Monthly Archives: April 2010


Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, is quite the character, to say the least. He’s the fodder of many front pages and almost everything out of his mouth ends up in the news—often for all the wrong reasons. In his most recent press conference today, he lambasted a BBC reporter, asking security to remove “that thingy” from the ANCYL’s media briefing. And Malema managed to squeeze in the insults “bastard” and “bloody agent” before the reporter packed up and left.

This isn’t the first time Malema’s free-wheeling, absurd antics have gotten him prime-time coverage.  He recently resurrected a protest song from the Apartheid era, entitled Ayesaba Amagwala, meaning “The Cowards are Scared.” It contains the lyrics aw dubul’ibhunu, meaning “shoot the boer;” the song (not surprisingly) has drawn criticism from many sides. A court accused Malema of inciting racial hatred and banned him from singing the song. Despite the court’s ruling, Malema doesn’t plan on stopping: “This is the court ruling of the white men in South Africa but we are not going to obey it,” he argued.

And if you need more proof of the ridiculousness of some of Malema’s statements, here’s an excerpt from his recent speech to a rally of 2000 Zanu-PF youth in Zimbabwe. Enjoy.

“We want the mines. They have been exploiting our minerals for a long time. Now it’s our turn to also enjoy from these minerals. They are so bright, they are colourful, we refer to them as white people, maybe their colour came as a result of exploiting our minerals and perhaps if some of us can get opportunities in these minerals we can develop some nice colour like them.”

An editor tells me, “People love talking about Malema.” And they do—heck, I’ve just rambled about him for a good four paragraphs. But is that reason enough to grant him a significant amount of real estate in local newspapers? Are we, as journalists, pandering to his whims by printing every foolhardy word out of his mouth? Are his statements really newsworthy? I argue that we’re adding fuel to the fire, granting Malema a sense of legitimacy that he does not deserve.


In Johannesburg, we toured Soweto, a large township just outside the city. It’s home to roughly two million people, according to a researcher at the local Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (As I’ve come to learn in South Africa, pinning down more precise numbers is virtually impossible). In Soweto, there’s a large Anglican Church, attended by upwards of one thousand parishioners.

Former President Bill Clinton attended the church when he toured South Africa during his presidency, soon after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had run its course. In an unfortunate coincidence, the priest had decided to prepare a sermon on the immorality of infidelity, with the disgraced president in attendance.


What I think I know about journalism in South Africa.

The journalists we’ve spoken with have alluded to the sense that South Africans don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the African continent. And therefore, there’s often a scarcity in the amount of information about the rest of the region, and more broadly, Africa as a whole.  Journalists joke about the perception among South Africans that “news stops at the Limpopo River.”

Paula Fray, at the Inter Press Service’ South African branch, noted that the background, the context and the analysis is often missing in articles that are published by local media outlets.

She says that journalists, paid pennies in comparison to the already-measly salaries of journalists in the United States, don’t have the time, motivation or energy to take their stories one step further, and this means reporting is often based largely—if not solely—on press releases.

As she described her version of the state of journalism in South Africa—and throughout the continent as a whole—a knowing smile tweaked my lips. Only because I felt like I could already relate to her frustration. I’d seen it first-hand, in Dar es Salaam and to a lesser extent in Nairobi, where reporters eagerly rushed back to the newsroom to file their stories on time in order to ensure that they would receive their daily commission. Sometimes, this was before my sometimes-overly-critical (and overly ambitious) self thought they had the whole story. I also remember journalists unabashedly accepting brown envelopes.

The first time a government employee handed me a brown envelope at a press conference I had no clue as to what it concealed. In my naiveté, I expected to open it and find another press release. Instead, a note for 10,000 shillings fell out (calm down, it’s only the equivalent of about $10). Still, this wasn’t chump change to either my fellow reporters or me, as I considered the forty to fifty journalists who had just filed out of the room, each with a parchment-paper envelope in hand. Although math has never been my forte, I calculated that the government had just doled out approximately $500.

My fellow reporter explained the obvious—the 10,000 shillings were meant as a bribe of sorts, a tool to encourage journalists to publish articles “favorable” to the government. But I didn’t understand why.  After all, it had been a rather uneventful press conference, held to announce the percentage of aspiring teachers who had passed the necessary exams; why the need to offer a bribe? I never quite figured it out, but this wouldn’t be the last time someone offered me an envelope.

On the eve of Day One at City Press, I wonder what I’ll discover about the state of journalism in South Africa.

And no, I didn’t accept the bribe.


At the District Six Museum, Joe discussed his Apartheid experiences. It’s the closest I’ve come to hearing anyone’s first-hand account of what Apartheid really meant for them. For Joe, it meant that he would be relocated to an area several kilometers away from the place he once called home. It meant that when he returned decades later, home still wouldn’t feel like home.

Joe, born in Cape Town’s District Six, described it as a vibrant community during his childhood, a diverse area in which all creeds, cultures and religions were equally respected. Although his own family was Christian, they would observe moments of silence during Muslim prayer times, as the adhaan, resonating from the local mosques, called Muslims to prayer.

Then, when the National Party was voted into office in 1948 on the platform of apartheid, a series of acts severely limited the freedom of those in this formerly cosmopolitan community. The 1966 Group Areas Act declared District Six a whites-only community. It ushered in a period during which more than 60,000 coloreds and blacks were forced to relocate to areas like the Cape Flats, on the far outskirts of the city.

Racial segregation meant that there were separate benches for blacks and whites. It meant that if a Xhosa man lay in the middle of the street, unconscious, he’d lie there until an ambulance specifically designated for blacks came to his rescue.

In the area Joe relocated to, there weren’t many facilities. Parents continued to work near their former residences, and this meant long commutes to and from work. They arrived only in the late hours of the evening, toting bags of groceries. And well, “idle hands are the Devil’s tools.” So children, unwatched and unattended, became involved in drugs, crime, gangs.

Joe says people were brainwashed. Brainwashed into believing they were different because of their skin color.

I watched as a man, perhaps in his 70s, with long graying hair and a cane in hand, squinted as he peered at the museum’s floor. He seemed to be looking for something. At first, I assumed he must have dropped his pen, a piece of paper, a coin. But a large map of the old District Six is plastered on the floor of the museum, and he remained hunched over it, tracing the streets with the end of his wooden cane. He seemed to be searching, inching his way to intersections. I wondered if he’d once called District Six home. I imagined the kind of life he might once have led in District Six. Had he once lived on Aspeling Street? Or Van de Leur Street? Did he have brothers or sisters? I don’t know. I didn’t ask.

Joe tells me that he’s moved back to District Six since he was forcibly removed. I ask him what it was like, coming home after so many years. He tells me that District Six doesn’t exactly feel like home anymore, that it takes thirty to forty years to foster a sense of community, and that he doesn’t have that much time left. 60,000 people were removed when their homes were burned down, and only about 5,000 have made their way back. Many are reluctant to return because their children have never called District Six home. The people, the houses, the churches and the hangouts that Joe once associated with District Six have all since disappeared. For Joe, home isn’t home.

the first one.

I’ll begin what will hopefully be a thought-provoking and insightful record of my time in South Africa with a joke. For no reason, really, other than the fact that it made me laugh. Yes, out loud.

“A survey asked women across South Africa if they would sleep with Jacob Zuma. Eighty-seven percent of them said, ‘Never again.’”

The joke is a Zapiro-style jab at Jacob Zuma’s countless romantic liaisons. I’d call them “affairs,” but the word implies an illicit act. And according to the South African law that prevents discrimination on the basis of culture or tradition, it’s not illegal for any man to marry multiple women.

Jacob Zuma, as I came to learn early on in my preparatory study of South Africa, firmly believes in polygamy. His countless wives and children (some perhaps yet to come out of the woodwork) are proof of this. And he also serves as just one example of the many contradictions that pervade South Africa’s current political and socioeconomic climate.

I hope to explore these contradictions that stem from a deeper understanding of South Africa’s complex history. I look forward to hitting the streets, day in and day out, to delve into stories that are challenging and provocative, eye-opening and enlightening.

I like to think I can hold my own in a debate about the political movement that is the ANC or a discussion about the mixed messages President Jacob Zuma is sending to the majority sexually-active youth. I’ve taken a preparatory class, I’ve read books, I’ve surfed South African news sites and I’ve even watched the satirical (and hilarious) ZA NEWS videos on the Mail & Guardian’s Web site, which most recently ridiculed Julius Malema’s claim that he only accepts hand-outs. Despite all of this, I will be the first to admit that there’s so much about South Africa, its historic struggle and its current socioeconomic and political climate that I don’t know. This is both nerve-wracking and exciting. I feel like the tourist-turned-journalist, and next week I’ll trade in my camera, on which I’ve captured breath-taking pictures of Table Mountain and the historically significant Robben Island, for my reporter’s notebook. I feel simultaneously well-prepared and completely unequipped to tell the true-life stories I hope to tell (I won’t be admitting this to my editor, of course). I only hope that I’ll be able to do justice to whatever stories I begin to tackle over the next few months. And somewhere along the way, I hope to find answers to what I haven’t yet realized I don’t know.