The BBC’s lack of diversity can appear to ignore aptitude in favour of privilege.
Deep in Yeoville, Johannesburg’s cosmopolitan hub, groups of young people gathered regularly at the Coffee Shop on Rocky Street — a smallish cafe which sold cake and coffee to die for.
The conversations between people of different races whose socialising would raise suspicion and despair anywhere outside this metro as always turned to the imminent election which teetered on its heels; will it happen, won’t it? Right wing groups were determined to railroad proceedings. A bomb had detonated in down town. Mandela, the de-facto president-in-waiting, asked for calm.
The international news bandwagon had amassed enforce in Melville — often referred to as Joburg’s media city. Armageddon was expected and the news juggernaut was here to capture these ominous events.
I’d be in South Africa now for around 18 months. Unable to find work in the UK after stints at the BBC’s flagship programme Newsnight and its cutting edge youth show Reportage, I’d relocated to Johannesburg. It was to many friends a mad and bad idea. There was not a moment on the BBC’s Today programme when South Africa’s intemperate violent DNA was not under the broadcaster’s microscope.
I’d had my fair brushes in the townships where, through friends and contacts, I found stories that from my perspective were relevant to exploring this amazing, complex country.
Those perspectives related to the cultural and social variability of South Africa life. For instance, what went on beyond the news lens inside the lives of anyone of SA’s rainbow citizens and how did different audiences relate to these?
Contrary to my belief listening to radio back in London, Soweto was not a besieged dinky town. Soweto was a sprawling city on the bosom of Johannesburg. You reached the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Johannesburg, Sandton, and then yonder was the South West Townships (Soweto) home place of Winnie Mandela, Mandela’s estranged wife. I saw my first BMW 850i there.
A month before the election when the networks were hiring, I knocked on every door of British domestic media e.g. BBC and ITN. No response. There was nothing I could offer them; they weren’t interested. In fact amongst many of the main media, few blacks if any, were part of the reporting make-up.
The paradox couldn’t be more startling. The biggest story in the world in a country whose population was overwhelmingly black, yet there was no sense that journalists who happened to be black could be of any value to British broadcasters. It was disheartening.
It wasn’t all a lost cause. Almost two years earlier a producer in London had seen an article I’d written about my chameleon movements in South Africa. I’m black, but was easily seen by Afrikaans as embodying Englishness with my accent. My grandmother is German so my hue gave me the mistaken identity of a ‘coloured’ — in South Africa a nationality in itself. I was brought up in Ghana and can go native, switching into Ghana mode and language — a pan African. I used my ghost existence wisely.
Joy Hatwood liked the idea in the article examining who’s going to be South Africa’s successor generation and from ongoing dialogue hired me as freelance researcher/ presenter to piece it together. In Melville, the fact I might be making a documentary for Radio 4 cut little swath, but one outfit was interested to hear more. They asked me in for an interview. I played them a slew of my radio packages e.g. South Africa’s economy (above), which I produced and cut on a uher for a BBC World Service department called Topical Tapes.
Yes! I clinched my fists. America’s ABC News wanted me to come on board as an associate producer and were willing to pay me what I believed I was worth. On the 25th April 1994, two days before South Africa’s epochal election, its public radio (SABC) replayed a documentary they’d heard on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service, First Time Voters — my documentary.
For a country that had become my second home I could not think of a more befitting thank you. On May 10, 1994, I reported for a department of the BBC World Service President Mandela’s inauguration.
The mass violence in South Africa never materialised and the media would move with its convoy to Rwanda. I moved back to Britain. I’d wanted to stay in SA, but it wasn’t to be. In the UK I still couldn’t find work within the established media, but one of the most significant job prospects ever would come my way courtesy of a newspaper group experimenting with something called videojournalists.
Twenty two years on I recount that story as a way to illustrate an inertia and nonchalance from broadcasters, perhaps unable to understand that sometimes the denial of opportunities appears less about one’s capacity and more about perceived entitlement.
The BBC’s white paper looms brimming with pledges on giving diversity a level playing field this time. My personal experience, coupled with work in the 1990s launching an industry-accepted organisation that addressed this issue, is a key milestone today.
As a university senior lecturer, today I pass on skills that in 1992 meant I straddled radio and TV, and subsequently built a career where working with others and making a difference is paramount. I’m a little wiser with empirical and personal strategies to assist change.
Twenty odd years on, it’s time this sense of despair in several areas of public utility e.g. media, NHS, business and academia must be laid to rest, where, figures resist attempts to place people in positions of trust because euphemistically their faces don’t fit.
Here’s looking to the current drive for inclusivity and utilising the full resources of our workforce to yield more measurable results. I’m at the Policy-UK Forum debate: Diversity in Television: On-Screen, Off-Screen and Leadership next Wednesday 25th May.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is an expert in cinema journalism — his doctorate from University College Dublin examines multiple story forms from several cultural and social angles . He is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster where he teaches MA students, journalism principles, blogging, television news and documentaries, online website building/ storytelling and coding, and cinema journalism. He is the recipient of a number of international awards and is a juror for the RTS TV Awards and One World Media. He continues to make films here.
Below many years on I returned to South Africa for a job with Miami University and recorded this piece.