Read about my journey of discovering my role in the world, and the importance of it.
Words are inconsiderate things. There are thousands of them, and they can be put in an endless number of combinations or arrangements, each with its own specific meaning. And the right combination is always so evasive. There has been no greater challenge in human history than finding the perfect combination for the exact meaning. However, I have made considerable progress in my search for creating meaning with words over the past four months. However, as South African journalist Barry Ronge says, “Words cleverly used are the ultimate power play”. In my attempts to improve my handling of writing the English language in the JMS3 Writing and Editing course over the past semester, this became much clearer to me primarily due to events in the world outside the classroom. At the end of the term, I have come to realise that the most important functions of words in our society is to represent a version of reality that contributes to our own for our own betterment. This is done, simply, by telling stories.
The term started with me hoping to relieve my disenchantment after the first semester. I had originally signed up to the Writing and Editing class rather than any other in order to improve my own writing abilities, as well as the fact that I am quite technophobic. The first semester of the course had been all about learning how to blog and use the internet effectively as a publishing medium. I learnt a lot, this I cannot deny, but it wasn’t what I signed up for – I hadn’t improved my writing at all across the term, at least as far as I could tell. But the first practical of the second semester changed all that. In fact, it left me so invigorated that immediately afterwards I went straight to a commuter and hammered out my first personal blog post of the term, titled “To write is to fight language”. As the title suggests, the post was about the fight to control the English language that I intended to embark over the semester, and the rest of my writing life. The post was a testimony to the journey for self-improvement that every word I wrote this semester contributed to, as every word I write in this essay and forever after entail.
Early in the third term came Grahamstown’s Trading Live week, a week where various groups across the city engage with one another in the trade of knowledge, skills and goods for the betterment of the community at large. I was tasked to report on a focus group of some sort on the Friday afternoon, but that morning I was informed my event had been cancelled, and that I was now to cover an event called “Sharing knowledge about the arts” at the Raglan Road Service Centre. Beyond this, I knew nothing, as no-one else seemed to. I caught the pre-arranged transport to Raglan Road having absolutely no idea what I was headed for.
The shuttle dropped me and a few Rhodes University students from a gospel singing society. I walked through the door tentatively.
I was greeted by a chorus of song.
There were a dozen elderly woman wrapped in blankets and shawls, and one old man. Those that could were dancing in the centre of the room, but the majority remained in the colourful array of couches that formed a ring around the dancers. Between the singing and clapping, only smiles could be seen, and a tear from one of the students. And so the sharing began.
The immediate challenge to my documenting abilities came in the language barrier. All the pensioners spoke isiXhosa only, a language I am not entirely comfortable with. However, the message of the occasion spoke beyond this, and the article I eventually wrote was centred on one of the old ladies, Nombulelo, taught me how to knit. The experience was an important lesson in the power of story-telling, and the ability to transcend language in telling stories. The Trading Live experience overall was a great lesson into the possibilities for journalism to benefit a community simply by telling the stories within it.
The next two writing assignments involved meeting great South African journalists Jacob Dlamini and Jodi Bieber, which were both truly a treat, because of the opportunity to ask them questions about their careers, the industry, and writing at large. I enjoyed their visits so much that I attended an extra group session with Bieber about the realities of freelancing a couple days after the practical, and would have loved to have chatted to Dlamini more had he not had a plane to catch just after the lecture.
These visits taught me the real benefit of studying at as prolific a school of journalism as this one, because of the names it attracts. I took a great deal from Dlamini regarding the publishing industry, and how I as a new writer can get published, while Bieber helped me to come to terms with the role of unavoidable journalistic and artful subjectivity, at a time when I was feeling very disillusioned about the fact that journalists are humans with their own self-interests. When discussing a photograph of a public swimming pool in Orlando West, she explained that she had deliberately framed it so that the copious amounts of alcohol being drunk were not visible, while the activity of the pool still was. “That’s not what’s interesting to me,” she said of the alcohol. “The photo I took is interesting to me.” Here was a fantastic example of how the reality she portrayed altered my own to a more positive view of Soweto, not as a dirty crime-ridden township, but as an enormous and resounding community.
This disillusionment arose from my position at The Oppidan Press, as Assistant Opinion Editor. Mid-way through the semester the Black Student Movement (BSM) and The Oppidan Press had a disagreement over the fact that the student paper had published details of BSM member’s theft and journalist intimidation during their occupation of the Rhodes Council Chamber. In an effort to amend relations, the senior editors of the paper did not allow any opinion material relating to issues about transformation or the BSM unless the writer was a BSM member. However, in protest of the publication, the BSM did not allow any of its members to write for The Oppidan Press. I was therefore entirely unable to publish any material about this central area of campus activity, and so had to find content regarding peripheral incidents that did not matter at all in comparison. In effect, my section, and my job, had become pointless on the Rhodes campus. This swung my decision not to apply for an editorial position in the student press for 2016.
Student activism and issues of transformation and institutional culture at the university peaked, of course, in the week of Monday 19 November, and my disillusionment with the press in dealing with social movement and issues soared. I spoke to my grandmother over the telephone on the Thursday, and when we were discussing the protests, she told me that she had seen three photographs out of Rhodes from the week: one someone holding a brick next to a burning tire, one of a broken window, and one of a police scuffle involving a stun grenade. The reality that had been communicated to her via the media contained an entirely different reality to the one I had experienced – of a peaceful, event of mass-participation, where people were opening their ears to each other’s stories and their hearts to each other’s concerns. The fact that the leaders of the protest vehemently condemned the incidents of student intimidation in the week was not reported. The countless group meeting in residences and other areas across campus that involved students deliberating difficult social issues in an open, progressive manner also went unreported. Even the massive clean-up of campus that occurred on the Saturday after demands had been negotiated also did not find its way into the mainstream media.
However there was some specific media material that was incredibly useful in gaining a fuller understanding of the student movements: user-generated content on social media. Twitter and Facebook were alive with students telling their stories and explaining their demands, and engaging in discussions around the issues at hand. Of course, there were many incidents of flaming and inappropriate slurs across the platforms, and many arguments were fuelled by antagonism, but there was also an incredible amount of useful social documentation available that was frightfully underutilised by journalists. The availability of experiential accounts of protest is a valuable tool for social progression, according to Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics, and the fact that journalists were unable to spread this user-generated content effectively was a failure on the part of the media to the protestors. Similarly, the lack of availability of the voices of regular policemen was a failure to the police forces across the country.
Most of my ability to identify and acquire this information came from my exposure to the internet over the duration of the course. I had never blogged before, only used Twitter minimally, had never uploaded a video onto YouTube, and had never publicised any of my work on Facebook. I acquired the skills to do all of this and more, and would call these the skills I value most form the course, heading out into the big, bad, digital world. This does not mean that I enjoyed learning all of this; countless slip-ups and technological problems made me want to tear my hair out every now and again. But in the end, my digital proficiency is probably the greatest asset I can now bring into the job market in the future, and I will always owe thanks to the lecturers for forcing me into using these mediums against my better judgment.
The primary basis of my encounters with the internet came from my work for Artbeat. I had my concerns regarding the blog because, as Frank Zappa said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” However, under the leadership of the fourth-year editors, I was able to develop a much broader conception of art journalism and its role in the world, other than vague, pointless profiles of artists and free advertising for galleries and gigs. As a team we were able to identify the place of art in the Grahamstown community as well as in people’s own understandings and sentiments of the world, we were able to use art to contribute to reporting on social movements, issues and change, and we were able to create journalism that was art in itself.
This was not my only experience to alternative forms of journalism and non-fiction writing. Anna Christensen’s lectures on both personal narrative and gonzo journalism, as well as the assistance she gave me in the realm of art journalism in one-on-one interactions were invaluable to me. They further contributed to my understanding of how writing can re-represent reality for specific purposes. I was able to tell my own story about nearly drowning in the ocean in a way that made it accessible via the empathy of others, due to it being directly from me. I was also able to distort the story of my first encounter with skinning an animal to contribute to people’s thoughts regarding the ethics of eating animals, through the use of gonzo writing.
The course has changed me. I no longer see reality or truth as fixed variables for which my job as writer and journalist is to endlessly search. Rather, the writer’s job is the creation of meaning that relates to the world, and this meaning is at the mercy of both the writer’s fingertips and the reader’s thoughts and beliefs. I also understand my role in the world to be far more important than I used to. I am not here to document the truth, and to tell people what happened. The creation of meaning is so much more important than it, because it is the sole method for attributing anything in this world with value. Here I do not refer to valuing commodities and such, but to helping people realise what they care about, or at the very least what will be on their minds. Everything important is meaning. I am still not entirely sure how I will go about creating meanings in my life. I may do it as a journalist, as a teacher, as a writer, as a father, or perhaps as all of the above. It is undoubtedly the most important role I have to play in the world, and I feel far better equipped to do it now.