I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell – Coconut (2007), Kopano Matlwa
Within a few hours of picking up the book from a family friends’ impressive bookshelves, it was all over. I didn’t understand why I had been so resistant to reading it when all those years ago, I stood hiding behind bookshelves listening to Kopano Matlwa; a precocious medical student then and now qualified medical doctor, health activist, Oxford Scholar and author of three successful manuscripts (Spilt Milk, 2010 and Period Pain 2017) answer questions about her debut novel, Coconut (2007) which had also scooped the European prize for literature in 2008.
It was interesting.
Her audience at the time, composed mostly of white people with some highlights, including myself. I can’t remember everything that was being said. But I do remember watching myself watch her sitting there, a young woman just like me who had achieved more with her life than I had in my entire my lifetime. Was it jealousy? Envy? Bring her down syndrome? “It’s a day in the life of a black school girl, it takes place in a day,” she said shyly. I wanted to ask a question but I had not read the book so I let the moment pass and continued to inhale the intoxicating smell of new books. I may not be a writer nor a published author but I can, at the very least, read.
It took me a decade, 10 years to be precise to finally read the book which peaked at me from other people’s shelves as if to ask, and me? Yes, yes she’s a gifted writer I would say each time her name came up in conversation about new reads. But I had no idea what was between the books’ covers. Now I understand why it took me so long to read it from cover to cover in just four hours.
The title of the book rubbed me up the wrong way. I couldn’t get past it even though the cover clearly said; A Novel. But now that I’ve read every word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter and all its parts – since I have gone through it. I get it.
I was a victim of words; language meant a lot to me.
I had been called a coconut ( a derogatory term used to describe black-African people who could speak English fluently – i.e black on outside and white on the inside) for so long that by the time Matlwa came out shining in all her brilliance I couldn’t bring myself to purchase or read the insult. It was too much, I didn’t want to relive the experience. The word Coconut had taunted, haunted, bullied, sneered, laughed, humiliated me at every turn. She wants to be white they whispered in front of me, who do you think you are, trying to be better than us eh? they shouted behind my back.
Instead, I drifted to the academic section at the Boekehuis and picked out a much lighter read than what Matlwa offered, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952).
It’s been a rough ride.
Today most (aspirational – middle class) South Africans appreciate that fluency in English(the imperial language) does not mean that the speaker desires to be white nor does it make the person more or less African or more or less intelligent. Neither does it make them a nice, good, evil or a bad person or vice versa for African language speakers. All these appendages depend on the speaker’s individual character and their motives for speaking or not speaking said language notwithstanding the power structures or systems governing society.
A language is a tool (a means to an end, not an end in itself). It can be used for just about anything under the sun if one has the power and influence to lubricate its application. I have spoken Afrikaans with white English-speaking South Africans in the Middle-East just so that the Arabic-French- English-speaking taxi driver would not hear what we were saying. In school, we invented code languages so that we could confuse others but understand each other just for the fun of it. We pretended not to understand others so we could hear them speak freely in languages we were fluent in. So we could see or know the man behind the mask.
The more languages a person cultivates the better. Words are only as powerful as the value you place on them regardless of where they come from – of course, life is easier if one can use and understand the dominant syntax (power and ideology). But what you believe ( i.e hold dear, value or love: the philosophy you live by ) is more important than anything else.
So, I am happy to finally put this delightful, sometimes funny and discomforting story about being a black African in the world today along with its long list of relatives including but not limited to race and identity to bed.
Besides, coconut oil is all the rage for growing Afros, naturally.
Beyond the biblical definition of what love is: kind, patient, does not boast, does not think of evil, always hopes, is not self-seeking etc. I have had a serious struggle with love, loving and being loved. At times when thinking of love the words of African-American writer James Baldwin came to mind with his very sobering recognition that ‘love does not begin and end the way we think it does, love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up” or when he said, “Love takes off the masks we fear we can’t live without and know we cannot live within.”
Here, Baldwin offers a complex understanding of what love is, which contradicts the dominant popular culture or what depictions of love in mainstream media would have us believe. This type of love, Baldwins’ love calls one out, holds one accountable, forces one to face reality without rose-tinted glasses without the endorphins that rush to the head when we’re in love, obsessed and infatuated with an idea, something or someone. This love is about taking responsibility in this moment, in the now, for future generations. It is about temperance and balance, it is a sobering love.
Yet often when one thinks of love, one is not met with images of war and battles even if those people waging said wars might say they are motivated by the love of country, spouse, family member etc. The word love often conjures up images of comfort, affection, passivity and care.
Instead of love being used as a positive change agent it has become a platitude. Much like, beauty, intensely arresting, fleeting and almost always intangible.
Personally, I have struggled with knowing or identifying what true love is, when love begins, when it ends, when to recommit or when to leave a relationship or situation. I have not always known how to be both loving to myself and to another in such a way that both parties are aware or understand that the act of love is taking place. Often my struggle with love, loving and being loved has been internalized, hidden from view. At times, my words have fallen on the floor forcing me to retreat further into silence.
Now I understand Baldwins’ assertion of love being a battle and a war, to be one which a person embarks on internally. The journey to love is in effect an interior one, it is an inner conflict – a journey towards an interior conquest and domination of ones’ self, of one’s impulses. This journey is about developing self-control by voluntarily putting limitations on ones’ desires, urges, anxieties and proclivities. While the masks love removes can be very personal they also represent the ‘gods”; they are the personification of power structures in any society. Removing the masks in effect removes your dependence on them.
Speaking of race and racism in the 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro – Baldwin removes race or racism as an objective reason for misbehaviour in our society. “It’s not a racial problem,” he says ” it’s a problem of whether you are able to look at yourself, are willing to look at your life, take responsibility for it and be willing to change it”
Baldwin’s statement which personalises a systemic (structural) problem in diverse global societies might seem misguided at first, but when used to analyse a society like South Africa where Africans and or non-white people hold the seat of power – the truth emerges. Because within this framework it makes no sense to continue to blame white supremacists’ capitalist patriarchy or Apartheid structures when we are the ones who are in control. The white-supremacy-capitalist-patriarchy complex is no longer an outside enemy personified by white men and women – it is in-fact an idea which resides within- for which we have become willing and active agents. We have broken through these constructs as fact and understand them to be a metaphor. We have become representatives of what these metaphors stand for.
So, it makes no sense to continue to focus only on the Guptas or the Zumas, even the ANC as the sole progenitors of our collective malaise. Love would require us to be cognizant of reality; of what is going on, that we are also active agents in our own oppression. We, like them, have fallen victim to these external forces because we lack self-control. We are out of control. As individuals and as a nation we have voluntarily given our power away. We refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and so for this reason if it’s not Zuma, it’s the Guptas, if it’s not the Guptas it will be white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy if it’s not it will be white monopoly capital, if it’s not then it must be China, if not then it’s the third force, if it’s not the third force, it is the DA, EFF or IFP, if it’s not then it is surely the foreigners, the immigrants, the men, the women, our neighbours and then finally the ever-elusive demons.
This type of thinking allows us to remain perpetual victims; people who are incapacitated – who are always powerless against external interventions.
I think of love today and I know that I cannot claim to truly love anything or anyone if I don’t speak the truth for fear of being abandoned or isolated from it. That’s the risk one must bear as a practitioner of love. Just like a normal parent.
The Guptas may be on our stoep but we invited them in and served them whiskey or tea on the rocks.
Whether the cause of our pain comes from systemic racism fuelled by white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy or not, as individual men and women we still need to take responsibility for our roles within the system. We must recognize that we also have something to do with it. When we do we’ll find out that we have been, for the most part, hiding behind these constructs in order to continue our lives as victims of something or someone because as victims we cannot be held accountable or made responsible for anything that happens to us. Much less what we do or do not do. If we remove white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy, racism and all its appendices we find that we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We are responsible for our communities, countries and nations. We are responsible for who we are in them, and how we choose to show up. We are responsible for how we treat each other.
Part of regaining our power will be to embrace radical openness in our public and private lives. To learn or know how to hear information and think critically about it, without eliminating or silencing dissenting voices or every and any opinion that goes against the status quo. Because the more we suppress and annihilate radical opposing voices the more we will suffer as a result, this is what silencing does, it makes the problem worse. Examples of this are too numerous to list. Taking control of our personal and public lives, acknowledging our limitations and identifying our strengths; being conscious does not make us victims but equal partners at the seat of power. Because when we do that, we cease to be slaves to our own appetites, good or bad. We are not victims.
African-American cultural critic and writer bell hooks notes that we’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war. Referencing Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of a heroic journey (A Hero With a Thousand Faces) hooks says this journey is rarely a journey that’s about love, it’s about deeds that have to do with conquering and domination she adds. “Living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic, to work at love to really let yourself understand the art of loving.”
To choose to be patient, or kind. To trust, to always hope and to persevere.
Years ago I discussed a desire with friends to graffiti-bomb all the walls in Johannesburg with these words “we need to talk”. I imagined the words printed in large bold fonts everywhere on bumper stickers on cars, on posters held by the homeless, jobless, hopeless, entrepreneurs standing on street corners and traffic light intersections. Under bridges, and in huge neon signs in Hillbrow. I saw the words all over on billboards in Sandton, on the M2 Highway and all the way to OR international airport. On shop windows and kitchen doors. I wanted the message to be as loud and clear as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s World peace campaign of 1969 – in which they printed huge posters and billboards saying the “war is over – if you want it”.
I expressed this desire because I was a little frustrated with the huge elephant in the room that I kept bumping into which no one seemed to want to talk about or even name. I was restless perhaps a little frustrated. I didn’t want a confrontation, just a simple conversation, even though the words “we need to talk” have an ominous ring to them and are bound to send one into a fit of panic and anxiety. How else should one say we need to talk?
When I was sharing this desire with friends I imagined “we need to talk” as a three month long advertising campaign for my upcoming radio show in which I, as the host will talk to anyone and everyone who needs to talk about something important to them. A show similar to an appointment with a therapist, a psychologist or seeing a councillor. The guest would choose the subject to be discussed, the role of the host would be to guide the interview and give it some kind of structure from which to navigate.
A conversation with no preconceived ideas, or prejudgements. The topic under discussion will of course be of relevance to the public or be of public interest. There will be no open lines. No comments read on Twitter threads or Facebook timelines. Just one guest and their story. A radio conversation with a mystery guest and a known host. Jedi Ramalapa.
We do talk a lot as a nation, turn on any radio station or television set and you’ll hear lots of chatter and people talking about a lot of things. Yet we still ‘need to talk’ as a nation. We need more than just talking actually, we need more than just one voice talking at us, or shouting, or instructing or ‘advising’. More than just talking we need to listen as a nation. We need to hear the heart of the nation, of our grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends, neighbours, colleagues, street kids, the homeless, the home owners, tax payers, non-tax payers, the wealthy, the poor, the politicians, workers, servants, drivers, butchers, bakers, nannies, teachers and their students. No pointing fingers. No blaming. No forgone conclusions. Just a conversation.
I came to think more about this concept now that we’re going through load shedding also known as electricity or power cuts in South Africa. An how this down time, for most our electrical appliances, is an opportunity for us to do some load-shedding of a different kind. The kind one does at a confessional booth or on a sofa with a therapist.
At first I suppose as with most South African without alternative sources of energy such as a generator or gas, I was simply at a loss as to what to do in that time. If your phone or laptop is not fully charged, there’s not much else one can do but read, write or talk to someone without power. The darkness revealed so much to me about how much I had become attached to the internet, to my laptop or computer, to music playing in the background, to tea and coffee every five minutes, to filling my time with things to do, with movies on youtube and searches on google. I watched with the same fascination how lost my family members became. At first we tried to endure the darkness on our own and in our own terms. Some went straight to bed, some held on to the last green bars on their phones and tablets, others paced around looking helplessly for a miracle for the lights to come because when there is electricity, when we have power we don’t need each other so much, everyone can be absorbed in their own individual world, and individual experience on laptops, tablets or phones, television cooking and music. There’s always something to do when you have power and electricity.
After a few naps and time alone in the dark I started to use the two hours to have conversations with my sister. In the dark. We started talking and listening to each other, without the spot light, as if in a dream. We started having conversation about life and these were what I missed the most when the lights came back on. We started having candle lit dinners at home. And having conversations around the dinner table. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do in the dark, we were obliged to be with each other in ways that were not possible when the light is on. A lack of power or electricity, has brought us closer, made us more patient, and more ready to listen to another, because let’s face it it’s not fun to be alone in the dark. Amid the bad news of the economy going down, decreasing levels of productivity in the country and all the other negative side effects of power cuts, being able to have down time and talk to those near and dear, with no distractions has been a blessing.
As if Eskom once upon a time read my mind, and decided to launch my campaign pre-maturely setting a talking schedule renamed load shedding. We now have at the most 6 hours each week for quality talking time for the near future. Even though not having electricity or power is more than just annoying we can use the time to do other things that we would not do if we had the power, such as listening to the radio in our cars, listening to our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, sharing our deepest dreams, and deepest desires out of the spotlight. The benefits of talking and listening without judgments can be incredibly beneficial, life changing and freeing. It is as if the cloak of darkness somehow as in a radio show, makes it easy for one to open up outside of the constant spotlight. I for one look forward to loadsedding.
We need to hear. We need to feel. We need to understand. We need to accept. We need to move on. We need to listen. We need to talk.
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?
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
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)
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