Where exactly is SA Journalism headed?

Thought Leader

October is media freedom month in South Africa. Today and next week we will run a series of articles by prominent journalists reflecting on the state of our profession. Can we claim to be developing a truly South African Journalism? And what exactly is that?

Five journalists sit around a rosewood table. Passionately they express the concerns of millions of South Africans. How do we revive the values that defined our struggle for democracy?

“I don’t know if it’s just that I’m older and that’s why I’m having a problem… because things are so different,” says Zubeida Jaffer whose combination of journalism and activism led to imprisonment in the Eighties.

So what is the problem with journalism in South Africa in the 21st Century and what is so different nowadays? Is there something we can call South Africa African journalism?

For the right to gather freely round a 2014 boardroom table on a sunny Sunday morning, the group faced jail, detention and torture in the old days. Mathatha Tsedu, Shepi Mati, Moegsien Williams, Zubeida Jaffer and myself are from that generation who lived through a different time. Now we have drawn up a manifesto in the making to tackle a whole new set of problems standing in the way of democracy.

“Why is there such discomfort amongst journalists who for many years have worked fiercely and passionately to achieve the establishment of a free, non-racial democratic South Africa? Why is there a sense that the voices that dominate our professional life are sometimes jarring and somehow are at odds with understandings felt in the gut?” says Jaffer, publisher of two websites and Writer-in-residence at the University of the Free State.

She presents a position paper that sets the ball rolling. For half a day everyone discuss a range of serious problems. Issues that impact on our constitutional rights. If the media are not doing their job fully, the citizens are misinformed. If we can’t make informed choices we don’t have a real democracy.

Mathatha Tsedu, Zubeida Jaffer, Moegsien Williams & Shepi Mati

Mathatha Tsedu, Zubeida Jaffer, Moegsien Williams & Shepi Mati

So where did the profession veer off from earlier understandings of the role of the journalist in society?
“We were in too big a hurry to normalise, to create non-racial structures. In the process we forgot our history and neglected to take the ethos of the past into the new South Africa,” says New Age Editor Moegsien Williams, always the soft voice of reason.

The discomfort journalists feel flows from working to a set of rules that do not allow everyone to be true to themselves. It also flows from allowing a minority approach to dominate the craft.

Zubeida Jaffer

Zubeida says much of our problems stem from the fact that we have not yet written our own account of our history. Too many who were not there in the thick of things have been our interlocutors. In her usual straight talk, she goes even further:

“It seems to be OK to say and write just anything. It doesn’t matter if we treat our audiences as if they’re idiots.”

Moegsien Williams, who is also Editor-in-Chief of the ANN7 Africa TV News Network, says one of the root causes of the problems is the pace of modern news gathering:

“How do you keep track of what goes out on all platforms? Editors have to create a milieu, a set of parameters to ensure a certain standard. But how is the next generation of editors influencing this milieu? Are they informed enough? Do they know where we are headed as a society? Black editors have become disengaged.”

“People have become individuals who just go to work, knock off and go home,” says Mathatha Tsedu, former newspaper editor and media trainer who led the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF) for a number of years. “I grew up with a need to belong. The new generation does not have that.”

The Journalist Project Directors, Shepi Mati and Zubeida Jaffer

The Journalist Project Directors, Shepi Mati and Zubeida Jaffer

Halfway through the day the R word lands with a thud on the rosewood table, with the slanting sun making smart pin stripes through the office park blinds.

“The proposition here is for a Revolution. Let’s call for a Revolution. The problem is huge,” says Mathatha Tsedu who is now the SANEF Executive Director.

An extensive SANEF skills audit of the media in South Africa has identified a serious lack of basic skills (general knowledge and language skills for instance), ignorance of media ethics and media law as well as a range of problematic management issues. See full report here.

But where do we, the small group around the table, start to right the wrongs? Start at the beginning suggests Mathatha: “There are gaps in our history. It’s about filling in the gaps. History has to be rewritten. We are saying we want to get all South African journalists to reconsider the parameters of the profession.”

Says Moegsien: “Don’t underestimate the depth of the knowledge gaps. It’s staggering! We can begin to educate journalists by providing a context.”

Says Zubeida: “We have to be strategic in addressing the gap. We’re going to start by slowly building up over time a context and history of major issues. We cannot blame young journalists for not knowing the historical context. They are not getting it at the universities nor are they getting it in the newsrooms. We have to create a knowledge bank that records institutional memory.”

The Journalist, published by Zubeida Jaffer and launched in August this year, is more than a website. It’s also an online resource for working professionals and journalism students to strengthen the craft in Southern Africa and across our Continent. The website will stimulate debate and understanding in strategically chosen, critical areas.

Here is an extract from Zubeida Jaffer’s Position Paper”

THE JOURNALIST will showcase the pioneers of South African journalism. Instead of writing the history of the profession from a colonial point of view defining everyone else as other, this history will be written from a South African point of view.

If we are to be truly free, our professions have to conduct themselves by agreed rules. The Constitution is the overarching set of rules that we all live by. But what rules must be developed professionally to truly express the intent of the Constitution? Why should journalism give us the right to further abuse the psyche of our people?

The discomfort that journalists feel presently surely flows from working to a set of rules that do not allow everyone to be true to themselves. It also flows from allowing a minority approach to dominate the craft. True freedom will come when all of us feel that we can express exactly how we feel without being treated with disdain in professional circles. How can this be achieved? As a profession we did not pause then and consider carefully where we wanted to be in 20 years. We were swept up by political changes and transformation of the mainstream media in the hope that representivity would express a broad South Africaness.

Change not only brought racial diversity, but it also coincided with a shift from a straight English liberal model to an Anglo-American model sucking South African professionals into a way of doing journalism that coalesced with imposing one standard journalism practice in the world. Journalist students at universities are trained within this model and little critical thought is given to whether or not this is suited to South African conditions. Growing globalisation has removed from our minds any thought of what lays at the core of our practice.

It is perhaps appropriate to take this 20th year as a benchmark and assess where we are as a profession. What have we achieved and where have we gone wrong?

The last time I sat around with these media ‘midwives’ birthing projects the babies included the Grassroots and South publications as well as the Writers Association of South Africa (WASA) which became the Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA). No office park blinds or snazzy rosewood tables then but the impact was historic. Now they have joined forces to enter the ring once more. The Revolution has come full circle you might say.

Please join the discussion. These are all points for debate and not cast in stone.