by Elizabeth Tharakan
On a Friday afternoon in July 15-year-old Muofhe Ndadza was caught by two young boys in ill-fitting clothes she had stolen from a house in Tshilapfene, a village in Thohoyandou, Limpopo. She had no idea of the physical and emotional nightmare she was about to endure.
The boys dragged Ndadza to the scene of the crime, where one of her captors, a 17-year-old distant cousin, called his father with the news. The man instructed the boys to hold the girl until he arrived home.
The cousin stripped Ndadza of the stolen clothes and bound her ankles and arms before launching what turned out to be a six-hour assault, a portion of which he filmed with a friend’s cellphone once his father took over the reins.
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A man stripped a teenage girl naked and beat her with a hammer for stealing. The public found out about the torture and assault incident described in this story because the perpetrator had his son film the incident on a cell phone.
This tragic tale provides an example of the changing face of the South African media because it shows that stories are making waves to effect public awareness. The public receives news from citizen-journalists and professionals need to adopt new media methods to remain au courant and keep up with the times. “Transformation” is the term that describes shifting new platforms and storytelling models that redefine what people are comfortable with.
Reporters talk about transformation of the newsroom. There’s no money. There are massive layoffs. There’s even racial stratification: “We’ll sit around the table in some newsrooms and the senior management is predominantly white, just like it is in the boardrooms in South Africa,” Tanya Pampalone, editor at The Mail and Guardian, said.
Improving technology is one way to keep up with the transforming demands of the newsroom. “South African journalism is still very much hooked into an old technology,” said broadcast journalist Lester Kiewit, a reporter with Cape Town’s eNews Channel Africa. “You write on your PC and you send your story and it sends to the printers to be printed or you have a cameraman and you shoot your story and you edit it and you put it on TV. The media space is moving far too quickly for those old methods.” Kiewit believes that journalists need to work more independently and be more multiskilled on tight budgets.
“I think it’s really important that South African news companies and individual journalists freely embrace innovation, freely embrace tech and ally technology, engineering and innovation to their sense of purpose in doing accountability journalism,” Nic Dawes, former editor-in-chief of The Mail and Guardian said.
Transformation of the journalism industry depends on how reporters tell stories and the topics they select. The more powerful the story, the more powerful the media is to change the state of affairs in South Africa.
The Mail and Guardian broke a story about how President Jacob Zuma made $25 million upgrades to his home in a town called Nkandla, according to Pampalone. Reports say President Zuma needs to repay the government for using government funds to equip his home with an amphitheater and a pool in 2008. Impactful stories like this one can lead to changes in the way government is run.
The HIV epidemic is an issue that affects South Africa’s entire population of 51 million in that one-fifths of those individuals are diagnosed with HIV. Lester Kiewit of Cape Town covered one story on HIV and AIDS on access to antiretroviral treatment. “Despite South Africa’s ARV rollout program being the largest in the world, there are still many people who struggle to get their hands on ARV treatment, especially in the rural areas,” Kiewit said. South Africa’s authorities are “reactive” to the mainstream media highlighting the issues, with government officials exercising their right of reply after hearing the story.
Nic Dawes reported on a story about the nexus between the Chief of Police of Johannesburg and elements of the criminal underworld and a mining magnate, Brett Kebble, that constituted “a three-legged stool of corruption.” That story culminated in the arrest, conviction and fifteen years of jail time for the officer, Jackie Selebi. “We began investigating before the cops did,” Dawes said. “If we hadn’t started to publish the story, it’s very probable that the investigation would have been shut down.”
When journalists select important topics that affect the public, like a corrupt government or an HIV epidemic, that increases awareness. This enables the storytellers to make a difference, transforming the journalism industry to one that is powerful and relevant.
Authentic, quality storytelling requires that journalists provide honest criticism of the government, which can lead to uncomfortable run-ins with authorities.
“They haven’t shut down entirely the space for robust, independent and sometimes very uncomfortable rapport with the authorities,” Dawes said. The President’s spokesperson arrested Nic Dawes and two of his colleagues on weak grounds. The trumped-up charges went nowhere, but fighting them was an expensive, time-consuming process that made a journalist’s job harder to do.
The media’s independence is under scrutiny and under daily attack from government but also from businesses and organizations who feel attacked and threatened by the media. No journalists have faced court proceedings in the last 21 years of democracy. However, there has been criminal violence and in some instances police tampering with journalistic equipment.
“We have had the ruling ANC suggest legislation which would start a media appeals tribunal which would somehow seek to have state regulation of media. But there’s lots of dialogue, lots of conversation between the industry and government,” Kiewit said.
Foreign and domestic investors are sometimes more comfortable in an environment where there’s free speech, which South Africa’s Constitution protects heavily. The South African Constitution provides in Chapter 9 for the Human Rights Commission and the Bill of Rights ensures anti-incitement laws that prevent against hate speech. Journalism is safeguarded by the industry’s internal mechanism like the Press Code and Broadcasting Complaints Commission with powerful ombudsmen within the media.
One major challenge to free speech is the South African Secrecy Act, also known as the Protection of Information Bill, which limits protections for journalists who publish government secrets. South African journalists would be open to prosecution if they published confidential documents akin to the American Pentagon Papers, NSA documents that Edward Snowden leaked or WikiLeaks files. President Zuma has yet to sign this bill, but it will set a dangerous precedent when enacted.
American journalists can learn lessons from South African media outlets about how to initiate young journalists into reporting and how to keep the media objective.
In South Africa’s broadcast TV space, the media does not take strong ideological stances. Unlike America’s Fox or MSNBC, changes are made. “I prefer that space,” Kiewit said. “It sort of allows you to report more accurately with a lot more balance and a lot more fairness, giving your viewers the right to choose where they want to go.”
Journalists find ways to adapt to new situations in South Africa. “It’s last minute and they’ll fly by the seat of their pants and they’ll get the job done,“ Pampalone said. “In newsrooms, American students are coddled, and we don’t have that option here.” South African newsrooms throw young journalists straight out of schools into violent protests. “You’re sending an inexperienced person into that situation, and I promise you their growth is exponential,” Pampalone said.
The Afrikaans saying “maak ‘n plan” translates to “let’s make a plan.” American journalism students can watch South African media to come up with ways to “maak ‘n plan” about how to deal with the impending transformation in our own industry.