A Societal Storyteller

Where there’s black smoke, there’s a burning tyre.

We walk towards the rising tower and flaming rubber. We’re a group of journalists wandering around Joza, documenting the violence that has erupted in the community. The photographer beside me starts framing the scene through her lens: angry orange, a littered street, loitering spectators, a smudged sky.

“No photos. No photographs. Go away.” A young boy waves at the camera and furiously shakes his head. “No photographs!”

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” she says as she lowers her camera and moves across the street.

“Can I draw it?” I ask, bringing myself to his height and opening my sketchbook. “May I draw the tyre and the fire?”

“Haai! Let’s see this,” he says as his eyes pour over the page of sketched figures and floating colours.

 

If I’m a journalist, then I’m a societal storyteller and I need to tell the stories that reflect what I see in society.

Journalists tell the stories that construct, shape and educate the audiences and communities that make up a society. I see journalism as way to reimagine societies by recording the events, characters and narratives that inform a society’s history and influence its future. If this is true, then journalists not only report on news, but affect the communities that make, disseminate, and consume news. Journalists can do more than record stories – they can change the story we’re sharing.

For these reasons, journalists have to be highly conscious of the story-telling process, the interests of the audiences and the implications of every element that is included, excluded and/or implied. This is especially important when working in communities experiencing social conflict, as I learnt in the week of the #FeesMustFall demonstrations at Rhodes University and the outburst of xenophobic attacks and widespread looting in the Joza community. Reflecting on the story that lead me to this point, I realise that my philosophy about and approach to conflict journalism was informed, established and sharpened by how I navigated and reported on the kaleidoscopic experience.
But before I can be a journalist, I am a human.

ConflictComics_8I am made of emotions, memories and hope, and I am determined by my experiences, desires and thoughts. I have chosen to study journalism because I’m insatiably curious, addicted to adventures and driven by the desire to create. I believe that a pen is a wand and a weapon: dark marks on a blank page can create words and images that capture truth and reflect the beauty of humanity. This belief pushes me to translate experiences and emotions into stories and drawings. But this philosophy also challenged – especially in conflict situations where anger, aggression, oppression and unjust hierarchies threaten the possibility of peace and imply inhumanity.

But just as an image can only be drawn by scratching coloured marks onto an empty page, so can my philosophy about and approach to story telling only be sharpened by confronting and addressing conflict scenarios.

Today I have filled three quarters of the page with drawings of protesting students and police tape; scribbled quotes and past dates. There’s a doodle depicting a helicopter, splashes of red paint and running figures. Colourful umbrellas and united crowds. 

In the empty space beneath the outline of a barricaded street, I begin to draw a burning tyre.

Where would we be without wifi?

Where would we be without wifi?

This was particularly evident in the conflict that characterised the last week of third term (19 – 25 October) as students across South Africa united in solidarity (especially on social media) against the increase of university fees and the unjustly impractical structure of tertiary education systems. Insofar as this movement awakened activists, affected communities and addressed consequences of a complex history, it represented a significant disruption of the social equilibrium, a multifaceted conflict situation and a story that needed to be told.

It was the story of protest action and student activism, which both resulted from and in immensely complicated instances of conflict and consequences – particularly in relation to the legacy left to the born-free generation, my generation.

23.Oct.2015 Drawing the Line: Free the Fees To break free from a hurting history, To have freedom and not free-dumb, To become an empowered people, A blade must fall on the fees. https://sarahrosedevilliers.wordpress.com/…/drawing-the-li…/

23.Oct.2015 Drawing the Line: Free the Fees

One of the most significant consequences of the apartheid system in contemporary society is the class discrepancy between the uneducated and educated citizens, which both reflects and reinforces the chasm between the privileged and the underprivileged members of society. This is painfully present in Grahamstown where, in the words of Politics lecturer, Dr Richard Pithouse, “there are perpetually emerald fields on one side of town and shacks on the other”[i]. Two decades after the demise of the apartheid regime, our society is acutely aware of how much history still hurts, and we should be committed to constructing a future beyond the harm done by a past of prejudices, segregation, discrimination and oppression.

As decolonisation debates, transformation discussions and student activism have gained momentum this year, we are collectively realising the need for solution-oriented reform to address and reconcile the consequences of the past, and realise our hopes for the future. In such a context, I believe the media has a particularly important and potentially powerful role in educating the public about the framework, effects and implications of this situation.

I flick my wrist and twist my pen to draw the licking flames. The boy leans closer over the page. His name is Sive. His nickname is Vusi. His takkies were once white, and his skin wasn’t always this scarred. The store behind him is dressed in burglar bars and abandoned paint. The ground is a graveyard of gravel, wrappers and crushed containers. A police van parks on the curb near the burning tyre.

The media frames, summarises and analyses conflict narratives, and in this way, coverage can affect the public’s understanding of and response to particular situations and involved parties. In light of this argument, I believe that stories about conflict should connect and explore the relationship between conflict situations and affected publics. Indeed, I believe that responsible journalists can be contributors to the processes, opinions and responses that inform the situation.

While studying a course on conflict and trauma reporting, I came across Wolfsfeld’s argument for new media as active agents in peace processes – it’s an enlightened approach to journalism that aligns with my personal philosophy. He claimed that media coverage can potentially promote certain actions, ideologies and attitudes in a given environment[ii]. On his account, journalists can be constructive agents of peace by reporting on current affairs with an approach that:

  1. Emphasises the benefits of peace,
  2. Promotes leaders or groups who are actively pursuing peace and
  3. Influences the general attitudes towards the opposing parties.

This isn’t sunshine journalism. It’s an approach to conflict journalism that stresses a proactive and solution-oriented language, which can positively enrich the public sphere. Alternatively, Wolfsfeld argued that journalists can be destructive agents if their coverage:

  1. Focuses on the dangers of compromise,
  2. Advocates the attitudes of those opposed to compromise and
  3. Reinforces a negative image of the opposing parties.[iii]

It goes without saying that I’d rather be a constructive agent of positive change, than involved in endorsing or exacerbating violence. I’d rather be better, fight with flowers and cure with kindness than leave a single scar on this beautiful earth.

As a result, I am highly conscious of the story-telling process and the implications of every element that is included, excluded and/or implied. I am also critically aware of the relationships between the reality I experience, the way I represent it, and the audience’s engagement with the content. And although journalists may aspire to represent reality with objective accuracy, I think that story telling (and consuming) is an inherently subjective activity. The implications of how journalists research, frame and portray conflict narratives surely affect how the narrative is constructed and presented. In my experience, I’ve become very aware of how my experiences influence and inspire the way I construct stories – I know that there are stories behind stories[1].

Sive says the community is angry because apparently  young children have been kidnapped, cut and killed. He has been told that private body parts are being collected and sold for muthi by a Pakastani man who owns lots of shops. He says the community is looting the foreigners’ shops because those people must be held accountable before the community. He says they are burning tyres because the police are not stopping these bad things.

He tells me that he doesn’t like the police because they treat his people badly. He claims it is because his people are black. He speaks about the scariest policeman – someone who has beaten his brothers and friends; someone he fears and hates and avoids.

Across the road, another journalist snaps photographs of a policeman moving a ring of flaming rubber to the side of the street.

 

Our Piece, Our Peace.

Our Piece, Our Peace.

In light of my studies, philosophies and experiences of exaggerated violence, I realise the importance of contextualising instead of sensationalising conflict in my storytelling – specifically in my framing, language and presentation. By shifting the focus from violent confrontations to a broader understanding of the setting, characters, actions and consequences, I believe media coverage can better explain the conflict and represent the multiplicity of reality with greater accuracy.

But accurately representing reality and positively contributing to peace processes is no small task. It requires journalists to be highly self-reflexive, conduct extensive research from a variety of perspectives, critically construct an engaging narrative and aspire for objectivity while admitting the inherently subjective nature of storytelling. We have to be entirely immersed, completely critical and perfectly honest. Moreover, journalists have to package, present and publish their material so that it will attract, appeal to and inform the relevant public. This is especially crucial when working within a constraining and competitive economic structure[iv] where, as journalism students, we’re regularly told that we won’t get jobs!

In essence, journalists reporting on social conflict situations should experience, record and analyse the various elements of the conflict so that they can construct, contextualise and share a narrative that is true (if not objective), relevant, informative and solution-oriented. In his book, ‘Conflict Sensitive Report – a toolbox for journalists’, Du Toit encourages reporters to “draw on our observations… [and] contribute to creative thinking”[v], and stresses that “we must choose our language as carefully as possible, master it if needs be…”[vi]. This is precisely the mindset and advice that informed my approach to reporting on the Rhodes students’ #FeesMustFall demonstrations and the violence that erupted in the Joza community towards the end of October.

“Can I draw you?” I ask, “Could I try sketch your face in this space?”

He responds with a smile, a laugh and an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

He corrects his posture, raises his chin and looks at me with warrior eyes. While my eyes follow the shape of his face and ink forms lines on the page, he speaks about his siblings, school and favourite things.

An older boy on a bicycle pulls up beside Sive. It’s his friend, Sima. Sive shows him my sketches before climbing onto the bike’s middle bar, nestling himself between his friend’s arms.

 

Draw on truth

Draw on truth

In my reporting, I aimed to avoid “paint[ing] them (the protestors, police and community members) in either an excessively negative or an excessively positive light” and aspired instead to “use terms that describe them accurately”[vii].

But words, descriptions and labels inevitably carry implications and framing binaries that rely on conflict relationships, the journalist’s presumed authority, and the audience’s assumed literacy (particularly the ability to access and read English material). Moreover, traditional journalism modes tend to isolate narratives within communities, over exaggerate conflict and oftentimes fail to demonstrate the relationships between conflict situations in broader contexts. It’s blood on a page with no body, face, soul or sorrow.

Thus, while telling the story that unfolded in Grahamstown last week, I tried to develop a visual language whereby I literally drew my observations, painting them with the colours and light that created my experience and recording the words that drove the narrative[2]. Instead of gathering, arranging and describing the information, I recorded scenes, characters and words as the experience occurred with basic sketches and scribbled quotes that isolated crucial information while avoiding labels, discriminative categories and targeted identities. In order to contextualise and justify the content, I photographed the scenes the ARTicles[3] described, visually incorporated details of time and place (eg. sketching clocks or street signs), and uploaded the content as packages of pictures documenting each day.

The result is a collection of pictures and quotes that represent two social conflicts in a context that is inextricably entwined with a history of consequences, the present and deeply problematic political climate, and hope for a future where education is liberation for generations of underprivileged and desperate communities.

Instead of telling this story, I have shown it.

I have portrayed events as they unraveled in relation to each other so that audiences have the authority and responsibility to examine the narrative, draw their own connections, construct their own opinions and seek their own conclusions, resolutions or solutions. In this way, I hope I have provided audiences with the chance to educate themselves and each other.

Feature

Click on the image to go to the package.

One of the other journalists walks up to us and begins speaking to the boys. He asks them about their thoughts on the violence, looting and mutilations. He takes a photograph and offers to send it to Sima. He saves Sima’s number in his phone then crosses the street and starts speaking to someone else.

My ARTicles might not qualify as journalism, or even count as a story. But the process of creating the package afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself in situations, interactions and events which informed my understanding of the conflict that plagues our community and influences our sociopolitical landscape. It drew on skills and ideas I had inadvertently practiced and entertained for the longest time. It taught me the value of colours, shapes and imagination in constructing a visual language that transcends racial, class, literacy, language and institutional barriers, while imaginatively engaging and empowering audiences. It required that I confront the violent experiences, process my emotions and find the light in every circumstance. It resulted in a colourful collection of marks that cultivate creative thinking and conscious engagement with context, rather than framing concentrated conflict.

In this way, I have evolved my personal philosophy and approach to reporting on social conflicts, I have filled several pages with phenomenal experiences and I hope I have contributed to a broader community in a way that reflects my infinite faith in the magnificent potential of our people.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s the story I would like our society to tell.

 

The three of us stand on the street corner, speaking about their friendships, interests and lives. Sima says he loves rugby and wants to study science. Sive screeches with surprise when I say something in isiXhosa, and he offers to teach me new phrases. He tries riding Sima’s bicycle by himself, but his legs are too short, the seat is too high and he soon finds himself of the floor.

My group of journalists has gathered on the other side of the road and they seem to be preparing to leave.

On a piece of paper I fetch from my black book, I quickly sketch a rugby ball positioned in front of rugby posts. I write “SIMA” on the ball and in the empty space beside the scene, I write the words, “Dream. Believe. Achieve”.

I give the sketch to Sima and cross the street, leaving behind two boys, a bicycle and a small piece of myself.

22.Oct.2015: The Joza community in crisis

22.Oct.2015: The Joza community in crisis


References and foot notes:

[1] There’s even a story behind those words; it’s the story behind the Singer-Fighter.

[2] Technically I’ve been practicing this approach this since early August, when I started sketching and scribbling notes at smaller student protests, speeches by Dr Mabizela and Student Representative Council (SRC) candidate debates. I also practiced ‘gonzo’ illustrating by drawing while watching a World Cup rugby match and later writing a story that accompanied/explained the pictures. Before that, I was sketching in lectures and presentations. However, I only began concentrating and sharing the content last week with the uprising of the #FeesMustFall movement.

[3] Journalistic comics? Informative illustrations? Story sketches? Gonzo graphics? I don’t quite know what I’ve done or what to call it, so let’s entertain this label for now.

[i] Pithouse, Richard. ‘Grahamstown Spring: As Real As The Smell Of Rain On Dry Earth | Daily Maverick’. Daily Maverick. 2015. Acessed: 28 Oct. 2015.

[ii] Wolfsfeld, G.  2001. The News Media and Peace Processes: The Middle East and Northern Ireland. In Peaceworks No. 37. United States Institute for Peace. Available: http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/pwks37.pdf. P8

[iii] Wolfsfeld, G.  2001. The News Media and Peace Processes: The Middle East and Northern Ireland. In Peaceworks No. 37. United States Institute for Peace. P8

[iv] Loyn, D. ‘Good Journalism Or Peace Journalism?’. Conflict and Communication Online 6/2 (2007). P3

[v] Du Toit, P. Conflict Sensitive Reporting – A Toolbox For Journalists. Grahamstown: Rhodes University, 2012. P61

[vi] Du Toit, P. Conflict Sensitive Reporting – A Toolbox For Journalists. Grahamstown: Rhodes University, 2012. P 59, quoting Chris Chinaka

[vii] Du Toit, P. Conflict Sensitive Reporting – A Toolbox For Journalists. Grahamstown: Rhodes University, 2012. P59

Sharp-pens

Sharp-pens

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