I have been a journalist since 1975 and it has taken me until very recently to tell the most important story of all… Who am I really? This is not a question I would have dared ask at any point in my career. There was an unwritten understanding that there was no interest and no audience for the answers.
The mainstream media in South Africa has been the first defence in the bastion of lies that propped up the colonial – and sometimes even post-colonial – version of my story.
And so I began to write. For myself and my own sanity at first. Later my writing became a book and still later a theatre play called The Keeper of the Kumm. A film is also in the pipeline. Stories denied have come pouring out. The play opened to critical acclaim at the National Arts Festival and later at Artscape in Cape Town. The book, published by Tafelberg, has been launched in tandem with the dance drama.
I feel a bit like the Ancient Mariner as I go around the country telling my story over and over. Wherever I go, the response is overwhelming. Ordinary people everywhere want their stories told in their own voices, on their own terms.
It has been clear in recent times that we needed to make a transition from journalism that served a few only, to honest and credible stories that help us assess and redress the damage of the past.
This changing media environment has made great demands. In order to meet those demands it helps to look back and understand where we have been. South Africa’s media history can help us understand the effect of the upheavals of the past 20 years or so on our profession and on ourselves.
Here are some relevant extracts from my book The Keeper of the Kumm. Kumm is the word for story or account or anything told and retold in the now extinct /Xam language that adorns our coat of arms. The title hints at the importance of the story guardians among us.
In the ’70s, when I landed my first job on a newspaper, I applied for my passport immediately. Carried it to work every day in case of rapid deployment to some far-off place. Only a brief holiday in Swaziland saved the shiny green document from obsolescence in those early years. But as my career progressed, the jet-setting that I had fantasised about in my 20s became a reality.
Decades later, when I was grappling with a debilitating and mysterious illness, a powerful reality dawned. I have travelled widely, written so much about so many things, covered the unfolding story of South Africa extensively, but I know absolutely nothing about myself. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my place in the landscape of Africa’s history? My family tree is blank save for a few generations. I don’t even know who my great-grandparents were.
So a few years ago, as I lay in bed hoping that complete rest would get my strength back, I began to delve into the story of //Kabbo, a 19th-century Bushman visionary.
It is my belief that my ancestral journey with //Kabbo became the key to unlocking the prison of an illness that I still cannot name. My grandmother, if she had been alive, would have said it was a calling.
Media bosses do not respond warmly to journalists wanting to write about African mystical traditions. But, offer a review of a Greek tragedy, filled with European mysticism and there is acceptance and more than a hint of cultural reverence.
At every turn I have had to fit into a world that made me understand that African identity, culture and traditions were not welcome.
I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when apartheid faced only a weak and battered opposition. I lived in Soweto while I did my journalism training, during the height of the youth uprising of 1976. The following decade I became a correspondent for a foreign media group and covered the devastating effects of apartheid. Standing outside the prison gates, watching Nelson Mandela take his first strides towards freedom felt like a dream. Afterwards, covering the negotiations that preceded the new South Africa, the dawn of democracy and our first elections took me ever deeper into a painful collective history.
With apartheid out of the way I could focus on other aspects of what ailed us as a nation. My own pain came rushing to the surface like lava from an erupting volcano. As I delved into the story of a long dead Ancestor, I began to understand that centuries of trauma have to be acknowledged before we can move on.
Acknowledging that trauma started to brew somewhere in the back of my mind when I joined the SABC in the early 90s to join an elite team that would kick-start the transformation at the public broadcaster.
Moving away from my hometown is like shedding a range of outfits that I’ve outgrown. The media project that attracted me to Joburg, the Public Broadcasting Initiative, morphs into a full-time job at the South African Broadcasting Corporation as a TV producer.
I have never set foot inside a TV station and I have no clue what a producer does.
My first day at the SABC is 1 February 1994… I am comforted by the kick-arse collection of fellow newbies … Max du Preez, Jacques Pauw, Thandeka Gqubule, Beverley Mitchell, Joe Louw, Ameen Akhalwaya, Amina Frense, David Niddrie, John Matisonn and later Audrey Brown.
We have come to start a media revolution ahead of the elections in a few months’ time. We assume there are enough of us trendy lefties to halt the propaganda machine and herald a glorious era of democratic journalism.
Max and I start on the same day. We are given a schedule with meetings wall-to-wall from 8am to 5pm. The following day we’re given the same schedule. We don’t understand anything at all that happens in the meetings. So we throw away the schedule and decide we will go out there and make television.
But the obstacles are immense.
A man with a vacant look and an exceptionally clean desk, the size of a table tennis board, pulls out a piece of paper from his drawer and says triumphantly:
“You are not on this organogram!”
The SABC has all the elements of a bad science fiction movie. The intelligent beings have long since been beamed up, leaving only the organograms behind. Now the bits of paper with neat blocks and rigid lines are worshipped as the symbols of the giants who once walked these hallways.
The power of the template and the power of the meeting rule everything. Every day more of the old guard fades into the woodwork and others step into the vacuum. Catchwords like ‘empowerment’ and ‘diversity’ fall from the lips of the people in the meetings, without much recognition in their eyes.
Christo Kritzinger, head of TV news, has the air of a man who has finally found freedom. He does not have to fear the phone call from the state president’s office any longer. The former ANC terrorists are about to take power and by some miracle he still has his job and his head. He is the new organogram king. He has many meetings and does vague, brave new things.
“It’s about business units,” he says as he cuts up the place into even more departments. His reading of the new world on his doorstep is that the news must now post a profit.
They tell me his brother is connected to military intelligence. So hiring some heavyweight journalists from the print media – papers he rarely bothers to read – is a brave new thing.
“Is Solomon Mahlangu a homeland leader?” a senior producer asks me.
It is one of many questions. We the new people with connections to the former enemy are living repositories, bearing knowledge of a time they’ve never known.
The SABC people who have been battered by this place and the likes of Kritzinger and others, adapt feverishly. With an election only weeks away, the staff call meetings and vex their newfound autonomy.
A group of black men, who walk around with an air of embarrassment because of their ties to the old SABC, form an African Forum. Coloured and Indian staff are excluded. The aim of the forum is as vague as Kritzinger’s attempts to grapple with the reins of transformation. A colleague complains that it is racist.
“Why are you angry? They’ve banded together to erase the memory of their previous collaborator status. I remember that at primary school the kid who stole our things would be the most zealous about helping us look for missing items,” I say to a colleague.
“Be careful, Dan is a sangoma,” she replies. I don’t understand why one should be afraid of a healer.
Joe Louw, who recently returned from many years in exile in Africa and elsewhere, has also been excluded. He says it’s his ‘struggle stripes’ that keep him out.
“That forum is nothing but post-traumatic stress Black Consciousness,” says Joe.
Sometimes I struggle to deal with the craziness. Dan the sangoma, who is a senior member of the forum, objects to a documentary because there are no white people in it. He refuses to air it on Newsline, the black current affairs programme.
A colleague tells me Dan used to work for military intelligence. Kritzinger’s brother was probably his boss. When I begin to see the logic in the madness, I fear for my sanity.
“I used my brother’s influence to get Joe out of jail when he was convicted for terrorism,” a white man says proudly.
Like a tangled family we lurch out of a dark past without much of a roadmap for the future. At the meetings there are no real agendas. The hidden agenda will always hold sway.
“I’m sure that when they go to bed at night they are secretly surprised that television happened again today,” says my friend Beverley Mitchell, who is a comforting presence from the South newspaper and a former time.
Technicians tell us our headaches are caused by a mistake in the architecture of the building.
“It’s been classified as a sick building.”
The illness is palpable and some of my former struggle comrades lose their way. Everybody knows the culture is wrong. Few people want to talk about why. Like crazed philanthropists, the management throws resources, money and vague plans at the problem, hoping the headaches will go away.
We the newbies, people from a different culture and milieu, don’t quite know what’s expected of us. Former editor of the New Nation, Zwelakhe Sisulu, brought on board to be the new chief executive, sets up a transformation team. More organograms. A kind of parallel SABC develops. None of us knows anything at all about broadcasting and the old guard use this fact.
Like black wiring in a dark alley, it trips us up at every turn.
“Zwelakhe is showing us the way,” says an elderly Afrikaner.
Like the mindless followers of some cult, we talk all the time of a plan that is to come. When the new board is appointed, bits of paper with vision, values and mission statements flutter down on the heads of the dubiously faithful.
Editorial independence means repeating the new cant fervently.
Nobody talks much about content … ever.
The fear of the new board dissipates as the minions realise that the brave new direction is not coming from them.
“The board is split between the progressives and the old guard,” says someone pretending to be knowledgeable. “The progressives don’t turn up at meetings and the chair is too scared to put things to the vote.”
Fake wisdom fertilises the grapevine. The chair of the board is the new deity. Dan the sangoma makes it known that he is having lunch with the chair. The staff holds back on protesting about working conditions. I am invited to the same lunch. He doesn’t tell his people that there are 100 employees there.
Nobody makes any worthwhile decisions. We are waiting.
“You can’t make a documentary in so many languages because we are waiting on the IBA’s language policy,” a white boss tells me.
The Independent Broadcasting Authority is still finding its feet.
A group of producers, video editors, journalists and researchers attend a course together at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.
“TV is a cooperative medium,” says the enthusiastic trainer from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “You have to learn to work together in teams.”
We form teams but they fall apart in no time at all. White racism, black racism, old-guard attitudes, newbie arrogance/ignorance, poor communication. Pick a reason. One day I am so frustrated by trying to get a team to agree, I weep with exhaustion.
“There have been people crying in every group that comes here from the SABC,” says the ABC trainer.
The reason our best transformation efforts go round in circles is reflected in the current affairs department of the newsroom. We sit in tiny cubicles. The little boxes are crammed into what used to be an open plan office. We are hermetically sealed from executives in bigger boxes that shut out the light from the only windows in the place. The sun shines only on management.
The elevation of mediocrity stifles the growth of a culture of democratic journalism. On an assignment, a researcher tells me we should not use coloured people in the story.
“Because of affirmative action.”
And then later on the same assignment, a cameraman gives me a useful tip:
“TV cameras love Asian skins.”
Back in the office, a survey is doing the rounds. Most of the staff rejects the newbies’ suggestion that we remove the cubicles so that the sunlight reaches everyone. A consultant who has been brought in from Canada only half jokes when he says the place needs mass psychotherapy.
When I leave the SABC 12 years later, it is as if my life has been placed on hold for a decade. In the battle for the soul of the place, the organograms and meetings have claimed victory over quality content.
South Africa’s public broadcaster will always be a microcosm of the problems and potential of our nation. It will be a long time before we enter an era of visionary leadership and storytelling that goes to the heart of the nation.
Since leaving the SABC a decade ago I’ve set up an international media company and specialised in cross platform storytelling. Telling the African story using traditional, sometimes intuitive, as well as 21st Century hi tech methods has become my focus.
I’ve come to realise that my professional life demanded sea changes. The media world is a very different place from the one I tentatively entered in Seventies when golf ball electric typewriters were cutting edge.
Now from the vantage point of a veteran I marvel at the advances that have made journalists’ lives so much easier. But I also wonder why it takes so long for media bosses to respond adequately to a rapidly changing world.
I have had to diversify to build a company that specialises in training as well as designing and developing TV content. At the same time we’ve pioneered a new approach… telling one story across many platforms and then building a digital audience that drives people to the theatre, the book and eventually the film.
It is a coordinated approach that requires strategic planning and a healthy understanding of audience behaviour as well as the different mood states, as people move from one platform to another. Pouring content into the void with your fingers crossed, leads to dwindling profits and disappearing brands.
We no longer have the censorship of apartheid. But a general lack of understanding and the failure to meet the challenges of the 21st Century media environment can add up to just the same thing… The real stories of our people are being overshadowed, hidden, and distorted.
In a desperate scramble for audiences in a feisty marketplace, we tell the stories media bosses and their friends want to hear. We alienate and marginalise people perceived to be low down on the pecking order. We stop serving the ordinary people.
But perhaps that is a good thing. I’ve stopped reading newspapers. I hardly ever watch TV. I’ve started writing my own story on my own terms and it is doing very well indeed. Everywhere and especially on social networks people are taking charge of the telling of their stories.
Perhaps we have the media bosses to thank for that.
This article originally appeared in Rhodes Journalism Review.