The best of South African literature
This is the edited address by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa on the occasion of the Sanef AGM and the Annual Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism in Cape Town on Friday evening.
Johannesburg - I consider it a great privilege to have been invited to address you on this special occasion, the Annual Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism. While this award honours today’s outstanding journalists, it also pays tribute to an exceptional South African writer whose career life was cut short by the oppressive conditions of the apartheid state.
Nat Nakasa’s life reflects those of many brave and courageous South Africans who were stripped of their right of citizenship and were left no choice but to eke out an existence as “natives of nowhere” in foreign lands.
Nakasa’s legacy is that he was a free-thinker, who did not easily fit into any box, and was able to travel between different worlds. His ideas and his writings were often uncomfortable, or discomfiting for those reading them, black and white. He wrote about the condition of being black in apartheid South Africa, but did so from an individual, and quite idiosyncratic, perspective.
Nakasa was more than a reporter, more than a story-teller. He was an activist, intellectual and opinion-maker. One of those few individuals of whom could be said that without him we would have been infinitely poorer.
Among the many lessons that history teaches us is that every generation has its own seers. There are men and women who stand above the rest, head and shoulders, to point the way, to define all manner of phenomena, to inspire and ignite the imagination of the rest by standing on the hill of human possibility to see that which beckons beyond the eye. Nakasa was such a man, a man whose legacy will live beyond time itself.
The repatriation of Nakasa’s mortal remains to South Africa is a victory over those who denied him the right to return to the land of his birth. It is a defeat for those who sought to turn Nakasa, like the majority of his people, into temporary sojourners in the country of their birth.
Finally, his soul will find eternal rest in his ancestral land.
I wish to commend the Department of Arts and Culture and all other organisations that are helping to repatriate the mortal remains of Nakasa. I have no doubt that the “native of nowhere”, gazing from the heavens, will be comforted by the knowledge that, finally, his remains return to rest in peace in his ancestral land. The day cometh when Nathaniel Nakasa will be a Native of South Africa once again.
We applaud Sanef for organising these Nat Nakasa Awards. They are also a reminder of the profound change that has taken place since our freedom. They provide an opportunity to celebrate the many ways in which we are free.
After 20 years of democracy, it is appropriate that we should pause to reflect on the role of the South African media in this new environment. We need to do this so that we can consider where we will be or desire to be tomorrow.
We often talk of the media as a single entity, as a monolithic body with a single viewpoint, a single agenda, a single mode of operation.
But the media is not one thing. It is many things. It takes different forms, pursues different objectives, yes, indeed, different ideologies, it has different funding models, reflects different viewpoints.
And it is changing. Radio programmes are now being streamed online. People read newspapers on their cellphones. There are tweeters who have more followers than many newspapers have readers.
And yet with all this diversity, with all this change, I wish to suggest that media share at least one common function – to do what they have always done – to tell the story of our people.
As a society, we expect many things of the media. We expect many things of you. But at its most basic, we ask you to communicate the story of South Africa and its people. Tell the stories that are good – and there are many – but also tell the stories that are difficult, painful and troublesome.
Write of the experience of the woman who has been freed from the burden of collecting firewood because she now has electricity; of the one who no longer has to walk to the river to draw water because she now has running water at home. Tell us how this has enabled them to go out to find work and how their lives have improved.
But also be the voice of many people who have not yet had such opportunities.
Converse with us about those who have moved from the countryside into the cities in search of a better life. Tell the story of the struggles they face – to find shelter, to access services, to find work.
And provide us with the context. Help us understand the challenges of urban development, the social pressures of high unemployment and extreme inequality, and of the forces that drive up the cost of living.
Write about about the mineworker, who spends his days underground, his nights in a shack, and a precious few weeks at home. Tell us of the efforts we have made to improve his plight, of the progress we have made, of the mistakes we’ve made, of the constraints we’ve faced.
Speak of the renewed hope of the 7 million children who now have access to free basic education. Tell us about the 9 million children who receive a free meal at school every day. But also tell us about those children that have neither. And tell us why they don’t.
Challenge us to do good by those who we have neglected. Yes, cajole us to action on the Lwandles of our country. Ask us why we wait to evict our people in winter in rainy weather.
Most importantly, provide space for these people – ordinary men and women – to tell their own stories. This allows consumers of information to act as producers too, alongside professions and networks who once had vast monopolies on the means of production and the means of argument in the communications sector.
The proliferation in message and outlet does not, however, always lead to a proliferation in clarity or comprehension of information.
We need to know their views; we need to hear their aspirations; we need to understand their frustrations.
Chronicle the accounts of a nation on the move.
Tell us about the roads and railway lines that are being built. Give us a record of the dams and the power stations and the ports.
Report about the new clinics, schools, hospitals, libraries and community centres.
Inform us about the jobs being created and the skills being acquired.
Inform us also about the school leavers who, without marketable skills or experience, struggle to find work; about the community whose water has been cut off because infrastructure has not been maintained.
Publish stories of a people who will not be discouraged by the challenges of the present, just as they would not be kept in servitude by the iniquities of the past.
Delight us, amuse us, educate us, challenge us.
And occasionally, just occasionally, annoy us, for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all.
Confront us about service delivery failures.
Condemn us when children die of contaminated water.
Expose us when we abuse state resources.
Remind us of our responsibility to lead in an inclusive manner in order to address the deficit of trust and confidence that permeate in our society today.
Be dismayed and report load-shedding and drug stock-outs.
The story of girl children dropping out of school because they are pregnant should be written in a manner that exposes deficiencies in our public policy.
Incidences of municipal police taking bribes instead of prosecuting reckless drivers are our shameful story too, and should be told.
In a word, continue to be critical, speak your minds to the extent that it balances the story of hope, progress and missed opportunities. Empower us to understand our world and our own deficiencies.
After 20 years of democracy, South Africa has much to celebrate.
The media in South Africa have much to celebrate.
As we embark on the third decade of our democracy, I would urge you to tell the story of a South Africa that, despite all its challenges, is emerging from the darkness of oppression and division into a new dawn of peace, freedom, equality and prosperity.
Give us an account of an African continent that is growing and developing, and beginning to take its rightful place in the world.
Narrate the tales of a global humanity that is beset with problems, but which is striving in a million different ways each day to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalised.
Narrate the lives of all of our people.
I have every belief that this is a kind of South African story that Nat Nakasa would have told had he lived to witness South Africa 20 years after the first democratic elections.
This is the story of change and continuity; of dreams realised and dreams deferred; a South Africa where the native has become a citizen and the settler has become native, enjoying full and equal constitutional rights.
Tell it robustly and accurately, without fear or favour.
Tell it movingly.
As you tell these stories of our people all we ask is that you should not tell them with an eye on commercial imperatives and sensationalism at the expense of public interest.
We ask that as you practise your craft, which we insist should be underpinned by independence and the values of freedom of expression, you should be guided by the principles of balance, fairness, accuracy and ethical reporting. For we believe that these are tenets of good journalism.
Lastly, we believe that you should help advance our national project of national cohesion. A project that is important as we build our South African nationhood from the ashes of our sad past.
In conclusion, programme director, I believe it is because of Nakasa’s commitment to freedom of expression and to the ethics of journalism that his name will live forever.
By celebrating this distinction, the combined leadership of South Africa’s mass media is saying that the practice of this vocation cannot fall below the standard set all those many years ago, and indeed over the passage of time, in the pursuit of truth, and not half-truths.
Knowing what we know about Nakasa, I am certain we can agree that were he in our midst today, Nakasa would have continued to be a torchbearer not only for literature, but indeed for journalism and media ethics, and certainly for the national imperative of social cohesion
But Nakasa is gone. He ran his race. He told his story and that of the world he lived in. I have no doubt that in our midst we have seers of the world beyond the eye; writers ready to sustain the glorious legacy left behind by Sol Plaatje, Daniel Tloome, Nat Nakasa, Percy Qoboza, Sophonia Machabe Mofokeng, Can Themba and Lewis Nkosi, among others.
I am certain that theirs is a vocation that seeks to lift all of us on to the hill, to see the possibility of our collective greatness. We congratulate you James Mathews and other winners, and thank you for lifting us on to your shoulders.
As William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring, said in a report: “We have some of the best media professionals in the world working in South Africa.” I could not agree more. Let us work together to move South Africa forward.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.