Low literacy environments, and multi-lingual areas, like Grahamstown, South Africa, face particular challenges when it comes to encouraging citizen journalism. More than 80 percent of the population speaks English as a second language. While most people are able to speak and understand English, writing is not always a comfortable experience (and some are unable to read or write).

That’s partly why we’ve launched Izwi Labahlali (The Voice Of The Citizens), Grahamstown’s first radio show with content that’s largely produced and presented by citizen journalists and transmitted mainly in iziXhosa, the dominant local language.

The show, which airs on Radio Grahamstown on 102.1 FM, gives citizen journalists who have completed a six-week course in the Grocott’s Mail Citizen Journalism Newsroom an extra platform to report what’s going on in their communities. (Their contributions also appear online and in Grocott’s print edition.)

The show is being aired on a trial-run basis every Wednesday in November between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. It will become a permanent show in early 2010, possibly with a longer time slot.

For the trial run, Khaya Thonjeni is hosting the show. Khaya is the schools outreach officer for our Knight News Challenge-funded project, Iindaba Ziyafika (“The News is coming”). Khaya is joined by different young citizen journalists each week. (You can listen to the shows online here.)

The radio show is intended to play a significant role in realizing our project’s aim of making news something that is increasingly consumed — and produced — by all citizens of Grahamstown. The idea is that it will get people talking about issues that matter to them, thereby giving them more of a sense of belonging in their community.

At this stage, we have given two six-week courses in citizen journalism. Thanks to the content our students are producing in print and our new radio experience, we are learning a great deal about what works and doesn’t work in this multi-lingual, low literacy area.

Providing Guidance to Citizen Journalists

We give our trainees the latitude to write about anything they want, but we are also discovering it helps to focus their energy around specific themes. Some of the current group of 40 adults taking the training will soon be working on issues of waste management. We have myriad of waste issues in Grahamstown, from uncollected garbage on the streets to landfill usage. Others will be put into groups to look at issues such as local democracy.

Just as it takes a professional journalist a long time to work out the dynamics of a beat, the same is true for a citizen journalist. It takes time, energy and dedication to build up an understanding — and contacts — related to a specific topic. We realize we need to create more opportunities for these specializations to grow, and we need to seed and suggest these opportunities to our citizen journalists.

Dealing With Power Issues

We are also encountering issues of power and respect. Many government officials often won’t speak to full-time journalists, so why would they take a call from someone describing themselves as a citizen journalists? We issue graduates of our CJ course a citizen journalist press card that identifies them and gives our contact number at Grocott’s Mail. This is so that any prospective interviewee can check out if a person is who they say they are.

These uneven power relations are particularly acute for our younger reporters. They often want to write about conditions in their schools, but fear the power of their teachers. This is part of the reason why we are now focusing their energy towards other social challenges in their areas, and away from their schools. Poorly functioning schools are not keen on being exposed by their own pupils, and we hope that some of our brave adult CJ reporters can tackle this issue.

In order to tackle controversial issues, we realize we need to spend more time talking about being how they can stand up in the face of power, and learn to push their sources. We find some people just persevere more than others. For example, this is a well put together piece of reporting that one of our current course participants researched and wrote. It’s really worth reading, just to get a sense of what is possible. It even includes a quote from a municipal official!

Different People, Different Reasons for Trying Reporting

The above article is written by Andile Ecalpar Nayika, a 21 year-old student from Joza Location. This is some of what he wrote about his motivation to get into our oversubscribed CJ course:

I survive in Phumlani Location in the eastern part of Grahamstown, Joza Location. I am 21 years of age and I am a student at East Cape Midlands College… I have been a prominent member of my high school newspaper, Edu Buzz of EduCollege. Then a year later, I went on to become one of six Founders of East Cape Modlands College’s of the very first Newspaper, ‘The Midlands Voice’. At the moment I am a newsreader at Radio Grahamstown 102.1 FM. I have a lot of intent on scribing and telling more stories about my life experience and the surrounding I am in because it is what makes me.

It is clear why Andile wants to do the CJ course. Some people simply want to get the news out about their church’s activities. Others take the course to see if this is something that might interest them. And then there are those who feel compelled to try this in the hope of finding work — adult unemployment rates are above 50 percent in Grahamstown.

We’re thinking through what these multiple motivations might mean for our courses, and whether we can (and should) screen harder for those candidates who want to “change the world,” “make a difference,” or “speak truth to power,” for example. (Currently, prospective candidates have to provide a written account of their motivations, and some are interviewed.)

In this vein, we’re also having to think much more broadly about what “building social capital” (one of our project’s overarching goals) means, and how that intersects, or not, with our other overarching aim: enlarging the public sphere in Grahamstown, and deepening democracy.

Preparing for the World Cup

It’s been an exciting few weeks as more and more elements of the overall Iindaba Ziyafika project get off the ground. It is early days (even though we’ve been at it for a year), and 2010 will be a big year for testing how our citizen journalism newsroom, our CJ training courses, the multiple input and output methods we are creating (and, in some cases, pioneering), all come together.

Next year is especially important because South Africa will host the World Cup in June 2010, and the second World Journalism Education Congress, titled “Journalism Education in an Age of Radical Change,” will convene July 2010 in Grahamstown.

We are excited by what we’re achieving — and we’re confident we’ll have more and more stories to tell about the Citizen journalism that is happening in Grahamstown, and what we’re learning from it.