Intern Bukeka Silekwa reflects on a busy year and her Roving Reporters experience so far.
TACKLING THE REAL STUFF OF LIFE
“I have learned that journalism is about more than superficial news. It is about life-changing situations. It is about people’s lives, about the shaping the way we think about our world, the future for the next generation and beyond.” – Bukeka Silekwa
As a newborn to the world of journalism, an infant from Rosebank College, I have a lot to learn if I am to follow in the footsteps of legends.
I was the orphan who was luckily adopted by Roving Reporters.
The journey has been eye-opening and educational, not only in terms of writing skills, but about the world we live in.
I have learned that real journalism is about more than superficial news. It is about life-changing situations, about people’s lives and shaping the way we think about our world, and what we leave behind for the next generation and beyond.
Often when it comes to the news, we watch or read little beyond politics, red carpet events and celebrity lives.
When I chose journalism as a career I wanted it to be a life-changing experience, and that is exactly what it has been for me at Roving Reporters.
I believe the media has enormous power. As journalists we wield this power, but without proper training and mentorship – like what I have received from Roving Reporters – I cannot imagine how things would turn out.
My first assignment, about an alleged serial rock thrower, challenged me in all kinds of ways. But I dealt with it head-on, with the support from the training programme. It took me into a different world, out of my comfort zone.
On the trail of a rock thrower
I began this investigation with little to go on – a WhatsApp message:
“A 27-year-old man from Cato Manor’s shack settlement was arrested for throwing a rock over the Tollgate bridge. His name is Nkosinathi Mthalane. He is detained at Mayville police station. He will appear in Durban Magistrate Court on Monday.”
That is all I had. But on Roving Reporters training programme that was all I needed.
The first news report had it that Mthalane had thrown rocks, one larger than a soccer ball, off Durban’s Tollgate bridge onto passing cars below. My first thoughts were: Who is the man? Is he crazy? What could drive a person to do such things?
I immediately wanted to know more: where he comes from, his life experiences, the society around him . . .
I was briefed to go the Mayville police station and follow the case from there, starting with the man’s first court appearance. I am from the Eastern Cape and don’t know Durban well, so just getting to Mayville was a challenge. I took a public taxi and arrived early enough to witness a few men being put into the back of a truck to be taken to court. Mthalane, I was told, was among them. With a helpful taxi driver we followed the truck to court. The court appearance was brief and Mthalane was not asked any questions. The case was adjourned so police could investigate further.
As I had heard that Mthalane stayed in an informal settlement in Cato Manor, I boarded a taxi to visit the place, hoping to find someone who knew him. A lady sitting next to me warned me to to be careful.
I jumped off in an environment totally new to me, with no plan of how to go about finding out about Mthalane. But it was a chance to see, to listen and to get a sense about his life – where he comes from. I made my way through many passages between shacks in the area where I believed Mthalane may have lived. I had the whole day to search for Mthalane’s home, friends or family – or simply someone who knew him.
Soon the sweat was pouring off my skin. I was unsure whether the heat of the day, or my fear were the cause – probably both. In the end I had no luck, but I knew I had a story worth telling. I was on the trail of an alleged serial rock thrower.
After attending several more court appearances, I became frustrated. Although I had made contacts throughout my coverage of the case – with the prosecutor, the clerk of the court, the investigating officer and a legal aid defence attorney, no evidence about Mthalane’s crimes had been presented. Even the charge sheet lacked detail.
It seemed the only way to learn more was to visit the man himself – in prison awaiting trial. It was daunting to visit prison for the first time, but I had the backing and guidance I needed from Roving Reporters on how to handle it.
In that first prison visit I was told stuff I could not report on as it could jeopardise the court proceedings.
Mthalane was finally convicted on six counts of attempted murder on the strength of a signed confession, but many unanswered questions remain – the focus of my next Reporters Notebook feature on the case.
On this assignment I learned a valuable lesson that I will remember through all my future years as a journalist: that different people give you different information about the same events. It is my duty to get the real facts and tell it like it is or at the least faithfully record how others told it. I must never assume things or make things up, but rather lay bare the different versions of events that different people offer. Police said this, the court said that, the media said this…
I learned not to take what sources tell you as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, no matter who they are. As Roving Reporters director, Fred Kockott, often advises: truth is often an elusive, multi-layered affair.
Inside Durban’s abortion abyss
My next investigative assignment arose from a casual encounter. Sometimes as human beings we find it easy to talk to strangers – even pour our hearts out. So it was when a young woman approached me while I was taking a walk earlier this year, minding my business, but as always paying attention to my surroundings. The young woman told me about the fix she was in.
“I went to Addington Hospital because I got pregnant and I am not in a position to have a newborn. I knew that I have the right to terminate my pregnancy. I got there early in the morning, but didn’t get help because they only see a few people each day. I had to sleep outside the hospital waiting room to be seen. I wanted to get in the waiting room but I was told I was not allowed.”
As a journalist, when you hear something like this, about something which may affect lots of people, you feel you need to investigate, even if it sounds unbelievable at first. But before pitching the story to the Sunday Tribune, I wanted to get solid information about this story. All I had was what the young woman (who I cannot name) told me. I had to verify her claims. But who could I ask? Who could I trust? I was taught that as a journalist I should be independent.
I spoke to Fred and relayed what I had been told, and my thoughts on having to witness this myself. He agreed that the only way to see whether this was actually happening was to visit Addington as a patient pretending to need an abortion.
The next day, I went to the hospital around 2pm. I was told the ward (the termination of pregnancy unit) was closed and that I should return the following day when no more than 10 patients would be attended to. I asked if I could make an appointment but was told this was not done for terminations. As I was preparing to leave, I was told I could queue outside the casualty ward and that if I wanted to make the cut, to be seen by staff, I would need to spend the night in the line – “just like everyone else”.
The shock! What now? I was scared at first because I had heard that dealing with government officials can get messy, that things could go wrong for me posing as pregnant woman. I needed to be careful with every little thing I did. I needed to do things by the book. Above all, I needed to see and understand the challenges facing South African women making difficult choices.
In this case, it meant waking up at 2am, and swallowing my pathetic fear of the unknown at night.
I walked to the hospital from my South Beach flat. At the hospital I found women lying on the bare pavement outside. It was a cold winter night. I immediately realised the story was bigger than I had first thought.
At first I did not reveal I was a journalist, but talked to the girls, asking why we were not allowed inside. I also questioned a hospital security guard about this. I stayed for another hour before I told several woman who I really was and what I was doing there. They started telling me their stories. I soon came to realise that terminating a pregnancy carries a stigma in our communities and that our public health system makes things harder for women needing help.
Over the next few weeks, I joined that overnight queue again to establish that this was not just a once-off occurrence. On the last time I visited, the spot outside casualty was deserted. The security guards said the termination of pregnancy ward would not be opening the next day.
I went back to Fred and Matthew Hattingh, my writing mentor, with what I had learnt on my undercover investigation.
We discussed what more I needed to find out for the story and how to go about getting comments from experts and the Department of Health and Addington Hospital as to why this was happening.
The interviews with experts went well because I came prepared. During my training, I learned to do research before an interview. The interviews made me realise that the topic of abortion was still controversial in our country, despite it being made legal more than 20 years ago.
At times, I became a little too excited and emotional, so I had to make sure I kept my opinion on the subject to myself and remember that I represent the media, and that is my professional duty to be loyal and trustworthy to my readers: they are my priority.
This story also required me to meet the hospital’s management. Accompanied by fellow intern, Izze Siemann, I needed to remember a basic journalistic principle – that no matter how important the person you are interviewing, you must not show you are nervous. You must stick to trying to get what you need and make sure your questions are clear. You have to stand your ground and ask hard questions.
On this occasion, I learned that sometimes the facial expression or behaviour of the person you are talking to says more than his words.
I was also given important advice: if I didn’t get answers to important questions, I had to let the readers know which questions had been left unanswered. When government service delivery is questionable, a journalist cannot shy away from the truth or take a soft line.
KZN Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo might campaign, encouraging women to use public facilities to get safe abortions, but when it comes time for them to seek help, the hard fact is there are often too few people available in the public health system to perform the operation.
And then there is the stigma and humiliation that young women face, like those who have been forced to sleep outside Addington Hospital, sometimes in vain, to get service.
I will never forget the stories those young women told be about how they came to be there.
- This is an edited version of Bukeka’s personal narrative.
Environmental journalism training
Bukeka Silekwa’s baptism into real-life journalism has not only touched on critical social and justice issues. She has been exposed to a wide range of environmental issues, from the scourge of plastic pollution to the challenges people face living in and around the iSimangaliso World Heritage site. In tackling these issues, she has become a regular contributor to the Sunday Tribune’s Game Changers series which gives a voice to people who are making this world a better place for nature and for people.
Among the people Bukeka has profiled are:
Saving turtles by practising what he preaches
No-one likes a hypocrite. So when you work in environmental tourism, earning your crust showing people pristine nature, it’s important to practise what you preach and to remember that little things matters. That’s something Theo Xolani Gina, owner of Theo Tours and Culture, based in St Lucia on the Zululand coast, understands well. During his turtle tours, from November until February each year, Gina often witnesses the staggering impact of plastic pollution. “Seeing a sea turtle struggling to get back into the water, tangled by a fishing rope is a very disturbing picture,” says Gina. So on his cycle tours, people get bottles of water that are attached to the bicycles. They are refillable and returned with the bicycle to avoid litter. Click here to read Bukeka Silekwa’s Game Changer profile of Theo.
Shooting nature for the best
Radio personality, entrepreneur, wildlife photographer and activist … that’s some resume. And it’s just as well because Gabriel Sithole needs all the skills he can muster for a tough job. Armed with a camera, Gabriel Stihole, is on a mission to undo the destructive behaviour of people by documenting the wonders of the natural world around us. He also hopes to teach folk not to reach for a stick every time they see a snake. Click here to read Bukeka Silekwa’s Game Changer of Gabriel.
Observe, submerge, conserve
Salt water flows through Nikki Chapman’s veins. So the WildOcean’s Ocean Stewards programme, which is geared to championing the cause of our beleaguered oceans and conducting research in support of Marine Protected Areas, is the perfect home for her. While Nikki is not a marine scientist, she is certainly well-versed with what’s happening in depths of the ocean seldom explored before. She believes that to understand the intricacies of the ocean and the animals that swim in it you need to immerse yourself in it, and that’s what she does in taking marine science students on annual deep-sea research cruises on board the research vessel Angra Pequena. Click here to read the Sunday Tribune’s Game Changer profile of Nikki published on May 27 2018.
Collecting waste has become a fledgling business for this ‘wastepreneur’
The heavy rains that hit Durban in October 2017 exposed massive amounts of waste, some of it blocking sewers. Cato Manor resident Sindiswa Sbutsa decided to kill two birds with one stone. She started collecting waste for WildTrust’s recycling centre, earning income to support her family and also helping keep the community clean. Click here to read Bukeka Silekwa’s Game Changer profile of Sbutsa, as published by the Sunday Tribune on May 6 2018.