Top journalism honours for this ‘rural boy': Daily Dispatch investigative journalist Msindisi Fengu has snapped up local and international awards for his story on the conditions in Eastern Cape school hostels.
What is your background? I was born in King William’s Town, studied in the rural areas and walked almost 10km to school daily. I’ve also lived in townships while studying at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha.
What made you choose journalism as a career? My big brother inspired me to go this route. It was his love, but he couldn’t afford to study.
And what drew you to investigative journalism? To bring justice and change to the lives of the poor, the forgotten and voiceless. A lot needs to be done to rectify the wrongs of the past and corruption.
Is investigative journalism in a healthy state in South Africa? Yes, it is, despite the threats from government and politicians. Our role as the media is well respected in some quarters and I believe there are ruling party politicians who disagree with using legislation to silence journalists.
What other investigations have you done of which you are proud? The one that stands out is the report [with former Dispatch journalist Michael Kimberley] on the death of 30 babies at the East London Hospital Complex. After our report, the hospital CEO was fired and the provincial government brought about changes at the complex.
If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing instead? If I had not walked 10km to school or passed the aptitude test at Border Technikon, I would now be doing piece jobs, if not unemployed.
What is different about being a journalist in the Eastern Cape? The rural aspect of the province makes it a minefield. In small towns, infrastructure and accommodation are not great. I understand rural people and know it takes patience to connect with them to get the story.
What is unique about working at Daily Dispatch? I think the environment creates opportunities for everyone in the newsroom. My colleagues are like brothers and sisters to me.
You were inspired to write the hostel piece after hearing a government official say that the hostels were worse than prisons. That comment, by the chairman of the provincial oversight committee, was key to the investigation. The remark grabbed my attention because we barely reported on rural hostels.
The story took a month to investigate. Where did you begin? By getting a list of hostels and as much information as possible about prisons and what facilities were there. I had to compile a checklist and sneak into each hostel.
Where did you go from there? There were hostels that made the government’s list but did not exist. These ‘ghost hostels’ brought forth the corruption in the system because they were being allocated resources.
What was the moment that stood out during your investigation? Finding out about the ghost hostels that were being allocated resources.
What was your biggest challenge during this time? Threats from principals and teachers, and travelling in the rural Eastern Cape. I was driving a bakkie, which is popular with taxi drivers and there had been reports of hijackings and the harvesting of human body parts in the former Transkei. You can imagine driving [on rural roads] and thinking about what could happen if the car got stuck!
Photographer Yandisa Monakali’s photos form a big part of the story. What was his input? After visiting almost 120 hostels, I went back to the worst of them with Yandisa. I had already taken some pics and some of the principals and communities were willing to talk to me, so I had set up something for Yandisa. When we went back, we combined ideas and decided what pictures [would help] tell the story before I wrote it.
You two got into trouble on your way home from investigating the piece. What happened? I won’t dwell on the details, but we ended up getting punished for breaking company rules. It was a lesson I won’t forget.
Were you surprised by the success of this piece? Yes! National newspapers were publishing huge stories at the time. But I also knew that it was a powerful, emotional story about the realities we still face in the country.
How has the success changed your life? It’s been such an honour. I was a speaker at Wits during the Power Reporting conference, and a guest lecturer at Walter Sisulu University. I’ve also been interviewed in a lot of media. For a rural boy, that’s huge. Winning the CNN MultiChoice African Journalism Award has given me a ticket to attend a Fellowship Programme in the United States.
What has the feedback from colleagues been like? Very supportive. They gave me a guard of honour, we partied and had good times. It’s been great.
Are you feeling the pressure to produce something amazing again? Not at all. I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything. I think there’s still a lot to report on. Who knows what will come my way?
What does the future hold? I’m planning to continue doing what I love most: reporting. I also plan to invest more in my education and develop professionally and as a person. I want to continue enjoying driving my old Nissan Champ 1400 bakkie.
This story was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Media magazine.