Bygone Colonials And Freedom Fighters Break Bread

Sep 142009

The Highway Africa conference smorgasbord makes me salivate but then I fall prey to indulging in the hors d'oeuvres only to flag halfway through the main course. The HA event at Rhodes University is the largest annual gathering of the African media. Seasoned professionals and young students — some still in school uniforms – consume the fare side by side in buzzing lecture rooms. Similarly the institute’s historic ethos – a tribute to explorer Cecil John Rhodes – coexists happily with the giant portrait of Nelson Mandela in the “Great Hall”… like bygone colonials and latter day freedom fighters breaking bread together.

The University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape is host to HA every year. The surrounding area is one of the poorest in the country. The region – Mandela grew up not too far from here — has a history of countless battles with colonials who were determined to overrun the hinterland. The University – the main building looks like a reconstructed fort – sits on a hillside in Grahamstown. On the streets people speak mostly Xhosa and Afrikaans. The clicks and the rough rolling R’s of these African languages are missing at Highway Africa 2009 where there is so much on offer but it’s all in English and French. It’s the universal dilemma of these gatherings that while they are debating the problems and challenges of developing democracies they are trapped in talk shops on ‘hillsides’. Another one of those seemingly incongruent realities that make sense somehow… in the Rhodes / Mandela fashion.

And, in this vein at HA there are practitioners who bring a wealth of innovative activity to the table. A keynote workshop in one of the main lecture halls is Doing Development Journalism. I am the Moderator and co presenter with Paula Fray of Inter Press Service (IPS) and Janet Boston, Chief Executive of the Thomson Foundation.

We present projects that take Development Journalism out of the backwaters of ‘worthy but boring’ and into the mainstream of prime audience attention.

The collaboration between the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and UNICEF is one example. The Corporation and the NGO have forged links to tell the stories of girls living in families and or communities where abuse is a problem. The Our Own Stories In Our Own Voices series has made TV history.

After the 10 documentaries aired on the SABC in prime time, four of the young women go to the 51st UN Conference on the Status of Women. Others have addressed national gatherings in South Africa, one on international women’s day. Most of the 45 girls have become change agents in their communities.

Janet Boston, Chief Executive of the Thomson Foundation, talks about a future follow up on this project.

“Highway Africa is about reconnecting with people and organisations we worked with in the past. It’s about networking as well as building and developing partnerships.

“For example I’ve made contact with the local UNICEF representative who wants to revisit a project we did very successfully in the past,” says Boston.

The Thomson Foundation is one of the world leaders in developing media and training journalists. The Foundation is in the frontline with professional advice and practical skills.

Boston takes us through:

  • The Hands On project that broadcasts ‘what can be done’ TV stories around the world and provides practical assistance

  • The Children on the Frontline series, aired on the BBC, that highlights the plight of children threatened by major disasters

  • The Nature.Inc series that goes out of its way to feature cases where investment in sustainable use of nature is bringing dividends

Paula Fray of Inter Press Service talks about ‘making research real’. The stories in the IPS project make the link between research and its impact on ordinary people’s lives.

“From the mundane to the unusual in the fields of health, politics, youth development, water issues, climate change, agriculture, human rights, indigenous knowledge and poverty. The project allowed IPS Africa to test story-telling in various formats,” says Fray.

The Inter Press Service is a communication institution with a global news agency at its core.

In addition to Highway Africa’s plenary sessions and many workshops there are also several books and reports launched. The most valuable is Beyond broadcasting: the future of state-owned broadcasters in Southern Africa. The report is edited by Professor Guy Berger, head of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism & Media Studies.

It is a review of how digitisation is impacting on media in Southern Africa, and especially how the new digi-scape is impacting on state-owned broadcasters. It's been produced specially for distribution at the Highway Africa conference to a mass of influential people in journalism and journalism education.

Not only is the report a unique insight into the regional reality but the information can also be used to make intelligent assessments about the status quo in other parts of Africa.

“This is one mega-complex matter to get a handle on. We're talking about trends like Digital Migration, cellphone interaction, newsroom convergence, policy, economics, new non-conventional media players, etc.

“Then there's the shift from government broadcasting, to public service broadcasting, to public service media, to public interest communications agencies – including interactivity and citizen journalism. Oh, and we're not forgetting the Internet.

“The report is not easy reading. It was not easy writing either. But no one ever said that understanding complicated issues could be done without any effort,” says Berger.

Highway Africa is a major step towards reducing this complexity so that media people can communicate with less effort and audiences can keep abreast of these mega issues.

Editors Note: Ghana's Sylvia Vollenhoven talks about how African media conferences bring together media professionals and journalists.