A MILLION WAYS TO LIVE: WRITE HARD, DIE FREE

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This weeks’ blog post features a story by journalist, editor and writer Clinton Nagoor. My former colleague, editor and boss. We’ve worked together for the greatest part of my career as journalist. He never seized to challenge me to come up with more creative ways to tell a compelling story, to write well and to write stories that matter and have an impact. He’s pushed me to do better and inspired me to be a better storyteller and I have admired his ability to remain so positive and focused in a profession that can sometimes  be brutally unforgiving. In many ways he has been my mentor and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him. Last week he moved me. Here’s why:

WRITE HARD, DIE FREE by Clinton Nagoor

I used to be a crime reporter. That first murder scene. I can’t recall her name. But she was eight-years-old and still in her white school dress. She lay in the gutter of a park known as Strawberry Fields. She lay there next to the swings and merry-go-round. Her shoes kicked off-her panties scrunched and thrown beside her. Head turned to one side, her knees slightly drawn up- almost asleep-like. But she had been raped. Then strangled with surgical tubing. Raped and murdered at eight. And left there in the gutter of a child’s playground. It was the early 90s in KZN so I attended many more crime scenes. Massacres where families were shot and their bodies set alight, suicide by gunshot, robberies gone wrong, gone right, death by friends, by serial killers and customers. Political violence and tribal violence. A violent death is an ugly thing. The last crime scene. July 28th 2003. It was a Monday. The house was empty when I got there. There was bloody handprints as I walked up the stairway to the first floor. I noticed blood on the panic button and the alarm panel. A great pool of dark cloying blood on the kitchen floor. Lots of bloody marks in the corridor leading to it. I didn’t look intently but there was enough to burn in my memory. The police docket, witness statements and picture book told a story. The home panic button had been set off sometime in the night. Security guards came to the house but no one answered and everything seemed to be in order. So they left. The alarm went off again. This time they returned with policemen. At the back of the house through the kitchen window they could see a man lying on the floor He was not responsive to their calls so they went in. One of the constables says in his statement that the male victim’s fingers were still twitching. But by the time paramedics arrived there had been lots of blood loss. He was declared dead on scene. The post-mortem will show a massive blunt force trauma to the back of his head. Several stab wounds to his face and upper body. I remember everything about this scene of murder. The man was a 60-year-old who had celebrated his birthday on April 18th with friends and family. He was a printer by trade. Ink dyed into his finger tips. A lifetime of work to raise his sons. He never met his grandkids. Never got to play with them. Nor regale them with childhood stories or teach them to kick a ball. I remember everything about that last crime scene of mine. His name was Larry. But I called him Daddy.

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THE FIXER: DAY-UNKNOWN

The second coming?
The second coming?

“It’s always impossible until its done” Nelson Mandela

A DAY OF PRAYER AND REFLECTION.

ON SUNDAY – I was at the most famous church in Soweto, Regina Mundi where activists organized, held meetings prayed and were attacked by apartheid police during the 1970s, 80s and 90s The Church has to be rebuilt after it was completely destroyed by Apartheid police in pursuit of comrades. The service was e presided over by Bishop Sebastian Rousow. I spent most of my time outside, catching up with old friends and scouting out potential interviews for my clients . Trying to find the  right people for my people to speak to everyone has a story to tell, everyone’s story is important, but finding the right one out of billions is a skill.  While waiting outside I met tata Patrick, now a very old man. He tells me he has lived in  Rockville  Soweto since 1962, he was part of the Soweto Action Group Committee which was set up following the banning of all non-white political parties in South African, notably the  ANC and PAC.  He tells me with a faraway that police used to stand right where all the media cameras are, surround the church and shoot at people coming out of the church. He was even there when it was built. I can smell the whiff of stale alcohol on his breath. But he tells me that Mandela is a great man. A great tree has fallen he says. If you go to freedom Park which just behind the church you will see there are 95 indigenous trees which have been planted in honour of Mandela each year on his birthday the 18th of July. His son says each time he walks past those trees they represent freedom for him. Long Live they both say. But no one bothers to speak to Patrick. His old and rugged. The media crisscrossed past them waiting for the “big” political and international personalities. There are rumours that Winnie-Madikizela-Mandela might show up at the church, but the rumours are later proven untrue. I also meet Jane Nhlapho who has lived in Rovilled since 1967, and her friend Elizabeth Gwele from Dobsonville another Township in Soweto. They both describe  how police used to frequently surround the church with caspers, mellow yellows, police and army vehicles, and shoot and throw tear-gas at activists locked up inside. Elizabeth told me that, as parents they frequented the church in search of their children, to see if they are okay, still together in one piece.  Jane lost a family member right here at the church, a brother who disappeared – last seen at Regina Mundi Church. It’s pain-full to think about. They were running halter and skelter she says. Not knowing where to go or what to do. We were not free. We had not freedom of anything, movement, speech, anything. She looks as lars tall overwhelming  Master-like figure. “Today I can stand here and speak to you like a fellow human being “she said. And that simply brings me to tears.  I think of My brother Thente.

ROOM 209 – CHIEF ALBERT SISULU FLOOR – SOWETO HOTEL

Later in the day we go to the Soweto Hotel for the NRK team to edit and file their story  of the day. I chose Soweto hotel, because of where it is and it represents with uncanny accuracy the current state of our country.  It embodies in a few kilometres the character of South Africa.  Because the contrasts in South Africa from here can’t be more jarring. Our window is face the Union Road – Shop names have changed but the buildings are still the same buildings from 1955 when more than 3000  South African of all races gathered to sign the freedom charter – a blue print for a democratic South Africa – During the darkest period in my country.

They unanimously declared:

  1. The People Shall Govern
  2. All groups shall have equal rights
  3. The figures shall share in the country’s wealth
  4. The land shall be shared among those who work in it
  5. All shall be equal before the law
  6. All shall enjoy equal human rights
  7. There shall be work and security
  8. The doors of learning and culture shall be opened file and edit and file the story of the day. I choose the Soweto hotel we go back to Soweto …
  9. There shall be houses Security and Comfort
  10. There shall be peace and friendship.

You can have all of the above in South African today. If you have money.Only.

BUT ON MONDAY

To say I’m broken would be an understatement. I am trying to be brave and say it’s okay. I’m here at the media centre as I write this. I imagine how full this room will be tomorrow frantic with journalist filing stories minute after minute, second after second, and I won’t be a part of it. I won’t even be at the FNB stadium tomorrow – because as a fixer my team does not think I should be there.get one. So I’ve been literally crying and I feel cheated somehow, except who can I tell. Except you. While noting instructions from my team Clinton my former boss walks past and say to me “where’s my script” and  it brings back old memories of being in the news room where he would say the same thing to me… it took me while to write a story.  I see Sam, waiting in line and she gives me the warmest hug and I start crying I try to walk away. Later Hajra comes and gives me a hug and says hello member of the A team. She is a sweet woman. I start crying. I leave because I’m now too emotional. “Are you OK my dear” Havard the camera–man asks me. “You seem, quite frankly – shattered” he says. I tell him I will be fine tomorrow. Yet in my heart I wonder if he wouldn’t be shattered like me if it were him in my shoes.

MEET THE FIXER

Jedi Ramalapa a South African Female journalist for 13 years. Maybe you don’t understand. I have covered Mandela stories so many times in my life and the one time it matters, not one is willing to hire me, except as a fixer. It’s maddening, I want to scream, tear off my clothes, cry, and what not. But it’s not the end of the world. I will tell my story here. As a blogger – because that will be the most authentic story I could ever tell. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to have a job – work to do , to be involved. It’s just I never thought that I would be a fixer in the biggest event of my country’s history instead of being the one telling the story.  Not even have the memento of a press tag. But life does work in mysterious ways and I have to be grateful for what I have.

They are on their way to pick me up. It’s 8:12 am South African time. We’re going to the Stadium. I’m driving them

 

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.