE TO INVENT THE FUTURE…

” Are we not cool with anyone?” A friend of mine, Visual Artist Breeze Yoko recently asked on his facebook page. He has just been selected to be part of this year Invisible Borders Trans- African  – an art led initiative, founded in Nigeria in 2009 by a group of passionate artists mostly photographers with a drive and urge to affect change in society though art. The artists  are meant to travel around the continent creating and thinking beyond borders.  Yoko lamented “South Africans need visas for almost all the countries on this continent. Out of 11 countries I’m passing through, i need a visa for all 11. What the fuck is that, are we not cool with anyone?  Nigeria – Benin – Togo – Ghana – Cote d’Ivoire – Liberia – Sierra Leone – Guinea – Senegal – Mauritania – Morocco. Then who are our friends, tell me who? In South America a lot of the countries don’t want a visa from us… but my own continent, why mara why?”

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE…

After Seven months of working in South Africa, I was finally ready. Already relations between South Africa and Senegal were  becoming quietly hostile.  And despite admonitions from home to refrain from going back to Senegal, I was intent on going despite what anyone said.  News of the 2008 Xenophobic attacks against African foreign nationals in South Africa were a hard pill to swallow for many Africans who still held the country in high esteem. But the Marikana Massacre in which more than 50 protesting miners were killed by police, left many stone-cold, and revealed just how much Apartheid had destroyed South Africa’s humanity, the nations’ psyche. We were not well. I couldn’t explain this on my arrival in January 2013 to my family in Senegal. Visuals of the killings were a common sight on many television screens.  But it was South Africa’s refusal to grant visa’s to 10 Senegalese journalists travelling to South Africa to cover the  Soccer confederations cup that broke the camels back. Senegal’s  newly appointed  President Macky Sall  wasted no time announcing that South African citizens  be required to apply for  visas to gain entry into the country. By then at least two South African women had been found dead under mysterious circumstances in Senegal.  The South Africa Embassy in Dakar warned.

MONEY TALKS

Nigeria – Benin – Togo – Ghana – Cote d’Ivoire – Liberia – Sierra Leone – Guinea – Senegal – Mauritania are all part of the 15 countries which make up the economic Commission of West African States or ECOWAS, which Senegal was chair.  I soon found out that South Africa had no  real economic (commercial – trade)  ties with Senegal, through an unfortunate banking problem.  French West Africa was not a priority for  South Africa’s economic /foreign strategy.  With no other common interest – including political solidarity – the only way to gain investment from South Africa ( seen throughout the continent as a wealthy nation) was is charge its citizens who wished to travel there an entry fee. Are you sure you want to come here?

France a long-time  investment partner with Senegal has now become South Africa’s 3rd largest trading partner  – taking away much-needed investment from Senegal which depended on its former benefactor.  Though the country is now diversifying its investment portfolio to include China and North America ( Canada and the USA).

BUT MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU LOVE…

The lack of money was the sole – main – reason I came back  the second time. In fact it was not so much the a lack of money  per se,  but a technical – red tape – problem of not having access  to the  money I already had. I had a cash flow problem which made trying to do  business (anything) in West Africa nearly impossible.  The South African Embassy …. turned me away when I went to  seek help. All I had been my passport. ” I’m sorry we can’t help you, we don’t make phone calls for people here, we cannot assist you with that” said the woman behind the glass  panel.   It slowly began to sink in, that if they could treat their own citizens like this, what about other Africans? I was persona non-grata. My South African friends had long turned their phones off. Numerous calls through banks to South Africa, brought no joy, they could not assist me with a small technical problem. ” You have to come into our offices….go to your nearest branch”. I am in Senegal West Africa – I repeated like a crazy woman for nearly two months only to be met with ” where is that? just go to your nearest branch.” There is no Standard Bank Branch in Senegal.

AT LEAST WE ARE STILL FRIENDS…

My Senegalese Brother’s and Sister’s held my hands in support, paid for my rent, bought me food, airtime and provided me with what they could to help me survive at great personal cost.  They remained hopeful, but the stress was tearing me apart and I didn’t want to see them suffer like that for me. So I decided to swallow my pride and concede defeat. Go back home to my nearest Standard Bank Branch.  In all my life I have never experienced love like I found lived and experienced in Senegal. Everyone from street trader to Bifal, contributed with a cup of coffee here, bus fare there,  to help me  survive on a daily basis. They loved and accepted me without any questions, loved me through thick and thin, and never turned me away even when they had all the power, ability and reason to. I learnt a powerful lesson about myself, my birth country in Senegal, that Power and Love Equals Peace. It was not Senegal or the Senegalese that let me down. It was my own country. South Africa that didn’t care or seem to care an inch about my well-being. I have thought things through and looked at my story from all possible angles, everything I did wrong, all my mistakes and all the subsequent events that followed from that and I always reach the same conclusion.  I guess hadn’t had the time to realize just how much that incident hurt me.I have been going through the motions of living ever since.

POWER + LOVE = PEACE

I love Senegal with all my heart. This land of the  Baobab, the Lion, of Milk and honey. This  the country made me more of who I was, and showed me my all weakness and  all my strengths and loved me despite  of what I could or could not offer.  With all my imperfections: they told me: you are strong, we believe in you, you can make it.  I honestly cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I never knew love like this before.  No money in the world can ever replace the  life this place breathed into my lungs into my very being.

To quote French Writer and philosopher Anais Nin who once said :“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.”

Three years ago I threw my dreams into space like a kite, and found all of the above in  Senegal.

“I do”.  Now and forever. You will always have a special place in my heart. Thank You for the love  and all the  hard lessons.

My sister was absolutely right!. I am stronger and wiser because of you.

Peace.

JOURNALISM: MA RAISON D’ETRE

 

The fourth estate. Are we asking the right questions?

The fourth estate. Are we asking the right questions?

Any journalist would know the basic core questions which must be answered in any news story: Who said (did) What, When, Where, How and Why, the Five Ws and an H. The Why question is what has been my main preoccupation throughout my life (even before I studied and became a journalist). My mother recently told me that though all children go through the WHY phases in their lives, I never stopped asking why, when I was expressing doubts about my suitability for the profession.  I have always asked questions, regardless of the consequences of what the answers might bring. I have always endeavored to try as best as I can to answer the why question in my reports, though I am as yet unable to quantify to what extent I was able to achieve that.  Why should the public care about who said what when, where and how, why is the story important for your audience, why am I reporting this story.  The why question is perhaps the single most important question any editor should answer before assigning a story to a journalist, and it’s the different answers to this why question that determines the weight of the story. Why? Has also been a source of arguments and heated debates in any given newsroom.  Someone once said, once you can answer the Why question, the how becomes easy.  But as in life, sometimes the answer to why is only revealed after a thorough investigation of the subject matter, something which requires time. Time is a limited resource, a luxury item for journalist but this fact is truer for radio journalist more than most others because they traditionally have half hour deadlines, on almost every story. You must have a new angle and story every 30mins while you’re out on assignment and must compete with your other newspaper and television journalist for the breaking news and angles and interviews while also filing news story every 20min. It is a high pressured job, where every second counts.  Imagine having to do that consistently for more than 10 years.

There’s little context one can give to a news event in one minute and 20 seconds, the most time that a news story gets on  Television or 2-3 minutes in radio.  The ability to answer the five Ws and an H in any in a single news broadcast is a mark of good reportage.  That can often only be achieved if a journalist or reporter fully understands the news story, which is not often the case. Adequate research is sorely lacking in the broadcast journalism world, whose news reports are becoming much more like gossip columns where journalist become the main actors in an effort to draw audiences.

It was when I found myself confronted with a series of Whys upon Whys with fewer and fewer answers to those whys that I began to question my profession, my life. It is right then that I started to doubt myself and my ability to be a “good” journalist or reporter.  You see, journalism for me was never just a job; it was never a thing I did to earn an income. It was my life, who I was, it was through journalism that I found meaning to my life, my voice on radio was not mine, it was a “voice-for-the-voiceless”. If I could not find meaning and relevance in my work as a journalist, the even I had no meaning and relevance in society as a whole. Journalism has always been a calling for me, what I always considered to be a noble profession like teaching, social work, being a doctor or nurse, a police man, and the work does indeed involve elements of all these professions and more. I took my job seriously, would have sleepless nights over a story.  I was Jedi Ramalapa the journalist and demonstrated my devotion my risking my life without a second thought at every any given opportunity. Yes there is a form of obsessiveness that comes with the job, where it does become a habit, but it was my life. So after trying all forms of journalism and even briefly dived into the murky world of public relations. It is when I couldn’t find answers to my questions, when I felt and lived in the dark side of journalism, when the professional mixed with the professional, that I needed to gain some perspective. What is a journalist role in society?  I had to start asking myself the five Ws and an H. Why am I still doing this job? Am I really a journalist? Or just a fraud seeking fame and accolades, does it matter that I have never being acknowledged for my dedication to the profession, who listens to my stories? What do they say about them? why am I in this profession in the first place? How have I fared? Have I been fair in my reports? Have I been balanced? How have I dealt with ethical dilemmas? Have I made a positive contribution to society with my work? Has journalism made me a better or worse person? Have I gone out of my way to tell the news as I see, without fear or favour? How have I dealt with opposition, confrontation? Am I asking the right questions?  To the  right people?  Am I independent? Am I critical? When have I done a good job? Where have I failed? The process of asking me these questions has not been an easy one, because what it meant was I had to face and deal and confront all my personal fears along with the occupational hazards of the job. In my zealous efforts to be the voice for the voiceless, I had forgotten about my own voice, about who I am  that though I truly love my job I needed to  take care of myself first and foremost  in order to continue doing a good job.  I needed debriefing, reviewing, and assessment of where I was and where I hope to go as a human being who also happened to be called to be journalists. I knew that I was called to this job, because I did it for free more than once, and have volunteer myself even when I didn’t need to because – I am my job.

Alcoholism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse, work-a- holism, anxiety and depression, even personalities disorders are just some of the many hazards of Journalism – which if they go untreated could have devastating consequences in the personal lives of  journalists. It after recognizing that I had symptoms of PTSD as result of my job that I started this blog, of course risk employability by admitting this. And this fact became real when while being interviewed for a job in a newsroom where half the staff was suffering from some symptoms of PTSD, I was told they don’t want someone with “baggage”.   I found suffered from news withdrawal symptoms, I had enxiety, I ate fast, did everything quick as if I was on all, on standby, on deadline.  I was used to the daily pressure and excitement, so didn’t know what to do without it, once I started working as a freelance journalist and work became less and less available. Who am I if not a journalist? But even my ties to the profession seemed superficial.  I have never won an award for my work or ever been publicly acknowledged for a job well done – so could never quantify my value as a journalist. So what does that mean? Am I a bad journalist? Can I base the value or merit of my work against awards received? For many years I have been vocal about how these simple matters of awards don’t matter to me and always publicly professed that they meant nothing, but I lied to myself. This fact became more prominent when my faith in journalism – because my faith was in the profession, began to wane. So you can imagine how lost I was. I had to begin a process of defining myself outside of the profession and realized that what mattered more than any award or public acknowledgement for any news story I could write was if I could sleep at night. Can I go to bed each night at peace knowing that I had done my very best, without sacrificing my ethics, values and principles? More than any award – peaceful sleep is the reward – I get at the end of the day, because it is ultimately what really matters. Can you sleep at night?

An unexpected award I have earned for my work as a journalism is one I value more now more than ever, for me it is equivalent to a Pulitzer: The opportunity, time and freedom to define myself for myself, the freedom to write my own story, to choose my own angle, to be the voice for the only person who has remained silent in the past ten or so years – Myself the journalist. I love my job and am thankful for the privileged position that I occupy in society because of three simple words: I am a journalist. I understand now more than ever the enormous responsibility that comes with this job, more especially today where anyone with a camera and access to the internet and social media can be called a journalist. There is untold value in education so that journalists understand why we do what we do.  It is only the in years and years of being a practitioner of  journalism that I appreciate just how important it is for journalist to be fully literate in their chosen profession, to not only blindly ask the questions, but understand why and how to ask a question to whom, under what circumstances.  It is only now that the honey moon is over, now that I lived through the whirlwind romance and has had my heartbroken not only once but many times by this lover of mine that I can commit to a lifelong marriage. In truth, I am more qualified now, today to call myself a journalist that in all the years I was working as a journalist.

Journalism is my calling. Storytelling is a gift no one can take away from me. I promise to never stop asking, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How for as long as I shall live. So help me God.

The Second Sex: “Editor calls for A Skills Audit for SA’s Journalists”

The Second Sex At work. Jedi Ramalapa 2008. Spoof. pic by Candice Klein

The Second Sex At work. Jedi Ramalapa 2008. Spoof. pic by Candice Klein

03 October 2013.   After reading Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal feminist book, The Second Sex, I was quite dumbfounded; unable to find a way of condensing the book into a summarized book review.  The book brought up so many issues for me – in-fact all of the issues that I have been grappling with as a girl, teenager, young adult to a fully grown woman who is still fighting to resolve personal yet universal issues relating to all spheres of human life from my relationship with my parents to my sexuality, reproductive health, work, vocation and  motherhood in an effort to emerge with an identity which is uniquely mine and not informed by others – though it is – from others that I can define myself. I found myself to be a textbook case of a woman in all the respects which de Beauvoir analyses.  Yes I did think to myself that why hadn’t I read the book before? Maybe I could have “avoided” some unfortunate decisions and situations that I put myself in over the years. But I also realized that it is all those experiences that have shaped  who I am, and made me very receptive to  the heady reality  being a woman.

My life experiences have helped me understand the book  – to see myself, read of me and my personal development  in black and white. I am her – the woman she rips apart who “pretends to work, who is looking for prince charming, who still yearns to be loved, to be found sexy, intelligent, extraordinary, a little girl searching for her father’s approval, who lacks focus, who keeps looking back”, ” a good reporter, a person who can do “honourable” but not enough work to change the world in any pulitzer prize winning way, the woman who can’t lose herself in her projects, a self-obsessed woman, emotional, irrational and impetuous, the weakling”.  It was sobering to view myself in men’s eyes.  For a book that was written decades ago it’s quite an accomplishment. I would recommend it as a Bible for Women, a reference  to understanding yourself  and the world you occupy, which regardless of time  and advances in women empowerment throughout history still remains the same.

“SHE is not READY”

 I was recently in conversation with a woman political editor for a leading daily newspaper in the country whose identity I will not reveal as she spoke to me off the record. The conversation was about a documentary I am making on Women Journalist in South Africa and beyond. She was more than ready to speak her mind and share her experiences.  Just as I had to be “ready”  to read “The second Sex” one has to be ready to hear the truth in order for it to be of any value to the individual and society in general. She told me that men are still the “custodians” of women empowerment in newsrooms across the country. “ I am where I am today because of men” she said. “Men are the ones who promote women to positions of authority, men are the ones who decide  on who is ready  to  move up and assume more responsibilities in the newsrooms.”

“I am lucky that I have had men in my life who had confidence in my abilities as a journalist, who groomed me and gave me the space to grow and be where I am today. But its the same is not true for many women journalists in South Africa.” “Men in editorial positions have no interest in empowering women or transferring skills to others more especially women, it is all about them and they look after their own interests” She added.

As for me I can’t count the many times I was told I was “not ready” until I began believing that I could never be  ready for anything. Until one day I couldn’t keep this woman inside me locked up in the cages defined by other men and women. Until I decided that I was going to do it whether (I) they believed it or not. I have paid dearly for that  bravery. Still paying.

There are many misconceptions (rumours-murmurs) in the media about  how women political journalist especially get their stories.  Many people think and often assume as fact that when a woman journalists breaks a political story or has access to a particular politician they must have slept their way (had sex with a man) to the”top”. Women are often accused of using their femininity (in dress or behavior) to get stories, information or get ahead in their profession, or inversely, they are accused of being too manly, too angry, and too stubborn to justify why they have not been promoted or why they have been overlooked.

“I’ve never exchanged sex for a story or money” She said passionately. “We get our stories the same way as men do. We call and are persistent, until we get the answers” But  patriarchal attitudes runs so deep, that even when male politicians or media personalities get calls late at night from female journalists  they often make comments such as “ it’s late I am at home, with my wife and children, what i you doing calling me at night? do you “want” me” She says that makes  their job harder. “If it’s a male journalist calling they answer regardless of the hour of the night but if its a woman suddenly it becomes  about sex and not about the job”.

“I think we should have a roundtable to discuss this. We as women political editors and journalist must talk frankly about what goes on in the newsroom.

Women generally have to work twice as hard as men to get the same level of respect and recognition and pay as men in similar positions. ” Men look out for each other support each other” she said. I asked her if she as a political editor is doing anything to empower younger women journalist. She answered that she tries, but she’s too busy doing her job and her senior bosses’ job, who regularly drops the ball and expects her to pick up his work in addition to her own daily responsibilities  as a political editor of the paper, and a journalist. “As you know as a journalist you’re only as good as your last story, so I have to keep writing” she added, glancing at her phone and asking for the bill to move to her next appointment.  But she emphasized before leaving that “we need a skills audit” to assess who is better qualified between male and female journalists in South Africa. “Yes, let’s call for national skills audit and see who is better (more) qualified to hold higher positions in the media that should clear things up”

The last time a national skills Audit in Journalism was done in the country was in 2002. The report was commissioned by the South African National Editors Forum, SANEF, which is still made up largely of male editors.  The bottom line there was – it was still harder for women to break-through the proverbial glass ceiling and more work needs to be done to “empower women” to higher positions. Basically women or women journalist in this case lack self-esteem, and will use “trickery’ or their sexuality to go up the ladder when all else fails.

That conversation left me wondering – will SHE ever be READY?

The Second Sex – Read it.

More ZEN less PH0BIA

 

Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008

Anti- Xenophobia Protest March 27 May 2008

11.  May. That date brings so many memories. I recall them today because it was a day of paradoxes which I am now only aware of ironically in hindsight.  The 11th of May 2008 was a day of new beginnings, a day of some kind of a fresh start. I walked into the walls of the largest Buddhist temple in Africa, dehydrated, hoping to come out refreshed, energized and ready to live a peaceful life. We  ( I and three others) were going to spend a weekend in silent meditation…connecting with our inner chi and though we were not disciplined enough  not go out the night before we still made it against all odds, half way on a Saturday the 11th of May 2008.

It was a meaningful occasion, especially for me  because I had attended high school just a street away from where the majestic temple now stands, oddly isolated from the once sleepy town of Bronkhorspruit. You can see it on the highway from Pretoria to Witbank.   Back then when I was 13,  learning Badminton, practicing Kung-fu and reading Miles Munroes’ in Pursuit of Purpose between selling pies at break time,  sweeping mounds of hair from my mothers Hair Salon, watching the Lion King and having “debates” about the existence of God, race  and Homosexuality with my class mates… the temple  whose foundations were still being dug seemed like a faraway dream. Like something that would probably never happen. Or even if it did my choice of faith would prohibit me from walking through those gates.  But in May 2008 I drove through Nan-hua Temple with Chris  and Black Panther (my car) two of my then best friends.

One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane  Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.

One of the T-shirts we made. With Christiane Dankbar and Carole Chauvin.

 

We joined two friends Mali and Fumi? Our masters were at pains to explain that men and women were not allowed to share the same room. A rule which was for once,  all in our favour. We couldn’t have wished it otherwise.  Our first lesson after lunch was learning how to plan and be prepared  for life by learning the art of  making tea.  Then we did Tai Chi, Kung fu stretches , walking, sleeping, eating meditation, we practiced being grateful for everything, between bites  of noodles and greens and suppressed pious laughter…..shhhhh…silence was encouraged.  It was beautiful. On Sunday we bought music to keep meditating on the  way back to the busy buzz of the city of gold.  We were floating on repeated chimes of the Chinese flute and violins when at the petrol station; Mali leaned on black panther and said d through the window “You guys are busy meditating while Johannesburg is burning!” I had never heard anyone say that before “Johannesburg is Burning” what do you mean? We asked perplexed as if waking from deep sleep. Turn on the radio, it’s on the news.  I immediately switched to SAfm, and heard the shocking news that there had been wide-spread  violent attacks on foreign nationals in the city center, some people were dead some injured, shops had been looted it was just mayhem.  I called my boss to ask if they needed extra hands. He said it was fine they had it covered. What was covered? But by the next morning I was walking through the deserted streets of Jeppe’s town on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s city CBD… trying to piece together some kind of a story a sequence of events. Who – What – When – Where – How and Why? The streets were eerily empty… the shops abandoned… broken glass, black soot, the only sign of violence…. shop owners gingerly trying to salvage what remained  of the weekends’ carnage”.

On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand made more than 20 - and gave them away for free.

On of the T-Shirts in the Making. We hand-made more than 20 – and gave them away for free.

A far and distant  memory seeps to the surface like a mirage…. one day in Bronkhorspruit we woke up to news of a terrorist attack… the Indian shopping center had been bombed…. there were TV news journalists asking people questions. Did you see anything. I wanted to see. I was a street trader, selling hair clips, lipstick and nail polish( it helps grow your nails, makes them strong) A better option for me compared to knocking on people’s homes  like Jehovah’ Witnesses.  I had to go to the loo near where the bombs had exploded… I didn’t bargain on a platform of pit-toilets and large half-naked women balancing precariously between the dark manholes…with yellow water falling from even darker hidden places. But I saw the damage… and heard the word.  Terrorism. The market was busy, teeming with people  who continued to shop as if nothing happened.    The last time I had been in a deserted town  in a place where clothes, money and possessions lost all their value… where people left everything behind was…. was in the Hot Summer of June 2006 in Lebanon.

But the  xenophobic violence quickly spread across the country… like wild fire and became daily headline news.  The police were becoming desperate to find the ‘criminal”,” third force” element that was quote unquote responsible for the violence. They had a list of names and were now knocking on doors, shacks, banging them down,  barking “where is so and so? we’re told he lives here? Are you hiding him? I don’t know who you’re talking about . A woman would respond  peering fearfully through a corrugated iron door “Hhey mama, we know he lives here”….. “mkhiphe” take him out… where did you buy this TV, this DVD? You steal? Where are the slips?  All of it sounded too familiar, so close to me…. I know a time like that in my life…. Years ago…somewhere in Orlando West Soweto  on the kitchen table… my uncle Thente was getting a  Tjambok’s  hiding – a lesser punishment for whatever crime he was    at the time, white soldiers in full army uniform stood around our   faded green enamel  kitchen table. My  great-aunt watched on helplessly as he flinched and groaned with every lash, his lips and eyes blood-shot. Do you Know him? What would I have said peeping through my bedroom door.  He died a few years later. But not before teaching me how to draw, and introducing me to the joys of eating ‘is’khokho’.

The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.

The front-lline. Anti-Xenophobia Protest march, Johannesburg, South Africa.

“black bags meant for  garbage are prized possessions here” was the line my colleague Sherwin  and I  used to open  our radio story on scores of refugees returning to their countries of birth following the aftermath of the Xenophobic attacks.  “You hesitate when you ask questions” he says to me taking the microphone and showing me how it’s done.  I was overwhelmed.  I spoke to refugee after refugee…. I spent days on the side of the road…. In Lindela  …. In the corridors of the Methodist church in downtown Johannesburg. None of it made sense.  We Printed T-shirts. We marched in solidarity.  Slept behind bars.  Appeared in court.  Until someone asked – How does a victim become the perpetrator? It was just a play. The line. I knew then that the events of 11th May 2008/2007/6/2004/1993 etc had changed my life. I’m still trying to find myself in the ashes of the burning man.  I just cannot believe it’s happening again.