You desperately want to make it in journalism. My first piece that framed my career, with advice on Diversity and Inclusion.
This is it, I thought clutching my tape recorder about to board a plane to a country that by all television and radio news’ accounts was gripped by a civil war. Soweto, the country’s symbolic centre for racial justice was a place of rebellion and lawlessness — an enclave of South Africa which was a no-go zone.
It’s the winter of 92. I’m broken. I’ve sent various letters to media employers. Nothing! I’ve just finished a stint on the BBC’s flagship programme Newsnight, and am now freelance presenting/ producing on the BBC’s London radio. That seems to stand for nothing. ‘Second jobs are always the toughest’ a senior exec says to me. There’s another short term contract in the offing Def II BBC Reportage. But as I ponder my future, I know there’s no way I can survive this.
I started to become interested in the media years back, and in the late 80s as an Applied Chemistry undergrad started to freelance at BBC Radio Leicester. Then it boasted talent like Charlotte Smith (Now Farming Today), Ian Pannel (now ABC News senior correspondent), Iain Carter (BBC Golf Correspondent) and Julian Worricker (BBC Presenter).
South Africa had interested me then. In Leicester’s market we boycotted South African produce; apples, I remember. On some days you might catch Gary Lineker helping his dad at the market.
Five years on weary of any prospects in the UK I’m going on my own adventure. What I know of South Africa through the media is grim, but I believe that my voice could amount to something. My perspectives, lived experience (I schooled in Ghana witnessing first hand Rawlings’ coup), my interests, surely they must have some currency.
The last twenty minutes of the flight to Johannesburg the pilot welcomes me into the cockpit to record a running commentary. I see no explosions or fires from the air and when I land I’m greeted by someone I’ve never met but spoken to from weeks from letter writing. There is no Internet in 1992. How did people survive? They did. Alan Swerdlow will turn out to be an extraordinary human being, even when he mistakenly told Mandela to ‘fuck off’.
Not what you think. Mr Mandela made his own phone calls. He rang Alan’s next door neighbour Cheryl Carolus who would later become the South African Ambassador. She wasn’t in, so when Alan took the call he thought it was a prank. One of Alan’s friends used to do a good Mandela impersonation. Undeterred Mr Mandela rang back. The picture on Alan’s face! Cheryl would forever and a day tease me. I sat next to her at an important concert and snored through it. That story another day.
Over a period of two months I was exposed to different communities, people, the ongoings outside the BBC, CNN, ABC News et al news’ agendas to the point I told myself I need to stay. But first a return to the UK, complete my last short contract and head back.
Below is that account of my first assignment; my first ever feature piece in September 1992 and one that would appear in the BBC’s magazine Arial. It would bring me lots of attention — some welcome, some not.
But there was so much I wanted to write about: Soweto, and the fact it sits in the bosom of Johannesburg. The remnants of Apartheid dismantling, the wealth in the township glimpsing my first 850i BMW. How people are coping with high unemployment and the pending end of Apartheid. And then young people, graduates, like me whose thoughts were rarely given air time.
South Africa has a majority Black population and yet few networks had any reporting staff who were Black on the ground. It will get worse with the elections in two years time. The intersectionality of stories between Blacks and Whites had little interest for outside networks unless tension to the point of violence was a headliner, or that Mandela was seeking accords with leaders.
It made me aware of the hegemonic overton window story in news. Professionalism as a gold standard indeed but who tells the story matters; their everything does. But journalism I will soon learn is about power.
As a freelancer I would brush against several scrapes, be treated in different ways if I opened my mouth, or spoke one of my Ghanaian languages. Otherwise my physical features threw up conundrums. I would months ahead report how Afrikaner farmers threatened me accusing me, a Brit, of being responsible for concentration camps in South Africa, after they dropped their scepticism that there were Black people in the UK.
Sometimes it’s just that, the calling. Journalism is what you want to do. You believe your voice matters and you’re prepared to take the journey. Twenty years into the future as an academic (still in love with storytelling), I will find myself on the Syrian border, Ufa in Russia, Chongqing, Beirut and many more countries training, video-making and writing on social-political issues, and in many of those places what I see on the news has barely shifted its moorings to consider diverse complexities on the ground.
I recognise that my advice to young journalists wanting to climb up journalism’s pole by finding a hot spot needs to be tempered; but the zeal to drive deeper connections with editors who pledge to diversity and inclusion, whilst doing ther own thing must not wane. Back in the 90s there was no diversity and inclusion. It was all in the gift of editors; still is by what we see.
Next year will be thirty years since South Africa’s momentous change. There’s so much to discuss, but will it be a predominately White male lens ? My reporting, listened to by Chatham House executives would earn me an invitation to join the institute - thirty years on I’m still a member.
This then below is my account. It would shape me thereafter. Make me realise how storytelling is not neutral. It would lead to some extraordinary breaks in unexpected areas, such as BBC Radio Four commissioning a documentary of first time voters that I would research and present.
Its part in South Africa’s history is how the SABC Radio (state radio) heard First Time Voters, purchased the rights, and replayed it on the eve of their historic elections. No other non-South African person was given that platform. The timing coincided with a feature length profile in The Star, their popular newspaper
Reporting South Africa
FIRST TIME VOTERS TX: BBC Radio 4; BBC WS and South Africa Radio 1994, and an epochal change is to wrap itself around…
Various reports for BBC African Service and World Service features followed including this denouement, reporting live on his inauguration for the Caribbean service, and meeting him and shaking his hand. Back in London, that august organisation Chatham House had been listening to my reports. Its Director of Studies Jack Spemce requested if I wanted to join the organisatoin. I’ve been a member now coming on thirty years.
It was a dream that came true, and now? Well now I tell the next young people I meet. I tell them if I could do it, so absolutely can you. After South Africa I would become one of the UK’s first NUJ videojournalists. There will be more break throughs and trouble ahead but that’s for a next time.
Full text below transcribed below.
Transcribed Audio here
Full text below here
Excitement and a flash of nervousness with me as we coast along the road from Johannesburg to Soweto. Twenty minutes later, the excitement will be replaced by fear.
Easing into Soweto police flag our car down twice. We pull over, but both times the car speeds off.
A wrong turning by Zosha, my friend and driver, brings us to a dead-end. While she is reversing and armoured personnel carrier used by the police, known as a Caspir, comes into view with a mob of youngsters in its wake.
No news footage or articles can prepare you for the menacing presence and overbearing size of these vehicles. On our way again a second Caspir edges in front of us creeping along at 20 mph. One of the occupants mumbles into his mouthpiece, whilst the other clutching a machine gun exchanges steely glasses with me.
His curiosity, I discover later, is pardonable. Zosha who is white and middle-aged, has the expression of a lost tourist and I, Black and wearing a military-style jacket am whispering into a half-concealed lapel mike.
Had I followed my instincts we would have turned back and I would have missed out on making some of the most interesting and rewarding friendships in Soweto, and for that matter South Africa.
It is my first trip to South Africa brought about by my interest in the country and triggered by what I learned working on Black London at BBC GLR. I am here to record a radio documentary for a program that examines the ‘successor generation’ — South Africans Black and white, between the ages of 18 and 35, who overnight are the beneficiaries of the ‘new South Africa’.
A country freed from its past emerging from the effects of isolation with new clothes, a new act and presumably receptive world audience .
My contact, Alan Swerdlow, who has now become a good friend works at the South African broadcasting Corporation — ‘not a good place to forge relationships’, friends in London had cautioned. But with him, my microphone became an extension on more than 70 lips, each telling different intriguing stories which all shared a similar theme: the new South Africa? We’re hoping for the best (democracy) and fearing the worst (civil war)
Thembakezi, who lives in Soweto and is a PhD chemistry student at Johannesburg Witwatersrand university is hopeful that being black will not deny have a good job.
A young Afrikaner and a practice in attorney in Cape Town was having none of it: ‘The new South Africa, what-ever that is, spells trouble.’
Hopping between the major cities, I find people warm and receptive. They in turn use me as a barometer for world opinion. ‘So what do you think about our country?’ is the standard question. ‘Interesting’, is my loaded response. Pushed further, ‘The weather is wonderful and the people have been nice to me’.
Pushed even further, ‘The more I learn, the more I understand, the more I understand, the more complex things become’.
It is also point of hilarity for some who discover, not only can I not speak any local languages, but I’m not American, and, although a radio journalist, do not work for the World Service.
What I find difficult to rationalise as many others do, is the violence on the streets. I spend a day in Durban with a field worker and researcher for the Human Rights Commission in Natal.
She discloses disturbing facts about what she comes across while investigating human rights abuses. The most telling is how easy it is to buy guns — an AK-47 for as little as R40 (£8) on the black market — and how teenagers ,as young as thirteen, are taking guns to school and in some cases threatening teachers.
The previous owner of her home he died in a bomb blast. The device had been delivered to the doorstep as a computer. Somehow, even with the iron bars barricading the windows — they are called burglar bars — are little comfort to me as I try to sleep.
After 40 hours recording and travelling 4000 km across the country my impression is that there is a long haul ahead. But I prefer to focus on the positive: more black people appear to be in positions of power across a range of industries; black and white performers and artists are committed to working together publicly — unheard of three years ago; and there’s generally a sense of expectation from South Africans that 1993 will be a good year.
Christmas day finds me once more in Soweto. We kick off with church, and again I am overwhelmed by feeling of exhilaration mixed with unease. Twenty minutes on, the thrill of staying in Soweto for a week, ‘shebeen crawling’ ( the Sowetan equivalent of pub crawling), gives way to anxiety. I cannot sing any hymns; they are in Zulu. A little girl observing my out-of-sync lip movements, breaks into a huge grin.