Picture: UPSPLASH/João Silas
Picture: UPSPLASH/João Silas

AFRICAN MUCKRAKING: 75 Years of Investigative Journalism from Africa
Edited by Anya Schiffrin with George Lugalambi

During the final years of apartheid and Jacob Zuma’s term as president, South African citizens learned about the power of investigative journalism.

Courageous journalists chasing stories that have the potential to bring down the powerful, plus a society that allows freedom of the press, empower a vital weapon that can bring wrongdoers to book.

Such work is of vital importance in countries where powerful people have subverted democracy to do as they please. African journalists, however, receive scant recognition around the world — and on their own continent.

Africa has comparatively low media consumption due to the poor standard of education, high levels of illiteracy and poverty. Reporting on rural areas and distributing print products are difficult because of a lack of infrastructure.

The high cost of data and low access to electricity militate against the development of profitable electronic media companies.

Anya Schiffrin, director of the technology, media, and communications specialisation at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, writes in the introduction to African Muckraking that in the global North, the contributions of African journalists are largely unknown. The assumption is that good journalism doesn’t originate in Africa.

Western audiences trust satellite news and parachute journalists more than they do local reporters, she writes. "This book aims to dispel that."

Schiffrin says journalists really can change the world – and do so time and again.

The book presents 41 pieces of campaigning and investigative journalism from around Africa, each prefaced with context provided by foremost experts on the continent, including Anton Harber and Ferial Haffajee.

When selecting pieces for the book, Schiffrin and George Lugalambi, head of the department of mass communication at Makerere University in Uganda, included articles from newspapers in a wide range of countries, stories that had impact, and those that are not classical works of investigative journalism by today’s standards.

They also included well-written pamphlets.

It’s stirring stuff from a continent that has experienced the worst horror humanity can wreak and brilliant resilience in the face of governments that do not care.

Schiffrin is the editor of Global Muckraking, which was published in 2014. Harber, then director of the investigative reporting programme at Wits University, suggested that they edit a book exclusively for African journalists.

Disaster struck soon after the project began. There was a paucity, or often complete absence, of records, which pushed Schiffrin and her crack researcher Vanessa Pope to their limits to persevere.

When newspaper libraries went digital and as newspaper groups changed ownership, their archives were the first assets to disintegrate. Many examples of crack journalism completely disappeared.

This makes African Muckraking an amazing read. Every story selected reveals something quite extraordinary and is a reminder of the quality writing on the continent that is so often ignored in the rest of the world.

The book highlights significant historical cases of journalism supporting social and political change, and Schiffrin points out that this book can only hint at the "full constellation of contributions" African journalists have made to their societies.

The book is beautifully structured, which adds to the power of the articles. They are classified in sections ranging from struggles for independence to corruption; health, rural affairs and the environment; mining and women. Its intent is clearly stated with the first piece, written by Sol Plaatje, entitled All We Claim Is Our Just Dues. It is riveting from start to finish.