Healing our wounds through story-telling

 The keynote address delivered on November 27, 2015, at the Vodacom Journalism Awards 2015, Johannesburg

By Zubeida Jaffer

All the finalists in this room here tonight are winners. You have come from all over the country and have already made your mark. Before the final selections are announced, I want to congratulate all of you. For our profession to grow, we need a percentage of the journalist corps to strive for excellence in order to pull the rest forward. Some social scientists argue that you need as little as ten percent of a group to push beyond their limits to influence a broader group and effect change. Others say 25 percent.

Whatever the percentages are, we know that it does not require many people in any institution to continue to break ceilings that curb progress.  Many of you in this room, including the Judges of these awards, the Vodacom Executives and the Finalists in this competition are together engaged in pushing the boundaries to ensure higher levels of excellence.

The steady improvement of skill is one of the most urgent and pressing problems facing our country. If each of us commit to improve our skills every year, the country in itself will move up a notch in having citizens who are more able and capable of executing their tasks efficiently and effectively.

We do however need clear direction, clear leadership, a clear commitment to such a path and a determination to stay the course.

Illustrated in this room tonight is such clarity of purpose and I wish to commend all of you. Thank you.

Countries that succeed are those who build credible institutions and have skilled people. Several of our institutions such as the Ombudsman’s office are under severe economic pressure. Time does not allow me tonight to dwell on this challenge. Instead I want to share my thoughts on healing through storytelling.

The more developed our skills are the more we can use our knowledge to weave our stories to craft narratives that are genuine and touches the hearts of our people.

We have to ask ourselves the question whether we are doing enough to develop and retain skills in this sector?

Does the media industry create conditions to support their most valuable assets or do they work them to the bone and then spit them out?

How is it possible that a company can retrench its workers, cut back on tea and coffee for their staff at the same time when its CEO walks off with millions?

The time has come to keep a tight watch on inequality and unfairness at all our media companies.

All of you have to organize yourselves and make sure that you are placed on a path that will grow your skill so that you can be masters of your craft. We cannot be working ourselves silly for the purpose of profits to be repatriated to other countries or for the benefit of a few individuals. In the end, we are the storytellers of our country. We help shape the context of joy and sorrow of all our people. We interpret events to millions who rely on us to make sense of their shattering experiences. We record events that will eventually be the foundations of our historical records. We must assert our right to fulfill our role with dignity and on our own terms.

And we must strive to reproduce our knowledge so that all South Africans can be fully informed. I have spent the last two and a half years going through journalistic records stretching from 1870 to 1939. If it were not for Sol Plaatje and his contemporaries, I would not have been able to piece together the life story of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, our first black female graduate. They were the pioneers of journalism in South Africa and their reports in newspapers such as Abantu Batho and Umteteli Wa Bantu left behind the detail of significant events at that time.

It was a painful process piecing together Charlotte’s life because I could not interview any of her contemporaries. They, like her, were all passed on.

So I had to rely on the written reports and poetry of that time.

Charlotte was born in 1871 and died in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. She obtained her degree 114 years ago, in 1901. I hope her story will help us understand the historical context within which the major dramas at our universities unfolded this year.

I am sure we will all agree that 2015 will be remembered as the year that signaled major change in higher education. More has been achieved in this year at universities than in the past 21 years. What were the students saying to us? They were saying that their institutions were not expressions of themselves. They were saying that they were no longer prepared to study within a context that fails to affirm their own experience and fails to draw on the knowledge of their communities and intellectual giants.

This is a very important step towards ending their schizophrenic existence. They understand that they are studying in a context defined by colonialism. Our professional schools expose us to European and American knowledge but what about African knowledge? What about Indian, Chinese, Russian, Cuban, Brazilian knowledge?

Twenty-one years after the birth of democracy, they no longer accept a situation where they are uncomfortable in their skins within educational institutions.

Training schools and universities lie at the heart of reproducing our professional knowledge. I am based at the University of the Free State in the Communication Sciences Department and for the past four years have had a close up view of foundational education in the profession.

It has been an eye-opening experience for me. I made the false assumption that after 20 years into democracy, that journalism schools or departments will be teaching about the pioneers of the profession and provide insights that were largely excluded previously. I took it for granted that all undergraduates would be familiar with Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa that celebrates its 100th year next year. It is a South African classic and I would have imagined compulsory reading for all journalists.

At the UFS, a few of us got together last year and launched a website called The Journalist (www.thejournalist.org.za) to share information that is commonly known by a few of us in the profession but definitely not taught at universities. We will build The Journalist as a knowledge bank to give history and context to many of our issues in the quest to build self-confidence and esteem trusting that with time it will soak through the skins of our students at all journalism schools. We are telling the stories of our pioneers stretching from the 1800s. We are telling stories that will help heal our wounds. The Africa Editors Forum has proposed that we work towards relaunching the site as The African Journalist so that we will learn to know our continental pioneers. We have agreed to do this within the next two years.

For now, much of our journalism education continues to be presented in a European context. It is Thomas Pringle, a young British man who visited our shores for six years who is presented as the lodestar not Sol Plaatje.

This is a realization that has come to me quite late in life because I too knew most about Thomas Pringle. I respect the work he did in the small Cape colonial set up and will not wipe his contribution to Cape colonial history out of the history books. But please lets place it in its context. How offended would the British be if they were to discover that their children were taught that Sol Plaatje (who spent some time in Britain) was the beacon of journalism for all British students?

I am offended. I am deeply offended.

The majority of our families have been subjected to grave injustice. For three quarters of my life I had to battle just to be a full citizen of this country. We are a wounded nation at so many levels. Four years ago, I reflected on some of our challenges of healing our woundedness in a pocket book called Not By Dread Alone. Copies of the little book will be gifted to you tonight courtesy of Vodacom.

I write there that as journalists and storytellers we need to bring the concerns of our communities to the centre of our public life. We need to give space to more than just dread alone, so that the rich tapestry of our lives can unfold and hold us within a warm embrace. We cannot throw a blanket pall of cynicism and negativity over our country where no light at all is allowed to come through. It cannot be our role to only highlight the bad.

This competition needs to question whether it only rewards those who focus on the dark side of our life? Does it have to be like this?

There are so many silver linings piercing through the fog of doom and gloom. I am particularly pleased to see the affirming images on the front page of the Cape Times every morning when I collect the paper inside my gate. The images are unusually thrown across the newspaper’s master head making a strong visceral impact on my brain. They make my heart sing. I was hoping to throw the images across the screen but have left it too late to make the technical arrangements.

Pic one: Western Cape High Court Judge President, John Hlophe, marrying fellow judge Gayaat Salie-Samuels.

Pic two: The Riel Dancers arriving at the airport after winning the World title at the International Performing Arts Championships. The colonialists treated them as less than human al those many years ago.

Pic three: Clothing workers participating in a beauty pageant and protesting at the same time. These women are the backbone of industry.

Pic four: Iranian women celebrating in their sports car after the historic nuclear deal with the US in July.

How will we find our balance when the world is in upheaval and features of a looming Third World War are in sight? Galal Amin, one of Egypt’s leading political scientists and a regular newspaper columnist said to me recently that the scramble for resources is happening by stealth. Now 80 years old, he said no one would dare declare a Third World War but all the elements were present. There were so many forces at play that for the first time he could not clearly make sense of what was happening in Egypt. To make sense of what is happening, we have to understand what is happening globally and how it pans out locally.

How will we help ease our pain when we face grave inequality, poverty and poor leadership in our own county?

It is not going to be at all easy to heal our wounds under such trying conditions. All indications are that 2016 will be a year of student and worker revolt.

I see myself as a long-distance runner. I have lived through the assassination of Verwoerd, the murder of Hector Petersen, Biko, Chris Hani and countless challenging times. I was detained, tortured and continue to suffer from the after effects as do many others. I have seen us teetering on the edge of despair. Yet so often we muddle through our mess and stumble back onto the right path.

Remember. It is not just about telling the story. It is about finding the strength to tell the stories on our own terms, to face both our dread and revel in our ability to overcome. We cannot live by dread alone. We have the right to record our experiences, as we understand them, including the triumphs and disappointments of freedom. I ask you all to join me as long-distance runners growing your skill and the institutions of this great profession. Decide how each of you will nurture yourselves and how you will contribute to the whole. I have no doubt we will succeed if we stay the course through both good and bad times facing us as a profession and as a people.


I thank you.


On Key

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