Frank Ochberg’s South Africa Journal

Director’s Note:

The Dart Center’s reach has included journalists in several nations in the past year, a response to a growing commitment on our part to serve journalism worldwide.

The South African group was led by Dart Center Chair Frank Ochberg, M.D., who carried the honor of Fulbright Senior Specialist as he visited news groups and journalism schools. He was joined by Dr. Meg Moritz and Elizabeth Gaeddert of the U. of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Dart Fellow Natalie Pompilio, a staff reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

MAY 10

Airborne over the Atlantic
I’m in a jumbo jet, en route to Amsterdam. After a half-day, I fly on to Johannesburg, South Africa, and begin a two-week stint as a Senior Fulbright Specialist, interacting with journalists. My introduction to this complicated country is through Breyten Breytenbach’s “A Season in Paradise,” – ironic title of his first of a triptych recounting visits to his homeland. The irony is that South Africa was Breyten’s hell as well as heaven. He fought a war of words with the masters of apartheid. They took eight years of his liberty but he endured and produced a strong body of poetry, prose and paintings. The only reason I am reading Breytenbach is our chance meeting a few weeks ago in Seattle, co-panelists at a conference of poets and journalists who explored “Languages of Emotional Injury.” Breyten lives in Senegal now – and Paris, New York and other oases for artists, but he is due to be in Cape Town when I’ll be there, so we should reconnect on his native soil.

I’ve just recorded a line from Breytenbach, “When you cross an ass with a shark you get a journalist.” He is angry. It is 1973; his notoriety has reached some height in Europe and South Africa; his trail is dogged by reporters who work for state-controlled dailies. I don’t blame him for his rage, and may quote him when I have a chance. But my goal remains to be the reporters’ ally, to bring some balm to the war-weary and the crime-surfeited scribe. The journalist is NOT a poet and may have a unique disease after several tragic events. They absorb the dose of trauma and they write the factual account. But they are seldom asked to analyze or to analogize or to transform injury into anything meaningful or redemptive. They provide the raw material for others – and we “others” may help and heal and operate the institutions of change. The artist, the poet, the philanthropist have a vehicle for personal expression and public provocation. The news reporter stifles the urge to be a critic or an agent of reform.

Here comes my dinner. I’ll hold my pen.

MAY 11

The John Adams of this new democracy
That was written yesterday. I’m still in a jumbo jet, now over Zimbabwe approaching South Africa. My customs card wants me to choose among a half-dozen travel purposes: business, pleasure, emigration, immigration, temporary employment and study. I could select “other” but that requires an explanation. So I am going with “study.” I’ll try to remember that and learn something.

Now at last I have arrived and settled into my room at the Figa Lapa guest house, Pretoria. I heard a bit about the country along the way: 45 million population, four major cities (Johannesburg, Capetown, Durban and Pretoria), high crime rates related to high unemployment (40%), but no trouble where I’m staying. Vestiges of racism, particularly in rural areas, but generally good race relations. Zimbabwe to the north is far different with a dictator leader who foments aggression against white and black opponents. Mugabe sounds as bad as Moi, Mobutu, Amin and other African tyrants. I’ll learn more about (South African President Thabo) Mbeki as the weeks go by. He is the John Adams of this new democracy, and may be equally overshadowed by the father of the nation.

Tomorrow all the others arrive – Meg Moritz and Beth Gaeddert from Colorado; Natalie Pompilio from New Orleans, Wiida Fourie, our host from Pretoria Technikon University, and possibly Merle Friedman from Jo-burg. Merle is a psychologist who contributes to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and who will help us leave roots behind.

MAY 12

Early to bed
Our crew has arrived – first Meg and Beth, then Natalie, then Wiida with two month infant and lawyer husband. By dinnertime it felt as though we had been together for days. Gary, a robust wild game hunter from New Mexico, joined us for family-style chicken, mushroom, okra and figs, followed by local fruit brandy. Everyone is friendly, half disoriented by jet lag (Wiida by infant feeding) and all by fruit brandy. We turned in by 9PM, mid-afternoon in the US but a lot later after travel, cat naps and South African schnapps.

MAY 13

“No one really knows what was said”
We have a van driver named Stan, who is a fourth year journalism school student and a low key, efficient, likable guy. He took us all to Technikon Pretoria University for our first meeting of many – this time with the full-time faculty of the School of Journalism. We swapped stories quickly then planned our big day – an annual commemorative event featuring all of us next Tuesday.

In the van and on our brief walks, in the hall and in the open air restaurant, I learned a bit more about South African journalism, demography and politics. There are three major national dailies, one for the Afrikaan, one for the English speaking whites, and the Sowetan for the English speaking blacks. The latter is the largest and the most lurid. The Afrikaaner paper supported the government in the Eighties, but, according to Pedro Diederichs, the journalism professor and chairman, raised concerns and pushed Botha and de Klerk toward ending apartheid. Botha had a stroke in 1987, de Klerk came on in 1988, and secret meetings with Mandela paved the way to a smooth transfer of power. “No one really knows what was said,” answers Pedro, when I ask for details.

The Afrikaaners I meet all love this country respect Mandela but most distrust Mbeke and seem at once disappointed and optimistic about their national condition. The Rand (the currency of South Africa) plummeted, then regained some ground. It is still a tenth of a US dollar; once nearly equivalent. The bloodbath never came. The new constitution promises more freedom than America, but stipulates that abuses of the past must be reversed with aggressive affirmative action. Skilled workers may be hired above their level of competence. Unskilled workers are lucky to find work at all. Crime soars.

Our afternoon was spent touring – first the massive Voortrekker Monument, dedicated to the victories of the last century when (Paul) Kruger and others conducted a great trek from the Cape to the Transvaal, defeating the Zulus in the River of Blood, using rifles against spears, hanging lanterns on covered wagons (which confounded the superstitious native warriors, delayed their attack, allowed time for wet powder to dry, and assured yet another white man’s slaughter of indigenous people).

The friezes celebrating Voortrek victory depict Zulus as depraved and conquering whites as angel-blest heroes. Our guide, a Voortrek scion, went on in unstoppable docentese, unaware of the growing revulsion in our anti-colonial party. But we realized the American West was won in just as much blood, with just as much overwhelming fire power. We annihilated our continental host. The Boers and the British left an ample majority alive and are dealing with a very different legacy.

MAY 14

From interviewing the bereaved to becoming grief stricken
Our van sped to Jo-burg and Stan delivered us as reporters drifted into the meeting room of Beeld – a large Afrikaaner paper. Two women reporters from a remote post in the Northern Province came many miles for this meeting. It didn’t take long for us to introduce ourselves, to run through our remarks, and to enter a rather emotional discussion. One of the reporters stated that her managers have no idea what she covers, how she suffers, how isolated she feels at her post. As tears rolled down her cheeks, her colleague from the province nodded agreement. The topic shifted from interviewing the bereaved to becoming grief stricken, to resenting the indifference of editors.

Meg suggested an alliance of reporters; I suggested a role for the journalism school; Natalie described Dart Society interest and availability. That would involve email support by peers half way around the planet – an interesting idea. A manager and former editor noted that times were changing and such concerns are now legitimate, but were mocked and disparaged in his day, some 18 years ago. Then stoicism and alcoholism were the preferred philosophy and remedy.

Reel after reel of the beaten, the bloodied, and the slain
The two allotted hours sped by and we extended our discussion informally over lunch. Alone with me, one of the others (I’ll call him Peter) confided his condition. Since surviving a harrowing assignment, freelancing in Jerusalem and Ramallah, he has had classic PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In 2000, covering a near riot, he was beaten while in his vehicle, then nearly dragged out to a certain death, prodded with an AK 47, and finally rescued by police. In a daze, Peter continued his photography, shooting reel after reel of the beaten, the bloodied, and the slain.

When it all ended he felt a leaden sadness rather than rage or fear. Peter sought counseling and medication, but tells me he is disappointed with both. Serzone (a drug treatment for depression) doesn’t stop the flashbacks. His therapist seems inexperienced, unconfident.

This photojournalist is single, young, with clear ideas about pictures he wants to take. Serious pictures. Studies of death. But he can’t go on if his work evokes flashbacks and tears. His tears are part of a deep feeling that sounds to me like compassion rather than depression. I explained the difference: in depression you feel hopeless and worthless. That’s not Peter. And I told him how I’d work with someone like him. He agreed with alacrity to several specific suggestions: contacting Merle Friedman, the best trauma therapist I know of in South Africa; emailing an American photojournalist with PTSD who is a trained peer-supporter; illustrating Natalie’s articles – yet to be written, but sure to need photos from the region; working with Wiida at Technikon to be sure that her plans for a new theme on journalism and trauma include services for young professionals like him. Most of all, I thought aloud with Peter about drawing on trauma symptoms to propel artistic work. He has room in his life for “poetic photography.” The goal is not to erase painful memory, nor to avoid the the intense sensation attached to recollection of tragedy. The goal is to modulate the pain and to produce images that evoke thought in others.

One day of connection
Later in the day, after a tour of the Institute for Journalism, and an hour with their remarkable director, I finally met my friend Merle, introduced her to Wiida, and closed the loop. Merle will call Peter and she knows what to do to help him. She will be part of our gala program for journalists next Tuesday. She will lead the South African effort to link therapists with journalists, from the therapists’ side of the gulf. Our job has just begun, but it seems to be half completed after one day of connection in Johannesburg.

May 15

A palpable sense of camaraderie and connection
The Sowetan is the old black newspaper with an old black staff. Acting Editor Chris More met us at 9 AM and ushered us into his cramped office, filled with chairs, accommodating 8 people, tops. That meant 6 of us (four Americans, Wiida and Stan), himself, and just one reporter. Chris said they were very busy covering an important vote in Parliament, and couldn’t free up any more time, any more staff. Wiida practically pleaded with him, noting how far we had come, how important the topic, how much notice he had been given. He relented. He opened a large conference room and produced five journalists, all black men. They sat shoulder to shoulder on one side of a U-shaped cluster of tables. Chris sat next to me, across from them; Wiida, Beth and Natalie spread out in remaining seats; Stan, our student and chauffeur found a place along the wall and Meg positioned herself behind a battery operated video camera on a tripod. This time, Wiida gave a sentence or two introduction and turned it over to me. I decided to be somewhat formal, ceremonial, diplomatic (in the sense of representing a delegation, respecting their institution, and honoring their history). But I did give the usual briefing on the concepts of trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout.. Knowing this audience, I emphasized the cumulative effect of relentless responsibility and the unrecognized valor of the journalist of oppression.

Natalie followed with a clear explanation of her city, her beat, her work, and gave interesting examples of covering crime and tragedy. Her clippings from the Times Picayune were passed from hand-to-hand. Her account of journalists, her friends, whose emotional anguish was seldom acknowledged by the editor, ended her brief report. Editor Chris More spoke next. No one called on him. He was the senior figure in the room. He began saying words to the effect that he would speak of things he never said before; that his thoughts and feelings were stirred by what had just been said. He came from a generation taught to ignore or suppress emotion, but he had deep feelings. “I have probably been mistaken as an editor in denying expression of these feelings and implying my reporters should as well. That is wrong.”

In one brief revelation, he reversed the implicit policy of his newspaper.

Every reporter followed suit, and told of years of investigating or photographing the tragedies of their countrymen. One front page from two years ago was shown: a controversial portrait of a father hanging himself and his young child. What had been described to me earlier as an example of unethical sensationalism now came clear as an appropriate icon of despair – shared by the journalist who was motivated by a legitimate drive to communicate – not to shock.

“They consider this soft stuff and may not approve.”
There was a palpable sense of camaraderie and connection, no tears, but no holding back – a solemn enthusiasm to speak and to listen. One man’s face showed his readiness to interrupt and tell his story, but he waited for his colleague to conclude, then did tell his story. These were cases of crimes and arrests and beatings and necklacing, some from the old era, some from the new. But they were followed by personal expressions of grief and loss and relief at the license to speak among peers.

Chris told Wiida he would like to work with her to arrange more sessions like this one, and asked my advice for gaining the support of his superiors. “They consider this soft stuff and may not approve,” he said. I suggested he prepare a written plan with his colleagues who were in the room today, and then with Wiida, and send it to me. The plan should call for regular activity that validates expression of human feeling, and promotes excellence in reporting traumatic events. The section for newspaper managers in the pamphlet written by Joe Hight and Frank Smyth was proffered as guidance. But I also promised to solicit critique and endorsement from international media leaders such as the European Editor of BBC World Service and the President of CNN International, good friends of this movement. The idea went over well.

This is a coup for Wiida. She and her journalism school have been subtly rejected by the Sowetan – quite possibly a legacy of Afrikaaner-Black tension. Although the Dean of Communication at Technikon Pretoria is black, the journalism faculty of four is three fourths white, and the school has an Afrikaan history. I was delighted to help advance a rapproachment.

Reporters and photographers used to sharing their feelings
Next stop, the Star: this is an integrated paper with more blacks than whites, more women than men, more young than old. We had more people in a smaller room. The atmosphere was different although the themes were similar. These reporters and photographers were more used to sharing feelings. Their feelings were almost identical to those of the Sowetan staff, but we didn’t cause such a dramatic uncorking of the bottle.

Reporter G. goes for counseling regularly at a privately endowed clinic that gives free and effective care. I must tell Merle about this, since any therapist vetted by a crime reporter deserves inclusion in our network.

Debby Yasbek, chief photographer, described how her editor would see a vexed expression across the room, drop her work, and come over to inquire about her photojournalist’s well-being. I had to meet this woman, Robin Comley, and express my admiration. We need her aboard, as well.

Alf Kumalo, senior photographer, described his years as Nelson Mandela’s photographer with quiet pride. Alf’s niece is also a journalist at the Star. He’s proud of that, too.

We had an hour scheduled, but that became two. This topic gets a warm reception.

May 16

Columbine felt irrelevant in South Africa
Middleburg is two hours east of Pretoria but rush hour traffic and one wrong turn meant two and one-half hours and a late start to our seminar with the staff of 7 weekly papers. These are all part of a chain managed by John Frewin, the former owner. When we went around the room, he introduced himself as, “the boss.” The room was in the Middleburg Country Club, a vestige of colonial times. We had close to two dozen attendees.

This was a good session, but awkward at times. The audience took a long while to warm up. We had more time than before (9:30 AM to 3 PM) but seemed to spend those extra hours talking at rather than with the reporters. Meg and Beth showed 40 minutes of a 55 minute video called, “Covering Columbine” and Columbine felt irrelevant in South Africa. A few minutes of film to illustrate some teaching points would be effective, but too much takes the focus off our audience and their concerns. We agreed to adjust that tomorrow.

We did use a small group format for the first time, and I found that quite interesting, although it took assertive facilitation to evoke discussion. A photographer told us of her secret shame and guilt for winning a prize for a portrait of a dead child. Two other journalists who worked as a team – reporter and editor – shared their shock at covering a farm killing. These massacres of elderly whites by vengeful blacks are all too common – and inevitably bloody affairs. Another reporter described a case of incest which she wrote up shielding all names – father and brother, the perpetrators, and their young victim. An older sister in her 20s called the reporter, identified herself as coming from that family, and somewhat aggressively demanded to know the paper’s motive in treating the issue. Our small group spent some time discussing incest – the services available to victims; the risk of breaking the incest secret and possibly harming the victim; the need to publicize these crimes in general for the good of the community at large. But we soon drifted back to our principal theme: Journalists have feelings based on the news they cover. Sharing these feelings in various forms and formats is generally healthy. Understanding the range of emotion and the reasons for each emotion is almost always of value.

Dining with an entrepreneur
Our late afternoon and early evening included a tour of Mhluzi. This township of 120,000 has government housing and shanties, mostly brick with tin roofs, mostly detached with tiny plots of land, seldom larger than one of our garages – a one car garage. They have few cars and no garages. The chickens scratch the red earth. Vacant lots are strewn with refuse but home surroundings are clean and well kept.

We walked through the cemetery with its creative headstones – odd shapes, pottery relics placed nearby. We attracted stares when we emerged from our van, but handshakes and smiles when we were guided by Farneii, the reporter who hails from the township, to a back alley kitchen serving home made pineapple beer.

Meeting Sarah Mahlanger, touring her guesthouse and her “Something Out of Nothing” workshop, sharing her African meal, was the high point of the evening. Sarah is an artist, hostess, environmentalist and entrepreneur. She is warm and enthusiastic and welcoming. She paints old used cans and turns them into recycled wastebaskets. She constructs decorative wrapping paper with a few slashes of African-style paint swirls. Her workshop announces creativity. Children flock to her and dance for us. She employs a dozen workers in 14 sites and shares a percentage of her trade. For this enterprise she has been feted in London and Paris, winning “Entrepreneur of the year” awards.

But it is dining with her African style that is unforgettable. Pap and marago; putupap and milk; pumpkin and pumpkin seed; maize; tripe (which I passed on); then something she said, “comes from a tree.” After eating this, I learned it was roasted worm. It did come from a tree. Nobody had seconds.

May 17

Their motives are not lewd or pecuniary
Late again! We should have known that 200 kilometers to Nelspruit would take more than two hours, but we dawdled at breakfast once we discovered we were to begin our session at 10 AM rather than 9. No matter.This crew from the Lowvelder and a scattering of smaller media outlets (and two policemen) enjoyed themselves at the local pub, our genial conference setting. We decided to change our batting order, drop the Columbine tape, and make strenuous efforts to generate group discussion. This was a much livelier crowd and we all felt gratified by the result.

It could have been them, it could have been us, it could have been the setting. This audience was approximately 2/3 white, 1/3 black. We spoke about cultural differences and race relations. One white reporter asked why we (meaning all of us) were so afraid of death. This arose in the context of trauma imagery causing traumatic stress, and the convention in white communities to keep photographs of dead bodies off page one. A black reporter explained that his community had less fear and revulsion (grief, yes; anxiety, no). He opined that being raised with animals, and hunting, and a belief that the dead are still with us removes the sting. He may not have put it exactly that way, but he certainly did explain matters quite differently than my white compatriots, especially Wiida, who is profoundly disturbed by gore above the fold. But after a half day with this newspaper staff – a candid, caring, sensitive staff – I cannot believe that their motives are either lewd or pecuniary. However, their illustration of drowning and shooting and maiming would never appear in American broadsheets.

Are they reasonable for African readers? I’m not certain. But I am coming to realize that “cultural sensitivity” may have paradoxical outcomes and require white Africans and white Americans to think twice about denigrating black African photojournalism.

And now we are at Mala Mala reserve in Kruger National Park. We have seen two elephants, one giraffe, and one lazy lion in the moonlight. We caught a glimpse of a white tailed mongoose, too, before dinner. I’ll have much more to say tomorrow; I expect this weekend to be spectacular.

MAY 18

Full of undulating, unusual grace
We seemed to just happen on a family of giraffes this morning. I saw the acacia tree, high above our Land Rover, and high above that a comical head with bumps and ears and semi-smile. That was mom or aunt because soon enough there was a baby and another mom-sized tree-tall mammal. And over there was an even taller specimen – the man of the house. Kevin, our knowledgeable guide, explained that giraffes in this part of Africa often travel in small groups like this, protecting their young. “They can kill a lion with one kick,” he added. But giraffes do not mate for life and do not form stable groups that stay together.

We certainly were taken with junior giraffe – at least as tall as Shaquille O’Neal, and far more graceful, even on thin, wobbly legs. I could stare for hours at this family of four. Papa craned his neck to various limb levels and bit off huge hunks of foliage. These acacias have two inch thorns, but that doesn’t bother the leather-mouthed giraffe. Eventually all of them cantered off. I think it was a canter – something between a trot and a gallop, full of undulating, unusual grace.

We drove away (no undulation but relatively graceful for a 4-wheel drive all-terrain Rover). We ford rivers. We roll across underbrush. We climb steep hills. Kevin keeps radio contact with three other rangers and we try to help each other see the prime sights. But it is Willys, perched in back, the native tracker, who directs us to the game by sighting spoor, by hearing angry baboons, by smelling the scent of buffalo and lion.

We did see buffalo – one huge, hornless old male. He led us through his grazing zone in a slow walk, one or two tons of implacable beef.

Later we saw the white rhino, another huge herbivore. This guy makes mounds of dung and urine called a middy, stomps in it, then walks through his territory to stake a claim.

The lions sprawled on a sunny rock ledge, four females and a male. They walked away slowly when unseen baboons began to scream incessantly. The lions were like old folks who move to avoid chattering children. They could have threatened the baboons – or eaten a couple – but lions are lazy, particularly in the heat of the day.

Rising to his full height, shining brightly
The climax of our day came at sunset when we found a leopard in a tree. He lay on a limb with his hind legs and tail dangling down and his pale, penetrating eyes staring ahead. He seemed to ignore us completely. At times he would yawn and doze. At times he would rise up, thrust his head and neck forward, and stare at some potential prey, beyond our sight or ken. When the sun set we put spotlights on the beautiful cat. He was all the more magnificent, rising to his full height on the tree limb, shining brightly like an image from William Blake.

But the real drama began when he carefully climbed down the tree, head first, one slow step at a time, then into the grass to pursue his prey. A light from one of the other Rovers searched the tree line 40 feet away. There, alone and unprotected, was the baby giraffe.

Meg gasped. Beth moaned. Natalie said nothing. I decided to identify with predator rather than prey. Shows what kind of victim advocate I am.

But it would be traumatic for our morning’s darling to be our evenings dinner.

No frenzied feeding in the forest primeval
The kill never happened. Baby giraffe got away. The leopard led us on an exciting night-stalk to a herd of impala, then lost us when he bolted off in fruitless chase. We douse the lights to avoid blinding the herd and messing with mother nature. This evens the odds for everyone but the tourists, who lost the leopard and returned to the lodge.

Natalie and I really want to see some action; Meg and Beth, civilized women, prefer to avoid the slaughter. They got their wish: no frenzied feeding in the forest primeval. Natalie and I were disappointed. So we watched a video in the lodge – wild dogs and hyenas and lions eating zebra the old fashioned way: live and kicking, raw and bloody, limb from limb, down to the bone. Then the hyenas eat the bone.

MAY 21

Failure to recognize larger human tragedy
Suddenly, it is Tuesday, May 21, today, the long-awaited annual Godlonton Memorial Lecture before an audience of 200 at the main auditorium of the University. “The commemorative media lecture was originally established in 1986 by the Department of Journalism, Technikon Pretoria, to honour the press pioneer, Robert Godlonton, but also to promote discussion of the role of the media in the changing environment of contemporary South African society. …Godlonton came to South Africa as one of the 1820 settlers…was a master printer and editor…praised as the father of the indigenous South African press.” This explanation comes from the printed program, which includes our pictures, bios, and purposes. I’m listed as the keynote lecturer, but Meg and Beth’s Columbine film is listed as “the highlight.” It is an all-day affair.

I had been balancing various themes and approaches right up to the minute I spoke. How should I respond to the Columbine film, which ran right before my talk? I had helped fund it, and found it very useful in America. It led to our being here since last year’s Godlonton lecturer was the editor of the Denver paper that won a Pulitzer for coverage of Columbine. That editor introduced Meg to Wiida. But Columbine was an example of white America’s preoccupation with white victims and, in a way, America’s failure to recognize larger human tragedy. I wondered how much I should criticize American indifference to third world needs with the First Secretary of the American Embassy and the director of the South African Fulbright Commission in the audience.

An insignificant case of cruelty and casualty
There really was no choice. All the ride back from Mala Mala I read Breyten Breytenbach’s cutting prose and passionate poetry. I thought about the arrogance of the colonial masters and the endurance of the oppressed. I thought about being American in Africa, and how easy it is to slip into the role of neo-colonialist – the self-appointed bringer of light and truth. Breyten loosened my tongue. I began quoting him, “..the moon remains a metaphor -and the fact that the Americans walked on it makes no difference, because the Americans also walked on the earth and didn’t grasp the first thing about it.” I can’t remember exactly what I said next, but I know I covered the familiar themes of reporting trauma and absorbing high doses of traumatic imagery and walling off emotion from oneself and ones loved ones. Then the emotion hit me and I felt my pulse rise as I criticized world attention to Columbine, an essentially insignificant case of cruelty and casualty, compared to the poverty and illness and victimization that we ignore, that we deem “Not Newsworthy!” -as though news that American media corporations deem worthy is somehow of value and merit to the advancement of humanity. I looked out at the audience, mostly black, 2/3 students, 1/3 elders in the profession or on the faculty, and challenged them to see beyond the current conventions of journalism, to make their reality to make their reality, the reality of Africa, readable and knowable.

Afterward, at lunch, Riana Coetsee, the Fulbright Director, asked me to consider returning for a three-month stay. It turns out she is engaged to a Zulu, was an active opponent of apartheid, and has become an avid supporter of Dart Center themes.

Embassy Secretary Donna Roginski was equally encouraging. Apparently, nothing sounded intolerably un-American to them.

MAY 22

Reaching an early goal
We wrapped things up this morning at Technikon. Dean Sitovaka Imenda was gracious in expressing gratitude and earnest in inviting a long-term relationship. Meg explained the many options for faculty and student exchanges between Colorado and Pretoria. Beth added more, naming specific fellowships that allow visits for several weeks to several years. Meg and Beth encouraged Wiida to get her doctoral degree in Boulder, and that may be possible. But our first objective is to build a “special relationship” between Technikon Pretoria and the University of Colorado journalism schools, and to have this be a vital link in the Dart Center network. If that first step succeeds, with a good flow of information and personnel, we can consider an “academic affiliate status” and, possibly, Dart Centre Africa. There is a convergence of need, desire, and willing funding institutions, particularly the South African Fulbright Commission.

Meg has another, specific plan that assures a working relationship with Wiida and Technikon. She has been videotaping our sessions with reporters and has included film recordings of their newspapers’ front pages. Meg envisions a 15-minute documentary of “Covering Trauma in Africa,” somewhat along the lines of “Covering Columbine.” She needs more footage, some background or B-roll, and clarification of names and titles. Wiida can become Meg’s co-director and the product can become a teaching tool in Africa and America. I like this idea.

So we have reached our preliminary goal. If we stay out of crime’s way, this will be a most successful mission.

MAY 23

Cape Town
Listening to a second language.

We landed at 7:15 PM and I was driven directly to the Zem Kafe. It was raining and dark and I had no idea where I was. But this was where Breyten told me to meet him. Poetry, music and several hundred friends, he promised. Would he be there? How would I find my way to the guesthouse, with directions written in Afrikaans? But it all worked out.

The cafe was a mob scene, a bohemian stand-up shoulder-to-shoulder throng, all there to hear Breyten read poems with rock band accompaniment. He has a following of young and old, and he makes CDs and videos that apparently sell well. Out on a roof-porch joints were passed. Inside the wine and beer were flowing – if you could slither through the crowd to the bar. I met a publisher who told me she wrote her doctoral thesis on Breyten. There was a young journalist who writes and edits a counter-culture paper called, “Phrank.” She may come to our seminar on Thursday or Friday. She claims to love Breyten’s work but finds it inscrutable. I have now read one of his books and half of another and heard a dozen or more of his poems. Eventually, I catch his rhythms and pseudonyms and meanings, although it feels like listening to a second language – one that I can understand but cannot speak.

This morning Breyten came to my guesthouse room and spent two hours talking about South Africa, about world hatred of America, human cruelty, ambitions for interventions through NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and ways we might collaborate through his Goree Institute, off the coast of Senegal. He certainly has an intense intelligence that I admire, and warmth that softens the edge of his rage.

Brian Penn, Deputy Director of Public Affairs, had arranged our round table at the consulate office of the American Embassy. We all introduced ourselves and heard from the journalists. This group told a range of trauma stories, and seemed quite supportive of one another. The photojournalism instructor from Rhodes University, Monte Cooper, agreed to facilitate follow up. I left with Associated Press reporter Mike Cohen, walked up Lion’s Head mountain, and now await his call for dinner. He is having a house warming party with a half-dozen friends, and I do look forward to this break from the traveling team.

MAY 25

“Suffering is universal”

“We need a Dart Centre, South Africa.”

“We need to share common experience.”

“Great to talk to other journalists – especially from a small newspaper.”

“Thanks for interacting with us – not just lecturing.”

“We tend to do the same things too often and ram it down the readers throats.”

“I never realized these people (Cape Town journalists) had these feelings.”

“Suffering is universal.”

“It’s OK to be human.”

“We must follow through on the suggestions on the board (weekly chat; ethics forum; internet exchange; managers’ training on trauma)”

“Our newsroom WILL have a regular Friday discussion.”

These were the comments at the close of the Friday roundtable in the conference room of Media 24 – a conglomerate of newspapers and cyber-productions. Our group of 15 included guests from other outlets – small counterculture weeklies. This cadre had their tales of horror, terror and woe, including some of the most brutal eyewitness accounts yet:

  • -A train robbery in which one passenger is stabbed and he jumps from the moving train and his friend jumps after him. The reporter sees this, waits for the train to stop, then scrambles down to the two men. One is dead and the other dying. That one dies at the scene. The reporter breaks the news to both widows and their children.
  • -A medic moves across the lines in a gun battle among rival gangs. The press photographer positions himself in the shadow of the medic, sensing that the medic will be shot. He is.
  • -A woman dies of Ebola and a young reporter follows the corpse from hospital to mortuary to family funeral.
  • -A photographer hides in the shadows within a home besieged by raiding gangsters. As an invader crouches to pick up spoils, one of the homeowners strikes a shattering blow with a machete down the crown of the skull, parting the bone and spewing its contents.

This last image was shared privately by a mild-mannered “coloured” man who I will call Morris. He told me that to illustrate the sort of trauma that does NOT haunt him. One does: A father with only months to live because of cancer buries his murdered daughter – 8 years old – and he says, “Why her? It was my turn, not hers.” That lament still echoes in Morris’s ears. As he tells me this, he cries with the muscles of his face, his mouth, but his eyes are dry. “I can’t get this out of my mind. Is this PTSD?” he asks me. He adds, “I don’t talk about it.”

I suggest that he holds the image and the voice because this occurred when his own daughter was 8, and his personal and professional lives merged. Telling others could relieve the hidden burden. In the roundtable I look at him, but Morris chooses to keep his secret.

MAY 26

Lessons learned
This is my last hour before the taxi ride to the airport and the long flight home. I’m seated in my capacious room at “The Inn with a View,” gazing at Table Mountain. Earlier, I took the cable car to the misty top where far below me Cape Town harbor appeared and disappeared in the veil of a cloud. At one point a line from Brigadoon (the musical) sang in my mind – the voice was Phil Carl, my college pal, who was born singing Brigadoon.

Now the edge of rock is razor clear against the elevated cloud. When the cloud drops it is called “the table cloth,” draped over Cape Town’s defining monument.

Dolf Els and I just spoke on the phone. He ended up being our southern South Africa host, just as Wiida Fourie was our host of the North. Dolf came down with the flu or some lesser bug, and missed our sumptuous dinner last night at the Savoy Cabbage. Believe it or not, I had roast wart hog in fig sauce. Meg had an exotic preparation of quail and the others had the vegetarian cornucopia. Dolf missed all that. But he told me that he will organize his colleagues and keep the theme alive – the theme of journalism and trauma, not the theme of dining as far as the American dollar takes you in South Africa – which is quite high on the hog, and even higher on the wart hog.

So as the pages in this book run out and my minutes in Africa elapse, I’ll reflect on what I have learned.

This is an inspiring place – still wild, beautiful, varied, lush, alive. The breath of the stalking cat, lion or leopard, hangs in the air and I see that silent step on the forest floor, smell the spoor and the skin, respect the fang and the claw.

The graceful impala and the dignified sable antelope and the baby giraffe on slender legs all dance behind my eyes. But I know that one missed step, one meter too far from the protection of the herd or the hoof of the parent and life is over.

The irony of nature’s vocabulary floods my consciousness. “Sleek” and “swift” and “sure” and “strong” are animal adjectives – all totems of human desire – all sculpted and perfected in the race to eat and to not be eaten.

Human harmony is a mythic state of mind. We live in just as much torment as the lame sable antelope, just as much hunger as the lost lion cub. Death is guaranteed.

Reporting without harm or exploitation may be enough

But some of us, more than others, perceive human suffering. We define it, record it, diagnose it. We treat it, prevent it (to a point) and we soften its sting.

“Not our job,” says Natalie, when I wish out loud that American newspapers would learn from the Sowetan and provide social services to subjects of stories who have overwhelming needs. I debate that for a while then give up. To report news accurately without harm or exploitation may be enough. But I couldn’t live doing only that.

The amount of violent death in South Africa pervades our experience. None of us received a harsh remark, saw a fight, was mugged or molested. But we heard story after story. Every reporter, photographer, editor had a story. This has to be one of the most criminally violent corners of the world. Car jackings (called hijackings) end with gratuitous murder. Rape is out of control and rape can be an inoculation of HIV. Farm incidents involve marauders from Zimbabwe and Mozambique who massacre elderly whites with machetes.

I have not heard any news of right-wing reaction, but it is certainly common to carry arms and to harden the targets with elaborate security. Will South Africa become a police state? Will these random acts of aggression coalesce into tribal or racial vendettas? My information about what has been tried and what may be on the horizon is meager. I wonder if lessons from other nations would be welcome?

Someone suggests a new police chief will help. But the problem seems far beyond the criminal justice system. It is a matter of education and vocation and culture and dignity.

This is the sub-continent of AIDS, of counter-colonial vengeance, of white attitude hardened in decades of apartheid.

The devalued Rand cripples opportunities for South Africans to travel abroad. Our spending spree is their depression. You simply cannot live in America or Europe or advanced Asia on a normal income paid in Rands.

So you can’t do that junior year abroad or that mid-career fellowship or that professional exchange – unless it is well subsidized in US dollars or Euros or Yen.

A lack of ease
We need a mechanism to end this form of economic isolation. Travel and trade and face-to-face friendship are obvious remedies for some of South Africa’s hardship.

The anti-American sentiment is my final article of education. We have no idea of our unpopularity. We think the angry mob is an aberration of the Middle East. But for every mad Muslim extremist chanting rage at the US Satan, there is a thoughtful, educated African who deplores our myopia, our arrogance, our policy of self-subsidy.

“We study your farm policy,” Mike Cohen, the Associated Press reporter tells me, “and we wonder why you spend billions for farmers to produce nothing.” Those crops, that income, would do so much for the Third World.

I think, “Say that to a senator from Iowa!” “Discuss this with a member of the Michigan Militia – who sees the UN flag as a disgrace to sovereignty.” Then I think, “Why not deliver that message?

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of … humanity.

I never had a problem being an American citizen of the World. But something doesn’t sit right after this visit. And I believe my lack of ease is good. The urge to learn more and do more is good.