Transforming Journalism as Democracy Emerges: 'Ten Years into Democracy, Many Journalists Are Struggling to Redefine Their Relationship to Government.'

Article excerpt

A few months before this spring's South African elections, a young radio reporter with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) went to Upington, a remote town sandwiched between the Kgalagadi desert and the Orange River in the Northern Cape. She went there to interview Evelina de Bruin, an elderly woman who'd received a brick house from the government through its housing program.

In the 1980's, de Bruin had been internationally famous as one of the oldest people sentenced to death in South Africa, accused in the "common purpose" murder of a black policeman at the height of the apartheid era violence. Poor and illiterate, she happened to be in the area at the time this policeman was murdered, and for that she was sentenced to death, along with her husband and 12 others. Three years later, their death sentences were commuted, and eventually the "Upington 14," as they were known, were freed from jail.

Now de Bruin was getting her first house. It would be the first place she'd ever lived with running water indoors and electricity. Our reporter interviewed her about this and about the huge changes in her life since her lonely, bewildering spell on death row more than a decade ago. When her story was submitted to one of our radio current affairs' programs, our reporter received a sharply worded note from the show's producer: "You must wake up! Its election time. Everybody's getting houses."

The comment struck me as inappropriately political. Was it the job of radio reporters to focus more extensive coverage on the local government official tasked with handing out the new house, built as part of the South African government's ambitious public housing program? Even more striking to me was this producer's failure to recognize the great human story behind the far more obvious government angle. Here was an elderly domestic worker who was nearly executed by the apartheid government and living in the same township that was the scene of the tumult that led to her trial, being handed the keys to a tiny brick house.

Transforming the SABC

Such editorial decision-making is part of the challenge of operating South Africa's biggest news medium, the public broadcaster's radio news service. It evokes the very similar challenges confronting many South African news organizations and journalists today: the need to search for narratives to portray and explain the enormity of change during the first decade of democracy without being a mouthpiece of the government.

At Radio News and Current Affairs, a division of SABC that I have headed for the past two years, our scope is vast. We broadcast news and current affairs in 11 official languages and in two languages of the indigenous San communities in the Northern Cape. We broadcast some 35 hours of current affairs each day on 13 public broadcast radio stations and about 240 bulletins daily for 16 radio stations. We also manage 10 newsrooms across the country. Our reach is significant both in terms of our reporters dotting every corner of the country and in our vast audience of 15 to 18 million listeners. The biggest newspaper in South Africa, by contrast, has a readership of about three million.

Apart from keeping this ship going, our greatest challenge is to construct a culture of journalism that can break decisively with the broadcaster's past when it was the voice of the state. Efforts to establish high journalistic standards for the SABC remain at the heart of an internal political debate. Allister Sparks is an accomplished South African journalist who wrote in his book, "Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa," that "transforming the SABC has been one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks in the new South Africa. For 45 years this giant broadcasting monopoly dominated the airwaves as an explicit and unashamed propaganda machine [of the apartheid state]."

When South Africa's political leaders negotiated the transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990's, the first and most urgent task was to reform the state broadcast media into a public broadcaster. …