I wrote the following in early April for INPUT as a special insert about the upcoming conference in the Mail & Guardian newspaper. I think, given my previous post that it deserves a place here.

The “best before” date in the story refers to the fact that every government, everywhere, of every political stripe, and no matter how well-intentioned, will try to limit the role of journalism and of the journalist. This applies to new and hopeful governments too, including the South African Government of 1994 and of President Nelson Mandela.


On Apples, Seeds, and Public Broadcasting

Fifteen years ago, I arrive in Johannesburg with one of the early waves of foreign journalism trainers invited to a country tensing for its first truly democratic elections. We come from public broadcasters in Denmark, the U.K., or the U.S.A. I’m with a Canadian crew from the CBC. We’re invited to help SABC transform itself from a “state-controlled” broadcaster into a “public” broadcaster and to prepare for the elections.

On the ride in to the SABC, we pass through neighbourhoods with names like Houghton, Rosebank, or Parkview. I notice the high walls around homes that are going even higher. The driver, a journalist and friend, says almost every home is fortified, armed and guarded. The walls are going up, he says, because people are afraid. Change is coming .

At the SABC, I see massive metal gates, airport-style metal detectors, and armed guards telling people to check their weapons at the door. Our friend describes the building as a fortress built by the rulers, a state institution with no need for pretense. He warns that inside, bureaucratic walls may be going up as well.

As foreign trainers, I sense that we’re viewed with a mixture of fear, ambition, and hope. Some people approach with caution, as though we are here to judge, and their jobs are on the line. Others cling, I’m warned, using adaptive colouration like chameleons hoping to blend into the background. One senior executive becomes a shadow. I’m never quite sure if he’s registering approval by his hovering presence, or if he’s taking names. My sense is the latter.

The trainees are a different story. They want change badly. Many of them are tired of being treated like lepers by the greater journalism community. They want self-respect; to feel good about their chosen professions again. They want to be recognized as journalists by their peers.

This training, and moves to change the SABC, are seen as major steps in that direction. Journalists and technicians of all colours, genders, and job descriptions, want to be part of any initiative that might breathe new life and purpose into a rigid old broadcaster.

Many of the trainees are already highly skilled and experienced. Others are less so, and relatively new to their jobs. They’re a mixed group from various programs, positions, channels, colours, languages and regions of the country. This is deliberate. It’s a way of tearing down internal walls.

During the workshops, everyone leaves job titles by the door. We nudge very different people to find something in common with each other. Junior reporters work with, and help, senior editors. Editors take time to thank a camera person. A video editor writes a story that earns applause from professional writers.

The workshops polish skills, but they also tackle ethical and moral questions that journalists around the world grapple with each day. Discussions about their tasks in the coming elections lead to debates about their roles in society, and hopes for the SABC. Something is happening here. They are becoming a team despite all of their differences.

One person says this may be the first time that anyone at SABC has respected her, encouraged her to think, took her ideas seriously. Others say they feel better, more confident about themselves and their work. People want to return to their jobs so they might push for more change from within. Before they leave, however, there’s a warning: This opportunity for change has a “best before” date.

Then, the training is over. Another group waits by the door. And then another. During these months, I’m stunned by the speed of change at the SABC. Almost overnight, an entire corporation turns itself upside-down. It creates new programs, hires new faces. The place is awash with optimism and a renewed sense of purpose.

For the next several years, I go back and forth between Canada and South Africa. As expected, the “best before” date expires. The SABC still evolves, but much more slowly than before. Corporations tend to do that.
According to most public broadcasters, the ideal is to become something that keeps everybody else honest.

It would set an example and never knuckle under to pressures from advertisers, lobbyists, governments, or any single segment in society. Any public broadcaster that could achieve that, the theory goes, would set a standard against which society’s institutions might compare themselves.

The transformation of the SABC, only fifteen years old, began with similar high ideals and hopes. Some people look back at those years with longing. They may even judge the SABC by those earlier years. But, as the saying goes, reality bites. Everything changes with time.

Expectations are always highest with a public broadcaster. When people feel it has not met their expectations, they let the SABC know it. Woe to the public broadcaster that dares to violate the trust the audience has invested unto it. That is not a negative. It shows they care.

When things have gone well, there is the comfortable sound of crickets and bullfrogs. To the audience, all is well with the world. No need to rally in front of Auckland Park today. The SABC has entertained them, surprised them, challenged them to think. It made them laugh. It made them proud. It informed them about what was right and wrong with the world on this day. It showed them problems, but solutions too. In other words, it honoured the contract with the people.

You cannot ask for more from a public broadcaster that has too many audiences to serve, in too many languages, on too many channels, in too big a country, on too large a continent. Yet, you – the audience – always demand more. And so you should.

Unlike some, I don’t long for some mythical “golden age” in public broadcasting in South Africa. It doesn’t exist. It never did. Instead, I want to see what happened to those seeds we sowed back then. I want to see which ones have taken root, or have mutated into something wierd and wonderful.

I want to see just how far an apple may hope to fall from the tree.