About three years ago, a black journalist for a Sunday newspaper broke a story about an arms deal that South Africa was about to conclude. Essentially, the story, quoting highly placed government sources, said that the South African government had struck a deal to sell arms worth R30 billion ($4 billion) to Syria. At the time, the arms industry was a depressed sector that was shedding jobs and the deal would have turned the tide and created hundreds of much needed jobs. However, after the publication of the story, the government was forced to take a defensive line, denying that such a deal had been sealed. South Africa, with its short history of trying to maintain a high moral ground internationally, was perturbed by inferences that by selling arms to Syria, a country believed to be supporting “Islamic fundamentalists,” that was involved in fighting the Jewish state of Israel, it was therefore supporting anti-Semitism.

Consequently, the deal was scuppered. A huge debate ensued over whether Cyril Madlala, the journalist, had not forsaken national interest for a scoop. He stood by his decision to carry the story. This, in a nutshell, could perhaps sum up one of the challenges facing black journalists working in the post-apartheid and democratic South Africa. During apartheid, this story would have been easy for any black journalist. Anything that embarrassed the apartheid regime was a must-carry story. It was easy to defend the publication of such a story on moral and political grounds. Clearly, apartheid South Africa could not be allowed to sell arms because it would be breaking an arms embargo and, in addition, whatever the pariah state did was illegitimate. But above all, the profits generated would be used to strengthen the state that had to fall.

However, the ball game has changed, and the players in government are different. They have a mandate of the majority of people to improve the quality of lives. In pursuit of such a goal, the country had to compete with other countries in business, including the sale of weapons that might eventually fall into the wrong hands.

A patriotic black journalist might ask himself or herself whether writing such a story under the new political dispensation would not amount to undermining the broader interests of the country. On the other hand, the journalist inside the patriot would keep on screaming to report on such an important story. That Madlala went ahead is an indication of the attitude of many, who while understanding their responsibilities as citizens, will not allow that to deter them from reporting on an issue as crucial as that. In actual fact, the threat to journalists, unlike during the hey days of apartheid repression, is their conscience. The challenge is to decide on what is right and wrong and sometimes national priorities might interfere with what ordinarily would be good journalism.

This is especially so when opposition parties that are vocal are white and attack the black government from a point of view generally seen as race-based, as if to show that indeed the failure or perceived failure of the black government is because it is black. In such situations, black journalists face a crisis of decision, of conscience. But they have acquitted themselves well, maintaining high standards set by their predecessors who went to prison to defend the right to remain silent when authorities demanded names of sources.

Exposing corruption is another area in which black journalists have excelled, debunking the myth that because they are black and the government is black, they would therefore spare them the rod. Mzilikazi ka Afrika, an investigative writer for The Sunday Times, edited by a black person, too, has been responsible for more exposés that have seen senior officials tumble than any other journalist on his or her own. However, there have been a few cases of what has been regarded as government interference with the freedom of the media. In one such instance, the police went to court to force reporters to make available their video footage of a crime scene in order to secure prosecution. After several meetings between editors and government officials, an agreement was reached that in the future such matters would be raised with editors before the police could request the court to order reporters to give evidence which was collected in the process of news gathering.

While the use of the Criminal Procedure Act’s section 205 is regretted, the government’s attitude is no different from what exists anywhere else. Attempts to use laws to procure prosecutions are found throughout the democratic world. Bouts of mudslinging and accusations of interference with media freedom and counter-accusations of the absence of patriotism are characteristics of a developing relationship and are not unique to South Africa.

Recently, the government’s Human Rights Commission held hearings on racism in the media. While this was generally accepted by black journalists who felt that the process was likely to expose the racism in the industry and in the process recommend remedial action, for most white journalists the hearings amounted to the harassment of the media in its crudest form. Steps taken to undo the legacy of decades of legalized racism in which the media played their own role in protecting and supporting the racist government have elicited reactions that are in the main dictated by whether the journalist is white or black.

But be that as it may, the challenge for black journalists today is also to understand the intricate transition underway and move ahead with as little skills and experience as they have. This is because political freedom has been one of the biggest threats to journalism in South Africa. Let me explain. Just prior to the 1994 watershed elections, companies started recruiting senior black journalists into their corporate offices as directors and executives. Companies then wanted to show the world that they had “our own black” and how better than to hire journalists who came with high profiles.

Following the democratic elections, government made similar raids. And more and more black journalists with experience and skills left for work in government offices. The result has been that while a decade ago the average experience level in any newsroom would have been more than 10 years, today it is less than three years.

And yet, the story is even more complex. This less-experienced staff has to grapple with South Africa’s interface with globalization, both political and economic, its integration within the Southern African region, and its own internal stabilization process as it wades through transformation. To deal with this story in an environment in which “elders” are present to provide backup is difficult enough, but to do so without that elderly hand, is almost impossible.

Thus, today we find in South African journalism stories without context, arising out of these circumstances.

Being black also means carrying the flag for the race, as well as dealing with stereotypes and fighting them. Examples of this dilemma are many. For example, any story about AIDS which needs visual enhancement will have a black face on it, perpetuating the impression that like in the United States earlier with gays, the disease is affecting black people only.

Black journalists have to guard against perpetuating this kind of stereotype, without being seen as denying the obvious. And news stories about black people involved in accidents continue to be published without names or contexts of family background or of the weeping relative. Black areas are still seen as areas of crime stories. Publishing breasts and nipples of black women is easy while people will go into all kinds of elaborate permission-seeking exercises if the breasts and nipples are white. These are entrenched histories at many publications, and being a black journalist in South Africa today also means undoing them, fighting them, and refusing to buy into the old context and instead fighting to create a new one that brings dignity to the way black people are covered.

In the end, however, the challenge as always is how to tell the story of this evolving nation. And that, as we all know, starts with knowing one’s Five W’s and the H, researching, introducing context to the story, and abiding by the ethics of journalism. And having done that, being ready to stand by your story and defend it. Black South African journalists are doing just that, under very complex conditions.

Mathatha Tsedu, a 1997 Nieman Fellow, is deputy editor of The Star in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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