(Commissioned by and adapted from Tony Sutton’s ColdType website: “Writing Worth Reading From Around the World.”)
Dear Friends, Comrades, Colleagues,
I know you haven’t asked, but thought I’d get ahead of the curve and report that I’m in great shape, mentally and physically — although approaching my prime with unseemly haste.
I wake to the thrum and thunder of Atlantic surf on the beach outside my window. I check that the aches and pains mandatory for a man who’s lived hard for a long time haven’t worsened noticeably overnight.
Then I check my state of mind. And find, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m curiously sanguine. Content. Even happy.
Which means that it’s likely I don’t fully understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 Coronavirus plague and its bastard relatives, the Recession/Depression and Global Warming.
Actually I do.
But I’ve covered wars, riots, protests, droughts, insurrections and other disasters in different parts of the world for many long years and learned how necessary it is to be positive, particularly in the midst of chaos.
This too, I remind myself, shall pass.
I live alone on my Canadian old age pension on the seventh floor of a building at Surfers’ Corner in Muizenberg near Cape Town. False Bay’s cold Atlantic waters (yellowtail, seals, great white sharks) stretch out for miles from my living room window on one side. Muizenberg Mountain (baboons, leopards, raptors ) towers outside my kitchen window on the other.
If I have to be in solitary lockup, I can’t think of a better cell. Compared to the millions of people trapped in the teeming, seething, disease-ridden slums of South Africa, I’m the rich man who’s gone to heaven – despite severe biblical disapproval of such an undeserved reward.
Which inevitably brings me to politics and the precarious state of political leaders in charge of our futures during this whirlwind of existential threat.
Top of my list, of course, is Donald Trump. I’m terrified of this psychopathic, self-infatuated, strutting, lying, dyeing, bigoted, bloated, bully who believes he’s God incarnate.
I’m terrified that in his supreme, sublime ignorance he’s dragging our world to a götterdämmerung beyond any götterdämmerung we can imagine.
Should Coronavirus take Trump out, I’m nearly as scared of his vice president Mike Pence, a sanctimonious, sexist, sycophantic, stone-faced, hypocritical, arch-conservative, religious fanatic.
(It’s easy to run out of adjectives when describing this obnoxious duo.)
If Trump doesn’t drag us down through the Gates of Hell all by himself, Pence — brandishing the terrible swift sword of his wrathful, righteous god — stands eager to do so, should his time come. For the glory of his God and salvation of his immortal soul, of course.
Is it wrong to hope that both touch their own and each other’s faces a lot, neither of them ever washes hos hands, and both hang close and tactile with as many infected people as possible?
Here in South Africa, we have President Cyril Ramaphosa in charge. His cardinal sin is that he served obediently in the disastrous nine-year African National Congress (ANC) government led by Jacob Zuma. Best remembered for its dedication to “my turn at the trough” – which openly, blatantly, captured, raped and looted the South African state.
Yet Ramaphosa is also a very smart, persuasive, skilled negotiator and strategist (which he proved as a businessman by surviving the ANC’s poisonous party politics and somehow accumulating U$450-million along the way) so has no need to loot.
Even his enemies concede that, for the foreseeable future, only Cyril Ramaphosa can keep this nation from literally falling apart. He’s moved fast and tough on first a three-week lockup, now a five weeker. His ratings stay high. All the opposition parties support his lockdown.
Even so, South Africans wait impatiently for him to make some significant game-changing public gesture. Like jailing half a dozen of the more blatant state capture thieves still fattening at the highest levels of his government and administration.
Should Ramaphosa succumb to the plague, his deputy president — also deputy president of the ANC — is one David Mabuza.
Mabuza (et tu Brutus) is a powerful leader of the anti-Ramaphosa, pro-Zuma opposition within the party. He’s ruthless, cunning and at this very moment is no doubt plotting the triumphant return of Zuma, his faction’s wronged, crucified Paramount Chief. To be followed after a decent interval of course, by his own elevation to the highest post in the land.
Mabuza has long been accused of a spider’s web of tender corruption, blatant patronage, even political murders. For years he specialized in state looting yet – miraculously – was never charged.
Today Mabuza is just a heartbeat away from becoming president of Madiba’s South Africa.
Whoever runs the former Rainbow Nation now or in the future, we South Africans face truly existential challenges. Even before the plague crept in, more than half of us lived below the poverty line (just over U$2 a day).
More than half of us couldn’t find jobs. Most of our young people, always the most restless, volatile and urgent group, had little chance of ever finding jobs.
Today is South Africa’s Freedom Day — 26 years since democracy replaced fascism — and already there are reports that most of the 3-million people in the informal economy get no social assistance and many could starve before this lockdown ends.
If you care at all about South Africa and its future, pray that Cyril Ramaphosa washes his hands a lot, never touches his face and stays at least six feet away from other people.
(A world leader who obviously didn’t obey these rules is The Right Honourable Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, late of Eton and Oxford, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, passionate Brexiteer, nationalist and populist.
(His recent descent into Coronavirus — and resurrection after three days in its hell — will change him and his nation forever. He could push the Conservative Party’s savage capitalism even further to the right. Or have a Damascene conversion and be reborn as a social democrat. Whatever else changes, he’s likely to remain both ineffable and rather often insufferable.)
Total lockdown here in South Africa started a month ago, except for supermarkets, pharmacies, police, the army, doctors, hospitals, emergency folk etc.
No restaurants. No pubs. No parties. Weirdly, no liquor stores, tobacco sales, or dagga deliveries (I’d taken precautions against any protracted shortages but hadn’t anticipated what has become a minimum five-week lockdown.)
My favourite local pub, The Striped Horse — only 74 steps from my back door — is closed. Peer through the windows and in the gloom glimpse the bar with no-one behind it, stools and chairs piled upside down on table tops. A sad, sad sight.
I was there for the Horse’s last call, of course. Owner Juri seemed to think I was an important journalist, so encouraged democratic freedom of expression by serving me a daily complimentary glass of his excellent Pilsner. Last supper at the Horse was my favourite Hot-As-Hell-Hake with crispy chips.
For the foreseeable future however, it’s mostly frozen or canned suppers, considerably aided by large dollops of Tabasco, hot peppers and garlic, followed by a glass or two of the rapidly dwindling stuff that maketh glad the heart of man.
Everything here is on lockdown. Even the long, curving white sand beach outside my window is off-limits. The sun pours down like honey but no lissome lovelies bask in its Autumn warmth.
No surfers ride the waves or taunt the occasional great white shark.
As a journalist, watching the world fall apart from inside my apartment is both a problem and a gift. On the one hand, I can’t gird my loins, grab my MacBook and sally out to the front lines to cover the story myself. On the other, sitting in front of the TV for far too many hours means I can watch my fellow journalists — some of them former friends and colleagues — practice our craft.
In a sense, I’m right back in the world I knew for 60 long years. Back in newsrooms at The Natal Mercury, Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Salisbury Herald, Northern Rhodesia TV, United Press International in the Congo, ABC, NBC and PBS in New York.
And back at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) where I led TV journalism training workshops for ten years. Among international secondments was helping turn the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from fascist state broadcaster to democratic public broadcaster before, during and after the 1994 election and freedom. Similar workshops for private broadcaster, eTV.
Today, I’m an equal opportunity trainer and analyst. I sit here at Surfers’ Corner and criticize the storytelling, writing, performing, interviewing, shooting and editing of a dozen international TV news networks (including BBC, CNN, Sky, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, CGTN, CNBC, Bloomberg) and three locals.
Just like old times.
Like I’ve never been away.
What pisses me off most about these 15 international and three local networks is something that snuck into TV journalism only recently. It’s mostly the aforementioned Trump’s fault — breakdown everywhere of the traditional separation between newscast anchor/presenter and reporter.
Over the decades, we broadcast journalists developed a system within which the anchor sets the scene, context and housekeeping – the who, what, where, when of the story. Then the reporter does the storytelling, rolls out details, tries to answer the why question, and deliver analysis, depth, meaning.
The system protected the network and anchor from charges of taking sides, particularly political sides. It wasn’t the anchor representing the station who reported the latest government screwup. It was the reporter, likely actually present at the scene.
Traditionally, you could trust the anchor to be impartial, not take sides. The unbiased anchor was the symbolic, objective guardian of the integrity of the news.
Now though, because of Trump, news anchors feel it right and proper to editorialize whenever the urge overwhelms them. As a result, viewers tend to put TV news networks — represented by their anchors — into categories. This network is pro-Trump. That network is anti-Ramaphosa. The fix is in. They’re all biased. You can’t believe any of them.
My other bitch is the current manic need on both international and local TV to cover interviews with stock footage which almost never matches the audio. Then they rerun and rerun the very same dreary stock footage ad infinitum over the next interviews. And the next. And the next!
Don’t they know that running stock footage over an interview seriously interferes with the viewers’ ability to recognise, consider and absorb the more important audio information?
Don’t they know that showing an involved, concerned human face thinking aloud about things that matter is not only the best way to pass on information to the people, it’s also the most fascinating TV?
And don’t get me started on so many TV journalists using the language of politicians, bureaucrats and public relations people — language cleverly designed to hide, rather than expose meaning. Obfuscate not reveal.
TV news networks here are doing their democratic duty under very difficult circumstances. SABC — along with the nation’s main private all-news network eTV, and NewzRoom Africa, its newest — try valiantly to cover the nation, report on its endless disasters and occasional good news.
Best and boldest of all are the amaBhungane (isiZulu for dung beetles) Centre for Investigative Journalism and the feisty online newspaper Daily Maverick. The two dig deep into the rotting flesh of ANC cynicism and corruption and were largely responsible for finally getting rid of the ANC’s egregious godfather, Jacob Zuma.
South African reporters and crews do their best to cover unrest in the townships and informal settlements (slums). And when necessary, criticize the ANC and its handling of the plague/financial/global warming disasters.
Problem is, of course, that all our newspapers, TV, radio and web-based newsrooms rely on advertising to pay the bills and survive. So will face an inevitable, possibly lethal drop in revenue when — if — this plague finally shuffles off and leaves an utterly unfamiliar new world rising timorously from its ashes.
Imagine a world where all the information you get comes not from trained, disinterested, professional journalists but from power brokers — politicians, public relations people, big business, unions, generals, priests, rabbis, imams etc. The usual suspects. The usual vested interests.
Without professional journalists, who will tell South Africans — who will tell the world — what’s happening?
If not we journalists … who?
If ever there was a time for all of us who cherish freedom and democracy to step forward and find ways to subsidize and support free journalism — before there’s no free journalism left to support — this is it.
Let us never forget that as journalism goes … so goes democracy.
I have no idea how your average priest, doctor, taxi driver, chef, bartender, cop, actuary, burglar, conman, opening batsman or stripper fills the long, long days after retirement and the even longer days after lockdown.
I don’t have that problem. Because if there’s one personal, positive side to our lockdown – apart from saving so many thousands, of lives – it’s that I’m a writer and the plague is forcing me to write again.
Writing’s hard work. I much prefer revelling in the joys that were Surfers’ Corner to slaving over a cold word processor. But there’s no revelling at Surfers’ Corner today, tomorrow or anytime soon.
No black warning flag flies on the beach outside my window because there’s no one in the water to warn that great white sharks lurk there.
So I’m back at work. Whether or not I produce anything of value simply doesn’t matter. Trying to find out and explain what’s going on — what it’s all about — is what matters.
Actually, to tell the truth, simply writing is what matters most to me at the moment.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover some truth, some insight however small that will be of worth in a rapidly disintegrating world.
Probably not. Doesn’t matter.
My vaccine is writing.
So I write!
I said at the start of this letter that in the midst of all this chaos I’m sanguine, content, even happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen enough war, brutality, betrayal, violence, hatred, death and despair around the world to know they’re a natural part of human existence.
No different really from our plague.
Seems to me, in fact, that the Corona Virus COVID-19 is merely Mother Earth’s final warning that it’s time to clean up our act. Stop poisoning the air, water and soil. Stop destroying our planet. (Maybe even stop killing each other. Although killing people from other tribes to steal their land, their treasure and their women is traditional and therefore, presumably, natural).
My life has spanned the two most important events of the last 100 years. I started out as a very small boy surviving the London Blitz in World War ll. And I’m ending it as a very old man surviving the biggest, deadliest plague of our times.
I’m 82-years old with only a short time left on earth after a long, twisty road full of adventure, success, failure, tears, laughter, sadness, happiness, regret and much more luck and love than I deserve.
Certainly, I have a lot to be thankful for.
At 18 I dropped out of high school in Cape Town and six years later was a war correspondent in the Congo for United Press International.
Three years after that in New York, I won an Emmy for “Outstanding Program Achievements”. Then a Sigma Delta Chi Deadline Award “For Excellence in Televising News.”
Over the years I’ve trained thousands of professional broadcast journalists, filmmakers and writers in hundreds of workshops in a dozen countries.
And produced, directed, written and narrated some 30 TV documentaries for 20 different international networks.
And wrote Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition.
I reckon I did all right professionally.
But there’s also a whole lot of my life to regret.
When you’re a journalist and really, really want to change the world for the better and genuinely believe that journalists are servants of the people and that free journalism is the vital watchdog and cornerstone of democracy, it’s hard to live a normal life.
Journalism is tough on relationships. Familial or romantic.
I tried, but mostly they didn’t work out.
I regret that more than I can say.
Take care. Be happy where you can. Look after each other.
And may the god of your choice be with you always.
ColdType | April 2020 | www.coldtype.net