Opinionista Christi Nortier 18 April 2021

Damelin college refunds: When a journalist’s pen is the mightiest tool available

My stomach dropped as I received more and more notifications of their emails each hour. What if nothing came of this? What can I, as a journalist, really do? Judging from online comments, there are thousands of students who need help.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

“Can you help me please!”

“I have been phoning, sending emails but with no response. It’s very hurting because now I am a mom of three and I only have my matric certificate. At work they keep on advertising posts, but I have nothing to provide. It hurts my feelings. I only earn a little, I am failing to support my children, it is very painful what I am going through, please help me with my certificate or results.”

“Kindly assist as now I am unemployed and need that money to pay for my daughter’s outstanding fees for high school.”

“I hope you can assist.”

“Your assistance in this regard is highly appreciated.”

“Please, please, please assist me in getting my money back, Christi.”

These are just a handful of the emails I received when Maverick Citizen put out a call this week for students to contact us if they were struggling to negotiate refunds with Damelin private college.

How would you respond?

My stomach dropped as I received more and more notifications of their emails each hour. What if nothing came of this? What can I, as a journalist, really do? Judging from online comments, there are thousands of students who need help. They’d all followed the right protocols and done their part of the deal. I just have a corner of the internet and now this very paper.

But apparently that’s enough, somehow, and more powerful than any form, phone call or correctly followed bureaucratic procedure when it comes to getting justice in the face of private sector or government wrongdoing.

Print it and they’ll hop to it.

Damelin student Idah Makalani had contacted me the week before and told me of her months of struggle to get the R16,000 owed to her. The thousands of rands were in her bank account within 24 hours of Damelin receiving my questions about its refund policy, admittance policy and Makalani’s money. She got her money, but they didn’t properly answer my questions.

She had been struggling for a year before then. Phone calls were put on hold for an hour or simply dropped. Forms were lost, redone and lost again. Her dream of being an engineer had been put on hold indefinitely.

All I did was ask – as a journalist.

A student who answered our call and emailed me, also copied in the Damelin staff who had “helped” him. Within an hour, they’d promised to provide him with the certificate by lunchtime. He had been “begging and pleading” for this document since October 2020.

All I did was ask – as a journalist.

I have been a journalist for only a few years but I have been here before. Pensioners in Khayelitsha have begged me to track down their missing pensions. A Mitchells Plain family felt more media coverage would better their chances of getting water, housing and food for their family of 47. A family pleaded to know where their father’s ashes were taken by a funeral service provider.  

People desperate for justice, for change, for peace have to speak to the media when facing the deafening silence of the private sector or government. When they are blatantly ignored and exploited, who do they turn to?

A journalist.

The journalism community – despite its burst tyres and cracked mirrors – still holds some sort of sway in South Africa’s public imagination and heart. People of power still seem to care about their public reputation, no matter how despicably they are willing to behave in reality. That is immaterial – image is all. I am no seer so I don’t know why this is, but because this is my job the question remains pressingly:

What can I do?

An experienced and deeply kind colleague is faced with these pleas for help often in her work. So I turned to her.

I asked her what she does when faced with a tearful mother asking for food for her child, or when a frustrated community leader requests a tank of water for an entire suburb. As a journalist, do you gather the food and find a tanker?

You gather and find the information and truth that they need, she replied immediately. And then you publish it.

They, and others who read it, can take the words in their fist and run, and read it out loud over and over and over again. The truth does not expire and it is transferable. Words do actually still move mountains, and people know this to be true. They’ve experienced it themselves.

So how did I respond?

By sending another email. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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