Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Is There Any Point to Social Responsibility?

Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza

My ideas on socially-engaged journalism evolved over time. This is a revised version of a 2009 talk, The Journalist as Activist, that I gave at a colloquium with professors of international affairs & communications at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Guadalajara, Mexico, on 26 November 2009. The Mexico talk was in turn based on a presentation I gave, On the Need for a Socially-Oriented Journalism, at a seminar with Aubrey Matshiqi and Anton Harber at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, on 7 May 2008. The piece below was carried in the Rhodes Journalism Review Alive, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, on 31 August 2013: 

On 10 September, President Jacob Zuma told journalism students visiting Parliament that while still deputy president on a visit to Mexico, he had been informed that the Mexican media doesn't report on crime because it adopted "patriotic reporting" in order to market the country to tourists and investors. Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) founder Raymond Louw bitterly responded at the FXI's National Conference on Freedom of Expression at Muldersdrift on 26 September that "the President made a broad sweeping statement on the necessity for patriotic journalism, citing Mexico as the example; in Mexico, journalists don't report on crime because you will be killed."
“¡Más vale morir de pie que vivir de rodillas!” This uncompromisingly defiant call, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” has been attributed to the man I call Cliché Guevara. But the famous phrase may have originated much earlier with a Mexican journalist, Práxedis Guerrero, who, leading a fire-fight between 32 well-armed guerrillas of the anarchist Partido Liberal Mexicano and about 600 Federal police in the Chihuahua town of Janos on the evening of 29 December 1910, literally died on his feet – and in doing so helped light the fuse on one of the most profound transformations of the 20th Century: the Mexican Revolution. He was 28 years old.
Guerrero also wrote for Ricardo Flores Magón’s famous newspaper Regeneración, and edited the El Paso, Texas, paper Punto Rojo, so it is clear that he straddled, or rather combined, two disciplines: that of the journalist and that of the activist; his writings – and his revolutionary activities – putting him directly in harm’s way. It is equally clear that it was his conviction that radical change was necessary in Mexico that led him to take up both the pen and, as the popular revolutionary song had it, “the 30-30 carbine”.
There is a long tradition of the journalist-activist in Mexico. Take for example the remarkable Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza who first published her feminist journal Vesper in 1901: she would become an important Mexican revolutionary figure and Vesper, relocated to Mexico City, would survive despite repeated government bans – and despite Gutiérrez spending many spells in prison for her writings and activism – remaining in circulation until 1936, a remarkable longevity given exceptionally dangerous conditions. She was also the editor of the feminist journal Iconoclasta, established in 1917 within the ranks of the Mexican Regional Workers' Federation (FORM). 
The famous 1911 Plan de Ayala which was the direct inspiration for the radical Mexican Constitution of 1917 – in anticipation of how our 1955 Freedom Charter inspired South Africa's democratic Constitution of 1996 – was written by the Ayala town school-teacher Otilio Montaño Sánchez, with input from revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and the anarchist-communist Regeneración journalist-cum-unionist Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama who had served three jail terms for his politics, and who Zapata had befriended in Mexico City. 
In similar fashion, journalist-activists have shaped the South African social and political landscape. We need only look at the work of communists like Alan Lipman who wrote for newspapers such as New Age, who helped in the process of drafting the Freedom Charter, and who engaged in acts of sabotage alongside the liberal African Resistance Movement after he broke with the SACP over the Soviet invasion of Hungary. New Age was later banned and Lipman forced into exile – but we can also examine the work of supposedly “apolitical” photographers like Drum magazine’s Bob Gosani who took damning secret photographs in the 1950s of the ritual humiliation of naked black prisoners in the notorious Number 4 Prison in Johannesburg, images which remain seared on the popular conscience today. That was as much journalism-as-activism as the work of more explicitly political journalists such as Steve Biko or Ruth First.
Journalism-as-activism has shaped much of our understanding of the world we live in. Where would we find the essentially human – and humane – insights into world-shaking events without the likes of communist journalist John Reed’s gritty eyewitness accounts of the Russian Revolution as portrayed in his book Ten Days that Shook the World? How impoverished would our understanding of poverty and welfare be without the incisive writings of Martha Gellhorn – later to earn fame as a war correspondent, active well into her eighties – about the dustbowl dirt-farmers of Depression-era America, as reflected in her book The View From The Ground?

Why should we care?

That is both the crudest and yet also the most crucial question to be asked by and of journalists when socially conscious reporting is discussed. In a world driven by hard-edged macro-economic agendas, and coloured by the brutal cut-and-thrust of daily political life, is there any point to social responsibility, a topic that has something of the tree-hugger to it?
After all, we have journalistic codes of ethics that are explicitly Constitution-based; we have a vigorous climate of debate within and about the media; and we have Section 9 institutions that protect the public that we write about – and for. Journalists in South Africa are justly proud of two intertwined and sometimes conflicting traditions: those of the “objective” school who hold facts paramount; and those of the “advocacy” school who hold progressive social change paramount. Sometimes these are mis-characterised as opposed Western/capitalist and African/developmentalist styles of reportage.
In 2000, a Piet Retief sawmill owner was so determined to destroy an attempt by his workers to unionise that he physically and psychologically abused the workers, formed a yellow alternative union, and then slashed salaries, paying the women workers – the men had given in to his bullying – R11 a month. Meanwhile, he flew about in a helicopter and fed his dogs huge, juicy steaks. Broke and heavily indebted to loan-sharks, these women were completely unbowed by their boss’ tactics and were resolute in wanting to build their union. Why should we care?
In 2001, I crawled 200m along a coal seam into the bowels of a hill near Idutywa, Eastern Cape, to report on “illegal” miners – skilled workers who had lost their jobs on the Reef, the Free State goldfields and elsewhere – who were taking their lives in their hands mining poor-quality brown coal. Why should we care?
In the internecine warfare of the Midlands in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the bloodiest battles was fought over the unionisation by Cosatu of the BTR-Sarmcol tyre factory in Howick. At least 39 people were murdered and 970 Cosatu-aligned workers summarily fired. In 1998, after a legal battle lasting 13 years, the dismissed workers won reinstatement and Judge Pierre Olivier’s landmark decision was that no employer could dismiss almost 1,000 workers without considering the social impact.
Yet in 1999, German investor Klaus Daun (a.k.a. “Close Down”) shut down Mooi River Textiles, throwing roughly 800 workers out into the cold. The economic impact on the town was devastating: R5-million a month in workers’ spending-power evaporating overnight; the local property market crashed and everything from large chain-stores to the banks shut their doors; crime soared, tourism died and even the municipality floundered as its rates base was destroyed. That’s why we should care. Yet most of my colleagues prefer to caricature strikers as selfish, and working class concerns as of only narrow importance. So I was I think the only reporter to bother to follow that cause-and-effect chain on the ground, exploring how job losses affect not just blue-collar workers, but everyone – and stories that affect everyone are always legitimate news stories.

My personal experience

My political progress was initially as slow as my rather naive journalism development, though I early on gravitated towards the resurgent anti-racist and anti-militarist anarchist movement in the early 1990s. My growing experience in conflict reporting during those dramatic years of the Insurrection of 1985-1993 – our own “Second Intifadeh” if you will, following the famous Insurrection of 1976-1977 – politicised me further. In Gellhorn’s phrase, I was becoming ever more interested in “the view from the ground,” in reporting the experiences of the poor, oppressed and marginalised. 
This in turn led to me joining a succession of anarchist resistance organisations, with ever-more defined politics, platforms and programmes of direct engagement in social struggles, resulting in today's Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front. Where journalism took me into the townships during my lengthy working hours, activism took me back there in the evenings and over weekends. I became a shop-steward in my union, the rather white-collar, craft-oriented South African Union of Journalists and learned the hard lessons of union organising (organising journalists is very much like herding cats!). I became an investigative journalist specialising in covering everything from defence and conflict, to extra-Parliamentary politics and labour, all the while helping local activists to organise township and hostel libraries and political meetings, and helping out at working class organisations like the Workers’ Library & Museum.
I naturally had to try to ensure that I retained my sense of journalistic balance and fairness in the middle of all this, giving credit where it was due, and trying to put myself in the shoes of my interview subjects – especially those I strongly opposed: the nationalists, both black and white. So, on the one hand I have sat in the lounge of PAC leader Clarence Makwetu near Queenstown, interrogating the ironies and complexities of the land restitution question, and on the other, I have spent hours talking to AWB farmers, trying to get under the skin of the supposed racial certainties of their relations with their black neighbours. The trick was to be partisan in favour of veracity, and to spend the time needed to sufficiently grasp all points of view, all life experiences. 
The curious thing is that while journalism taught me research skills and a respect for ordinary people, activism taught me organisational skills, self-discipline and public speaking – all things I use in my work today. 

So what is missing? 

South African journalism today largely lacks social consciousness because many journalists are:
Too ideologically blinkered. It does not matter if they are pro-capitalist or anti-capitalist, pro-Zuma or not, pro-Mugabe or not, pro-Castro or not, but there is an inability and unwillingness to judiciously weigh up the evidence of both sides and to examine issues holistically. Stance outweighs substance;
Too remote. They far prefer to operate by telephone than doing the hard, after-hours legwork that real journalism often requires. Crawling 200m into the side of hillside or walking the docks at night is too risky and therefore simply not done. Living comfortably in the suburbs, they shudder at working in rural areas. It is far easier to wait for some authority to issue a press statement;
Too prissy. They are too scandalised to speak to the accused in the dock, even though the accused are presumed innocent by law until convicted - and are the very reason for the trial. They are afraid to speak to convicts in jail even though they can be visited and interviewed just like anyone else. They are too “proper” to speak to the hookers, the beggars and the poor on their own turf, on their own terms.
Too beholden to interests other than veracity. Blinded by their own personal tastes, prejudices, agendas and the influence of their friends, they are not willing to put aside their pre-conceived notions and get to the heart of the story. Allegiance outweighs analysis.
How do we fix it?
Above any particular journalistic talent, dogged will-power is needed to make stories come alive, values which news editors must instill:
The will to get out of the newsroom and do the legwork. With many stories this is time-consuming, lonely work, but in all cases, irreplaceable in terms of understanding the story – and working in the field is by far the most rewarding part of journalism;
The will to get to know the society in which we operate. No, neo-Nazis, prisoners and prostitutes are not always nice folk, but if we don’t know them, we not only fail to understand racism, prostitution and prisons, but ignore great primary sources;
The will to get behind the headline. We need to get to understand socio-econo-political processes, the social engines that drive phenomena, in order to properly interpret them. Unbiased yet judicious curiosity is a great virtue.
To answer my original question: Why should we care? We should care because socially-aware journalism is not soft on wrong-doers or on the facts. It is detailed, contextual, analytical, sociologically-informed reportage from the ground which tenaciously pursues veracity, covering the underreported majority of the human experience, and so in doing, delivers valuable information to our diverse audiences, empowering their life decisions.


- Michael Schmidt is executive director, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ), and administrative secretary, Professional Journalists' Association of South Africa (ProJourn). An experienced field reporter, conflict journalism trainer, and published author of non-fiction books on global anarchist history, he continues to contribute to the mainstream and alternative press in print and online.

Complexities of the Stolen Land Debate

A Dutch anti-apartheid poster given to me by the leader of KwaZulu-Natal's Pan-Africanist Congress back in 1993 during a series of interviews in which I sought to destigmatise the PAC and Azapo in the eyes of our then-mostly-white Natal Mercury readership. 

In the wake of last week's landmark vote by the African National Congress (ANC) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the National Assembly that Section 25 of the Constitution's Bill of Rights be amended to allow for land requisitions without compensation, there has been a flurry of (anti-)social media commentary, mostly from alarmed, propertied whites. 
Well, firstly, seeing as the state already possesses huge landholdings that it hasn't redistributed in more than two decades in power, despite falling well behind its own land-redistribution targets, that apart from for ordinary purposes such as road-building it hasn't expropriated any private land for redistribution in that time, and given that the markets and big capital (notably AgriSA, the representatives of commercial agriculture) reacted with barely a murmur, I suspect the constitutional amendment will prove to be a mere political device intended to reunite the ANC with its disaffected support base, and that it is intended as a dead letter. 
We may, however, see a few isolated, salutary, high-profile expropriations to pacify that base and discipline its perceived "white monopoly capital" enemies. That the two parties that traditionally represented black land rights in South Africa (also known as Azania), the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), and Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) are declined into insignificance is a pity in my view. I voted PAC in the landmark 1994 all-race elections because I saw the as the only left party that was sufficiently nationwide in its perspectives, revolutionary, and possessed of a burning desire to return stolen land to the black, indigenous, coloured and Indian dispossessed. Today, the PAC has a lone seat in the National Assembly, while Azapo has none, opening the field to the right-populist EFF and, purely opportunistically, the centrist-neoliberal ANC. 
Author Graeme Condrington correctly notes that the amendment to the Constitution would be at least the 15th time that land expropriation laws have been passed in South Africa (though he includes the Glen Grey Act of 1894 before SA existed) - and that they were all aimed at dispossessing people of colour in favour of white settlers. To be honest, I feel the vote last week was really about radicalisation without rationalisation, rather than expropriation without compensation.
Nevertheless, land restitution is complex and emotive (people of colour also dispossessed indigenous people, so it's not merely about white settler colonialism), unaccountably delayed under the ANC, has been delayed by unrealistic expectations (the ability of restituted owners to cohere as viable farming communities - underscored by a lack of financing and skills transfer to emergent farmers), and has been distorted by the bogus claims of black and white fascists / populists / racists (Black First Land First, EFF, AfriForum, AWB etc). The nuances of the debate reminded me of a visit I paid to former PAC president Clarence Makwethu back in 2001, recounted here in my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds.

CAPE, 25 AUGUST 2001

Marc Pradervand and I have driven through Queenstown and
continued for about 20 minutes beyond the town before turning
right along a rutted farm road that leads into a line of low hills to the
east of the town. I am searching for the smallholding of former PAC
president Clarence Makwetu – because in the sort of twist of irony
that seems quintessentially New South African, the former leader of
the party most supportive of radical land redistribution to the black
majority has found his own retirement plot the subject of a land claim
by a dispossessed community.
We drive past what appears to be a former white-owned farmhouse,
fallen into disrepair under the former Transkei administration; with
its rusted roof, holed fly-screens and sprawling laundry and children
it evokes the poor white farms of the American Dust Bowl during
the 1930s depression, but the residents are black. Passing this farm,
I drive down into a dry river drift and then climb the other side past
sparse stands of large, spiny-bowled agave plants, their spindly poles
standing high against the spring sky. The dirt road twists, becoming
more of a double-tyre track, and climbs into a shallow depression in
the hills where we come across Makwetu’s residence, a stolid square
blockhouse of a home, built in unforgiving frontier style as part home,
part fortress. Embracing the house to the south-west are a lush field of
mealies, a shed and several old tractors. Basic and unprepossessing,
it is nevertheless the modest dream home of many peasants, with a
proper pitched corrugated iron roof and separate kitchen, bathroom,
living room and bedrooms.
I park the car and we are met by a pleasant middle-aged woman
of a doughty bearing that seems to echo the simplicity of the place.
She introduces herself as Makwetu’s daughter Maureen. No,
unfortunately, her father is in town running errands at the moment,
but we can come back in about two hours and we will find him at
home. She tells me she is 39, and that she and her father have been
living on the farm since 1993. ‘We built the house ourselves; there
were only trees when we came here,’ she says proudly.
I drive back to town and we grab a bite to eat at a local takeaway.
Then, when the time is right, we return along the track to the
Makwetu homestead. As promised by his daughter, Makwetu is at
home this time, but he is distinctly displeased to find two whiteys
darkening his doorstep. It is most likely that other than encounters
with apartheid era Security Branch cops, his interactions with my
people have been rare, and often fraught with contestation over the
PAC’s revolutionary land-to-the-blacks campaigns, not to mention
the terrorist actions of its feared armed wing, Apla. Nevertheless,
the grey- haired man with the deeply lined mouth, and the erect
bearing of a patriarch accustomed to commanding respect, is
constrained by the ingrained politeness of his generation to at least
allow the enemy to cross his threshold.
We sit in the gloom of his square living room, the furniture
carefully preserved as in so many poor homes by tailored coverings of
heavy plastic, the only acquiesence to decoration being the large and
stern portraits of deceased Africanist leaders such as Robert Sobukwe
that deign to acknowledge our pale presence from the high-ceilinged
walls. My enthusiasm for the PAC and its policies is brushed aside
by a deeply suspicious Makwetu, who clearly fears we are plotting to
besmirch his party’s good name in the vein of the usual mainstream
press calumnies because we are there to interview him about the land
claim on his little farm.
Provincial land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya has confirmed
to me that that two groups of people – about 400 residents who
were labour tenants on white-owned farms, and the 10 000-strong
Amatshatshu tribe – have lodged land claims to the Gwatyu Farms
area, east of Queenstown. The district includes the small farm to
which Makwetu has retired. The land redistribution policies of the
PAC, of which Makwetu was president between 1990 and 1996, made
headlines last month when PAC councillor Daniel Ngwenya was
involved in selling plots to the homeless in an ill-fated land grab at
Bredell, east of Johannesburg. So Makwetu is, unsurprisingly, on his
guard. Gwanya has said that Makwetu appears to own the farm he
lives on, ‘but there is no evidence that he paid Matanzima. The claims
are all under investigation at this stage.’
Julius Nokwaza, aged 56, the spokesman for the Gwatyu
community, has explained to me that after the Transkei homeland
was consolidated in 1976, the white farmers under whom his family
had worked moved away. He said the community tilled the land
until 1980, when Transkei strongman and head of the bantustan
‘government’ Kaiser Matanzima subdivided the farms, installed
many of his henchmen as tenant farmers and evicted most of the
residents, relocating them to the purpose-built town of Thembani.
‘We want to stay here. We want to own these farms and be given the
title deeds,’ Nokwaza said, adding that people who had moved to
Thembani wanted to return home. He said Makwetu had been ‘given
the farm by Matanzima in 1980 or 1981’, and that the claimants felt
that tenant farmers like Makwetu should not be allowed to occupy
or buy the farms, which all had claims on them.
Chief Mncedisi Gungubele, who leads the Amatshatshu tribe, told
me he believed that Makwetu, who lives within walking distance of
the chief’s home, was leasing the farm. The chief confirmed that his
tribe was claiming all the Gwatyu Farms land, but added, ‘No one
will be kicked out.’
Another neighbour of Makwetu, 42-year-old Phumelele Msila,
told us, ‘Makwetu got his farm from K.D. [Kaiser] Matanzima.’
Gwanya has suggested that Matanzima was trying to curry favour
with the PAC and the ANC at the time, by making farms available to
the liberation organisations’ leaders.
I put all of this to Makwetu, but he refuses to discuss his occupancy
of the farm, although he says he is aware of ‘speculation about claims
on my land’. ‘But I’m here legally; I signed papers,’ he tells us. I had
had a silly notion of making a quip, if Makwetu offered us tea, about
‘One Settler, Two Sugars’, in echo of the PAC’s notorious ‘One Settler,
One Bullet’ slogan, but his hospitality does not extend that far. He

declines to pose for a photograph, and the interview is over.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Portraiture as Taxidermy

I don't write as much as I should on the arts, but this piece on Ben Skinner's photography was carried in Joburg Style Magazine, Issue 22, Johannesburg September-November 2013.

 Michael Schmidt © Ben Skinner 2011

At first sight, he strikes a Bowie-like figure; tall, lanky, pallid, androgenous, and clearly a man-out-of-time. But Ben Skinner’s time is not the future, but the Victorian era, with all its dandyish sensuality and imperial bloody-mindedness bound by a thin hide of civilisation.
His woolly mutton-chop sideburns and Daliesque curled moustache are the most apparent signs of his predilections. His pale eyes are coolly appraising behind his round tortoise-shell glasses give warning of the deep arrogance of a craftsman besieged by today’s disposable, corner-cutting culture.
For Skinner is not only a perfectionist in his tailoring – whipping up with dash a woman’s pant’s suit of breathtakingly daring construction and sublime fit with consummate ease – but he appears to excel at anything he puts his long bony hands to, from set-building to photography.
His studio, at 61 Sixth Street, Parkhurst, bursts at the seams with insights into his unusual competencies. The location of bespoke corsetry firm Arwen Garmentry – run by Skinner and his partner Arwen Swan – the studio is not only the showcase of Swan’s refined and exacting wearable works-of-art in lush brocades, silks, satins and exotic fabrics, but it is the couple’s home, an aviary for a bewildering array of species, and a workshop where a small staff conjure wonders on their sewing machines.
Rowdy candy-striped corsets jostle for space on the rails with svelte silvery evening gowns, while a display case boasts antique top hats, gloves, eyeglasses, and medical instruments; the gleaming steel jib of a former X-ray machine provides the desk with an arc of light. A railway signal, shorn off its mountings by an elephant near Victoria Falls, recalls Skinner’s Zimbabwean origins. When Skinner fires up the beautiful old St Marco cappuccino machine, the room is transformed into a salon, where intellectuals and artists joust.
But when the crowds have gone, the studio becomes Skinner’s photographic playground. Mostly he shoots for Swan’s discerning and conservative market, as shown on her website www.arwen.co.za, but frequently, he lets his considerable imagination run riot. 
With digital photography, many lazy practitioners simply shoot tons of images, and spend a lot of time fixing their errors with Photoshop. Not so Skinner; his work ethic sees him building his own sets, then spending an entire morning getting the lighting just right, whether it is bleached-out, ethereal, hard-etched, or sunk in gloom like an Old Master oil painting. 
His “models” are startlingly real, few of them conforming to bland, shapeless fashion stereotypes, and so you will find corpulent women and hirsute men; but whatever their physique, his unerring eye draws out of them an inner essence. As an African portraitist, Skinner is aware of the traditional fear that photographs entrap the soul; like an eccentric Victorian collector with a butterfly-net, he stalks them, follows the path of their fear and captures that instance of self-recognition; true to his surname, he incisively gets under their skin.
Many of these images are nudes, but not the human body idealised; here there is both an unblinking honesty, and yet the intrigue of an inner story suggested by the moment in which the viewer finds them, like antediluvian creatures trapped in amber. Playfulness abounds, as in his “Fairy Tale” series, but also a distinct undercurrent of the macabre, as with his “Bad Nurses” series of nightmarish surgery. And the detournment of convention is signaled by a planned series turning political figures such as Black Panther Bobby Seale and apartheid architect HF Verwoerd inside out.
Never yet published or exhibited, this demanding young man is sure to soon be recognised as one of Africa’s most exciting new portrait photographers.

Bad Nurses © Ben Skinner 2013


Storming the Bastille of the Bourgeois Media

The wonderful editor and staff of Alexandra, Johannesburg, community newspaper Alex Pioneer who I mentored in streamlining their editorial and production processes in parallel to best serve their township readership. 

This is an article I wrote for the Jozi Book Fair in 20011 in my capacities as Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and Administrative Secretary of the Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa

When Lucien van der Walt and I launched our book Black Flame, I was challenged from the floor by a young revolutionary who accused me of having worked for the bourgeois press. And what could I say, because indeed I had spent 19 years working for the bourgeois press, the last three as group special investigative writer for Independent Newspapers. But her accusation begged two key questions: why, in the million-flower blooming of South Africa’s democracy had our alternative press died; and whether it was at all possible to maintain a pro-poor political stance within the bourgeois press? 
As I write this under a poster for the sadly-missed Progress Press of Braamfontein, I can’t think of many ironies as great in this country’s transition but that the alternative press, whose journalists had suffered censure, bannings, buggings and even torture to ensure the dawn of democracy, would go down to extinction as the society they fought for came to life. Part of the answer why this happened is cold capitalist logic: the sole survivor of the alternative newspapers of that era, the Mail&Guardian (formerly the Weekly Mail) was until recently heavily propped up by the British Guardian. And the other reason is that the alternative press, like so many other anti-apartheid formations, struggled to maintain its sense of mission once apartheid collapsed. 
But this is not to say that all is entirely lost: the extra-parliamentary left maintains its own journals; and we have seen new initiatives come to the fore, such as the non-sectarian Amandla! Journal, the pan-African progressive analytical site Pambazuka News, and the global phenomenon of indymedia. And certainly not least, we have the dramatic expansion of South Africa’s community media, with today some 150 community radio stations and a handful of community TV stations. This is not to say the sector is all-triumphant: the National Community Radio Forum’s provincial chapters apparently focus almost exclusively on advertising revenue, rather than on quality editorial content; some “community TV stations” are really just small-footprint commercial stations, while some “community newspapers” are owned by the giant Caxton group; and the ICASA Amendment Bill threatens enforcing a relationship between community radio stations and municipalities that smacks of corporativism.
There are huge financial challenges to establishing vernacular-language community media in remote rural parts of the country. I’ve done some feasibility studies in such areas and they are instructive about the pressing social need for such a media – and the enormous hurdles faced. It takes guts and really fancy financial footwork for them to stand a chance. But the key to success is the need to understand social ownership: most community publications are the pet projects of their editors. But the moment they are founded, they are sometimes amazed at the welter of interest – and criticism – they encounter. This is because newspapers are not simply a product or a business; no, they are social capital, integrated into the social fabric, and their readers increasingly in a very real sense take over “social ownership” from the editor and her or his team. 
This is a lesson that must be learned by the mainstream media too: that social ownership is not only the best defence against demagogues who would restrict the free flow of information in SA, but it can make for the best content. Sadly it’s pretty easy to go through the lead stories of today’s newspapers and find sensationalism, fluff, spin, and at times errors of fact.
In a March 2011 article titled Journalism, Democracy… and Class Struggle, Robert McChesney argued that the rise of so-called “professional journalism” came with three in-built biases: First, it narrowed the potential pool of legitimate story sources to officials and prominent public figures which “gave those in political office (and, to a lesser extent, business) considerable power to set the news agenda…” Second, by insisting that there had to be a news hook to justify the story, “crucial social issues like racism or environmental degradation fell through the cracks of journalism unless there was some event, like a demonstration or the release of an official report, to justify coverage.”
And third, professional journalism, “far from being politically neutral… smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers as well as the political aims of the owning class... And of government activities, those that serve the poor (e.g., welfare) get much more critical attention than those that serve primarily the interests of the wealthy (e.g., the … institutions of the national security state), which are strictly off-limits.”
That’s an exceptionally harsh, yet accurate, assessment – I experienced those exact pressures in my almost two decades as a journalist – but there are harsher judgments: Alexander Cockburn, editor of the online American alternative political journal CounterPunch, in a June 2009 column titled Who Needs Yesterday’s Papers?, stated bluntly that apart from “a brief flare-up of investigative zeal” in the early to mid-1970s, “any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would issue a negative verdict in every era”. 
So where do we look to for quality, public-interest journalism in South Africa today? Presumably the place to start is investigative journalism, yet the track record over recent years has been quite mixed, in part because of several systemic problems. On the plus side, investigations units have sprouted up all around, from the Mail&Guardian’s “AmaBhungane” unit to M-Net’s Carte Blanche. We have even seen some (rare) independent investigations by the financial press, reporting on the skulduggery of their owners. But far more often, those media owners sabotage their own investigators. I’ll let one of the country’s award-winning investigative journalists speak for himself: “My editors have issued instructions that we not write more than 500 words – that’s impossible, given the complexity of some of our investigations. There is so much other stuff to investigate, but all they are interested in is busting political leaders for corruption.”
So how do we improve things? The Arab Spring has certainly demonstrated the liberatory potential of social media and citizen journalism – but the power imbalance between that media and the capitalist media is such that while we need to rebuild our alternative media around this potential, at the same time, it is crucial that we storm the Bastille of the traditional bourgeois media by campaigning vigorously for its radical democratisation. And by that I don’t mean nationalisation, but socialisation – eventually of ownership yes, but starting with the socialisation of the media’s content, the transformation of so-called “objective,” professional journalism into a socially-engaged journalism that advocates for the poor majority, for coverage of real issues instead of political spats and bling. At the moment, we can name specialist labour and poverty reporters on one hand; we, the readers and audience, need to pressure editors to change that.
Strangely, an intriguing socialisation initiative came from within the bourgeois press when Daily Dispatch in East London reversed the way newspapers usually news-gather by running a series of public Community Dialogues in which the news agenda was set by the communities instead of by the journalists. This process was not without its flaws; Rod Amner has argued in his study of the process that such socially-conscious journalism still had to battle against “the political economy of the commercial press... driven by deadlines, production quotas and profitability” – and that the weakness of civil society generally undermined such “public journalism”.
But there is a sea-change under way: for one thing, audiences have become pretty sophisticated at interrogating how the news is manufactured; and for another, social media has created new, constantly-shifting social polities that have wielded power within the mainstream media in ways that have at times been breathtaking (think Wikileaks). It’s time to wrest the mass media back from mahogany-row vested interests, time to entrench a progressive popular agenda as the core of what makes them financially viable.

The inaugural editorial of June-July 2009 in Ponelopele News, a rural Twana-and-English newspaper for which I am proud to have done the (successful) feasibility study in Ganyesa, Bophirima, North West, a region with 800,000 Tswana-speakers who had no Tswana newspapers or magazines, only one Tswana radio station (Motsweding)  which was almost entirely dedicated to music and not news, and almost zero TV coverage. 


Friday, 16 February 2018

Extra-"ordinary" Heroines

People are expected to have heroes, those one looks up to for inspiration on what is possible in a relentlessly tough and unforgiving world. I ran an ice-breaking exercise at my training last year in Colombo (Sri Lanka) as well as in Chennai, New Delhi and Mumbai (India), getting participants to chat about their heroes. When I was asked in Mumbai who my hero was, taking my cue from my environment, I said it would be Indian Bakuninist revolutionary Lala Har Dayal (1884-1939), who in 1913 founded the Ghadar (Mutiny) Party that built a world-spanning anti-colonial movement that not only established roots in pre-partition India (India, Bangladesh and Pakistan), particularly in Hindustan and Punjab, but which linked radicals within the Indian Diaspora as far afield as Afghanistan, British East Africa (Uganda and Kenya), British Guiana (Guyana), Burma (Myanmar), Canada, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaya (Malaysia), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Singapore, South Africa, Indochina (primarily Vietnam), and the USA, with Ghadarites remaining active in Afghanistan into the 1930s and in colonial Kenya into the 1950s – after Indian independence. But in truth, my heroes are mostly unsung, and they are often women - not just revolutionary women like Lucy Parsons of the US, Maria Lacerda de Moura of Brazil, Kaneko Fumiko of Japan, and Maroussia Nikiforova of Ukraine, but "ordinary" women who bear so much of the load of building society like carrying firewood and water for kilometres over the hills of the Transkei. Here are a few images I have shot around the world that remind me of their tireless labours.

Girls wash pots on the banks of the immense Niger River at Segou in Mali, before the Ansar al-Din Salafist uprising © Michael Schmidt 2008

Young Mayan girls getting the groceries on market day in San Juan Chamula, on the eve of the San Andrés Peace Accords with the Zapatistas, Chiapas, Mexico © Michael Schmidt 1998

Announcer on Mama FM, an all-women-run radio station, with visitors from South Africa and Germany, in Kampala, Uganda © Michael Schmidt 2008

Tattooed anarchist activist woman, Wellington, New Zealand © Michael Schmidt 2014

 Sudanese woman tells of the murder of her aunt at the hands of the Janjaweed militia, El Fasher, Darfur, Sudan © Michael Schmidt 2007

Women record their experiences of migration and xenophobia, Livingstone, Zambia © Michael Schmidt 2009

A pregnant woman hosts a workshop for journalists covering the post-"Troubles" Truth Commission in Honiara, Solomon Islands, South Pacific © Michael Schmidt 2010

Women chatting at Occupy Wall Street, New York City, USA © Michael Schmidt 2011


Sunday, 4 February 2018

Anarchist Militia Columns in the Spanish Revolution

A CNT-FAI armoured car rolls off the collectivised production line, celebrated by anarchist militants, and bound for the front.

The volunteer anarchist militia who fought fascism in the Spanish Revolution are usually reduced to a few of the most famous, especially the Durruti Column - but there were scores more, as I detail in my forthcoming book In the Shadow of a Hurricane: 

All officers were elected by the rank-and-file and had no special privileges, and the militias generally fell under the control of the Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias set up by the CNT in July 1936. Within the anarchist militia, there were a number of different columns. Deployed by the CNT-FAI-JJLL from Catalonia into Aragon on 24 July, there was the Durruti Column, which fought on the Zaragoza front, lead by Buenaventura Durruti himself, at first consisting of 4,900 militiamen and militiawomen but growing to 6,000, the 2,000-strong Ascaso Column, lead by Domingo Ascaso (whose brother died in the early fighting in Barcelona), Gregorio Jover and Cristóbal Alvaldetrecu, which fought on the Huesca front, the 1,500-strong Aguiluchos Column (including 200 female milicianas), lead by García Oliver and Miguel García Vivancos, which fought on the Huesca front, the Kropotkin Battalion consisting of JJLL youth, also on the Huesca front, the Red and Black Column under García Prada on the Huesca front, the Sur-Ebro Column under Antonio Ortiz which fought on the the Calamocha front, and the Land and Liberty Column under Germinal Souza consisting of volunteers from the failed Republican attempt to retake Mallorca from the fascist rebels, and which defended the free communes of Aragon, which were being established, with the CNT in the lead, collectivising the farmlands, suppressing the fascists, expropriating the latifundista gentry, Church, and bourgeoisie, and establishing worker’s control in the cities and towns. In the Pyrennees, the Sabadell CNT would form an Alpine Battalion which fought with the UGT’s Pyrennean Column under Mariano Bueno. International volunteers – perhaps 40,000 in all – flocked to Spain. Some 250 (later rising to 400) foreigners such as the Algerian anarchist Saïl Mohamed, German IWW veteran Heinrich Bortz and Canadian IWW veteran Louis Rosenberg were organised into an International Group of the Durruti Column, under Louis Berthomieu, which had as its training base the former Pedralbes Barracks, which was renamed the Miguel Bakunin Barracks, and comprised the Sacco and Vanzetti Century (English-speaking), the Erich Mühsam Century (German-speaking), the Sébastien Faure Century (French- and Italian-speaking), and the Matteotti Battalion (Italian-speaking). Meanwhile, several hundred Italians exiled in France – many of them former anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo militiawomen and militiamen (there was actually an office of the exiled USI in Barcelona at the CNT headquarters) – formed the Malatesta Century of the Red and Black Column, nick-named the Battalion of Death, which fought on the Huesca front under Cándido Testa, while other Italians were attached to the Justice and Liberty Century of the Ascaso Column, and after May 1937, Italians formed the 25th Ortiz Division within the Land and Liberty Column. About 40% of the XV International Brigade (incorrectly but popularly known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade after one of its subsidiary battalions), though it had been organised by the Comintern, consisted of Wobblies and unaffiliated socialists from the USA. There were only four Wobblies and one anarchist volunteer in the Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion of the XV International Brigade.

In Basque Country, the CNT had been a minority force with less than 3,000 members in May 1936, but the anarchist resistance to the fascist putsch saw their membership soar to 35,000, with 6,000 militiamen and militiawomen organised in the following battalions: the 800-strong Bakunin Battalion (CNT No.1) under Luciano Mateos, the 800-strong Malatesta Battalion (CNT No.2) under Jesus Eskauriaza, the 850-strong Isaac Puente Battalion (CNT No.3) under Enrique Araujo, the 800-strong Sacco-Vanzetti Battalion (CNT No.4) under Juan Rivera, the perhaps 500-strong Durruti Battalion (CNT No.5) under Roberto Lago, the 500-strong Celtic Battalion (CNT No.6) under Manuel Mata, plus a reserve International Battalion (CNT No.7) consisting of about 200 anarchists and others, and the 1,000-strong punitive battalion, the 1st Battalion of Engineers named after Manuel Andrés, in which numerous cenetistas served. In Santander, the CNT’s Freedom Battalion and the CNT-FAI Battalion were formed, but most anarchists were curiously members of the socialist UGT and so joined the UGT’s mixed brigades. On the northern front, the ac-hoc mixed columns numbering 10,000 that had arisen to fight the fascist menace were replaced over September to October 1936 by ideologically-defined battalions. In Asturias, out of 52 Republican battalions, the CNT organised the following ten battalions: CNT No.1 under Miguélez, CNT No.2 under Onofre García Tirador, CNT No.3 under Víctor Álvarez, CNT No.4 under Celestino Fernández, CNT No.5 under Higinio Carrocera, CNT No.6 under Faustino Rodríguez, CNT No.7 under Mario Cuesta, CNT No.8 (consisting of FIJL members) under Marcelino Alvarez, CNT No.9 under José García, and the Galicia Battalion comprising Galician refugees from the fascist invasion of their autonomous community, under Ramón Iglesias, with bases in Avilés and Colloto. In addition, the Syndicalist Party – which peaked at 30,000 members in December 1937 at the time founder Ángel Pestaña died as Republican General Sub-commisisoner for War – formed its own battalion. In the centre of the country, the CNT’s “confederal militia” mustered up to 23,000 fighters by December 1936, with battalions in Madrid and its surrounds such as the 2,215-strong Free Spain Column under Cipriano Mera, Ferrer Battalion (600 strong) under Cayuela, Orobón Fernández Battalion (600) under Miguel Arcas, Juvenil Libertario Battalion (650), and the Bakunin Battalion, and the 1,000-strong Palacios Column under Miguel Palacios, plus the four CNT Espartacus Battalions which arrived from Alicante, Murcia, and Cartagena to defend the capital (and later forming the 77th Mixed Brigade of the Republican Army). There were additionally anarchist battalions which were named after the cities of Sigüenza and Toledo which they defended, while other “cenetistas” (CNT members) integrated into Republican columns such as the 1,000-or-so anarchists who joined the Mangada Column. In Extremadura along the Portuguese border, the Pío Sopena Battalion was formed under Olegario Panchón, while in Bujalance in Córdoba, the 4,000-strong Andalusia-Extremadura Column was organised by the Andalusian CNT by merging the remnants of those who had faced the brunt of the rebel Army of Africa’s invasion of the south: the Bujalance Sparrows Century, the Arcas Battalion and the Zimmerman Battalion of Seville, the Pancho Villa Battalion from Jaén, Castro del Río and Baena, the Acoy Battalion, and the Fermín Salvochea Battalion of Almodóvar del Río and Villaviciosa under the brothers Juan, Francisco and Sebastián Rodríguez Muñoz, and in Málaga the following battalions were formed: Juan Arcas, Pedro López, Ascaso No.1, Ascaso No.2, Raya, Makhno, Andrés Naranjo, Sebastian Fauré, and Fermín Salvochea. Also from Málaga came the CEFA Column organised by the province-wide Spanish Confederation of Anarchist Federations (CEFA) under Captain Hipólito and Morales Guzmán. The Maroto Column under Francisco Maroto del Ojo (1906-1940), meanwhile conducted a successful campaign in Córdoba, in which the fascists were besieged in the city, and Granada, but failed to take the latter city because of a lack of arms.

In Valencia, the 2,200-strong Iron Column was formed by Rafael Martí, José and Pedro Pellicer, Elias Manzanera and José Segarra, and fought on the Teruel front, its membership made up of metallurgists, port workers, freed criminals, and about 600 members of the Nosotros anarchist group earning it a fearsome reputation – not only at the front but as Guillamón notes, by making repteated “visits” to the city of Valencia to forcibly “cleanse” the rearguard of reactionary elements and demand that the Republican state’s Assault Guards and Republican National Guards (the reformed Civil Guards) be dispatched to the front to fight. Also from Valencia came the 1,000-strong Iberia Coumn, formed by FAI-FIJL youth who had been expelled from the Iron Column for various reasons, plus the 1,200-strong CNT No.13 Column under Santiago Tronchoni, the 1,500-strong Confederal Column No.2, and the Malatesta Division (actually a battalion of perhaps 500) which split from the Iron Column over political differences with the ex-Nosotros group’s Pellicer brothers and which joined the mostly-CNT Torres-Benedito Column of 2,600 under Colonel Velasco Echave, which included the Jaime Cubedo Battalion of the Syndicalist Party, which by December 1936 was 30,000 strong. In that month, many fighters from of the XIII International Brigade’s Louise Michel Battalion, consisting of French and Belgian volunteers, disgusted at being used as cannon-fodder by their communist commander, defected to the Iron Column, forming its International Century. It needs to be stressed that most histories of the anarchist resistance during the so-called “Spanish Civil War” focus on the CNF-FAI confederal militia operating on the Aragon front, particularly the Durruti, Ascaso and Aguiluchos Columns, and ignore the experience in the rest of the country, with the exception of the Madrid front, and of the Iron Column – and the latter only because of its virulent opposition, alongside the Durruti Column and the Land and Liberty Column, to militarisation of the militias enforced by the Republican state in 1937. Both before and after militarisation, there were also regular Republican army units that had significant anarchist leaders or anarchist and syndicalist membership such as Gregorio Jover's X Army Corps in the Army of the East, and Cipriano Mera's 14th Division (and later his IV Army Corps) in Madrid. 


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Democracy & Diversity in light of the Zimbabwean Coup

Radio Freedom, run  by Taurai Mabhachi of Harare (above left), is a new podcast radio station which campaigns to get community radio stations licensed and on air in Zimbabwe. The topic of our pilot show on 30 November 2017 was informed by the November 15-21 military coup d'etat that ousted President Robert Mugabe - what I have termed the "Continuity Coup" as it reinforced ZANU-PF securocrat rule. Our guests included left academic Prof Patrick Bond, veteran former BBC journalist Andy Moyse, former bank treasurer Daniel Ngwira and former Revolutionary Command Council student Dandira Mushangai. We had a few tech issues, so the sound isn't great but those will be resolved in future and we hope this will be the first in a series of 10 broadcasts ahead of the 2018 elections. The first Radio Freedom podcast is available here.