Elections, xenophobic and vicious gender-based violence, climate collapse, state-owned entities and load-shedding — 2019 has been an insane year. The Mail & Guardian has been at the forefront of reporting on all these problems, and on the social injustices that rob so many people of their futures. Editor-in-chief, Khadija Patel, writes about the year that was, what we reported and why we reported on it
There are six jars of chocolate in my office. And, despite my dedication to keeping them filled, they are often emptied within a few days. They join the morning coffee run in powering our newsroom with sugar and caffeine. With a newsroom of about 50 people it also takes no small amount of madness to tell you about the world we share. As I write this, two days before our last edition of the year is published, just one jar is left, half filled with that festive favourite; Quality Street. They had better last until this edition is sent to print.
My office is in one corner of the newsroom. The windows of our eighth floor open up to spectacular views of Johannesburg, and it’s easy to get lost just staring at its green trees and grey cement buildings. The strains of Peter Gabriel’s Biko drifts out of the television in the middle of the newsroom. No one is paying attention to it. Someone laughs. A hearty, full laugh that gets a crowd of reporters animated, pointing at phone screens and gesticulating. The newsroom manager’s phone rings — someone has a tip-off. A big story, they say. Please can someone take the call? There’s an audible groan. Reporters are trying to finish off their last stories. A sub-editor, quite fed up with the din, gets up from her chair and turns the television off.
It’s been a long, hard year.
Just six months ago, we went to the polls. South Africa elected Cyril Ramaphosa as president. The ANC won a comfortable majority, but its dominance is being eroded — mostly by its stubborn conviction to destroy itself. The Democratic Alliance was delivered a nosebleed — notably by more conservative elements of its support base, who opted for the familiarity of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). The Economic Freedom Fighters, meanwhile, increased its share of the vote, taking up more space in Parliament — and certainly more space in the political consciousness of the country.
Telling the strands of this larger political story strained our newsroom. It has been a tough decade for us, with a newsroom that shrinks when the economy has a shock, or when government advertising goes into the pages of politically connected publications. In this, we are lucky to have dedicated readers who keep coming back to the Mail & Guardian, allowing us to keep reporting.
For the elections, this meant that the M&G’s centre for data journalism, headed by Athandiwe Saba, was able to predict trends before the election. It saw the growth of the FF+ and allowed us to report what this meant.
Data has always been integral to journalism. Now, thanks to the mix of reporters and algorithms, it is becoming ever more essential to our work. Our investigative journalists, for example, have worked closely with the data team to find stories in the numbers that underpin much of how this country works.
While Angelo Agrizzi was laying bare the cult of Bosasa at the Zondo inquiry into state capture earlier this year, the quick work of our investigations and data teams found that the state had made nearly 10 000 payments to Bosasa, resulting in R12-billion for the company. Then there was the Great Gupta Firesale. The full extent of the Gupta family’s empire has not yet been set out, but as we watched bits and pieces go under the hammer to settle debts, the fact that the state would recover nothing was a sad indictment of the slow pace of state-capture arrests.
Investigations and politics are the bread-and-butter of the M&G. But this is, at its core, a publication founded to dig into the injustices of the status quo. At first, that was an apartheid system that systematically abused and disenfranchised most of the people in South Africa. For the past 25 years, it has been a form of capitalism that also abuses and disenfranchises.
Where the pressure is often to lead our newspaper and website with investigations and politics, this year we have put our other reporting beats at the fore. This is especially true for the environment, in particular our reporting on the climate crisis, the dysfunctional education system, gender-based violence, the legal system and the state of labour in South Africa. We are also the only newsroom to have dedicated resources to report on the rest of this continent.
The newspaper has consequently led with Sipho Kings’ investigations into air quality, where toxic air in Johannesburg (for example) means you lose three years of your life. In education, we led with work by education reporter Bongekile Macupe, investigating the high personal cost of a matric that means learners have no chance to have lives outside of school. That reporting was infused with work by legal reporter Franny Rabkin.
And, as I write this, large parts of the country are still crippled by drought. In Australia, massive fires are being driven by successive, record-setting temperatures. In New York, the first-ever “snow squall” warning has just been issued. Our world is changing, rapidly, and journalism has struggled to report on this climate crisis. This is something that the M&G has reported on throughout its history. Now, when you open a regular edition of the paper, the first thing you’ll see is a climate column as well as a graphic showing the latest concentration of carbon in the atmosphere.
Women in particular will be hit by the climate crisis, exacerbating other abuses. This year has been another one dominated by cases of horrific rape and murder, with certain deaths grabbing the nation’s attention. This is why we kept reporting on the murder of Viwe Dalingozi, ensuring that a broken justice system had to do better in holding her killer to account. This is why we went to Limpopo to look at the police station where the most rapes in the country are reported, and to the Eastern Cape to tell the story of Aviwe Wellem, who was murdered without consequence for the perpetrator(s).
All these stories have taken their toll on our newsroom. Good journalism requires that you spend time with people, talking through their trauma and trying to find out why abuses of power happened. This is taxing on reporters, who deal with the worst of our country so that they can better inform the public — you.
In part, because you have said that reporting on how bad things are can become overwhelming, we also started our Good News edition this year. Although it isn’t the “sunshine journalism” forced on the SABC, it is an acknowledgement that this country is still here because of the tireless work of some incredible people. From journalists and Eskom engineers to nongovernmental organisation workers and the people cleaning campuses, people wake up each day to make South Africa work.
We will report more on these people. Even if we don’t have power.
Ten days before this edition was published, the electricity in our building went out. A power surge during a weekend of load-shedding had left us tiptoeing around the parking garage in the dark, the light of our cellphones saving us from things going bump in the night. In an unrelated incident, the lifts servicing our building had suffered water damage some weeks before. But these lifts, in the spirit of the fourth industrial revolution, come kitted out with their own algorithms and attitude. So getting up to the newsroom on the 8th floor is sometimes a feat of fitness too great for some of us — okay, mostly me.
We’ve been in this building for eight months now, leaving behind Rosebank for a space that feels more comfortable to an independent news publisher; a space from which we can look out of the windows, marvel at the city beyond and breathe. Although this year has not been kind to journalists, and the news media in general, the mere fact of our survival is a feat.
Even in the best of circumstances, journalism is hard, but it is particularly hard right now. The business model of journalism is not quite fixed, the economy is moribund and newsrooms must transform practice and processes to better serve our audiences. We’ve had a tough year, and said goodbye to three of the longest serving employees of the newspaper, Shaun de Waal, Oupa Nkosi and Matthew du Plessis.
Despite our difficulties, the M&G is still here. And we have our readers to thank for that. Next year, the newspaper will celebrate its 35th anniversary. It’s no small feat to still be around, especially as a small, independent publication. Stay with us, as we set the agenda for the next 35 years.