Twenty five years ago, a generation or so ago, we watched, some chewed their nails, others cradled their heads in open palms. Was this it? Was this the moment that humanity would be the victor?
A pariah state, South Africa, that had been ostracised from the world because it legally and plaintively viewed non-whites, black people in particular, as sub human had its chance to put the past behind it.
Apartheid, the word does not easily trip of the tongue today alongside other inequities, but it was ugly, fearsome, and real. To socialise, to challenge, to be, to walk down the road and dare hold the hand of someone white incurred wrath, abuse and assaults from white, even sometimes blacks trying to figure out what they were witnessing.
This, the tail end even of Apartheid (1994). I was walking behind a friend; a Londoner, a model, who’d had a child with a South African. They were nonchalant as they strode downtown Joburg. Me, six paces behind could see the orbit of red emotions flaring towards them.
I’d been in South Africa now for little over 18 months, a strategic attempt on my part two years earlier to get a front row seat to the biggest international story of the decade thus far.
I’d left London, part direct thought; other, escaping the toxicity of a climate in which a mini UK recession meant if you were a young reporter searching for work, if you were a young black reporter searching for work expect lean times ahead.
I had spent eight years previously in Ghana, growing up under a regime that festered corruption, counteracted by coups. This clip here was heard live.
In the late 1990s when I did a job for Ghana TV and they asked me how they could pay me, I asked for the Jerry John Rawling’s recording (above) of the coup on that day.
South Africa was closing in on the eye of the prize and there were many forces, hidden and some known, politicking and threatening all sorts. I was fortunate in my education.
My sojourn to SA prompted by an on-air exchange with its ambassador led to a triumvirate friendship with different figures: a leading theatre director and his friends which included diplomats, a cadre of young progressives black and white, and ANC activists and journalists. Something that would help in creating a raft of programmes in 1992, such as this for the domestic broadcaster, “Through the Eyes of a Child”.
I got to know a world which was uniquely complex, but I could navigate by how I opened my mouth. Shut, I could be any black South African, though many took me for coloured. Open with a London accent I was British. Open with my Ghanaian accent I was an African foreigner. I could, with the help of my friends like Milton Nkosi, get in and out of Townships, and if the feeling overcame me engage in Kwame Nkrumah’s ideals of African empowerment.
Every student, at least in my college in Ghana, was taught about Nkrumah and history told us about Mandela and many of his colleagues whom either schooled in Ghana or had a great affinity with the country.
Strangely, South Africa’s ultimate story was one that precluded others. An irony of mega proportions. Perhaps, it being the catch of any foreign news outlet, and everyone who was anyone was in South Africa, meant the big guns only were allowed in town.
At a Mandela press conference when I was working for ABC News as a producer, and terrifyingly asked the first three questions, this was evident. I was the only black british broadcast journalist, or one of a handful on the ground. If you were there too, please ping me, I’d like to apologies and correct my myth. Diversity wasn’t a badge of note back then, but think today about looking through the archives and how the world is shaped by narratives.
I earned my spurs reporting South Africa from the 1980s on BBC Radio Leicester, attending various Wembley live band conferences, opened by (Sir) Lenny Henry and British pop.
The narratives weren’t a wrongun, but nuance is something you need when reporting, otherwise translated as a having a different world view. Five years later when I produced and directed Africa’s first co-production under the exec production of Edward Boateng, then head of CNN Africa, now Ghana’s Ambassador to China, we looked to at how each country could report through the lens of its own culture, language and historicity.
Twenty-five years ago then, South Africa’s gathered in long unwinding queues to vote in their first election. The day before violence threatened captured below in reports to the BBC World Service.
The day before, a 40 minute documentary would air on BBC Radio 4. A fitting honest tribute, I think, to a country and people anyone could easily fall in love with. It stands as one of the only international documentaries played on domestic South African radio.
Twenty five years ago we held our breath. The elections passed. Nelson Mandela became president and South Africa titled the earth’s axis to humanism.
But as I would find out from many South Africans five years later in a Channel 4 News videojournalist piece, there had been a political transformation, but not a social one. Today, South Africans go to the poll. The world again is watching, thought with less scrutiny around race, but wealth; wealth, its distribution connected to race, nepotism, corruption and class.
And looming in the distance, less we dare not speak its name are the forces that are wanting to tilt the Ukraine, UK, Europe and US away from humanism. Twenty five years ago they South Africa held the world in their palm. Where will they be in another twenty five years?
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is an international award winning journalist and the first Brit to win the coveted Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism. He’s an artist, creative and technologist; a former artist in residence at the Southbank Centre, and was one of the younger members in the 1990s to join Chatham House. He’s been a journalist for thirty years and is currently based at te Cardiff School of Journalism. He’s behind the Cinema Journalism movement. More here