Why do you do what you do? This is a question asked when you start a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. Everyone had a different answer, but we were united by the compulsion to tell stories and interrogate the way the world works. For me, the question sent me straight to thinking about my parents, volunteers in Eswatini, then Botswana and finally in the overly hot Limpopo province.
They worked on inclusive community development. This meant a childhood spent finding ways to occupy myself on the periphery of community meetings, and seeing the nuts and bolts of how things such as boreholes were drilled.
The Mail & Guardian was ever-present in this time. My mother, Mary, collected editions — sometimes with bits blacked out by censors — and kept them as collectors’ items. Although we didn’t have much money, each week came with an investment in quality information. In Limpopo, Friday and the paper were a ritual. We’d pick it up at the local Pick n Pay on the way home (well, I’d pick up some fresh rolls on which to lather mayonnaise) and my parents would take turns reading the M&G. If I close my eyes now I can still picture my dad, John, sitting back in his chair with the paper opened mid-air for hours on end.
This was a paper setting down the first draft of history. It was a paper questioning that history, first by challenging the violence of the apartheid regime and then brutality of the neoliberal, trickle-down economics that came after 1994.
We live in an unequal world. A world where inequality is perpetuated by vested interests, where our extractive and polluting status quo harms people’s lives and fuels deadly climate change. These interests write the rules and help manufacture the elective process. Good journalism is crucial because it exposes what those in power do. It equips you, the resident and the voter, with the information you need to change the system (if you want to).
For 35 years, the M&G, which started in 1985 as the Weekly Mail, has sought to change this world by shining a spotlight on issues. At times this can seem naive. We live in a world where someone can be beaten to death in their yard by those meant to protect them, or choked to death in the street by a police official, often with little consequence. But we also live in a world where the courts ensure consequences and, when they don’t, the public rises up and demands it.
I stepped into this newsroom in 2011 as an intern, first walking past walls decked with journalism awards (intimidating) and then towards people who greeted me with smiles, curiosity and genuine affection. I took over the environment beat and focused on the point where people, the environment and extractive capitalism collide. The latter tends to win. This is why I would talk to children with lungs lacerated from pollution from power plants who couldn’t compete in school sports. It’s why we are in the middle of a mass extinction of life on Earth. And because we don’t price in the cost of pollution, it’s why we are in the midst of a climate crisis.
In South Africa, and on the rest of the continent, this hits particularly hard. Colonialism tore out natural resources and sought to break humans. From villages in the Steelpoort valley of Limpopo to the sand dunes of the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast and veld of the Klein Karoo, I sought to document this reality and question why it continues.
There are few newsrooms that take this kind of reporting seriously. The M&G is one of them. It costs money to send skilled reporters and photographers to remote areas. It takes bravery to put those stories on the front cover of the newspaper — I am frequently reminded that one of worst-ever selling editions had a climate change story on the cover.
Along the way the newspaper has been days away from closing and yet it still survived, and thrived. This is thanks to the people who work to keep the idea of good, public service journalism alive. It is also thanks to the people who invest in that journalism. At first it was a group of reporters who mortgaged their homes to start a publication. Then it was The Guardian (hence the second part of our name). Most recently, it was the nonprofit Media Development Investment Fund and current chief executive Hoosain Karjieker.
Staff retain a 10% ownership, with a mixture of former reporters, editors and other individuals owning the rest.
Given this history taking charge of this newsroom is daunting. It is also incredibly exciting. Like many, many others I love the Mail & Guardian. Our journalism is backed by some of the best journalists, photographers, copy editors, layout staff, section editors and everyone else it takes to create a newspaper, run a website and a company. My job is to ensure each one of these people can do their best work. Each day, you will find their work on our website and on a Friday you will find it in our newspaper.
We do what we do because of you. Support us. Hold us to account. Help us hold those in power to account, question the status quo and weave beautiful journalism.