Category: Media & Citizenship

Get thee to a literary festival!


If you want to get into a really thoughtful and provocative conversation about politics and the state of the nation, then you’d better get yourself to the nearest literary festival, the spaces of choice for middle-class South Africans to debate (with good coffee, a sip of wine and usually marvellous views) their truly ingewikkeld society.

On Human Rights Day two colleagues and I drove a group of final-year writing and editing students from Rhodes University down to Knysna to spend a long weekend thinking about writing the real issues and meeting their authors.

We left in the dark from Grahamstown and pulled up in bright, sparkling midday light flashing off the Knysna lagoon just in time for our first session: Frank Chikane telling us “what could not be said” when he was this country’s chief civil servant (DG in the president’s office) and working for Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and, very briefly, Zuma.

Twenty years of democracy will induce reflection and Chikane was in the mood for some: he spoke about how the ANC went into power “with the best – extraordinary – intentions, with a common objective, to do good, with the priority of working for the people”. He then detailed the “mistakes” made since and the realities which tripped up the cadres:frank

·         The contradictions of our society are so deep.

·         Comrades are not angels.

·         The criminal syndicates saw an opportunity in SA’s change of government and were extremely nimble in adapting to corrupting the new people in power.

·         We thought it was an innocent thing to run government: it’s complex, complex.

·         People who have been in the trenches protect each other. They defend each other no matter how wrong they are. They behave as though they are still in a war, they close their eyes to straight forward corruption.

·         The world is not innocent, not honest (this comment about dealings with the US over chemical weapons in Iraq).

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Rhodes Journalism Review – Call for Papers

Theme: 20 years of Democracy – time to take stock


In South Africa’s 20th year ofRJR33Cover democracy, the Rhodes Journalism Review aims to take stock of the last 20 years. The forthcoming issue is dedicated to understanding the changes which have and are taking place in South Africa and more broadly across the continent in the light of the celebrations of 20 years of democracy. 2014 is a milestone year for many reasons in South Africa: it is the 20th year since the establishment of a democratic government, it is also an election year, as well as the year that many ‘born frees’ can vote for the first time in national elections. There is a strong global focus on South Africa at this time and while commentators applaud the economic strides made by the country, many others lament the fact that many South Africans are worse off now than they were during Apartheid.

This edition of Rhodes Journalism Review will pay specific attention to the changes in the media over the last 20 years, including examining ownership changes, transformation of the industry, media regulation and freedom of the press since 1994, journalism education, the attitude of journalists to their profession, and the relationship between the media, journalists and other key institutions in South Africa.

This call for papers invites abstract submissions which address the broad theme of ’20 years of Democracy – time to take stock’, as well as specific papers addressing the changes in media and journalism as above. The editors also invite any abstracts which address key and current issues in journalism and the media industry in South Africa and Africa more broadly.

Rhodes Journalism Review is aimed at journalists, media workers, media monitors and researchers and educators. Articles are usually between 1000 and 2000 words and aimed at a non-academic audience. We welcome contributions based on academic research as well as articles based on personal observations and experiences, and also analytical commentary.

Abstracts guidelines:

Maximum 500 words

Must include: title, authors name and affiliation, contact details

Please submit abstracts to:

Vanessa Malila

Abstracts deadline: 11 April 2014

More information about Rhodes Journalism Review can be found here:

Youth, conflict, governance and the media: South African perspectives

South Africa celebrates its twentieth year of democracy this year. It has been an eventful twenty years, with much debate and contestation around the political values and practices in a new and noisy democracy. The institutions and procedures of democracy are in place and relatively stable: we have had regular elections since all South Africans queued to make their first crosses at the ballot box on 27 April 1994. This year, the ‘born-frees’ – young citizens born after the end of apartheid – will vote for the first time (and how they will vote has been the topic of some debate). We have a Constitution that includes a Bill of Rights and enshrines freedom of speech (including freedom of the media) as well as other rights such as human dignity, equality and freedom of assembly, and this Constitution is guarded by a Constitutional Court. Indeed, the ‘miracle’ discourse  of the South African transition to democracy suggests that we have made the journey from oppression to freedom without the bloodshed and conflict that mark political transitions in other parts of the continent.

The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy and the continued stability of democratic institutions does not mean that South Africa is without social and political conflict. The mounting frustration with the dividends of democracy for the country’s majority poor citizens and the tensions resulting from levels of economic inequality that rank among the highest in the world have led to an increase in street protests around the country. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg have estimated an average of 2.1 protests per day recorded between 2004-2009.

Youth have been seen as ‘central’ to these protests and the ‘main protagonists’ of the uprisings around the country that have been framed rather narrowly by the media as ‘social delivery protests’ but in fact can be seen as articulations of a more deep-seated disillusionment. These protests are born out of the frustration with the continued high levels of inequality and a revolt against a government that is increasingly seen as uncaring and not listening. The protests that have been taking place around the country are therefore not only demands for the technical delivery of basic services, but a ‘rebellion of the poor’ who are demanding basic human dignity.

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Scholarships for 2014

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A6 online ad scholarships 2014

I can’t use the ‘I didn’t know excuse’ for the second time


Although the Hewitt’s experience Mamelodi for a Month has been written and talked about (and hit the front pages of newspapers around the world), I heard about it last week when Julian Hewitt came to Rhodes University to talk at the invitation of Prof Pedro Tabensky.

In case you need a bit of info: Hewitt is one of those people who calls himself a “social entrepreneur” and he and his wife Ena and their two children, four-year-old Julia and two-year-old Jessica, decamped to a corrugated iron shack costing R170 a month in Phomolong informal settlement in Mamelodi to spend a month living there on R3000 (the median SA household income). If you go to the New York Times article you’ll see the aerial photos showing just how close the Hewitt’s home in a gated community is to Phomolong and how dense by contrast the living is in the squatter settlement.

I knew what some of the reactions to this venture would be (for instance see this Thought Leader piece by Sibusiso Tshabalala) but I was drawn to his talk because I’ve had my own Mamelodi experience and I was interested to find out about his.

My experience of Mamelodi dates to 1985 when casspirs surrounded the township and you needed permission from the police to get in. Ds Nico Smith who had moved into the township and was living there legitimately on church land as the minister of a congregation deliberately set up the encounters to get white South Africans to come into townships and meet fellow South Africans and get to know them. Hundreds of us from all over South Africa descended on the township and were smuggled in via the back routes and housed with willing families who were as curious about us as we were about them.

I had many of these kinds of experiences during the last half of the 80s when freedom and democracy seemed very far away, but when various people in the churches were already thinking about how segregated South Africans were ever going to live with each other if they knew almost nothing of each other’s lives and ideas. Cedric Nunn, the photographer who is at Rhodes as a Senior Mellon Scholar, reminded me this week that the churches were playing a very particular role in that time when most organisations were either banned or paralysed by apartheid repression.

Those encounters and conversations had profound effects on me. As a young adult I made decisive choices about where to put my energies and convictions as a result of speaking to and hearing black South Africans on their home turf.

When I listen to Julian I get some of the impetus that drove them into the township. The smothering love of families that want to keep you and your children safe from harm; the dinner table conversations that blame, blame, blame (the poor if not the government); the endless talk of ‘entitlement’ and decay; the powerful sense that we are cocooned in a white world.

But it seems that the strongest reason was the simplest; Julian says if his two daughters are to make a home in South Africa in the future then they have to know, feel comfortable and connected to all South Africans. “To be a responsible parent, I don’t want my children disconnected from social realities,” he said.

But there’s another: Julian is a Christian and while he is not an evangelist, he asked the audience one simple question: “Do you think if Jesus came back today he would be living in a suburb or a township?” He seeks ways to “make my faith real” against the attitude of many whites that “I pay my taxes” and therefore have no further responsibility to do anything else.

He reminded me that gestures of solidarity, reaching across divides and extending oneself to find out and understand were important features of the churches’ activities in the late 80s and how we arrested that process and called a halt when the larger political events overtook us.

But he also had pointed comments to make: “The second transition is coming our way, the economic transition. As a white South African I cannot for the second time use the excuse ‘I did not know’. I must expose myself to the context.”

The result has been “a whole new lens” on life in South Africa for the majority of people, and Julian says “it’s a burden, it’s hard to integrate and translate this knowledge”.

When the Hewitts returned home, the day they arrived a tree in their garden was uprooted by a storm and fell over, clearing the view between their house and Phomolong. A giant township light fitting which worked intermittently while they were there, can now be seen shining brightly from their house. Julian takes it as a symbol of connection to their neighbours and community in Phomolong.

For the Rhodes audience he summed up the lessons he takes from the experience:

  1. Newsworthiness = national disconnect. The irony that a white family living for a short time the way the majority of South Africans live all the time being news is clear to him. The way this is reported, he says, shows a powerful disconnection from that reality. And of the role of the media in shaping public opinion, he says: “Oh my word, this was so not the kind of message I wanted to send out.”
  2. Transport costs are the highest costs and eat nearly half of everyone’s income in townships. This is a political problem that needs addressing. For Julian to get to his office from Phomolong cost R37 on the Gautrain and R45 by taxi. Taxis need to be subsidised. Transport costs are a massive disincentive to look for work which is far away.
    breakdown of month spend
  3. In response to the criticism levelled at this from of ‘slum tourism’: “the critic isn’t in the ring, the acid test is how we were received by the community we lived in”.
  4. South Africa needs new levels of leadership: open-minded and open-hearted, able to create empowering environments for resourceful communities.
  5. If we don’t create the conversations, the context will create them.
  6. Small things matter; the way you carry through your humanity.

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