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The Perils Of The Written Word

The work of an African journalist is difficult; oppression and imprisonment are occupational hazards. There must be few jobs in the world where you can consider yourself fortunate to end up in jail.



Reporting on the African continent is an “extreme act of courage”, writes journalist Shyaka Kanuma in a Nieman report. The Rwandan was in exile, addressing other Nieman fellow journalists at Harvard University.

The fellowship, one of the most sought after in the world, has seen its fair share of African journalists fleeing trouble back home. Gregory Stemn was one. The Liberian photojournalist chronicled the horrors of his country’s civil war against Charles Taylor’s wishes. South African Nat Nakasa was the first black African Nieman fellow in September 1964. He chose exile to join the fellowship but committed suicide ten months later, jumping off a Manhattan apartment building, manically depressed at the thought of never returning to the country he was forced to abandon.

To be a journalist on African soil is to consign oneself to an uneasy life; be it in war zones or in fearful newsrooms. Greg Marinovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning South African photojournalist, writing on the tribulations faced by African war photographers noted, “across… the continent, ruthless regimes bring the violence and fear to bear to suppress the truth.”

This handful of Africans, merely plying their trade on the side of reason, is often forgotten. These are their stories.

January 9, 1994: Katlehong, a township just outside Johannesburg. Gunfire crackles as dignitaries make it beyond the rusted metal shacks of what they called no-man’s land.

Jessica Pitchford was covering the township beat for public broadcaster SABC on that day. Looking into the camera she began, “at the moment, it’s quite safe here…”

The rattle of bullets broke off the sentence. Pitchford threw herself to the ground.

Ahmed Sharif, a freelance photographer, is shot next to her; dying from his injuries hours later. On the other side, her colleague Charles Moikanyang is shot in the back. She helps him from the line of fire. He survives.

“We were just part of a group of people who happened to be invading an official war zone,” says Pitchford to a magazine a few months after Katlehong.

She wasn’t happy with her story.

“I hate the way I handled this one… I should have put it in context. I didn’t even mention that a woman and child had also been caught in the crossfire… all I was worried about was getting Charles to hospital. It was a journalist’s story. A little too self-indulgent, I thought.”

Violence was playing out across the country. In the early 1990s, South Africa was at a crossroads. Political reforms made way for democratic elections to end apartheid. Nelson Mandela was President-in-waiting.

The country’s media was negotiating a new kind of editorial freedom. Journalists were dodging bullets to tell the story of political violence. It is believed that close to 14,000 South Africans were killed during the bloody transition to democracy. Katlehong was ground zero.

Monica Zwolsman was a reporter at Johannesburg newspaper, The Star; the same publication her late husband, award-winning photographer Ken Oosterbroek, worked for.

“Looking back, I am just horrified at what went on and how people lived through that… I don’t think anyone knew, and we still don’t really know, who was attacking who.”

Zwolsman was part of an innocent and confused generation of journalists.

“I don’t think we, as journalists, had the skills [to cover these events]… It was difficult trying to get a handle on what was happening. It was never a constant, it started off with pangas (machetes) and steels bars and it evolved to AK-47s.”

Oosterbroek was a leading light in the now-famous Bang Bang Club, a band of daring photojournalists working in what they called no-man’s land – between battle lines drawn in the townships. A week before the elections of 1994, a bullet stopped him forever in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg.

“Everyone knew he was dead except me… when I got there people had just ran away and I ran into the hospital and I just saw his feet sticking out… that’s when I realized [that he was dead].”

In the book that chronicled their lives out in the field, friend and fellow Bang Bang Club member Greg Marinovich, who was also injured in the carnage says, “after four long years of observing violence, the bullets had finally caught up with us.”

A willingness to pursue a story at considerable personal risk was typical among reporters. They organized in packs; groups of foreign and local journalists moved together, finding safety in numbers.

“The local journalists knew where to go and where not to go. They could read the situation, you had to get to know that and you had to look out for each other. Even today, people are so closely bonded – that group of journalists – because we worked together and we genuinely lived through some crazy times,” recalls Zwolsman.

Back in the safety of the newsrooms, editors could merely keep tabs on their reporters, says Peter Fabricius, who was an assignment editor at the Independent. He sent a number of South African journalists to conflicts at home and further afield in the Congo; it was a difficult job.

“It was pretty nerve-racking having to send people into danger not knowing what you were exposing them to.”

These were the days before cell phones. Cumbersome satellite phones were the only way. But only a few, well-funded, newsrooms could afford them.

Oppression and imprisonment are other occupational hazards. There must be few jobs in the world where you can consider yourself fortunate to end up in jail.

Seyoum Tsehaye is one of those journalists behind bars. He began his journalism career as a guerrilla with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the armed movement that ended Ethiopian occupation in 1993.

Some guerrillas were armed with cameras and voice recorders along with Kalashnikovs. They were not objective war-reporters but they captured rare footage of battle and interviewed commanders. These fighters provided the only records of this conflict in Africa’s mysterious hermit kingdom.

After the war, many Eritrean warrior-journalists abandoned their AK-47s to staff the country’s burgeoning state-controlled media. Tsehaye was appointed the country’s first head of state television.

In the late 1990s, with fresh conflict with Ethiopia looming, Tsehaye stopped toeing the party line. He joined an “audacious” independent paper and returned to photography. He began speaking out against the renewed fighting and campaigned for democracy. He was shadowed by secret police until his arrest and detention in 2001.

Recent news of him, provided by “sympathetic prison guards”, claims his health is “deteriorating” as he is shifted from one desert prison to the other.

Still behind bars, Tsehaye won the Reporter’s Without Borders ‘Journalist of the Year Award’ in 2007.

Brian Hungwe, an award-winning journalist from Zimbabwe, is well aware of the risks of political reporting. In 2000, he broke the story of families who lost their sons in the escalating war in the Congo.

Two years earlier, Mugabe mobilized Zimbabwean troops, against the wishes of his electorate, and sent them to the DRC at the start of the Second Congo War. The casualties were considerable.

“It started with one family, their son was a pilot but they only received a knee-cap for burial. They were living in fear that they buried the wrong person,” remembers Hungwe.

Slowly, but surely, more families came forward and Hungwe began an investigation into their claims. It culminated in the “DRC War Casualties Shock” report that won him the CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year Award.

He was meticulous, even pushing for an official government response, confident that it would shield him from persecution.

“The story was true. If you can defend the truth then you are fortified. I was lucky because the truth was on my side. Getting the government to comment was difficult. They never responded although we faxed them and phoned them as well.”

Once the story was published and Hungwe accepted his award, a senior government representative belatedly denied the story.

Hungwe’s story shows there can be triumphs, as well as danger, in African journalism.

Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist who has been in and out of prison on sedition charges, continues to push the envelope. In 2007, he founded The Independent, a Kampala news magazine. Mwenda won the International Press Freedom Award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2008. He owns, edits and publishes the magazine.

“You buy the truth, we pay the price,” is the magazine’s motto. Journalists from Kampala to Katlehong will nod with a knowing smile.


Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?




How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation



Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.

As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work




When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

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