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Joburg and journalism: My journey

By Charles Mafa

I am a journalist from Zambia who has worked in the media since 1999. I have a wife and three lovely kids. In 2002, I joined Catholic Media Services and six years later, I led a crew that filmed and edited a programme that won the CNN Award for the best HIV/AIDS reporting in Africa. Last year, I received the World Bank-funded award for an investigative story on the dire situation of water and sanitation and the gross management of funds in the sector. The prize was a World Bank-funded three-month internship programme at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, amaBhungane.

My three months in Johannesburg was no fun. I realised just how difficult investigative journalism can be. I had to make calls to get people’s comments and reactions to the stories I was working on. Sometimes people hung up on me. More often than not, a company secretary would answer the phone and take my message but the call would never be returned.

My thoughts quickly turned to my country and the ongoing debate about the introduction of the Freedom of Information Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in 2002 and later withdrawn.

I realised how important the Access to Information Act in South Africa is in helping journalists to access publicly held information and make our job a little easier. Here, compared to Zambia, you can actually compel public officials to give you the information you need when it is in the public’s interest. In Zambia it is a different story.

At home I have to deal with mistrust from those who possess information, no access to official documents, threats and, sometimes, intimidation. There are lessons to be learnt from South Africa. By entrenching an independent right of access to information rather than leaving it to be protected by the right to freedom of expression, as has generally been the case in international human rights instruments, South Africans underscored their commitment to creating a free and open society.

Having been married for some time, three months in Johannesburg was like three years. I rented a house in one of the suburbs and tried to embrace my newfound solitude, forcing myself to remember the pleasures of bachelorhood, collecting take-out menus from every restaurant in the neighbourhood. But take-out food didn’t taste so good anymore, and the silence irked me. It was so difficult knowing that back home I had someone who had stuck by my side all these years and who was irritated by my constant travels. I realised how important she was to my life when I came back from the shops only to realise that I had forgotten to buy salt.

“Welcome to Johannesburg!” I was told. “It is a city you where you will never learn exactly how public transport works,” someone remarked when I enquired about this. For sure, it takes time to get used to this huge city. It took me a while to navigate my way through the taxi and bus systems. At times I wasn’t sure whether I have to raise one finger or five fingers when stopping the taxi. Unlike in Zambia, here taxis are small buses, which carry about 16 to 18 (30) people. In my country they are referred to as mini-buses and are operated by two people, a driver and his assistant. Here it is a one-man show and passengers have to sort themselves out when it comes to paying the fare and opening the door for those leaving or coming on the bus – I mean taxi.

My first day on the Metrobus revealed something that was unusual for me – a woman driving a Marcopolo bus. Where are the men, I wondered to myself as I stepped on the bus. Here it is normal, in Zambia it is just not possible. I have never seen a woman driving a big bus. It is so encouraging for the womenfolk to get involved in such kind of jobs. After all, men and women have the same abilities.

Another surprising thing to me is that some of these buses are actually owned by local municipalities. In Zambia we were advised by the Bretton Woods institutions that governments had no business in business. Public transport at home is run by the private sector.

As the saying goes, one man’s food is another man’s poison. What happens in Johannesburg can’t happen in Zambia. Strolling along the streets of Johannesburg I would come across some youth selling pornographic videos openly displayed for customers to sample. I wondered how many of those youth would fill our Zambian prisons. The offence committed by such people is clear and you would be charged with “selling material likely to corrupt morals”.

I watched in awe as a young man clipped people’s hair in open space along a street in the city. No roof above his head or a mirror for the customer to monitor the work done, he just put his trust in the barber man.

As I turn my back on Johannesburg for home, I feel encouraged by what I have learnt during my stay at the M&G. Inspired by my colleagues’ way of working, I feel encouraged about the career I chose. I also realise that investigative journalism is not for the faint-hearted. Courage alone is not enough to succeed; you need to work hard and have a desire to do something different.

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    • Benzo

      You much have missed being robbed by clear daylight with many onlookers doing nothing. Other than that, Joburg is interesting and full of opportunities.
      Not all are friendly to nosy newspaper people.
      Many are with you when sharing gripes about the current government but that is a world phenomenon.
      Your next step?? Try reporting on “war” situations and associated sufferings of the war victims.

    • http://www.heatherauer.com Heather Auer

      Interesting insight to another side of life.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Lerumo Mkhonto

      Its kind of you Mafa. South Africa has a large contingent of foreigners but very few have such objective words about the country. Mostly its about how bad South Africans are and how perfect their countries of origin are and how much South Africans should be learning from them because they (South Africans) are less traveled. Kind of you.

    • Just asking

      @Lerumo. i have been here for 3 years. Sometimes foreignrs interprete genuine issues and problems with discrimination. I have been treated by the best and worst public officials. I have good and bad neighbors. A lot of staff is just normal, & some of it is what happens when you leave house to go wherever. Ofcourse what I realize is that ordinary south africas are still trying to define for themselves what kind of a society they should have and the trade offs to be made; and foreigners find themselves lost in there. To cut a long story short, home affairs should promote that those wishing to live here should get to know the country better; maybe even take a short test before getting a resdent’s permit. I have taken the responsibility myself; but for others integration needs to be promoted, it doesn’t just happen.

    • Observant

      Hi Charles Mafa. Interesting read that is. I am a south african who also lived in Europe and US. I enjoyed reading your piece, its rare that I read about my country and the life that I know and enjoy to endure in Johannesburg. Looking forward to more contributions by you. Good luck in your endeavors.

    • Hopewell Nzama

      Hi Charles,

      I have come across what I can call money sniffers. They are able to determine if one is carrying cash. They bump you and star accusing you of being violent while they are busy sniffing your cash. I warn everyone to beware those clean and shaven who pretent to know everything. Johannesburg is full of crooks.