Cry Freedom and the Power of Good Journalism
Foreword by Karim Ajania, Editor-in-Chief
African Peace Journal
In the racially segregated Nairobi, Kenya of the 1950’s, my grandmother, a schoolteacher who I write about in African Grandmothers (click here to read about my grandmother), was concerned about my dyslexic grandfather. Like me, my grandfather was dyslexic.
This meant that when he got thirsty in downtown Nairobi, he’d absentmindedly wander over to the “Whites Only” drinking fountain.
My grandfather was not trying to be Rosa Parks. He was just thirsty.
Terrified that he may get arrested for a dyslexic blunder, my concerned grandmother ensured that my grandfather always carried a Thermos flask of cold water whenever he went downtown, so he could avoid the racially segregated drinking fountains in Nairobi.
Growing up in Kenya, those of us who were not white did not have it as bad as our fellow school children in Apartheid South Africa.
However, there were enough racial divisions in Kenya, to allow us to empathize with the plight of our fellow Africans down south.
In this excerpt from my own interview with the African Peace Journal, I describe the day of the Soweto massacre:
This Soweto scene is vividly depicted in the film Cry Freedom, which writer, journalist and social entrepreneur Shannon Sutherland reviews and comments upon in her insightful and thought compelling article, ‘Cry Freedom and the Power of Good Journalism’.
Excerpt from Karim’s interview with African Peace Journal (click here to read full interview)
Peace in Africa cannot be defined by the absence of war and conflict any more than light can be defined by the absence of darkness.
Peace, like light, is a power and a presence within itself and all over Africa people vigilantly strive to cultivate peaceful resolutions.
I was born in Africa and grew up in Africa and attended school in Kenya. As a teenager in Kenya, the most horrific news for me and my school friends, was news of the Soweto massacre in Apartheid South Africa. Over 700 schoolchildren in Soweto had been gunned down by the South African police simply because they were peacefully protesting the need for a change in school curriculum.
These children were requesting a shift from a Eurocentric school curriculum to an Afrocentric school curriculum.
The entire African continent, and the world, was shaken by the horrific news of the Soweto massacre.
I recall my Kenyan classmates and I going to school the next morning in a stunned silence. The class for the first period was geography.
We all sat quietly in geography class while our geography teacher sat speechless at his desk facing the classroom.
When he finally tried to speak to us, he began to weep instead. He wept uncontrollably.
We helplessly watched our school teacher weep for that entire 50 minute class period.
Cry Freedom and the Power of Good Journalism
The first scene of the film Cry Freedom is a violent pillaging and burning of a small, common township in South Africa during the instigation of Apartheid. Trucks rolled loudly down dirt roads and racists in uniforms jumped menacingly down.
The children of the township fell over themselves in hasty escape, the women were tossed about, and the men were beaten to the ground by the white intruders hiding behind badges. The second scene is a young black nurse rising from bed, safely away the next morning, and switching on an old rusty radio on her headrest to hear the blaring, scratchy voice of a news presenter. The picture painted by the words which streamed through the crackling radio was no accurate juxtaposition to that of the scene previous. The fabricated story made the whole encounter seem docile and humane, and bore no resemblance to the truth about what had happened.
Only “conscious” black men and women see through the lies spit through the staticky speakers. The rest of South Africa, however, consumes, accepts, and moves on. White men and women living in South Africa who are uncaring of the racial tensions, and even many of those who are, continue going about their lives, unbothered, unsympathetic, and frankly pretty blinded.
As I took in the gripping and powerful film I couldn’t help but notice two things:
The first was that the patterns in which different groups of people behave and how those behaviors are actually starkly prominent in my country’s politics today. The second was how powerful an influence journalism has on public opinion, perception, and action.
Like I mentioned, the privileged white population in South Africa during Apartheid didn’t feel compelled to be concerned with what injustices they were perpetuating against the colored and particularly the black population because in their minds it didn’t negatively affect them or cause any major inconvenience.
As a privileged group, many people in the Anglo community, maintained ignorance to or even supported the extreme racism in South Africa’s laws, class system, and socio-economy. As an oppressed group, the black population grew indignant and began to point out the injustices and horrible discrimination they experienced, for which so many brave black men and women were murdered in cold blood.
I say these things very bluntly and broadly because the reality is these things were very often truths, however an oppressed minority will have trouble overcoming their oppression single-handedly, so there must also be some outside support. People within the oppressing majority have a responsibility to recognize their privilege and oppose the injustice in such extremities.
This leads me to my second observation, how vital and influential journalism is on a public.
Donald Woods, the main character of Cry Freedom, is a white man working as the editor of the South African Daily Dispatch.
Throughout the story he develops into a conscious, driven advocate against Apartheid with the help of activist Steve Biko and his community. He uses his status as editor of a popular newspaper to try to change the narrative and confront the white community with the truth. He begins the break through the brainwashing facade built up by those like the news presenter on the scratchy radio.
Journalism which takes into account the opinion of the writer or speaker, omits important facts in order to skew a story, or uses literary devices and syntax in order to put a certain person, group, or party in a bad light is not good journalism.
Once you have done these things, you have lied to your consumers and given them an opinion paper disguised as fact. This bad journalism was rampant in South Africa during Apartheid, just like it is in most countries where a revolutionary change is taking place.
Take America for example, when a young black man or woman is killed for some unworthy reason, mainstream news outlets present the case in a light which applauds the killer while blaming and demonizing the victim and the victim’s community. When Donald Trump talks about deporting illegal Latin immigrants, building up walls, and forcing Muslims to wear identification badges, media outlets give in to his loathing doctrines and insist that these are the best solutions.
Journalism plays a key role in forming public opinion.
The art of reporting brings light to every aspect of our cultures and says a lot about who we are as a people and a nation. In our world of opinionated articles and biased broadcasts, we are called to stand against media designed to blind us into place.
Words are power.
They can topple governments, start movements, form nations, save lives. Those with the power to harness words have a responsibility to act with integrity, truth, and the best interests of their audience in mind. Furthermore, to utilize their power to gift perspective, inclusion, discussion, and fierce opposition issues deemed taboo to speak of which beat oppressed peoples back into silence.
by Shannon Sutherland
CEO of Girl Smart Africa