Every year, as the spring semester nears its end and the three-month summer break approaches, any good American college student’s focus will be on finding a temporary, usually unpaid stint with an organisation that s/he may or may not have a genuine interest in. In the minority of cases, the student choses a position they believe will be rewarding. But most of the time, students are forced by their parents, their peers or their pushy other selves to take a position that is prestigious, competitive, and handy to drop into conversation at a dinner party or a date. On the way to lectures, or while putting your laundry in the dryer, the inevitable question (which will surely later be gossip fodder) comes at you from someone you scarcely know, “Where are you working this summer?”
Now, there are only three possible answers. One, you are working in finance. This means you are living in New York but will never see the light of day because you are spending 18 hours a day commuting on the underground to Wall Street to face computer screen monotony. Two, you are working for a not-for-profit organisation. This can range from tending to a community garden in Chelsea to cold-calling possible donors at Amnesty International. Or, which is the option I chose, you go to Africa to do any number of activities which you don’t need to explain because the A-word blows most young American minds away.
In order to avoid such conversations and the internship application process, I opted out of spending my junior (third year) spring on campus in Manhattan. I headed for Montpellier in the south of France to study at the local university, legally drink red wine with almost every meal, and improve my French. This, however, meant missing Macklemore (white rapper sensation and my celebrity crush) perform live on the university lawns as well as other thrilling urban joys like rooftop fraternity parties and Central Park bike rides.
France was perfect. The internship culture and the competitiveness that comes with it is not part of the southern French way you see. Spring in the south of France is about working on your tan and your summer fling. The more relaxed atmosphere suited me fine for a while until more and more frequent Skype calls from across the ocean probed me on my summer plans. Peer-pressure, and my own fear of missing out on an exciting opportunity, soon encouraged me to look for work experience somewhere on the spectrum between banking and gardening.
I settled on the Daily Maverick.
As a regular Daily Maverick reader and admirer, serious news junkie, keen writer, and enthusiastic explorer, I thought the position would be a perfect fit. I would have the chance to explore Johannesburg, a city I had long wanted to get to know beyond OR Tambo and Sandton City, to shadow some dedicated and dynamic journalists and to improve my writing skills under deadlines. Work at the DM would surely get me some serious resume cred too (very important for my reputation on campus and for my ultimate employability).
My first day on the job had me navigating between burning tires and edging past a smoking skip into the scene of a controversial shooting which had sparked the looting of foreign owned shops in Diepsloot. We needed to know more about what led up to the outbreak of violence and what was fuelling the xenophobic reaction. While asking for directions and planning interview questions I calmed down my almost hysterical mom over the phone who was more concerned about her car in a volatile township than her daughter.
Under the skillful guidance of Greg Nicolson, I quickly learned how to approach the shy kind for comment, take concise notes and soon, how to think and write like a real Maverick. Greg went out of his way to include me in his work and introduce me to his already established and useful networks. His multitasking impressed me most, having the uncanny ability to take pictures, conduct interviews, (efficiently and respectfully) interact on the Twitter-sphere, and balance lunch, a newspaper and a caffeinated drink in the other hand.
I wasn’t much help that day. I felt my whiteness and girl-ness keenly and stood still and quiet for most of it. I think I was assumed to be a South African journalist with an understanding for townships and riot police and perhaps someone who could even speak Afrikaans. I am none of these things. Though I was born in Johannesburg, I am small town girl from Gaborone, where I spent a sheltered childhood growing up in country well known for peace and stability.
The poverty in Diepsloot shocked me. The poorest in Botswana live in traditional huts and survive off the land. They have space and dignity. People don’t carry guns there unless they are hunting big game. I watched amazed as babies played among the rubber bullet shells and riot police trucks. I felt unhelpful and uncomfortable as I got proposals for marriage and angry stares.
It wasn’t only Diepsloot that made me feel out of place. A fancy breakfast with the National Lottery executives reporting on the third lottery license at the Hyatt hotel, and an even fancier cocktail event celebrating the official opening of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, made me feel out of my league too. Ladies in five-inch heels and little black dresses greeted me at the door of the newly renovated centre in my dusty flats and old jeans. I had just come from investigating the toilet saga in Soweto.
Activities with the Daily Maverick were more varied, challenging and rewarding than I anticipated. I soon became comfortable and even possibly useful as I became a more skilled wing woman to the veteran Mavericks at all sorts of exciting and diverse events. BB (Branko Brkic aka Big Boss) even let me find and report on my own stories, one of which took me to Hillbrow to meet an extraordinary Christian family committed to changing Johannesburg’s most dangerous neighborhood. After meeting them at the NObama protest in Pretoria, I was determined to get to know more about them and the change they hope to affect. The “no-go zone”, seen through the eyes of their perceptive and articulate 12 year-old Hannah, opened my naive eyes to a place most South Africans had encouraged me to fear and stay away from. The realisation of the unlimited and untold story capacity trapped in few square blocks of violence and poverty in downtown Johannesburg encouraged me to dig deeper in the city’s other “off-limits” places.
It was satisfying to see my articles, such as the Hillbrow one, published alongside work by mastermind Mavericks like Stephen Grootes, Rebecca Davis, Khadija Patel, Greg Nicolson, Brooks Spector, Ranjeni Munusamy and Greg Marinovich. Accompanying the always humble but fearless Khadija to Barack Obama’s UJ address in Soweto (where she was acknowledged for her hard work by the POTUS) was a moment that will stay with me as I begin to map my own future in the field. To be with Brooks at the historic 50-year Liliesleaf celebrations and to learn from him, a South African history guru, how to approach such an important piece of the struggle story was a unique and unforgettable learning opportunity. The guidance I received at the Daily Maverick was firm but always encouraging and I found myself driven to produce my best work if only to impress the Mavericks I quickly came to admire. I was impressed and motivated by the space the publication allows writers to express stories in their own voices and to explore their own interests. I appreciated the room for humour and the scope for creativity that is at the core of the Daily Maverick.
To be able to spend my break from Columbia University learning and growing as a journalist under the mentorship of these Mavericks was a privilege and a thrill. And, I have no doubt, the experience will make for great date or dinner party conversation once I’m back in New York. DM