There’s so much more to a book than just the reading – Maurice Sendak
DIANE DE BEER
African Muckraking: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa edited by Anya Schiffrin with George Lugalambi (Jacana):
South Africans will know exactly what the power of this kind of investigative journalism is following apartheid and now the Zuma years.
There are of course other things involved as well, but nothing can downplay the importance of the freedom of the press and, even when that is sacred, the courage of journalists to tell the hard stories. When powerful people do bad things, they have the means to protect their wrongdoing.
Except from journalists whose lifeblood it is to tell the truth, nothing but the truth. So help us God. And that’s exactly how it works, often.
And nowhere is it more important than in countries where powerful people think they have the right to do things exactly the way they please. It’s not a new thing and it’s absolutely not something that is found in just certain parts of the world. Power corrupts, sadly, and more than ever, politics has become abusive in a way that few could have predicted.
It’s a known fact that African journalists are not recognised around the world, not even on their own continent. In Africa itself it is difficult to reach a broad audience due to the oftentimes low education, literacy problems and income levels of potential audiences. That goes hand in hand with poor distribution possibilities because of inadequate infrastructure, which makes reporting and distribution tough.
In the global North, writes the author in her introduction to the book, the contributions of African journalists are largely unknown – often because of the assumption that good journalism doesn’t originate in Africa. Western audiences trust satellite news, parachute journalists more than they do local reporters, she writes.
“This book aims to dispel that.” She goes on to say that readers should be reminded that journalists really can change the world – and again, we have seen that most recently in our papers and on television, in the unflinching reporting as well as among those who stood up to the SABC and fought for truthful journalism.
In the book she presents 41 pieces of campaigning and/or investigative journalism from around the continent, each with context provided by today’s foremost experts on the continent; in South Africa, for example, Anton Harber and Ferial Haffajee. They don’t come better than that.
When selecting pieces to include in the book, they tried to be inclusive, including excerpts from pamphlets as well as newspapers from a wide range of countries, as well as stories that had impact or covered an important story even if they weren’t classical works of investigative journalism by today’s standards.
It’s stirring stuff on a continent that doesn’t flinch when it comes to horror. She notes that Africa is diverse and newspaper were influenced by colonial powers. They hoped to reflect this diversity, for example, with someone like David Martin who wasn’t born in Africa but still calls it home.
This book followed on Shiffrin’s editing of Global Muckraking (2014) when Harber, then director of the investigative reporting programme at Wits suggested that they edit a book exclusively for African journalists.
Then disaster struck. There was a paucity or often complete absence of records, which pushed her and her crack researcher Vanessa Pope to persevere. Anyone who has worked in newspapers these past few decades will know exactly what that means. When newspaper libraries went digital and as newspaper groups changed ownership, these archives were the first to disintegrate. All of this also bumped into the disastrous lack of funding for the profession, which meant these side issues completely disappeared.
That is exactly what makes this such an amazing read. Not only is every story selected something quite extraordinary (especially given the context and the quality), it is also a reminder of the quality to be found on the continent that is so often ignored in the wider context of the world. Fortunately, we now have the means in a digitally connected world to change that to some extent.
Following the introduction, which highlights significant historical cases of journalism supporting social and political change, she points out that this journal can only hint at the “full constellation of contributions” that African journalists have made to their societies.
But she does encourage readers to get a taste of the powerful work that African muckrakers have done and hopes that the book will contribute to a conversation about the importance of investigative journalism in Africa.
Nobody reading the book will have any doubt about that but the times we live in have also underlined the importance of investigative writing about those who abuse their power at the cost usually of vulnerable people.
It is beautifully set out, which all adds to the power of the pieces which are classified in sections ranging from struggles for independence to corruption; health, rural affairs and environment; mining; and women, for example.
And more than anything, the intent is clearly stated with the first piece written by Sol Plaatje: All We Claim is our Just Dues.
It is riveting from start to finish.