​What should journalists be writing?

Photo: Gemma Ritchie/ M&G

Photo: Gemma Ritchie/ M&G

It is tremendously difficult to write about the needs and the centrality of the spirit in our experience of being human — ­­for a newspaper. I imagine most readers come here to feed the hunger of their egos; to keep up with the latest indicators of human folly and achievement; to rehearse for doomsday in the weekly recitals of Who Not to Trust This Week, It’s the Government’s Fault and As A Taxpayer…

This idea of waiting for something bad to happen is well established in the imagination of the people who built this and other newspapers.It is the membrane that held South African whiteness together, which has today been transmitted to the rest of us.This waiting. This fantasy has the self-fulfilling prophecy that is Donald Trump as its ultimate manifestation.
And the wearers of Cape Union Mart clothing, as its waiting, grinning, quotidian liberals.

As journalists we trade on this fear and doom. Under the auspices of informing, we’ve come to hold a lot of power. A power to shape how people interpret and participate in reality.

During apartheid, it was the newspapers and radio stations who facilitated the state’s mission to separate us, to ensure the borders between us and to secure ignorance. Censorship was real and from it, publications such as The Weekly Mail emerged as the noisemakers against the government imposed silences.

But ultimately the role that the media has played in South Africa has always bolstered the notion that things are getting worse and somebody else is responsible for your pain. A quick analysis of the Mail & Guardian’s covers over the past 10 years points to how relaxed we are in the trade of distrust, the psychology of profiling and the scapegoating of our issues on the new baddies —the people who work as government agents.

A lot of the time, as is the case with state capture, we are right to target the politicians who do not act in the interest of the people. But by focusing so much of our resources and news coverage on reactionary and responsive journalism, we end up doing the work of the politicians for them. We end up aiding confusion, obfuscation, fear, distrust and a consciousness that somebody else is responsible for my life and thus my needs.

To what end do we tell stories? We will always be indispensable to the formulations and implementations of policy, law, justice and democracy. We fulfil an important role when it comes to how citizens understand their relationship with the state. As journalists we pride ourselves on being the brokers of relations between the big people and their deputies up there and the people down there. But does an average publication help me better understand, my other quotidian needs as a person outside of my intellectual desire to be on top of “current affairs”?

Who is speaking to this overwhelming sense that you are stranded in this tender yet violent place and you don’t know why or what it’s for? The pain of change and letting go? The anxiety that your teenager feels? The anxiety that you feel? The fear of being poor again? The pain of not belonging?The fear of irrelevance? The pain of being ill.The listlessness that often comes with the humdrum of the everyday in a world where the thing we value the most is money and the acquisition of it. The pain of not knowing what to do in the face of the human condition. How do the news stories we work so hard on speak to the very things we suffer as writers?What do we have to say to the indicators that tell us our reader numbers are dwindling?

I am sincerely nonplussed by how little we, in our positions of power, cater to the other needs of human beings. How comfortable we are in the fear of ourselves, each other and of life itself. In the age of churnalism, file or die is the mantra that keeps our jobs secure, for now at least.

As journalists, what is our intention in these positions to shape how people think and respond to reality? What are we informing readers about and why? What are our readers going through? What do they really need and how are we providing it?

We are in an incredible moment in our national history. We’ve come from a long time of being legally disallowed from knowing and understanding each other.We went through a historic rupture of the laws that rendered us ignorant, fearful and hateful of each other but that did not necessarily change people’s hearts.In the same way that white people didn’t ask for forgiveness, black people do not forgive apartheid.

Although curiosity about “the other”exists on the same platter of national conditions as indifference, for 20 years we performed a knowledge of and interest in each other in a sort of post-traumatic memory lapse of sorts, all the while still fearing and loathing, though curious about each other.Today, we are in an age of remembering that hey, something happened here, to all of us.We are feeling it the most in our bodies and taking it out the most on our bodies. It takes up the space between our unconscious greetings and conversations and our conscious examinations of what happened here. We are finally allowed to feel. And this is why things seem so insurmountable.

What am I doing in my everyday as a writer to speak to this moment? Is a journalist required to ask and answer this question for themselves? Now that we are seasoned at telling readers how monumentally fucked we are, now that the think pieces of analysis are as automated as they are, the apologies as swift as they are, the writing as clear as it is on the wall —what else should we be doing? What happens after the naming of our pathologies and what is our role in that?

Would I be too naive to want to pick up a newspaper that would better help me understand myself? That would help me identify the traits of my ego versus the traits of my spirit, my true form and self? Am I asking too much of this fraternity to help me figure out how I am going to face my enemy? And how I am going to heal myself?

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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