When activists, writers and thinkers point out society’s ills and call out those complicit in upholding them — these are never convenient truths to hear — there is always blowback. One playbook strategy is to shame these uppity types by showing their complicity in the system they’re trying to tear down.
Abolitionists in the United States were dismissed as hypocrites because they wore clothes made from cotton that had been picked by slaves. School climate protesters today are scorned because they drive to demonstrations in petrol-driven cars. I bank with Standard Bank, even though I know it’s considering financing an East African oil pipeline that’s going to keep syphoning fossil fuels out of the ground, even though scientists say that’s where they must stay if we’re to slow the escalating violence of climate collapse.
Our complicity — we’re all complicit — isn’t a sign of our moral failing. It’s the result of a system in which we have little choice but to be part of until we’ve got the alternatives we’re demanding.
Slaves had to be freed and the cotton fields tended by wage-earning labour before the garment industry could take a step towards ethical clothing (it’s still not there).
Until we have safe, affordable, greener public transport solutions, demonstrators have to travel to protests in fossil-fuelled cars.
And I’ll switch banks when there’s one out there that isn’t in some way funding new fossil fuel extraction.
Until then, I’ll have to accept my own hypocrisy.
What I won’t do, though, is sit quietly by as Standard Bank dresses itself up as a supporter of a free press and a green future, given its handling of this week’s climate protests at its Johannesburg office, where a journalist and several activists were manhandled from its premises, some injured in the melee.
Standard Bank-sponsored journalism award leaves a bitter taste
The climate reporting beat isn’t a sexy one, and it seldom has a red-carpet moment at journalism award ceremonies. That’s the stuff of investigative reporting in the corruption-busting hard news world.
When word came through one Saturday night in late June that the story “A Perfect Storm: Durban Floods, Climate Change, and Coastal Resilience” had bagged a prize in the features category at the Sikuvile Journalism Awards (a prize awarded jointly to the team behind this story, and to another at News24), I almost fell off my chair (except I was in bed because of load shedding, so I was already horizontal and audio-reading a novel in the dark).
This award is a big deal, both for a story of this nature and the team behind it.
Climate stories are still mostly shoehorned into the environmental beat, a nice-to-have reporting extra that gets the newsroom leftovers once the apex beats — politics, business, health, even sport — have taken the lion’s share of reporting resources. It’s hard to muscle your way to the top of the prestige pile when your beat doesn’t have cash or cachet.
The award is even more significant, though, because it was given for a story produced by a tiny, independent media operation, the Media Hack Collective. This small stable was able to go head-to-head with the biggest players in the industry and share the feature award with one of the biggest media houses on the continent.
Following the devastating floods in Durban in April 2022, the Media Hack Collective saw an opportunity to use this as a case study to explore coastal city resilience in the context of climate collapse, but with a solutions journalism focus.
Getting to the bottom of what made Durban so vulnerable to a rain event of this nature — it was “extreme, but not unprecedented” — is no quick reporting gig.
The Media Hack Collective pulled together a team of highly skilled, niche journalists — me, as a long-form climate reporting specialist; others handled the data journalism side of things — an editor, a photographer and others, and published the story through The Outlier, after which it got picked up by Daily Maverick and a few international outlets.
It took months to conceptualise, fundraise, research, write, edit and publish this story, one which the Sikuvile Journalism Awards judges said was deserving because of the seamless weaving together of narrative and data journalism. Groundbreaking stuff, really.
A story as complex, intense and important as “A Perfect Storm” would not likely happen with most newsroom budgets or priorities. It took a small, visionary team like the Media Hack Collective to take on as ambitious a project as this.
For this team to receive as high-profile an award as a Sikuvile is significant because it shows the weighty contribution that such a barely visible independent media house can make to the public discourse.
Journalism taking a stand on the red carpet
The acid-reflux moment came a few weeks later, though, when Clean Creatives South Africa — a civil society movement aimed at getting the public relations and advertising world to distance itself from fossil fuel-aligned clients — put a provocation out on its socials.
Riffing off the news that a group of Australian cartoonists had recently announced their plan to boycott the prestigious Walkley Foundation journalism awards because it is sponsored by petroleum giant Ampol, Clean Creative’s Stephen Horn wrote: “This conversation needs to happen in South Africa regarding Standard Bank’s sponsorship of the Sikuvile Journalism Awards (the bank’s involvement in the Eacop oil pipeline project is hugely problematic), and SANParks Kudu Awards being sponsored by TotalEnergies.”
First, I winced — I had been asleep at the wheel. Why hadn’t I made this connection myself?
Then, I began mulling over what to do.
As an engaged citizen, and as an individual who has been writing about climate collapse for 20 years, the right thing to do is to distance myself from the award, as a small act of political protest to draw attention to the fact that one of our country’s largest and most powerful financiers is complicit in fossil fuel extraction.
Can it be allowed to buy social cred by anointing some climate reporters with a journalism award? This is a nice bit of greenwashing, even as Standard Bank promises to stick to the Equator Principles and do all its due diligence before deciding whether or not to fund the Eacop pipeline.
But at the same time, this Sikuvile award for “A Perfect Storm” was given to a team, and each person on that team deserves the recognition they received on the night and the gravitas it gives to their portfolio and CV.
I can’t remove my name from the list of people who, together, won the Sikuvile Journalism Award for the features category that night. I can’t make a theatrical red-carpet gesture by handing back an award that isn’t mine to give back. I can’t scrub from the internet the many posts — some of which are my own — which crow about this achievement.
What I can do, now, is use the small platform that I have — the writer’s quill — to ink out my protestations.
Standard Bank: The protesters who were thrown off your premises this week were there because they’re trying to tell you that the lives of your staff and your clients are at stake, as our climate becomes dangerously unstable.
The journalist who was manhandled, and whose photographs were deleted from her phone by your security officer, was at this protest because she is part of the Fourth Estate, a crucial part of any healthy democracy.
How can you claim to care about a liveable planet or that you support excellence in journalism if this is how you clamp down on a handful of benign and non-violent climate protesters, and the reporters whose responsibility it is to bring this story to the world?
If this were my award alone, I’d give it right back.
Since it isn’t — it’s the team’s award — I’m distancing myself from it entirely.
Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t want to be associated with it. DM
This is written in my personal capacity as a journalist, although the Media Hack Collective endorses this position.