South Africa

GroundUp: Taking stories from the streets to the sheets

By Rebecca Davis 3 July 2012

A media team is hoping to address what they believe is the under-reporting of in-depth stories about township life in South Africa. GroundUp is training young members of townships to tell their own stories about what goes on within their communities, in order to change the way the media reports the lives of poor and working class people. By REBECCA DAVIS.

“We are fighting for our freedom, our freedom to go anywhere we want to go in Khayelitsha,” says Latinyo, an 18-year-old grade 12 learner from Khayelitsha’s H-section. He has been involved in gangs since the age of 12 and says he has lost count of how many murders he has committed.” 

So begins one of the first stories published by GroundUp, in April this year. Although the media project has only been around for a few months, its team of five journalists has already notched up some impressive scoops. The excerpt above is taken from a feature on the rise of child gangsters in Khayelitsha. 

They have also exposed a bribery system in place at Maitland Refugee Reception Centre, medicine shortages at clinics throughout South Africa, and the advertising of illegal abortions to women who are in their third trimester of pregnancy.

That’s a list most editors would be pretty chuffed with, and GroundUp editor Nathan Geffen sounded upbeat when the Daily Maverick spoke to him on Tuesday. “GroundUp is a project we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” he said. (By “we”, he meant a group of civil society organisations including Equal Education and the Treatment Action Campaign.) 

“It’s not that we think the mainstream media doesn’t cover any township stories, but we’d like to see the quality of that coverage improved. So the idea is to take people from working-class backgrounds, who’ve been involved in social justice groups, and give them some training in journalism to allow them to cover the stories affecting their communities.”

The programme began in February, when 24 candidates took part in an intensive two-week training course. Of that group, the five most promising individuals were selected to make up the GroundUp team. They receive ongoing on-the-job training and support from UCT students from the Centre for Social Science Research, who also help out as subeditors. In April, GroundUp began to publish stories on their website. 

“Our primary focus is news relating to social justice in the townships,” says Geffen. He points out that, though South Africa’s tabloids and community newspapers carry a great deal of township-based stories, they often lack focus on issues like health, gender and government performance. 

“We also carry a lot of news affecting immigrants, which is definitely under-covered by the media at present.” (Two of GroundUp’s journalists are members of the immigrant community.) But it’s not all heavy stuff – the team also covers parties in the townships and they publish listings of upcoming events on the Cape Flats.     

Mary-Anne Gontsana is one of the journalists on the team. The 24-year-old from Gugulethu endorses the view that mainstream media often don’t pay enough attention to township stories. “It’s understandable because they mainly focus on breaking news, and in the township we’re often dealing with small stories which are seen as no big deal. But actually, it is a big deal, for us.”

Her colleague Mary-Jane Matsolo, a 29-year-old originally from Port Elizabeth, adds that “a lot of good, authentic stories get sidelined. These are things that are happening to our neighbours next door. There is a voice that is not coming through – like the woman who sells fruit, her voice.” 

Gontsana, who was responsible for the feature on child gangsterism, sources many of her stories through personal connections. “I’m a social person, I talk to friends, I keep an eye on Facebook,” she says. Matsolo says that tip-offs often come from everyday interactions. 

“We are ordinary people, we sit on public transport and we listen to what the people around us are talking about,” she says. GroundUp’s links to social justice organisations based in the township also afford them a level of access that many journalists would envy: that’s how Gontsana got introduced to her teen gangsters, for instance.

Her favourite beat? “I love crime,” she admits. “Those stories are always so interesting, and there’s always an element of follow-up you can do.” Matsolo, who wrote the exposé of backstreet abortions, prefers health-related stories.

All the stories they produce are posted on the GroundUp website. Gontsana says she is heartened to see that her stories are being read via the evidence of comments left online. It helps, she thinks, that GroundUp’s website is mobile-enabled, so township dwellers who lack access to the internet can read the stories on their cellphones. The aim of the project, however, is also to get these stories placed within the mainstream media. Geffen says they have had stories published by City Vision – a weekly township community newspaper – and the Cape Times.

Inevitably, the project is short of funds – Geffen says they have had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get where they are now, though he’s probably not serious about the latter. The Community Media Trust currently sustains it, with help from Equal Education, the Treatment Action Campaign, immigrants-rights group Passop and Sonke Gender Justice, but Geffen hopes that eventually they will be able to function entirely independently. They also have aspirations of going national: “Although our news is very skewed towards Cape Town at the moment, we hope to extend countrywide, and even have some realistic possibilities in that regard,” says Geffen.

Both Gontwana and Matsolo describe their work for GroundUp in effusive terms. “I’ve always loved writing,” says Gontwana. “My dream job would be to write human-interest features for a magazine.” Matsolo says the project has been “the final confirmation that I must follow my true heart.” DM

Read more:

  • Khayelitsha’s kid gangsters, on GroundUp
  • How immigrants are scammed at Maitland Home Affairs, on GroundUp

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