This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the Winter 2009 Nieman Reports. You can read the original here.

The media play a crucial part in any open process of discovering gross violations of human rights. When a country emerges from an undemocratic dispensation, it is in the public’s interest that the media learn how to report a democratic country to itself in a way that is fair, transparent and helpful toward creating an ethos of respect for the basic freedoms of everybody. As the media learn how to report democracy, the readers/listeners/watchers learn to read, see and hear democracy and hopefully how to safeguard it.

Instead of putting perpetrators on trial in foreign countries to be reported on by foreign media, South Africa chose to mete out its own rejection, assessment and judgment around these violations in order for a human rights ethos to be formulated in the country’s own vocabulary. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was fully supported by the local media and because of the country’s high levels of poverty and illiteracy, radio was the TRC’s prime focus. Since the end of the commission’s work, the media had been strongly criticized for their big influence on creating “shallow perceptions” about core concepts and influencing people to “buy into” the process of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Writing from an inside point of view, my essay looks at the priorities and focus of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) radio team that reported on the TRC.

F.W. de Klerk, right, shakes hands with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 1996. The former president of South Africa had recently acknowledged that his party’s apartheid policies meant suffering and humiliation for millions of South Africans. Photo by Sasa Kralj/The Associated Press.

When it was announced that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was to be the chairman of the still to be established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was sent together with my colleague Manelisi Dubase to interview him in the Anglican Church’s estate in Bishop’s Court, Cape Town.

Manelisi and I were reporters working for South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) radio in parliament under the direction of SABC’s political editor Pippa Green. An assignment like this meant that Manelisi would report in the current affairs programs of Xhosa and Sesotho; I would report in Afrikaans and English. One of us would do hardcopy for the news, plus a short sound bite of Tutu, while we would do Q&A’s with other radio stations in English.

This was the first time either of us had interviewed Tutu. We were surprised when, after sitting down, he began to pray. It took us some minutes afterward to regain our professional control as political journalists. What I remember vividly of this interview is that the Archbishop and Manelisi talked about the translation of specific terms. The commission was not yet established and for people whose mother tongues were not English one often needed to clarify the translation of words such as “reconciliation,” “amnesty” and “gross human rights violations.” (Among Afrikaans, there were discussions about the terms “perpetrator,” “gross violations,” and others.)

As I reported this story, I became aware of how journalists often find themselves at a place where events and word-making meet. And we are not always prepared or properly supported in these matters. To do an interview in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Sesotho, takes a lot of time and energy. Busy people are often reluctant to go to such lengths. Besides, in their heads, they are mostly speaking to those who understand English well. So, as radio journalists, we were always rattling off the listener figures of the indigenous languages to convince those we wanted to speak with to take the trouble. Speak only in English, and your words will reach 450,000 listeners ( a bigger audience than any South African newspaper). If this person can also speak Xhosa (add 1.6 million), Sesotho (add 1.5. million), and Afrikaans added another 700,000.

Of course, it might be my imagination, but I like to believe that this interaction that day with the Archbishop, as he repeated the same interview in Xhosa, Sesotho and Afrikaans, played at least some role in reminding the future TRC chair of the importance of radio.

The Role Radio Played 

Since 1974, there have been at least 25 truth commissions established throughout the world, though some did not at the time consider themselves to be truth commissions, nor were understood to be such by the wider public. (A commission is classified as a truth commission when it consists of a non-judicial temporary body, established by the state during a particular point of political transition. Such a commission has to investigate abuses and violations of human rights and must submit a final report.)

Despite being established after some of the others, the South African TRC broke ground by having a few unique characteristics: it gave amnesty; it allowed victims of the opposite sides to testify on the same forum; and it had its hearings in public.

When commission hearings are held in public, the news media are a necessary part of what happens. Apart from making public its hearings, the commission’s final report described another reason for accommodating the media:

The mass media is “critical in drawing all South Africans into the commission process. It (TRC) resolved in particular, that one way of helping to restore the dignity of victims of violations of human rights—and of reporting to the nation such violation and victims—would be to promote maximum publicity for the commission’s activities …

Also in their report, commission members draw a distinction between “its own communication of its own messages, which it controlled (and usually paid for), and the distribution of news and information through journalists in the print and broadcast media which by definition, resulted in publicity over which the commission had no final control.”

The TRC did pay special attention to radio. In its business plan it stipulated:

In considering the best means of making sure that as many South Africans as possible are enabled and empowered to participate in the life and work of the commission, it has judged radio the most effective communication medium for its proceedings to the widest number of people. Radio listenership figures far outstrip newspaper readership. In addition radio broadcasts penetrate all corners of the country in the home languages of the majority of South Africans … (also) for those who are not literate and for those in rural areas.

The strategy around radio coverage involved SABC finding sources of external support and the commission finding ways to accommodate our needs. Money for radio coverage was raised from the Norwegian government and given to SABC radio. And a special room was allocated by the commission to radio journalists (used also by private radio stations) during the first weeks of hearings. Feeds from the different translations on the floor were relayed to us so that we had access to the testimony in all languages. Special phone lines were installed (this was just before cellphones were so ubiquitous) to feed our reports straight to SABC news desk and current affairs shows. From this room – and with the assistance of a special sound technician – we were also able to participate in radio talks and we did Q&A’s with people in other parts of the country, delivering good quality sound without disturbing print or television journalists.

For the TRC, this strategy paid off. In an interview with the Sunday Times in December 1996, Tutu said:

One of our most substantial achievements, however, has been to bring events known until now only to the immediately affected communities …into the center of national life. … Millions of South Africans have heard the truth about the apartheid years for the first time, some through daily newspapers but many more through television, and especially radio…

Alex Boraine, the author of “A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” put it this way:

Although it was not easy to be under constant public scrutiny, I think the Commission owes the media an enormous debt of gratitude. Through their very conscientious work they involved the whole country in the work of the TRC. Unlike many commissions, this one was centre stage, and media coverage, particularly radio, enabled the poor, the illiterate, and people living in rural areas to participate in its work so that it was truly a national experience rather than restricted to a small handful of selected commissioners.

My Path to Covering the TRC

I was invited by the SABC’s Political Editor Pippa Green to join the newly formed team to report on the first democratically elected parliament in South Africa. My beat was the Justice Portfolio Committee whose first task was to draft legislation that would establish the TRC. I reported daily on this legislative process and came to know the bill well. It took the committee 127 hours and 30 minutes to draft the bill so as to accommodate the interests of all political parties and nongovernmental organizations. It was regarded as the most sensitive, technically complex, controversial and important legislation ever to be passed by parliament.

Then I reported on the presidential committee that interviewed more than 40 prospective candidates to select the 17 commissioners. Knowledge I gained by doing this coverage is what I suspect led the SABC to appoint me to lead a small team to report on the TRC. In fact, not every journalist even wanted to report on this part of South Africa’s story at that time. The country was writing its new progressive constitution; Mandela was a triumph for the country as he toured the world; our sport teams were competing and winning; and the political life of the country was new and exciting. Some wondered why anybody would prefer to be involved in raking up the past.

Looking back it is sometimes impossible to distinguish which of the decisions were taken for practical and which for principled reasons, or when the two were actually the same. At one point the head of the TRC Media, John Allen, said to me: “You [the media] suggest deliberate planning and hidden strategies, but most of what happens here at the TRC is through lack of foresight or simply incompetence.”

Perhaps the same could be said for radio. Certainly during the TRC’s first year, the word “underestimated” was used often. Most people, it seemed, completely underestimated the breadth and depth and the consequences of what this commission was unearthing and tossing into the mix of South Africa’s effort to carve its new identity.

Telling Radio Stories

In our coverage of TRC, I wanted to make full use of all of radio’s “genres” in news reporting. One of them is news bulletins, and when news is heard there, then current affairs picks up the story and also the newspapers, and then other programs follow. People listen for different reasons to the news (like getting information about weather or the markets), but if a story gets on as a news bulletin, even listeners of radio stations that just play music will hear it. I remember standing in a supermarket with a TRC story on the news bulletin and customers were paying and waiting, in a way “trapped” to listen to it. We’d also used early morning bulletins to contextualize the day and evening ones to wrap it up. Many print journalists told us they listened to radio to get their background for the day.

As the leading expert in news bulletin stories and quality sound, our team member, Angie Kapelianis, was responsible for this hourly contribution. Initially, those who prepared the bulletins didn’t want to commit to using our stories or giving them priority. But quality won them over; what Angie sent them was of such a nature and standard that they had nothing comparable and we soon became the main item on every news bulletin. We also felt particularly proud to put the voices of ordinary women and men on the news bulletin in their original languages with the English translation. It changed the sound of the news and brought across the right of ordinary people to talk, to be translated and to be heard. It also perhaps in a small way began to restore the dignity of victims.

We soon began to hear how people in far away places heard about the commission. Through our coverage, they’d hear for the first time what happened to family members or neighbors. There was also strong reaction from within the white community; many of them didn’t want to be confronted with these stories during their daily lives and some complained that their children were listening and asking questions. Others said that they didn’t want to hear about blood and torture while they were eating their Post Toasties.

So we had to fight to get some of the stories on the news. This meant we had to devise ways of packaging the stories in such a way that was not destroying their impact but was also true to what was being said. And we had to monitor the news bulletins regularly so we’d know when stories were shifted by bulletin writers to late night slots or edited into bland text.

The second radio genre in news reporting is Question & Answer (Q&A). And the third is what is known as the “package” broadcast; these stories get played on the morning, midday and afternoon current affairs’ shows. From our team, Zola Ntutu (Xhosa, Zulu and English), Darren Taylor (Afrikaans and English), and Tapelo Makushane (Sesotho, Tswana and English), later joined by others, developed a fascinating grip on stories that would work well for shows. Among them, these journalists established extraordinary access to sources throughout South Africa. They brought in a wide variety of viewpoints and backgrounds and picked up stories that no newspaper published. Each day, they were able to produce between eight to 10 excellent items that reached the width and breadth of the country. Texts of these items were also placed on the SABC Web site so they could be translated into Venda or Tsonga.

Our team never dealt with the past by insisting or believing that there was only one truth; from each other, we learned that there are many truths. Some truths one might not like; for some, these “truths” might seem to be a lie, but even the construction of that lie was talk about a particular truth. We worked in pairs or groups, and the pressure of our workload and the emotional wear and tear we experienced brought about a kind of reconciliation among us.

When we began to report the hearings in rural areas, we were joined by local reporters who not only taught us their skills but assisted in doing quality stories in these neglected areas. When the TRC split its hearings into violations and amnesty, we had to form smaller units and were then joined by Dumisane Kwamba (Venda), Kenneth Makatees (Afrikaans), Dumisane Shenge (Zulu), and Andries Satekghe (Tswana).

Another radio news genre we used involved a nine-to-five broadcast of the hearing by one of the national broadcaster’s stations. We linked up with this feed and provided the person introducing the hearings in the studio with information. Not many people listened to this continuous feed, but psychologically it had a huge impact. People would come across it and either stay there or move away, but they would know it was happening and that people were dealing with the past. When they’d come across the station again, even the most skeptical people would have to acknowledge that some of it what was being said must be true. This feed was also followed by perpetrators who wanted to know whether their names were mentioned so that they could quickly apply for amnesty.

On Friday mornings I would provide a wrap of the week about what stood out, what patterns emerged, and what was new. Once as month I would take a theme and have it analyzed by experts. On Sunday evening we had a slot in which longer stories provided by the team would be used as well as live interviews.

The Role of Journalists

We tried to create a mesh of three-phased reporting: news, longer news packages, and debates and analysis. Initially we did this to satisfy our need for understanding particular events or behaviors. But over time it became apparent that this approach also prevented listeners from being bombarded with terrible facts of pain and suffering without any attempt to find ways to process what one was hearing. We focused on concepts such as memory loss, post traumatic stress symptoms, and anomie.

As the process continued we realized the value of having this core reporting group. We developed an institutional memory. This meant we could immediately pick up any change in the process of testimony, but more importantly we could identify silences. We didn’t think that we should fill the silences, but tried to analyze why they were there.

I forbade members of our reporting team from doing only one thing: initiating, looking for or broadcasting a “live” reconciliation story. Reconciliation was immensely important and so personal that I didn’t believe we had a right to witness it because our mere presence could interfere and influence the process in a way that it perhaps didn’t really want to go. Individuals dealing with their pasts were always more important than a journalist’s story. Sensitive issues such as forgiveness or revenge should never be manipulated because one wanted a good story. I was and still am hugely suspicious of people who confront victims with questions about forgiveness.

Yet, the devotion to this story evident in the journalists reporting on the TRC showed that they felt involved in a process that was not simply a story; it resonated with and affected their lives. We reported this story because we wanted a better country and we wanted the effects of the injustice of the past to come to light so they would stop. To have a “mission” as a journalist is dangerous ground. But if one wants a better society, a more caring and fair society, then targeting particular people as enemies or to presenting some people as the devil isn’t productive.

I once watched BBC’s reporting about Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The camera, which must have been below him, showed his face looking bloated and arrogant, and he was not speaking in English so BBC viewers couldn’t understand what he was saying. I wondered how he would have been reported on if he’d been on trial in his own country. Ultimately, how we reported on P.W. Botha and Joe Mamasela indicated to South Africans the level of injustice and arrogance we were prepared to live with and forgive. There is no point in letting foreign journalists report on a country’s own quest for righteousness. It is crucial for reporters from that country to do it themselves, to learn the vocabulary of right and wrong and the treachery of painting a person as “the Devil,” and therefore the bearer of guilt so that you become “the Angel, the blameless.

Mourners in Soweto attended a 1977 memorial service for anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko, who died in police custody. Photo by The Associated Press.

Lessons Learned

As I wrote in my introduction to this essay, the news media play a crucial part in any open process of discovering gross violations of human rights. Now I’d like to summarize some recommendations of do’s and don’ts for radio coverage, based on lessons learned during our coverage of TRC:

  • Those involved in operating a TRC should be convinced about the importance of mother-tongue expression and simultaneous interpretation.
  • Radio should strengthen its own vocabularies in terms of how to convey information about traumatizing events and human rights. Learn indigenous terms for human rights, indemnity, amnesty, rape, misogynism, masochism and other words that surface during the commission hearings.
  • Do preparatory work on underlying concepts and founding legislation before a TRC begins its work. Listeners should know why the commission was established and what it will try to achieve. (Despite the fact that the South African TRC became famous for its individualization of amnesty, the African National Congress applied for general amnesty nine months into the South African process. Distribution of basic information clearly didn’t reach the upper echelons of the new government.)
  • A core team of journalists should be kept on the story so that knowledge of the process can be developed and journalists can begin to trust their own judgments instead of being dependent on the information fed by the TRC or other stakeholders.
  • Strategies should be developed to keep the integrity of the narratives. We observed that the terminology, rhythm, pace and non-verbal signs of the victims’ narratives could seldom be improved upon in terms of impact and integrity.

Once I wrote a bulletin about a mother who talked about a T-shirt that was so full of bullet holes that it looked as if it was “eaten by rats.” The news bulletin editor thought it OK to change it to simply a “bullet ridden T-shirt.”

Another time I came across white people who were questioning the honesty of victims. “They wait until the camera was on them, then they cried,” they said. Working as closely as I was with the testimonies, I was astonished that anybody could reach this conclusion. Scrutinizing TV news coverage suggested why they had. The TV news coverage was often done by a local news reporter from the area. The result was that the news bulletin would open with an attractive, well-groomed young reporter standing in front of the building where the TRC had its hearings: “Today Mrs. So-and-so described how her son was killed by Security Forces …” Then, slap-bam and the camera was directly on this woman who was incoherent with grief. It truly did not seem real.

With our radio reports of testimony, we always used a structure in which a person’s actual words could be embedded. In other words, a radio story would not switch from the reporter to the victim but from the reported words of the victim to the victim herself. By the time the victim’s voice entered the story, her own words had prepared the listener.

Analysis and Investigation: Our Big Failure

One of our big failures was the quality of our third-phase reporting. Most reporters were so wiped out by the sheer volume and intensity of the testimonies they heard that they battled to find energy to analyze or investigate a broader context. And I also experienced an absence of scholarly input. Trying to find psychologists willing (or able) to talk about the perpetrators or memory loss or the broader effect of the death of a child on a family was difficult. This kind of important analysis was lacking in the print media as well. At times, books based on experiences in other countries were passed around and related articles helped us at times to make sense of what we were seeing and hearing. But it felt as if the intellectual input of South African academia—with some important exceptions such as Sheila Meintjes, Andre du Toit and Fiona Ross—only kicked in after the process was finished, and then in highly critical terms.

In an important book about the TRC, “Commissioning the Past” Deborah Posel says:

The TRC’s engagement with truth was significantly shaped by its role as powerful media spectacle in South Africa’s reconciliation enterprise. … the TRC’s direct impact on the process of national reconciliation was powerfully mediated by the mass media. … The hearings were constructed as opportunities to “uncover” pristine, uncorrupted truths about a past previously “hidden from history” by creating safe public spaces in which victims and survivors could tell their stories directly and openly.

This struck me as an oversimplification of the power of the multiple voices reporting on the commission as well as the variety of contacts we, and others, had inside it. There was always somebody who knew which testimonies were shaky; we could and did ask the commission for statements on doubtful facts. It grossly underestimates our reporting efforts to suggest that journalists would work with the TRC to pretend that what was being uncovered were “pristine, uncorrupted truths.”

Nicky Rousseau, who was a senior research analysis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was one of the team of authors of the commission’s official report, underlines the complexity at work within the commission but also blames the journalists for “shallow media interpretations” on which academics built their conclusions. In contending this, Rousseau writes that scholars based their conclusions

 “almost entirely from media images of the TRC rather than a closer study of the texts and activities of the TRC, its practices of research and investigation, and its public and private interactions with victims and perpetrators. Much of the media coverage of the TRC, commenced with enthusiasm in 1996 but largely abandoned by the end of 1998, focused on simple images and expressions, often embodied in Archbishop Tutu, as opposed to the contradictory and at times combative impulses of the TRC.”

In my estimation, Rousseau is right about the failure of academics to grapple fully with the complexity of the TRC process. But she seems to make a similar oversight in not acknowledging the complexity of radio reporting. What happened within its different genres and phases, languages and live Q & A’s, longer wraps and series and with the reporting done by local journalists deserves a more careful investigation. After all, our SABC radio team received South Africa’s Pringle Award for its reporting of the TRC commission, which was the first time radio had won this prestigious prize.

During the lifetime of the TRC, scholars in South Africa and outside of our borders were not assisting the South African media in trying to build a thoughtful and widely engaged discourse. This failure, I’d suggest, has had a more lasting impact on the tensions and problems South Africans are experiencing now as a result of unfinished business than did the news media’s reporting.

Antjie Krog, poet, writer and journalist, is a member of the arts faculty at the University of Western Cape in near Cape Town, South Africa. From 1995 to 2000 she worked for SABC as a radio journalist; she reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings from 1996 to 1998. Her book, “Country of My Skill,” published in 1998, is an account of reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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