Escaping the Prison of Portrayal

The Johannesburg media came to the party at the IAWRT South African regional conference on October 26.

However, it was not because it promoted the event, but because it demonstrated how quickly women are reduced to stereotypes and the need for such professional meetings amongst female media professionals.

In welcoming delegates, South African Chapter head and lead organiser, Sara Chitambo, pointed to the Citizen newspaper, which had defined one of Africa’s most powerful and accomplished women, Dr. Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, by her former relationship. The Chair of the African Union and potential candidate to head South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, was reduced to being the President’s ex – wife.

It was at least heartening to see late in the day that something prompted the newspaper to change the headline to something more respectful.

IAWRT President, Gunilla Ivarsson, pointed out in opening remarks that all journalists – male and female – have to continue fighting for the principles of fairness to ensure all perspectives are included. In short, they simply are not reporting the full picture if the lives of women and girls are not an integral part of thir reporting. To that end, she argues that is important to prepare journalists with easy to use tools for everday work which help them accomplish that thoroughness in their storytelling.

The conference was being held at the  property of South African equality and justice NGO, Genderlinks, in outer Johannesburg; Genderlinks Chief Executive Colleen Lowe Morna compared the current situation for women’s voices being heard across media to pre-apartheid censorship. “Last week was South Africa’s press freedom day. so called Black Wednesday where we remember how in the bad old days of apartheid ,… whole pages in newspapers were blotted out because majority voices were being silenced. Something we don’t think about is that, still, every day, everywhere, 52 percent of the population is effectively silenced.” Audio

Silent censorship

The “silent censorship” of women is pervasive and the snail’s pace of any increase in women’s voices being heard in the media is by no means limited to Africa. In southern Africa a Genderlinks study saw women’s voice increasing as sources from 17 percent to just 20 percent in a decade. Globally the global media monitoring project has shown progress is very limited as well.

“What we need is a fifth estate – the people who watch our media from a gender respective” she said.

The keynote speaker, a development entrepreneur and women’s right advocate in South Africa and on the UN stage Dr. Vuyo Mahlati drew the delegates back to the problem of control of the media, a theme which resonated across the day.

“Is a time to move beyond visibility and portrayal; We are needing to deepen the conversation to ownership, for us the be part of change we need to be part of owning.”

“He who owns gold makes the golden rules, It does not help us that we will be seen as begging the masters to give us an ear; I fight my battles as a co-owner.”

She says Escaping the Prison of Portrayal is about breaking down the barriers to new entrants in South African media and “there cannot be a conversation about women and the media which does not deal with that”.

However, in southern Africa women are advanced in terms of participation in the media, and delegates were heartened to hear from some amazing local content creators who showed the many ways that women are already rewriting the narrative around the portrayal of African women in different mediums. Pic right Gunilla Ivarsson, Dr. Vuyo Mahlati and Colleen Lowe Morna

That is when I became incredible

Claire Mawisa never wanted to become a producer but as one in radio she learned editing and presenting and discovered the power of radio to give people a voice, and “that is when I became incredible”. Women are not seeing representations of young strong black women, ” instead they believe that to be relevant they have to twirk” (sexualized dancing) and that can “be reinforced by the stories we tell.” Mawisa now is a celebrated Television presenter working for Carte Blanche, an investigative TV program on M-NeT on Channel 101.

She argues that journalists can unintentionally be destructive by “assuming that we know” and end up reinforcing stereotypes. In these days of rapid fire journalism, “we still need to get out, go to the source, stay close to our humility, we need to have humility when it comes to telling stories about women, because even as a woman, I cannot presume to know what another woman is going through in her situation.”

“Yes, as working journalists we have to compromise to the producers (who are still mainly male) and the editors, but not to the point that it is compromising to women … if you have the sense of understanding that you are in a middle class bubble that is already one step closer to understanding that you have to tell the story differently and there are certain compromises that you cannot make.” Audio interview

pic: Lady Skollie left Claire Mawisa ​right.

I just want women to be feared

Visual artist and activist Laura Windvogel is less into compromise, also know as Lady Skollie, (Afrikaans – meaning a naughty, dirty or ill-mannered person)  she podcasts, writes for online publications and paints.  The fearless visual artist says she is an activist simply because she is a woman. “For me it not even about change – she laughs and continues – I just want all men that do bad things to die. It is very funny I just want women to be feared. I think we are at the point where we can’t beg men anymore,”

Much as she dismisses her activism as being about change, the way she took on musician Simiso Zwane, known as Okmalumkoolkat, when he returned to South Africa after serving a one-month jail sentence, for sexual assault, suggest she is very aware to the need to change the rape culture South Africa is infamous for. 

Lady Skollie says she had respected the artist until he produced an apology for the assault which she described as ” a self congratulatory very sick apology letter” sent to about 1.5 million followers. It led to her producing Sorry Not Sorry (pic right)

“How can we be accepting an apology where one, he does not ever reference the victim, ever, in any shape or form, and two, he says thing like ‘please give me the time to heal’ … and to me that was unbelievable that as a society and consumers we could sit back and accept this.”

She says her work which she was criticised for, is just to say that it is not OK and she says the letter was signed off  for the star by two women in a PR company ” which is a bit of a mind-f…”

“South Africa is really in a space where are in a national crisis, a rape scourge – one in every three women – and its normal – theft is normal, abuse is normal and we are just desensitised.” (Download conference report below and in publications)








Breakthrough or backlash: Women, media and politics – Theater

The conference with its focus on news reporting, heard a lot about African politicians and the media: In one workshop, participants, facilitated by Sheila Dallas-Katzman, created some impromptu theatre which demonatrated the uphill battle female politicians faced in the local media, with Eunice Kasirye,  IAWRT Uganda, Raziah  Mwanga, IAWRT Rawanda, Anjje Schuhmann senior lecturer on gender and politics – University of Witwatersrand, Chandita Mukurjee IAWRT India, and Fonnah Mariatu from Gender Links, South Africa, and IAWRT President Gunilla Ivarrson. I can be viewed here.

The full conference report is available for download below.