Inevitable Change: Things fall apart or nostalgia?

Kaiser Nyatsumba with a little help from Teddy Pendergrass

In our Media Freedom Month special focus we have asked several prominent South Africans to write about the status of journalism and where we are headed as a profession. Kaiser Nyatsumba, former newspaper editor and CEO of the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA), argues that struggle journalists should get over themselves.

Although it is certainly among the most beautiful things, growing up, just like everything else, is often experienced differently by people. There are those who embrace and celebrate it fully and enthusiastically, even as they occasionally turn to cast a glance on the past, if only to make the inevitable comparisons between then and now. Others, however, may perhaps have too strong a yearning for a bygone, glorious past that, in the process, they may not succeed as well to celebrate the present. Instead, the latter group may be in danger of spending too much of its valuable time bemoaning just how much things have changed today from their golden era.

TEddy Pendergrass

TEddy Pendergrass

The late, gravelly-voiced American musician Teddy Pendergrass (TP) remains one of my best singers of all time. I was as much into his music during my youth as I am now, even though I have since moved on to embrace other similarly-talented love crooners like the also-late Luther Vandross, R Kelly and a few others. Among TP’s rich songs, “In My Time” is one of my favourites.

Clearly a song sung by a man who, at the time that he composed it, had been around the block for quite a while, the song tells of the experiences that he has had in love, such as they were – and then goes on to profess that he has never loved as much as he did at the time of writing the song. It is worth quoting the relevant stanzas verbatim:

In my time
I’ve lived and loved so much
Through each high and low
I let my heart be touched

In my time
There isn’t much I’ve missed
I’ve seen love come and go, but heaven knows
I’ve never loved like this in my time

Inevitably, change is one of the most difficult things to accept, if not the most difficult. Naturally, we all deal with it differently. However, that should never take away the need for us to reflect, on an ongoing basis, about where we are today as a people and whence we have come, and about the values and social mores in vogue today compared to those that held sway during “our times”.

Well, what are we dealing with in this case? Let us sketch the context. Twenty years into our democracy, in June 2014, five veteran black journalists – among them Moegsien Williams, Mathatha Tsedu, Sylvia Vollenhoven and Zubeida Jaffer – get together to discuss – nay, bemoan – the state of journalism in South Africa today.

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn between now and then, and there are no prizes for guessing that “in my time” things were very different and much better. For a start, say our revered veterans, journalists then had a sense of purpose; they understood the times in which they lived and struggled – and were imprisoned – for democracy, and they had a much better sense of the country’s historical context.

Although this is a bit of a simplification, nevertheless it contains the essence of our veterans’ views.

And what is the state of journalism in present-day South Africa? Our veterans tell us that the noble profession has fallen on hard times, practised as it is by generally younger people given to sensationalism and who buy too readily into the predominant thinking of the day that our democratic Government and its noble leaders are evil personified. Concern is also raised about the general lack of knowledge and context (“the depth of the knowledge gaps”) among the young reporters and their unfortunate approach to so honourable a calling as simply yet another job.

This, too, is a bit of simplification, but it also contains the essence of our veteran journalists’ views on the state of journalism in a democratic South Africa.

As always, the truth lies neatly between the two extremes. To start with, it should be pointed out that our five veterans were “struggle journalists” – as, indeed, the times required. It could not have been any other way, given the fact that the mere act of telling the truth in apartheid South Africa constituted a crime. Needless to say, that got worse when the truth in question happened to be “black truth” or about the despicable conditions under which black people lived in the country of their birth. Our veterans, therefore, belong neatly to the school that the late Sam Mabe described in 1988 as “guerrillas in enemy camp”.

Secondly, media work for that generation of journalists was a calling, and not a profession. After all, a profession has a set of rules by which those who practise it have to operate at all times, while generally a calling permits the use of any means to accomplish the desired goal. During the 1970s and 1980s, when our veterans were among the primary recorders of black life in South Africa, the number of blacks who had studied journalism as a profession at, say, a technikon or a university could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Personally, I can think only of the late Aggrey Klaaste.

It was not until the late 1980s and the 1990s that South Africa’s media had in their ranks a growing number of black graduates. While by and large the latter group shared the philosophy and maybe even the methodologies of those who had gone before them, it is also true that there were subtle differences in their approach to their work. That included a greater sense of balance – as in non-partisanship – and a greater independence of thought.

Yes, there are slight differences between the way that journalism is practised in South Africa today and the way that it was practised, say, during my years (“in my time”) as a journalist. As far as I am concerned, most of those differences were inevitable and are a reflection of the times in which we live, just as our journalism was a reflection of the times in which we lived. Things are no longer as clear cut today as they once were: some of yesterday’s heroes and liberators have since gone on to be no more than a replica of the politicians that we had decried in other parts of the world, especially on our own continent, in bygone years.

Therefore, of necessity the situation calls for a greater sense of independence now than it ever did in the past. For me, the biggest disappointment lies in the fact that, more than a decade since I left journalism, many newspapers still report the news as though they were still the primary sources of breaking news for people, when that is far from being the case. In my view, the media today need more expertise and analyses to help people to understand why things happened the way that they did and what their possible implications are.

Thirdly, the entry of tabloid journalism in South Africa in the 1990s has been largely responsible for the relaxation of standards and the poor image that the profession has today. Regrettably, tabloids all over the world feed on gossip and sensationalism, hence the situation in South Africa will not be different.

I think that the exercise by our veteran journalists served an important purpose and I commend their decision to launch The Journalist as a forum for critical and scholarly debates on journalism. There is a lot that can be done to reinforce ethics and a sense of independence of mind, but more than that I do not believe is possible.