By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times:
Anton Harber returned from Diepsloot with new insight into the issues it poses, writes Tymon Smith
The founder and former editor of the Mail & Guardian, Anton Harber has had a distinguished career in South African journalism. He co-edited the first two editions of The A-Z of South African Politics (Penguin, 1994/95) and edited What is Left Unsaid: Reporting the South African HIV Epidemic (Jacana, 2010) and Troublemakers: The Best of South Africa’s Investigative Journalism (Jacana, 2010). He is currently the Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand and writes a column for Business Day and a blog at www.harbinger.co.za.
What was it about Diepsloot that attracted you to it as a subject?
Diepsloot encapsulates this country’s contradictions and complexities. It is politically organised and structured, yet chaotic and disorderly at the same time. Wealth and poverty sit side by side. On display are both the achievements and the failure of government policy. Anti-crime forums and mob justice work hand-in-hand. On every corner you can see the scars of our past and hints of our future … and I had to try and make sense of it all.
How long did it take and what was your approach?
The book took me nine months, about six of which were spent in Diepsloot hanging out, talking to people, watching and gathering. I could have spent two years learning about the place, or maybe four, and every extra day would have added insight and detail – but I had practical limitations. About three months were spent writing in an 18th-century former observatory in Oxford – about as far away from Diepsloot as one could get.
Were there gaps between your expectations and the reality you found on the ground?
Gaps? More like canyons. My intention was to break through the stereotypes and generalisations which shape our view of places like Diepsloot. The time I spent there was one of constant surprise and insight – and in the book I try and take the reader along on that journey.
What are the broader issues that the specific story of this community sheds light on for you?
The key issue is how much we need to hear the voices and see the faces of people in Diepsloot, to see how our future is being shaped in places like this. We need to take on board that Joburg’s big challenge is not how to fix potholes but how to make places like Diepsloot an integral part of the city. At the same time, we need to understand how formidable a challenge that presents.
Is there a level of responsibility that a journalist coming from outside has to his subjects in a case like this?
Of course. One has to be careful not to abuse people’s honesty and openness. One has to be careful all the time to minimise harm. The biggest responsibility is to depict people’s lives, thinking and attitudes as accurately and thoroughly as possible, to listen rather than to talk, to treat one’s subjects as people and not people as subjects. I am particularly pleased that I did not have to use one pseudonym in the book. That was important to me.
You’ve received some criticism around the book, what’s your response and how have you found the response generally?
There were those who questioned how an “outsider” – a white male who lives in the suburbs – can write a book like this. There’s no escaping that this is Diepsloot told through my eyes and with my voice, though I try to do that as honestly as I can. Of course, a journalist’s view is different from that of a resident, and hopefully in time there will be other perspectives – including some from within Diepsloot. Then we can debate which view is more “legitimate”, valuable or insightful.
As someone involved in the training of journalists, what’s your feeling about the state of the craft at the moment and the challenges facing South African journalists?
We have pockets of real excellence, particularly in investigative journalism, a field in which we can compete with anywhere in the world. In the wake of the Spear debate, I think we have had some very challenging and thought-provoking writing and opinion. Where we fall down most is in the day-to-day reporting, particularly in places like Diepsloot which have little or no local community media.
Any plans for another book?
Definitely. After a lifetime of daily and weekly reporting, I have loved doing something with less haste and more depth. But rather than a full book, I am experimenting with writing at about 10000 words. That is, long-form journalism that is more than an article but less than a book. I am enjoying it immensely. I think this may be the length of the future, in a world where we have little time to read books, but are hungry for quality insight.