While the JDD-CMP course was a worthy introduction to the theory behind - and the practice of - public journalism, I cannot help but think that I would have rather not gone through with the charade of implementing it on the level that the JMS3 class has done over the past four months.
Although the course began with a burst of optimism, I believe that the gravity of the situations in which many local citizens are forced to live soon hit home and greatly demoralised those of us who weren't completely overtaken by the fallacious ideas of a readily-developing public sphere, which we could use to foster deliberation between those who need help and those who can give them help. The fact of the matter is that many people are living in appalling conditions to which no human being should be subjected. One could qualify the way things are by invoking South Africa's history, or any number of ghosts from eras past, but doing so only offers excuses for the mediocrity and incompetence of this country's governance. I believe we try to offer excuses in the form of platitudes like, "every country has its problems" or "there is also poverty and crime in America", or many other easily-quotable (and glaringly obvious) truisms. I do not believe there are many places in the world in which schoolchildren sodomise each other, as has been the case in one of the wards that a JDD-CMP group had to practice public journalism.
I know, as South Africans, we may have a lowered sensitivity towards really horrible things, but I believe this bears repeating:
In one of Makana's wards, there are schoolchildren that sodomise other schoolchildren.
In what ways are student journalists, who have been plied with vague direction in their vocation by three years of below-par university instruction and (on average) two weeks of work experience, supposed to deal with this?
In whose mind, littered with idealistic thoughts, are we prepared to successfully deal with reporting on, and helping members in that community deal with, issues of that magnitude? Let's be frank here: there are no "soft issues" here. In Wards 5 and 6, people lock themselves into their houses at 9pm for fear of being assaulted. In Wards 5 and 6, the municipality does not believe it is their responsibility to dispose of people's rubbish and make sure ablution facilities are clean. In Wards 5 and 6, there are scores of amazing people who look after society's most vulnerable - the orphaned and the abandoned elderly - who are let down by bad government, and a general malaise in their community. A lack of investment in infrastructure leads to obscene levels of unemployment, which in turn leads to desperate men and women turning to alcohol and drugs for catharsis and escape.
Again I ask, how is a group of outsider student journalists equipped to deal with this?
South Africa has a habit of becoming a drunkenly optimistic nation, fuelled by gestures and catchphrases. We'll wear national colours and football jerseys; white people will unironically and awkwardly introduce shaap and heita into their vocabulary; we'll make up awful dances in a ham-fisted attempt to foster national unity. These are empty gestures.
I came to the conclusion that much of the JDD-CMP course was also an empty gesture on Tuesday night, the night on which we decided to lug a whole bunch of equipment up to the (still-yet-unnamed) Extension 9 for a second community meeting at which we would showcase all of the hyperlocal journalism we had produced for Wards 5 and 6. It was attended by about 80-90 people, which wasn't a particularly bad turnout, but much of the audiovisual aspects of the meeting were nullified by the constant chattering of children in the hall. Coupled with bad acoustics, I don't think many of the adults or other interested parties could really hear what was going on. (I wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't seen the work prior to the screening.)
It was disappointing, yes, that a few months of work would come down to this rather impotent spectacle. Sure, there are many positive things we have done, including helping out a few very worthy establishments, and giving an audience to Ward 5's community policing forum, and these are things to be satisfied about.
But, frankly, to think that the aggregate of this entire experience is a positive would be stupid. Sure, all of us have probably learned a lot in terms of skills and, hopefully, their outlook on the very real issues that South Africa faces. Was this process necessary to do that? No. Were these the intended outcomes of the course? Hopefully not.
A throwing around of buzzwords like "hyperlocal" and "deliberative public space" does not equate to tangible process, in the journalistic realm, or the social realm, or otherwise. While I believe that public journalism does serve a purpose, a group of students aren't going to change anything with an unwilling government and a demoralised populace in tow. Maybe the Daily Dispatch, a newspaper of considerable weight and influence, can do this, but even their efforts were halted by the incompetence and in-fighting of the Buffalo City Municipality.
It's romantic to suggest that we could have ever affected any sort of far-reaching change given our working context: a group of 20 students to cover 10 000 people who we know very little about in the space of 4 months, punctuated by holidays and other work to do? Fat chance.
And if you think that's pessimistic, I suggest you start to get your hands dirty, you know, like the rest of the few remarkable men and women on the ground that we have met over the past few months.