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 Story Behind the story….

Home sweet  Home: A girl child arriving home (sky) from school

Home sweet Home: A girl child arriving home (sky) from school

2013-08-24. Ten years ago, South Africa marked ten years since non-racial democratic elections and rule in the country. In a continental context South Africa was the last country to be liberated in all of Africa, and in 2004 we celebrated 10 years of independence.  In light of this we were assigned to do feature radio news and current affairs stories for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to mark the auspicious event.  After doing some research on Kliptown and the freedom charter, I found the name of Ma Eva Mokoka, a community worker living in old Kliptown and had a long interview with her.  A nurse and midwife, she spent her entire life in the service of the Kliptown community and surrounding townships. Women traveled far to come to her clinic. I remember that scene, driving into Kliptown, a place so markedly different from the rest of the South Western Townships (SOWETO).There were no roads, not toilets, no electricity (and then in 2004, they still used the bucket system for ablution) You had to reduce  your driving speed to about 10km  per hour by car to make way. But I hoped things would change – especially as the government was building a multimillion rand Walter siSulu Square of Remembrance. A large grey monument in honour and recognition of what Kliptown represents in the country’s political history, just two railway tracks away. South Africa’s Freedom Charter was signed there, by close to 3000, black, white, coloured and Indian activists in 1955,  it cemented a  vision and goal for a brighter future.   There was no reason to doubt governments’ intentions.   2004 was also a National Election year, and political campaigning had already begun for the third democratic elections in the country. The spirit of hope was still high.

“They promised us that things would change” She said sitting heavily in her dark dining room.  The light barely catching the darkness inside, I suddenly felt cold.  “We’re still waiting, hoping” she said.  I didn’t know then that I would return to Kliptown and to that very house, years later and long after I had forgotten about the story.

This time, though, on a very different capacity, in search of my younger brother Peace. The last time I saw him was  after I had dropped him off to live with my late great –aunt, Nomvula . Before that he had been working  with  a local and internationally acclaimed artist Tracy Rose, on a project called XHomes in March 2010, the  year of  the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. The Project was funded by the Goethe Institute. Ma Eva also passed on the next Month in April, 2010.  XHOMEs was a very interesting artistic intervention and collaboration between South African and German artists.  The idea was simple – stage artistic performances using people’s homes as venues – while they continue with their normal lives in the background regardless of who comes in when and how.  There was a trail and all visitors had their own guide walking them to the different “performance” spaces marked by the Black, Red and Orange German flag.

I later found my brother there, later in the year, at the Soweto Kliptown Youth center (SKY), living and working as a handy man, sweeping the grounds, ensuring that the yard was kept clean. He had also formed a friendship with the man who still runs the center Bob Nameng. It was to be my own Khumbul’ekhaya episode. I didn’t understand his departure and later insistence on living there even after I had located him. The truth though was that my personal living circumstances had changed and I couldn’t live with him from the time of his disappearance. A few months later, in the new year, I found a place for both of us to live. But my journey to Kliptown Youth Centre would not end there.

 

A school boy living at Sky, back from school

A school boy living at Sky, back from school

On an assignment working for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation this year, I chose it as a place to tell South Africa’s complex story. In 2013, people in old Kliptown still don’t have roads, there’s still no electricity, there are new additions though, portable communal toilets and regular rubbish pick-ups.  There’s development all around but the Old Kliptown section. But the Norwegian broadcaster was not really interested in the story behind Kliptown and I thought that maybe I can do something. What? I didn’t know since many a publication had covered the Kliptown story and my own story which was broadcast on SABC’s flagship English news and current affairs radio station SAfm, did little to influence change.  The answer came with my brother telling me that he was organizing a fund-raising event at the center, which houses at least 45 vulnerable and orphaned girls and boys, provides food to at least 200 children in and around the community every day, and also provides after school classes for small children and the youth, who are involved in extracurricular activities such as drama, dancing etc.  I decided I would stage my play LINIDIWE! There, a play  I wrote and performed last year – as a hobby, something to use up my free time and ideas. I never thought about writing a play -the story just came to me one night.   LINDIWE a name which means “The one we are waiting for” in isiZulu, is set in a newsroom studio, and follows the breaking news  story of a Kings’ search for his missing cousin who is said to hold the answer to the Kingdom’s growing problems. I see it as a universal story about politics in my own personal family life my country and continent of Africa. It’s a call for me, for us to arrive and be the change we want to see in the world. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

I spoke to Bob Nameng and he agreed for me to perform there with the help of the SKY youth.  Pictured below.

 

Bob Nameng - former street kid, now he runs SKY.

Next Saturday (the 31st of August) I’ll be there to perform for the community and I am amazed at how ironic life can be and how life becomes interesting when the personal mixes with the professional. Sometimes I look at Sky in Old Kliptown and think maybe it’s planned to be that way, a kind of XHOME project. I sometimes think sometimes that maybe there is a sinister element in this place, maybe instead of building monuments, the government has decided to leave Kliptown as is; a real-life monument to “ see how they live” type of scenario, an example of how the majority of black South Africans used live under the Apartheid regime.  Why? Because everybody, including the local government knows about Kliptown, reams of newspaper copy have been written about it, but there’s still no change. The paved strip of road for pedestrians to walk and a bridge over the railway tracks are the only changes visible since the advent of democracy. But Kliptown – despite its history – is not unique, there are many such townships, another prominent one being Alex (Alexandra Township) bordering Johannesburg’s business district Sandton, whose living conditions are worse if not identical to Kliptown.  If it is a conspiracy it is an elaborate one and an over simplification of a very complex problem of how to achieve sustainable social development. I’ve lived long enough in this country to know that Bree taxi rank, used to be a muddy strip of land with nothing, where commuters had to wait in line come rain or shine for a taxi to take them where they wanted to go. Now there’s shelter, there are toilets; traders can trade in safety from environmental elements. I am not naïve. There’s improvement in the social conditions of black people, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.   So elaborate conspiracies aside, I decided use this opportunity to be part of a solution, to live up to my name LINDIWE and do something towards inspiring positive change in the community, however small.

I also realized how important it is for me to “succeed” in my chosen profession, to move on, and not regress. How much we all need to break the cycle of poverty in whatever ways we can. A debilitating cycle of lack which my parents and Ma Eva Mokoka amongst many mothers and fathers fought (still fighting) so hard to prevent and avoid. I also need to be the change I seek in my own little world.

The Soweto Kliptown Youth foundation Ekasi Street Theater Exhibition fund-raising event is part of that initiative. It’s not often that a journalist gets an opportunity to ‘tangibly” change the problems we so often report on in our stories and though this is a long way to that change I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute – something. To raise awareness using everything I have in honour of Mam Eva’s exemplary life as a community builder, nurse and midwife.

Sky has now evolved, grown, from a once humble home and community clinic into a place where children can play, learn and get a warm meal a day.  A place, ironically, which did  what I couldn’t do, provide shelter for my brother and many others like him who found themselves, suddenly,  for whatever reason, with no place to call home.

This is my own small way of giving thanks.  Of saying Ngiyabonga!

I AM SORRY. THINGS WENT HORRIBLY WRONG.

Photojournalist. Waiting For the smoke to clear. 2012. Pic  Jedi Ramalapa

Photojournalist. Waiting For the smoke to clear. 2012. Pic Jedi Ramalapa

27-06-2013 These are highly stressful days for any journalist… in fact for most South Africans and perhaps even the world at large. Our beacon of hope, our best example of a human being Former South African President Nelson Mandela is critical in hospital. On life support. We are again at the precipice of the unknown.  We are at a point of no return. Things are changing. Any day now, any minute now we’ll get the call. Life is changing. We are indeed yet again a country in transition, we are “growing up” and regardless of how hard we try to stall, to delay, to postpone hoping and wishing – nature will and must take its course. The book I’m reading now Country of my Skull by Antjie Krog puts that fact so vividly into perspective, makes the fragility of life so ruthlessly definite, and so final.  I am beside myself with anger, with anxiety. I have been staring blankly through the window at the IT Corner – trying to finish the last couple of pages.  Tears interrupt me they stream down my face. I don’t care this time. I am so full of remorse, full of shame, maybe I feel guilty. I am angry. I don’t know what to do with myself, where to place the anger… how to package my emotions in a neatly coherent articulate English sentence that will make sense to you my dear learnerd reader. What’s worse there’s a huge  part of me feels that these “feelings” these “these moments when I feel so tender a look could shatter me, dissolve me,”  are a luxuries I cannot afford. They are Illegitimate, Bastard feelings.  There’s  no time. People before me endured and survived worse. I need strength. More courage. More wisdom.

I stand up – I am finding it incredibly challenging to finish the book. The testimonies of Apartheid atrocities worse that the holocaust. Beyond what I imagine to be humanly possible.  I am reading the Epilogue. I have been doing so well.  But I stand up and walk up the streets of Melville, Johannesburg,  once an artists preferred watering hole…

…I walk up 7th Street and each ever-changing establishments brings back memories…as if it was yesterday, Mojitos at Six the ever popular cocktail bar, dinners with friends at what used to the  Asian restaurant –SOI- now dark and empty, nights spent talking nonsense or watching soccer at former Wish, Spiro’s, Now Poppy’s…prawns I devoured with friends at the now vacant Portuguese fish market, which used to be Full Stop where we used to have breakfast.  I remember potato skins and cheese at Xai Xai, laughing over Oliver Mtukudzi lament on repeat  “ I’m feeling low I feeling low, help me lord I’m feeling low” ahead of a night spent jumping   and spinning to Drum ‘n Base in Transkei which used to be  home to the  famed Jazz establishment the  Baseline… now it’s on its way to becoming something else again. The vacant image of 7th street stings and suddenly I feel this emptiness growing  in my heart … new owners announce their imminent arrival on a few still  vacant shops…but that does not fill my heart with hope…I don’t know what I should put in this gaping hole in my heart..

There’s a soundtrack for this moment in life. It’s Hometown Glory by Adel.

 I’ve been walking in the same way as I did

And missing out the cracks in the pavement

And tutting my heel and strutting my feet

“Is there anything I can do for you dear? Is there anyone I could call?

No, and thank you, please madam, I ain’t lost, just wandering”

 

Round my hometown, memories are fresh

Round my hometown, ooh, the people I’ve met

Are the wonders of my world, are the wonders of my world

Are the wonders of this world, are the wonders and now

I go to the corner café on 7th and 2nd Avenue, thankfully it still exists but like so many business in Melville it’s also under new management.  In a quivering voice I ask for a single Stuyvesant Blue, my first cigarette in over two months. I know it won’t change anything now but I want to smoke it. I smoke it slowly as I walk back down I watch as new hiply-weaved young people spill out and smoke coolly on the pavements of what used to be PHAT JOE’s studios. – I choke on mine  and put it out.   I really could use a glass of the most crimson Pinotage.  I understand religion, I understand the need to hold on to a ritual a cleansing, a practice,  a fellowship, a heaven, a happily ever after, to be born again, to be absolved, forgiven – Since I can’t even trust myself to quit smoking, keep a roof over my head, or a job, be a functional human being, have friends, stay in a relationship, have children, build my own family. Take care of something. Someone. People who cannot do that are not trustworthy. Does not matter about your Politics. Be optimistic; be balanced, mature. Be responsible, accountable. Make something of yourself for god’s sake…  Me too really I want to be happy like Lira. Or at the very least content,  grateful, Thankful.  I feel more ashamed. What will it take?

Eyewitness news reporter Alex Aleesive is receiving kudos from a fellow colleague and new author Mandy Wiener  at Talk radio 702 for writing a great piece on the legacy of Mandela, he quotes veteran journalist Max du Preez – The face of the Truth and Reconciliation reports at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) back in the day.  “Mandela is living proof that good can triumph over evil” He is moved by Madiba’s  supernatural ability to just be human.  I can’t stop myself from crying. I think maybe I’m jealous.  I’m young, black and still not qualified to tell the story of our struggle, not free to tell it as I see it.  Sorry that position has been filled.  We had more qualified applicants. You seem to have a problem with commitment.   I am still waiting for so and so to “come back to me”.  Thank you.  But I know for sure it’s way deeper than that.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (Photo credit: Festival Karsh Ottawa)

Instinctively, intuitively  I feel like Madibas daughter, his grandchild, his great-grand daughter – I feel like one of his off-spring who have  been pleading, begging asking the Media and the world  to back off a while they spend this crucial time with their father – who was never theirs to begin with. I want to say wait. Shut up. Don’t interpret my words, don’t put them another way. Don’t tell me how to feel; don’t translate, don’t tell me what to say and how to say it. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t be angry –just for once back off. Don’t tell me how things should be done,  don’t tell me how to be civil, don’t tell me what you think Ubuntu is,  don’t outline to me what’s  appropriate or inappropriate to do at this time, don’t try and analyze me, understand me,  Don’t pretend to know me or to “get” me. Don’t educate me. You’ve spoken for me for long enough. You’ve twisted my story, my history, my culture, my being for long enough. You’ve spoken for, about and over me for long enough.  Just don’t tell me how to behave, don’t mediate,  don’t HELP! Just Stand back for once, don’t take this moment from me, and make it yours, don’t force me to feel sorry for your pain once again.  Don’t try to fit me us him into your ideas of what makes you the better man or human.  Don’t taint this time with your pity, empathy or admiration. It’s not about you.  Please don’t interfere, don’t try and fit this moment in your very busy schedule, your plan… don’t speed it up or slow it down, just let it be what it is. Its importants. Don’t steal it, make me pay for it, work for it, earn it. Don’t ask me how I feel. Today that is none of your business. I want to be left with my nearest and dearest as we  spend time with “our father” to share sweet nothing moments, – for as long as it takes – to exchange  sacred secretes, moments, to hear “Things went horribly wrong, and for that I’m sorry.” To  Say “I’m sorry too Tata. So – so sorry for making my happiness, our happiness, your sole responsibility.  We cannot ask for more. Thank you. I love you”

What Marikana Meant for Me.

write now.

write now.

In The Public Interest

I wrote this for Press Freedom Day recently.  Working on the Marikana story revealed how important it is that we get counselling and psychological help for people experiencing trauma (the widow I interviewed specifically asked for some kind of psychological counselling) it also revealed to me that though I was empathetic and wanted to help I could not help her since I needed counselling myself. I did try though. She was suicidal.

It’s not a classic Censorship Story.

By Jedi Ramalapa.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation( SABC) broadcasts news and current affairs daily to more than 48 million South Africans, through 18 radio stations in all the 11 official languages, including Swahili and French through Channel Africa. The public broadcaster has  three television channels which can be accessed  and are available  in the remotest parts of the country.   It is more powerful than any of the broadcasters put together in swaying public opinion and more importantly winning votes.  Having control over the “public broadcaster” is having control of the country.  Business and Politicians understand this fact all too well.  As long as it’s not on SABC, it can’t be completely true. It is a powerful machine which has consistantly made vulnerable to grave abuse.

I think I only realized a moment after they walked outof the editing studio just what had happened.  I was busy editing an interview with one of the Marikana widows, whose husband was killed along with 50 or so other mine workers on the 16th of August.  It was the kind of interview I had done a thousand times before, speaking to grieving relatives about their loved ones. It was in my opinion nothing out of the ordinary nor controversial.

But this time and for the first time in a 12 and a half-year public broadcasting career,  at the South African Broadcasting Corporation,   they asked to listen to the final cut of the interview which we planned to air later that day.   They listened as the widow spoke of her grief and her anger. “I blame the government, the police, the unions and Lonmin for what happened” she said on tape.   Play that again, said the executive producers. They listened and said cut out that part.  Which part I asked? Like a naïve little girl. That part where she says “I blame the government, the unions, the police and Lonmin for what happened”. Why I asked. “Because there’s no one to blame, we don’t know who is responsible and we just don’t want to have to deal with questions.” What questions I asked myself in disbelief thinking that even in her grief the widow had managed to be “impartial” in apportioning blame to everyone involved in the Marikana massacre, not many people were able to do that.  But I couldn’t fight it. I had woken this woman up at 6am to do the interview, which had taken me at least three days and a string of phone-calls to convince her to speak to me.  We cried together during the interview in which I tried to convince her that life was still worth living. She had trusted me with her heart.  I was not going to let her down.  So I did as I was told and cut out the offending parts like a surgeon saving a life.

The widow had been censored in the most subtle of ways, by omission and not only was I not prepared for it, I was a part of it an accomplice.   Even today I don’t know who to blame for that moment in my life, myself for doing the interview in the first place? Or for failing to defend her / my work when I was told to cut out certain parts? I don’t know.   But I am writing this to honour the Marikana Widow who in a moment of great loss and pain managed to do what I and Public Broadcaster failed to do, speak truth to power and remain impartial.