We wanted to forge a “community strengthening” project, building bridges between the residents of Makana’s Wards 5 and 6 and the people with enough money or power to help them improve their lives. Launching into this project with my usual Nihilistic cynicism, I was quick to notice the painfully idealistic, naïve and cutesy ambitions of the course. I knew then, as I know now, that no amount of goodwill by twenty journalism students is going to build even one house. What is going to build a house is money and sound governance – something that twenty journalists cannot be expected to produce on the scale needed. I understand, naturally, that it’s “the thought that counts” and that “voices must be heard” , but the results of our second community meeting proved to me that when you get a really lame Christmas present, you don’t necessarily care about “the thought that counts”. The thought doesn’t matter, and I would be fine with the niggling sense of failure that I am now left with, if I was not led to believe by the idealistic pussyfooting of the course outline, that we were going to do some real, noticeable good in the communities we were allocated.
The communities we were introduced to have problems that no individual should have to face, and our efforts within these spaces were hopelessly idealistic. How were twenty third year kids expected to make any noticeable difference to these people? Had I been a resident of Wards 5 or 6, I would have been highly annoyed at varsity kids with fancy cars offering me shrill little platitudes about how they wanted to help.
I believe in goodwill and charity. However, I do not believe in it being forced upon people. The goodwill we were doing in these communities was never altruistic – it was for a grade. I have a problem with that. The solution for these residents is a good government with an intrinsic system of accountability. Not having their “voices heard”. Their voices are heard in the shared woes of the thousands of South Africans in similar situations – and still their lives don’t change. This project only created false hopes which were noticeably dashed at the second community meeting we held in Extension 9.
First and foremost, I don’t think a course like this should be forced upon the unwilling. I didn’t come to study journalism for civic journalism work. Selfish as it may sound, it is honest. I have a very low tolerance for (frankly) quasi-retarded state officials kicking people out of meetings, ward councilors who can’t take criticism even when the basis of which is glaringly apparent, and I don’t like producing media that, when exhibited to the subjects, is scoffed at and largely ignored in favour of a Mxit conversation.
The exhibition was a huge disappointment. The sound quality was abhorrent due to the fascinatingly bad acoustics of the hall we used, and the residents who came to view the works could not have been any less bothered by it, by and large. A group of adolescents say before me, chattering away, giggling and chatting on their cell phones. People left before the half-way mark was reached. I understand that the sound quality was not great, but these were pieces about the place they live.
These people jumped onto us like lifeboats when we first arrived, so keen were they to have their voices heard. Now, they were leaving the product or ignoring their voices they so wanted heard. I didn’t understand. I was hurt. If they don’t care about their problems enough to even watch a half hour exhibition, why was I made to believe it was so important and that my work was meant to save the destitute? Let me clarify: Obviously not every member of the audience was a giant mass of apathy. But from my angle, a lot of people were. One resident, at the end of the meeting, said they were largely unimpressed because they figured this exhibition would give them answers as to why RDP houses were not arriving, why health and sanitation was so neglected, why crime and inefficient policing are rife. I wanted to bang my head against the wall. People WERE in fact blaming us for what we feared in the beginning – prancing around a township and getting nothing of any real value done. It is impossible to get things done, as I have previously mentioned, without a wad of cash and a sound local government. And, being naïve enough to believe that these people simply wanted their “voices heard” is stupid.
These people, judging by their reaction to our media, did not get the point of our presence, and probably think us quite useless. Because, even when these pages go out into the plush lounges of the Grocott’s Mail readership, nothing substantial is going to get done. A good government is needed. Lots and lots of money is needed. A sustainable method of accountability on decision makers is needed.
We hear the voices of the impoverished, the sick, the abused, the downtrodden… We hear them every day in this country. Not much gets done, either. And I can’t wait to stop this course if only for the reason that, if one more person has to tell me that “every little bit counts” and “even the tiniest difference is a miracle”, I am sure to vomit from the saccharine, butterscotchy torment of their naivety. It’s attitudes like that which serve selfish purposes – you want to make a difference because it would make you feel better. Honestly, the only way anything is really going to change is if people start voting for another government, stop having children they cannot support and start looking for an infrastructure of accountability.
I don’t have all the answers. I appreciate good intentions. I’m just tired of feeling like a failure – especially when some kid is texting through a viewing of a family’s problems. A family that lives within walking distance from him. And the worst part of it all is, that if I was that kid, I probably would have done the same. Because, what does it matter?