"Africa shall write her own history, it will be a glorious And dignified history"
The late Patrice Hemery Lumumba echoed the statement above before he was martyred. His trust in the ability of African writers to articulate their continent’s issues is an indictment to journalists at a time when the standard of South African journalism is reportedly deteriorating and quantity is being celebrated at the expense of quality.
Commentators of Lumumba's statement are vocal that South African media is facing its most serious challenge in so many years. The first worrying fact was dissected in the April 2006 issue of The Media magazine relating to the demise of the South African Union of Journalists (SAUJ). That gave birth to the vulnerability that practicing journalists find themselves in these days. An age old problem has always been the remuneration of media practitioners. This has worsened to the point that many journalists at community media level are aspiring to work for government. The situation results in community media, radio and newspapers not being critical enough of the third level of government even when it fails to deliver on its mandate because whoever is doing political reporting aspires to be a spindoctor for the mayor.
Lumumba’s statement again sounds hollow when one considers the recent exodus of most good senior scribes to corporate journalism and Public Relations. Founder and board member of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) Mr. Allister Sparks says the drive is purely economical, "newspapers have to pay more attention to the journalists in their newsroom. They need to focus more on training and paying journalists more to keep them in the profession. Companies need to realize that there is a short supply of skills in the country. The juniorisation of the newsroom means that young journalists have to knock out four to five stories a day, while they are not paid or valued enough". This, other experts say paints a picture whereby the top and lower levels of media are occupied, while the middle section is almost empty.
What comes out of the analysis is that the media make-up has meant that some experienced journalists have shifted from writing probing, investigative and two-sided reports to focusing their energies on sensational stories that help push the copy and attract advertising. "We have lost our focus in terms of our roles in the democratic order. We don’t have a common enemy anymore. We pursue industrialistic needs. Sensational writing has a negative impact. Gossip writing is shoddy journalism, it’s not healthy and is negative to the successful writing of our history" another former journalist who is now into the public sector added.
Motsebi Monareng, a former investigative reporter for Lowveld Media's Mpumalanga News had been in situations where local politicians would gossip that he would never be granted a government job because he was always on a witch-hunt. However, Monareng was nothing but a devoted community worker whose greatest aspiration was to climb the media ladder to the highest level. He came from a newspaper which had lost 90% of its news staff to the public sector in so many years. A happy hunting ground for bureaucrats. (Monareng has since joined the South African Broadcasting Corporation)
Notwithstanding, his challenge was similar to that of many other journalists all over the country, nobody is willing to pay them what they think they are worth, even though Monareng was not complaining.
In The Media article journalist Jude Mathurine wrote, "despite a flood of media initiatives since 1994, short term contract, outsourcing and shedding of permanent posts has created a burgeoning market for freelancers who largely remain outside the union net". She went on to mention that even when permanent journalists create worker's unions, the need to cater for freelancers is not considered. It then becomes an issue as there are hundreds of freelancers out there who are merely depending on their negotiation skills to bargain for well-paying assignments. It is a paradox that in a country where there is such a serious exodus of senior black staff to join government you still get freelancers who get a flat rate, some R1 per word, while others go beyond R4. This discourages young black writers from seeing the media as a medium they can grow in.
The absence of real black columnists in both magazines and newspapers poses a serious challenge and broadens the question of whether the media has transformed since it made abridged submissions before the government some years ago. Have media bosses stuck to what they promised politicians and the public?
What motivates the aforementioned exodus of black journalists is lack of above poverty line incentives in the profession, says a former Sunday newspaper journalist who now works for Ehlanzeni District Municipality in Mpumalanga. Experienced writers have painfully switched from field journalism to PR, while some to jobs far removed from journalism. "Journalism needs to be restructured, we’ve got great writers living in poverty because they don’t get what is due to them. Media owners need to start paying journalists as an encouragement" the journo protested
The situation is not different from the one faced by white photojournalists who one of them, due to fear of victimization requested not to be named for this piece. The white photographer, who has done work for a big media house complained that the rates have not changed in the past ten years. "If you voice that you want an increase they just overlook you for the next assignment and enlist someone who will charge them less. But if one lens of my camera breaks down I have to fork out R4000 which I don't have", he said.
However Chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum Mr. Joe Tlholoe is of the opinion that journalists are not paid that bad in this country. "Levels of pay in the media are fairly high. It’s just that there is a route that is usually taken whereby someone comes in, gets experience, migrate to government, work for three years until he’s got that experience written on his Curriculum Vitae which makes them attractive to the private sector dying to fulfill its employment equity obligations" Tlholoe argues.
The scenarios presented by Sparks and Tlholoe indicate that the exodus is driven by money, which is a situation faced by hard-working journalist who will easily be lost to government if a vacancy presented itself. At that time society will be wondering why the country's history is not written by the conquerors but the conquered. Society will wonder why young people know more about Robbie Williams and Harry Potter and little about Mama Miriam Makeba and Prof Zakes Mda. Simple, the white people in the media are setting the agenda because the few blacks who are there are used to exploiting their own or are unable to articulate black issues.
"We are articulating these issues at various editorial positions occupied today. If you take the media as a whole I think that the South African story is told in all its nuances and colour" Tlholoe adds
Sparks argues that journalist feel unappreciated and the shortage of skills in the country, especially black skills means the ratio of supply and demand is lost to the employers, "It is the law of economics, private and public sector pay more and newspapers are derelict of the situation. It is the same thing with teaching and nursing which have recently seen mass exoduses of staff". He says it is a challenge when a journalist is expected to churn out four to five stories a day while such hard work will not be asked of them in government or private sector.
SANEF chairperson says that the issue is about how low the private sector is willing to sink to attract media professionals. "Private sector is prepared to pay abnormal salaries to be able to meet their requirements. They are prepared to pay a premium that can not be matched by the newspapers. Overall, journalists are well paid, there’s no doubt about that"
While freelances are the hungrier and exploited, it is also them who do not see the need to organise themselves so they can bargain for the salaries that Tlholoe speaks about. "Young professionals are still not joining trade unions because they feel that they may have to go on strike. The problem is that people tend to think if they are well remunerated that they don't have to join a trade union" Broadcast and Electronic Media and Allied Workers Union (BEMAWU) president Hannes du Buisson told Mathurine.
73 year old Sparks believes companies must be willing to wave their hunger for profiteering for a some time while focusing on training and retention of staff, citing that media is the only profession protected by the Bill of Rights, which is an indication of how important it is as a Fourth Estate. Tlholoe reports that SANEF is worried about the exodus and is already planning a summit that will involve editors, managers and owners to find ways to retain staff and add value to the product.
That most journalists abandon the profession for materialistic reasons rings a bell for all black writers to do introspection. The late father of black consciousness Steve Biko once wrote, "Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty, it kills". And Lumumba couldn’t have agreed more.

* Illustration from The Star newspaper

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