Charlayne Hunter-Gault Johannesburg Bureau Chief, CNN
What do you say when your real life far exceeds your wildest dreams? I once heard a comedian answer, “Keep it to yourself.” And while there are an increasing number of comedians masquerading as journalists, I am not yet ready to quit my day job.
As a result, let me hasten to answer that question this way. But first, let me say what an honor it is to stand here, not just on a program named in honor of Joe Alex Morris but on his shoulders. I didn’t know him, but I knew him, as I haven’t known far too many of the growing number of journalists being killed on the frontlines of truth-telling. I don’t know most of them, but I knew them.
I knew them because they are a special breed, belonging to a special club whose rules of the road we in this profession all know and share. I did not know him [Joe Alex Morris] as I knew Kate Peyton, the BBC producer based in Johannesburg who was cut down last month by a sniper’s bullet in Somalia as she prepared to position her reporter to bring the story to the world of the possible return of Somalia’s government in exile.
At this point we do not know if she was deliberately targeted for the reported reward of some $5,000 U.S. dollars for every foreigner killed in Somalia or if it was just random, for it was not a case of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was in the right place at the right time for a journalist. In fact, I envied Kate that she was there. I thought, “Damn! Why is Kate there and not me?” when I heard she was there.
It’s just that it came to be that this was her time, as it was the time for Joe Alex Morris. And while our egos — especially those of us in television — may be large, we are too small in the universe to get our arms around the reasons why they died. Except their lives and the way they lived them, fuel our mission and must gird us for the increasing challenges we face to tell our truths.
It is the life of journalists like Joe Alex and Kate Peyton that I will describe when I encounter — as I have on this current trip to the United States speaking at colleges and universities — young people who come to me and ask me if it’s worth it any longer to aspire to and train for becoming a journalist.
As troubled as they are — these young people, young college students — about the currents in this country that threaten free speech and its advocates and its proponents, we owe it to them — these young people as well as we owe it to Joe and Kate — to stand up and fight with every fiber of our being to protect those rights that have been beacon lights to journalists around the world.
And we owe it to those journalists like those in Africa who are fighting for the right to tell their own stories and to establish those rights against powerful governments, like those in the neighborhood where I live who have enacted laws that make it close to impossible, if not impossible, for them to do their jobs. I’m currently applying for a visa to one of them.
So I will take the coward’s way out and not mention Zimbabwe tonight — unless there are bloggers in the room but none of you look like bloggers. Second, I have admired the Nieman program, Bob, and its principles, goals and standards as long as I can remember — and how I was never quite in a position to apply for one myself.
Being here tonight allows me some identification with it, however minimal. Ozymandias had it right: “By their works, shall ye know them.” And I have known many a journalist who found this program life-enhancing, if not life-saving. And I have seen many of them return to their professions with renewed vigor and determination. The most recent: Lizeka Mda, who is spreading her wings as editor of Sawubona, the in-flight magazine of South Africa Airways, which is one of the best in the country. I get a lot of ideas from Sawubona, because I travel a lot on South Africa Airways. [laughter]
So being here among those who guard and guide — like Bob and all the rest of you in this great foundation, as well as those of you who are having this enviable experience — is one example of my real life exceeding my wildest dreams.
And third, there was a certain synchronicity to my being here at this particular point in my career, when I’m about to close one chapter and open another. Leaving CNN after almost seven years and leaping into the world of independent journalism — that is, independent in the sense that I will continue as a journalist, but I will not have a single master.
I won’t have the luxury that the Niemans have of taking time off to clear my head and prepare myself for the coming conflicts. But I’m sure I’ll benefit from just being here, inhaling the atmosphere of this kind of renewal. I hope so.
Moreover, the assignment that I was given by Her Journalistic Excellency, Callie Crossley: to talk about my journalistic odyssey — which, thank you Bob, you did fairly well. [laughter] I’ll embellish a few of those points you’ve already laid out there for me.
But anyway, that assignment indeed gave me the opportunity to look back in a way that I’ve rarely stopped to do. And in so doing, I’ve come to a certain realization: Though my journalistic odyssey has been long and taken me far, it has been a circular journey that has brought me back in a real sense to where I started some 40-something years ago.
My entire journalistic career has been propelled by a passion-driven desire to see people portrayed in ways that they are recognizable to themselves. It has is included destinations where I’ve found, among other fertile fields, black worlds and the people who inhabit them, and where I determined early on to unapologetically ensure that they were portrayed as faithfully as any other subjects of the journalistic enterprise.
I cut my journalistic teeth establishing the case against segregation in my native Georgia, learning in my formative years valuable lessons that still continue to elude many in the profession today: how to report the story with passion without becoming a part of it. In this instance, I was, in fact, a minor role player in the civil-rights movement, my friends [were] major as they put their bodies on the line in front of hostile police and their dogs, water cannon and occasionally bullets.
We started a newspaper to cover the activities of the movement because the mainstream media ignored them or reported them with undisguised hostility, aligned as they were with what they referred to then as the “power structure.” With the rare exception, they were the power structure and they were all white. In fact, when I had a reunion just the other day down in Tampa, Fla., at the Pointer Institute with Eugene Patterson, former editor of The Atlanta Constitution now in his 80s and still going strong, we were reminiscing about the recently late governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver, who had sworn that “No, not one black student would ever attend the University of Georgia.”
Gene told of a call he received from the governor shortly after the entire state legislature had voted to close the university after Hamilton Holmes and I had applied and were ordered in by a federal judge. The governor then, alone in his study, called Gene to ask what he should do.
And Gene told him that he was sure he knew what the law of the land dictated, and that he was sure he would do the right thing. And ultimately he did, allowing the university to remain open and presiding over the peaceful desegregation of the entire state school system the following fall.
It was in those heady days of “freedom now” that I learned how to walk the line between journalism and advocacy, between covering the news and being it. And looking back, it was in fact easy. I just had to tell the truth as I saw it and try as hard as I could to be fair, objectivity never being a part of my journalistic lexicon. (I really think that’s a dumb word. I hope you all don’t — well, we can talk about that later).
Thus I managed to do right and do the right thing: being true to the tenets of the profession even as I was a part of an effort to change the parameters of news, not to just include those without a voice but to include them in their full complexity.
It has been and remains a challenge, even with the vast strides made since black reporters began entering the mainstream media in the late ’60’s. I have been and continue to be encouraged by victories of varying sizes, not least the ascension of many journalists of color into positions of real power and authority, even as most of us seem to be disappearing from the major television reports of national and international news in this country. It’s sort of like an involuntary days of absence. But I digress.
Armed with the lessons from the movement, my journalistic effort began in earnest — that is, with pay — at The New Yorker magazine in 1963 where the venerable editor, the late William Shawn, hired me right out of college. He told me I would begin as every other wannabe writer, poet, cartoonist, editor: at the bottom, doing the grunt work of typing lists of short and long pieces, fact and fiction, long before computers and that ever-active delete button, making coffee for the editors and being in general a glorified gopher. But all that was glory, being as I was in the company of the literary giants of the day. Rather than intimidate, they encouraged, even the ever reclusive J.D. Salinger. And I learned by their example.
What I realized early on was that it was not enough to be on the “A list” to get into a weekly magazine where space was at a premium. “A” material was not enough; you had to be “A+” for your words to inhabit that small space known as “Talk of the Town” or onto the pages reserved for the longer efforts.
Encouraged by writing that was so excellent it seemed simple, I looked for a place that I might fit. I was tired of pouring coffee for the editors. At the time, Ved Mehta, Mary McGrory, Joe Mitchell and many others were writing childhood recollections. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I had a childhood and I have recollections.” [laughter] So one day I sat down and wrote one.
And lo and behold, Mr. Shawn, as we always called him, bought it. It was called “115th Between Lennox and Fifth,” and it was a recollection of a trip I took as a child with my grandmother from the small Georgia town where we lived to New York City, Harlem, when I was under 10. And soon I realized that writing that way about the black experience was in short supply, not just at The New Yorker but throughout the media world. And it had value. I wanted to be in The New Yorker.
So I set out to write what no other staff writer was writing about: the people I knew best, my own. And though Harlem was in many ways different from the little Georgia town I had grown up in — or even later the big Georgia town of Dogwoods: Atlanta — its people were in the same boat: basically invisible except in their extraordinariness, their sports feats, their crime or as occasional examples of existential misery.
But I discovered wonderful exceptions. Lewis Michaud, the wizened little old man who ran the bookstore at 126th Street and 7th Avenue with one of the largest collections by and about black people in the world, where at any given day or any time you could find a collection of intellectuals discussing the issues of the day. Or you could also be entertained with the rhyming couplets that Michaud used to speak whenever he had a crowd in the bookstore. One of them was this: “The white man’s dream of being supreme has turned to sour cream.” [laughter] This put him on the cutting edge of the black revolution in progress.
This was my entry into a career that has taken me far beyond the borders of Harlem and, indeed, black America. In fact, I suppose I belong to a handful of black journalists who entered the profession in the ’60’s and who today might be called “crossover.” For I was able to take the journalistic skills I honed in the black community to the Middle East, the Far East, to Europe, Haiti and points in between, covering major events of the day.
After one of the most hopeful peace agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I interviewed the major players, Israelis and Arabs alike. And with a little help from Hosny Mubarak, I got a rare interview with Syria’s Hafiz al-Assad. Don’t ask me how I did it. If you press me, I’ll tell you, but don’t. [laughter]
Later, when George Bush sent troops into Somalia, I hired “technicals” (that’s the guys with the guns) like everybody else. In Baghdad the first time around, I used my connections to a former U.N. official, then back home, to keep the Iraqi minister of information from throwing us out after his minions had determined on more than one occasion that we had overstayed our welcome.
And in Riyad during the first Gulf War, I took refuge from Iraqi Scud missiles in the basement of the hotel where all the journalists and most of the military command stayed, along with the military press officers, not knowing that if a Scud struck the building, we would have been fried along with the chickens in the basement being prepared for dinner.
And thanks to the military background — my own as the daughter of an Army chaplain — I bonded with the man they called “The Sink,” the Commander-in-Chief General Normal Schwarzkopf, and got a longer than usual exclusive interview.
And I loved every sometimes-harrowing minute of all of the above and more that I’ve left out. And while all of that was great, the best was yet to come. If I didn’t know better, I might be tempted to say it was when I went home, except that the last thing a black American wants to say to a South African is “I’m glad I’m home.” First of all, they’ve heard it too much in the past 10 years of multiracial democracy. And secondly, that’s not exactly the exit point for the slave trade. But hey, to many African Americans, it’s Africa. And any part of Africa qualifies as the motherland, okay? Especially Cape Town — I mean, it’s so easy to be in Africa and be in Cape Town. [laughter]
Now when I made the decision to take up my first full-time foreign assignment based in South Africa with a brief to cover the continent, it was, if not a journey home, a journey back — back into a country I had followed from some of the darkest days of apartheid oppression when the regime did its evil utmost to keep the lights of our cameras and the strokes of our pens from illuminating the lengths to which they were prepared to go to keep their reprehensible deeds from reaching the eyes and ears of the world. You’ll remember, Judge [Richard Goldstone of the Constitutional Court of South Africa]; it was 1985.
It was a harrowing assignment, thrusting me face-to-face with some of the worst brutality I have ever seen in my life. But I was determined to get beneath its skin and find the people who could give life to the struggle. And find them, I did — including a black poet who was making his way in the white world, but only by day. By night, he took the long train ride back to the poor black township he called home, an enclave constructed for easy containment by the apartheid regime in case of trouble. His story told with quiet urgency and an equally quiet eloquence and anger, put flesh on the bones of the simmering black revolt.
Likewise a well-off Africana farmer allowed me into his world, where I learned how the decades-long conviction of white supremacy had been reinforced through the teachings of none other than the Dutch Reform Church. We gave human faces to South Africans during those troubled times — the whites as well as the blacks. And we called them “Apartheid’s People.”
I returned to the country when Nelson Mandela was freed, and the nonracial democracy he sacrificed 27 years of his life for was on the horizon. I returned again as the country was carrying on its own democratic revolution, soon to be exporting it along with its tried and tested formula for conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation around the continent.
In the years I worked and lived in South Africa, I think I can say with absolute certainty I had one of the best assignments in the world, my real life truly exceeding my wildest dreams. To be in the center of a revolution — social, economic, political — established on the wings of the same moral authority as the one in which I was a minor participant in the United States is awesome and at times awe-inspiring. Tracking the evolution of a liberation movement as it begins to become a government is exciting; and all of you who are journalists know how convenient that word is, given the potential to cover a multitude of sins or absolutions.
Having witnessed South Africa’s first multiparty election fraught with fractional friction, violence and death, in which our judge here [Richard Goldstone] played a major role, put me in the position of being able to measure, at least at one critical level, that evolution as South Africa’s third multiracial election last year came off without a hitch — or at least without violent ones.
For me, one of the biggest stories is tracking what arguably is one of the most ambitious economic transformations in the 21st century, a major part of the story: the difference it makes when a black-led government representing a black majority goes about making up for past discrimination. I call it unapologetic affirmative action, but the government calls it economic empowerment, black economic empowerment.
It’s not without controversy, including from some blacks unhappy that many of the biggest financial transactions so far have been done with only a handful of blacks who are accused of trading on their connections to the ruling party.
But the government has instituted a series of charters across the sectors — from mining to financial services, setting goals and timetables for ownership transfers to blacks — that holds out the promise of, if not leveling an economic playing field still dominated by whites, at least opening the gates to the playing field wider than they’ve ever been.
The usual suspects of stories are also there: the crime, the racial tension and now AIDS, the most threatening to stability in my view of all of the above. I never cease to be reminded of the difference between me and my computer when I visit an AIDS clinic and come face to face with its victims, from the beautiful young girls still in the giggly stage of their youth to the old grandmothers struck by a killer they didn’t see coming.
It’s a tragedy that we have not yet even begun to convey to the rest of the world, even though the rest of the world has some sense that it’s bad. But it’s more than bad; it’s a disease that has threatened the future — the future of families and the future of cultures.
The extended family in Africa — not just South Africa but the extended family in Africa — is stretched beyond its limits, even causing a thing unheard of in African societies: survivors turning their heads away or looking towards the ceiling when the question is raised of who will take the children of the deceased.
Hillary Clinton didn’t come up with “it takes a village to raise a child.” This came straight out of Africa. But that village cannot raise the children who no longer have parents. There are just too many of them. In Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe an estimated three million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and South Africa adds millions more.
I didn’t expect my journey to the horizons would find me in these places witnessing things unimaginable a few short years ago. Having read about the bubonic plague, I thought such things were consigned to history like genocide. But neither is genocide a thing of the past, as the story of Darfur is trying to tell us — alas, to no avail. The international community is not responding.
Moreover the tsunami devastation that extended to Africa, Somalia in particular, has had little or no coverage and no visits from anybody of headline-getting note. And while relatively speaking there were far fewer deaths than in Asia, the tragedy is in one sense greater given that the people in Somalia are victims of a 13-year civil war and had no government to turn to, no relief for the death of their livelihood and the fish wiped out by the tsunami, no options but to drink the poisoned water it produced. Thanks to footage from UNICEF, I was able to craft a small piece that got a little time on the air, albeit a very little, and none as far as I can determine on the U.S. domestic air.
My time on the continent and with its people has given the lie to that which underlies Afro-pessimism and fueled my passion and my inclination to continue traveling roads not taken, to try and bring to the eyes and ears of the world a continent as complex as its many parts, poised to either soar from the edge or fall into the abyss.
We journalists on the continent have a big role to play. And while most all of the few remaining since the end of apartheid, and almost all of the journalists who would say that this might even be the end of journalistic history on the continent, would all do it to the sound of one hand clapping.
We are failing to penetrate the all-important U.S. market, especially failing to get across the true nature of this critical Africa moment. We are still seized with the two-minute snapshot of chaos, conflict, disease and desperation, not giving a full portrayal of a continent trying to rise in part from the ashes of misuse dating back to the cold war, where the contest for global supremacy between the West and the Soviets propped up dictators who abused their people and raped their countries with abandon and left a legacy no one wants to acknowledge complicity in.
So my circle closes here: why I’m driven as I once was in Atlanta and Harlem to do more, to give a true picture of this vast and varied continent in the hope that those who could be good partners will have enough good information to do the right thing. To that extent, they need what I’ve been calling “new news” out of Africa, new news that will drive the political will to finally bring Africa into the family of nations, not on crutches or a cane but standing as tall as the people who gave the world its first human beings and their humanity; the people who wake up in the morning as we all do, wash their faces and their hands and their teeth as we all do — provided they have water, let alone clean water; who prepare whatever there is for breakfast for themselves and their children, whom they may or may not be able to afford to send to school; and get on with their days of survival and endurance more or less as we all do.
They are the ones who rose up the other day when the military of Togo attempted to subvert the constitution and install the son of the president who had just died, one of the longest running rulers in Africa. The people rose up defenseless against the bullets, armed only with the weapon of moral authority. And for once they were not alone.
The leaders of Africa also rose up and told those who had done this thing, “It will not stand.” From South Africa to Nigeria they told them. They spoke with one voice, a new voice that says, “The sovereign borders of a state will not protect from the abuse of human and civil rights” — a radical departure from the past, more of what I call new news out of Africa.
But this commitment, however new and determined at this point, is nevertheless fragile. The overwhelming problem of Africa is indeed poverty. If the moral incentive to respond no longer works, if it ever did, there is now an urgent incentive of self or national interest. The New York Times recently described many of the impoverished countries of Africa as incubators of terrorism. And with a continent of 800 million people who want to do what’s right but who also need to feed their families, the potential for mischief is great.
Just look at the misadventure recently undertaken by Mark Thatcher and a band of not-so-merry mercenaries in their attempt to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea. I spoke to the wives of many of the men who were recruited for that assignment. And whether or not the men bought the cover that they were in fact going to guard diamond mines in Congo, many of them had lost their jobs in South Africa and had no way of supporting their wives and children.
Therefore, back to me. In leaving CNN I take this leap of faith, emboldened by the words, not of a journalism professor of mine who was fond of asking, “What are the news,” and then responding, “Not a single new.” But rather I take the words of Teilhard de Chardin who wrote, “When you come to the end of all light that you know, and you are about to step off into the darkness, faith is knowing that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid in the darkness for you to step on or you will be taught how to fly.”
I’m going to give Africa and its people my best shot in the coming weeks and months and have the faith that somewhere out there in the world of media consumers there will be a demand that they get new news out of Africa, that they dispel the notion — especially here in America — that no one is interested in Africa, that there is a market willing to pay for it one way or another.
And that leads to a solid commitment on the part of African media decision makers to tell the African story as we used to say back in the day, “like it is.” It is what I believe I was born and raised to do. Thanks.
I’m told I have not sung sufficiently for my supper, that I now have to come back and face, let’s hope, not too-hard questions. Yes? And can you identify yourselves because I didn’t have time to meet all of you who are not my dear friends.
Question: Can you talk a little more about your decision to leave CNN? Was it a result of Atlanta not picking up [your] news stories?
Hunter-Gault: Well that’s not the only reason I’m leaving. We have some unbridgeable differences, which are between me and them. But among them is I think what is going to be an increasing problem with the news hole, or what we used to in the print media call the news hole, for African stories.
The stories that attract the domestic editors are legitimate stories. But it’s always pretty much the same: the story of the man being thrown to the lions. That’s a legitimate — I started to say a good story. It’s a terrible story. But those of you who are journalists will understand.
In South Africa, a white construction-company owner — we’ve never quite figured out what he does — got mad at one of his workers, black workers. And in a fit of rage, beat him to a pulp and then threw him into a den of lions who ate him. And that’s a terrible story. And we should do that story. I’m not a cheerleader for Africa. And I don’t think that we can afford as news people to ignore stories like that.
Or the more recent story of five young children between the ages of 3 and 5 who were found dead in a car where they obviously had been locked in overnight. And initially the neighbors said that these two older people in their 60’s and 70’s had killed these children for muti. Those of us who live in Africa all know about muti. But for those of you who don’t, it’s body parts that are taken from a victim before he or she dies and used to make potions for medicines.
The government has recently passed a bill licensing the people who are called sangomas. In some other cultures, they might be called witch doctors, but that’s not a very nice or politically correct term. And also these people do a lot of good with herbs and roots and things that they find in nature. I’m increasingly going there since Vioxx and Celebrex. Maybe I’ve been living in Africa too long, but Western medicine I’m very leery about these days.
So the rumor went around that this was a muti killing. And I was asked to do this story. And I said, “Well, I understand the story. And I understand how this might be interesting: five little innocent kids. But the police have not yet told us that this was a muti killing.”
Days went by and [I was asked], “Is it ready? Is it there?”
“It’s not there yet!”
Finally, I kept talking to the chief investigator who was telling me, “Look. We don’t see any signs of a muti killing because all of these children have their body parts.” But they wanted to wait until the coroner gave an official thing.
So finally the coroner did come back and say this was not a muti killing, that in fact they now think the kids somehow got locked into this car. And the temperatures were extraordinary — in the 90’s. And these are kids 3 to 5 years old. They had blisters on them, which convinced everybody they had been tortured and everything.
But I think probably what happened is that they somehow got locked in the car and suffocated. And the heat was so bad that it — I don’t know. I mean, this has not been definitively established.
Everybody was really disappointed that this wasn’t a muti killing. I was asked, did I think I could find a muti killing. And I said, “Well, you know, it might take me a while, but maybe.”
That’s not to say that this is — We have one fabulous program on CNN called “Inside Africa.” It’s a half-hour, weekly show every Saturday night. It repeats on Sunday, and it really does go into the broad spectrum of stories that are there in Africa. But it’s not seen in America. It used to be seen on FN, but they’ve closed FN. I just don’t think that there’s any future for what I do. Well, there’s a future if I care that it is only shown in — I mean, it’s nice to be seen in Europe and Asia and Latin America and stuff. But I think this [the United States] is a strategic market. I think this is an important place. Whatever you feel about the country’s leadership and so on, this is the place that tends to set the tone.
Right now, Tony Blair has taken a leadership position in his commission on Africa to do something. This is what he apparently sees as his legacy. But I think that if the American people understood the need in a way that I see it — and many others by the way, I’m not the only journalist who sees it that way but we just don’t get on the American air — I just think there would be a bigger response. Somebody told me just yesterday that Congress is getting ready to cut back on aid to Africa. This is the worst possible time they could do that.
I’m staying here in Boston with a woman who’s at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her expertise is in child violence. And we were talking the other day about children growing up without parents. And Africa is not — even though they’re not establishing orphanages, this is something that’s totally alien in that culture. So even the ones that are being established right now just don’t have what it takes to ensure that these children get the kind of rounded program that you need to create whole human beings.
And we’re talking about millions of children. So can you imagine what’s going to happen when these millions of children who have no affection or no nurturing or no intellectual stimulation grow up? And if the poverty in Africa continues at the rate it is now, they’re going to grow up in poverty. So they’re going to be sick, or they’re going to be scary.
I think that when Americans have been truly engaged — look at what they did with [the] tsunami, look at what they do whenever there’s a thing that’s bad in the world — they respond. But if they don’t know — how many people knew about the tsunami in Somalia? Not many.
So I’m saying that these are kinds of frustrations I have; [they’re] not the only reasons [I’m leaving CNN]. We have other issues. But, you know, the lawyers talk about those. I just think that I can position myself to do things that are aimed specifically at the American market. It may not be a flood of stuff. But it will be more than two minutes of stuff whenever I do stuff.
Question: There’s been a reopening of the Emmett Till conviction. Yesterday in the Supreme Court, the case was argued that it could result in opening the question of reparations for Civil War slavery. The question, from your two-continent perspective would be, are we ready for a peace and justice commission in the United States? And what would it be like? What would you anticipate [as the] result?
Hunter-Gault: That’s a question that’s too hard for me. [laughter] Maybe Justice Goldstone could help me here, having come out of a society where there’s still a lot of unfinished business on that score but which also produced a country that was able to move forward without bloodshed into a new dispensation.
There are still people in South Africa who are frustrated that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn’t go farther than it did, that more of the whites who committed terrible deeds against blacks did not come forward because — is it right? — the vast majority of them did not.
President Mbeki’s chief of staff is still trying to convince the two men who poisoned his underwear and nearly killed him to just come and tell him how they did it. And he’s offered to intervene. It’s a long story, which I won’t go into now. But these guys are now liable for criminal prosecution because they didn’t come before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, asking for amnesty on the grounds that their act was political. The arrogance of them not to do that — even now, when he has offered to intervene with the justice system to see that they’re not prosecuted, they still won’t come forward. All he wants to know is how they did it.
There are families who want to know, not who murdered their loved ones but just where the bones are. In Africa, it’s very important to be able to go and visit the grave of your deceased. People talk to the ancestors, and they need this.
So there is this lingering feeling of incompleteness over this process, and yet the country is moving forward as a result of it. Okay? So you have to weigh the way in which the country functions now against this unhappiness on the part of some. And I suppose when you bring that here to the United States, you have to look at those who feel some lack of fulfillment over the fact that the people here won’t even apologize for slavery. And a lot of people find that upsetting.
As I look at it as a journalist, the way in which a black-led government and a black-majority country deals with these issues, and the way in which this country deals with them when the leader, even one that some of us regard as a black — who was it, Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, who called Clinton a black president? If anybody would have done it, he might have been the most likely suspect. But even he didn’t do it for whatever reasons, I don’t know.
So I honestly am ruminating up here. I can’t answer your question. I just think that issues like this, unresolved, are sure to come back to haunt you. And what is interesting to me is the young people, because in South Africa everybody’s bemoaning the fact that what they call the “born frees” — that is, the young people born at the end of apartheid and weren’t a part of the struggle — are now driving Beamers [BMWs] and going to nightclubs and interracially marrying and all that stuff.
It’s like here in America. The other day at the University of Georgia, my alma mater, they had a display in my dormitory where I was the first black student woman. So they put up a display in my honor, and it caused a stir because under my picture in one part of the display was the quote that says, “There goes the nigger.”
And some of the black students took great exception to that saying that they lived in the dorm and it made them uncomfortable to come downstairs every morning and see that. So they wrote, they called, they e-mailed “What do you think?” to the newspapers, the school paper, the Atlanta papers, everybody.
So finally I had to take a position. I said, “As a journalist, I don’t ordinary take positions. But this involves me as a person.” So I took a position. I won’t go into all that. But the point is that these things reoccur when they haven’t been resolved. And the younger generation is showing me that they’re not going to forget.
I mean, we reached a compromise, at least I think we have. It’s still being adjudicated. But the fact that they’re rising up and raising these issues means that if [the issues] are not resolved, they will come back. Journalists might say something a little cruder like, “bite you in the you-know-what.” But I’ll say they’ll come back to haunt you.
I didn’t answer the question, but that’s what I think about it.
Question: I’m Nick Daniloff, a former Nieman Fellow. I wonder if you can speak a little bit about why you left CNN and what it’s like to be yourself in South Africa — what your everyday life is like. I mean, are you accepted as a normal person?
Hunter-Gault: I’m not a normal person. I’m a journalist.
Question: Are you an interfering American?
Hunter-Gault: I already answered the question about why I left CNN — or what I’m going to say publicly.
As I said, I see my life coming around in circles. I was in Harlem during the Black Panther phase of American history. Some of you might remember that. They had a breakfast program, and one day I went up there. I was working for The New York Times. I went to cover it. And the Panther told me, “You can’t come in here.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because you work for The Man.” And in the 60’s, “The Man” meant the white man. You know, we’re past those periods. I have to remind people who are younger than us.
So I said, “Well yeah, that’s true. But have you ever seen anything I’ve written?” And he says, “No, but I just know if you work for The Man, you can’t tell the truth.” And I said, “Look. Let’s make a deal. Let me enter this meeting. And if what you read in the Times tomorrow isn’t what happened, isn’t an accurate reflection of what happened, don’t let me in the next meeting. But let me in this one.”
And then he said something that has never left me. He said, “All right.” That left me. But then he said, “You can come in, but you have to come in right.” And that has been one of my little guiding principles for everything I do, because he was so right.
So when I went into Africa, I didn’t go in with any kind of preconceived notions. I covered the stories as they unfolded and as people like Judge Goldstone and others helped me to understand. I think it’s wrong to go in with preconceived notions and to go in with notions that are based on what you’ve read in the media.
My husband has more African friends than he probably now has American friends. Because he came in right. He came in with lots of money. He started JP Morgan bank. But he went to the people and said, “What do you need? How can I help?” as opposed to others I’ve seen. Those I can stop at the door. I say, “Wait a minute, you’ve got to come in right.”
But they come in with American know-how and ingenuity and stuff, and say, “Let me tell you how to do this.” South Africans are a different breed — even from the rest of the continent — and they will tell you very quickly that is not going to work here, even when they need this expertise. There’s a way to do it.
So I don’t have any problem being a journalist in South Africa or in Africa for that matter. It’s like with that Panther: You have to engage people.
I was in northern Nigeria with a Nigerian fixer. And we were getting along just fine. He finally said to me after we’d been together a couple days, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I said, “Well yeah. I don’t know if I’m going to answer it, but you can certainly ask it.” And he said, “Do other white people like you braid your hair?” [laughter]
When I first went to South Africa in 1985, I was stunned because there was a vibrant black community. Many of them were downtown near the Carlton [Centre]. They had beauty shops and stuff. I expected them all to be out being beaten up in the townships, but they had businesses.
One day we were having a little break and I thought, “Well, you know, I’ll do a little informal reporting.” I didn’t have braids then, and I went to get my hair washed and blow-dried. I went into this black beauty shop. In Harlem, [that’s] where you get all the news: in the barbershop and the beauty shop. So I went in the beauty shop, and I said, “I’d like to get a wash and set.”
And this beautiful black African woman said to me, “I’m sorry, but we only do black hair.” [laughter] I tried to explain that I was black. And no matter how hard I tried, this Nigerian just didn’t get it. She finally just said, “Oh, okay.”
Even with that, I think you can overcome these things if you come in right. In the ’80’s when I was with these Afrikaaners, I wanted to understand why they behaved the way they did. And they told me; because I wasn’t one of their blacks, they opened up. As much as I abhorred apartheid, my job was not to be a polemicist for the antiapartheid activists but to help Americans understand.
One thing I learned from The New York Times and I learned from MacNeil/Lehrer — in the good journalistic institutions — is to respect my audience, my consumers. I’ve found in South Africa, in the most poverty-stricken communities, they often speak 11 languages or 10. They also have a very sophisticated understanding of their own condition, and you just have to give them that. You have to be able to listen.
I got an assignment the other day on the inauguration of George Bush, to go and talk to the man on the street and find out what they thought of George Bush and his challenges and this and that. I work in television, so I look for the picture that says a thousand words.
I saw this woman. She was a trader down by the Market Theatre, which is downtown Johannesburg. She had a box on her head that was this big and perfectly balanced, and she was just carrying on the most robust conversation.
I thought, “That ought to be good.” So I went over to her and I said, “Excuse me.” And she saw me with the camera and everything and she sort of went, “Pffft,” like that. But the box didn’t move, it just went right with her.
So I said, “This is really going to be good.” And I asked her the question. She says, “[mumbling] I don’t speak English!” And I knew she spoke English. I mean, something just told me this woman, who’s a trader — she’s down here, she speaks English.
So I said, “Look. I just want to ask you one question. It’s really important that I have someone like you tell me what you think of George Bush.” She looked at my driver. And the thing about it — if people say, “Do you speak South-African?” I say, “Well, there are 11 official languages here. Which one are you asking me about?”
The interesting thing is that they meld a lot of those languages together. So they might be speaking Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana all at the same time. So she looks at my driver. I can’t figure out what she’s asking him because she’s asking in these melded languages. But I hear her say [something].
Then I pressed, and I said, “Please tell me. What did you just say about George Bush?” She put her hands on her hips, shook the box a little bit and she said, “He had no business going into Iraq!” [laughter] And I said, “Why is that?” She said, “Because there’s a United Nations! And that’s where we need to be going, to the United Nations. George Bush is running all over the world trying to tell people how to live their lives. He shouldn’t have.”
And this woman went on and on. And finally I said, “Well, what do you think he should do in his next four years?” And she said, “Resign!” [laughter]
So it’s all about how you approach people. You might have your own personal feelings, but that’s not what we journalists do — unless we’re columnists or [laughter] or editorial writers.
But, you know, I’m just a foot soldier out there. And I look good to the extent that people appreciate my questions and answer them well. And then we all benefit.