The Clucking of Chickens

The World of No Sacred Cows

Sunday Times' Investigation Team receives their award in Brazil

In Brief

He has refused to be intimidated… He has refused to be driven away... He is a professional on a mission. When he turns his spotlight towards your direction, pray there be no skeletons in your secret closets ready to tell tales. Those tales you would rather remained buried with your remains, as he would turn the bones into flesh… Mzilikazi wa Afrika is a journalist on a mission… a mission that is far from over. If you call yourself his friend, you better not be that ‘green snake in the grass’ or as the late Prof. Francis Imbuga put it, ‘green grass in the snake’.  In his world, there are no sacred cows… In his book, 'Nothing Left To Steal', he grants us full access into his Being…

‘Nothing Left To Steal’ by Mzilikazi wa Afrika
Published by Penguin Books

For village farmers different sounds carry specific significance – crowing cocks and clucking chickens, for example. Their meaning depends largely on the time of day or night they occur. For the villagers a pre-dawn crowing of a cock would be a wake-up call… it’s time to get up and attend to the farm and to the fowls! The clucking, depending on when you hear it, would be an announcement either of danger or simply that eggs are about to be laid. What the hell have crows and chucks got to do with journalism, one may ask? In a moment all will become clear…

In his book ‘Nothing Left To Steal’ Mzilikazi wa Afrika puts the analogy slightly differently. “On our beautiful continent of Africa there are two kinds of journalists: those who write about missing cats and those who write about missing money. If you write about missing cats, then you are safe but if you write about the missing money there are two scenarios: expect a bullet in your head or to spend your life looking over your shoulder.”

This statement reminded me of one made not so long ago by journalist Ron McCullagh of Insight: The World Investigates, to the effect that in the West, when an investigative journalist is awake at 4 am, he is surely working on a story, but in Africa, when they are awake at such an hour it’s because their doors are being broken down, either by security police or by thugs out to punish them for their work.

Wa Afrika’s book is labelled a memoir, but a close read reveals something much more than that. It’s a modern-day reference book filled with deep literature that ought to be used as a manual for future generations of this profession of journalism. It brings to the fore the Being inside the Author, Wa Afrika; the responsible citizen, the crusader for everything righteous. It reminds us that as fallible as we may be, we could – and should – still do our utmost to make right the errors of our people, of our times; past, present and future. the West, when an investigative journalist is awake at 4 am, he is surely working on a story, but in Africa, when they are awake at such an hour it’s because their doors are being broken down, either by security police or by thugs out to punish them for their work.

The humanness of Wa Afrika comes through as early as the second chapter when he takes us through his first childhood memories of the people with whom he interacted. We meet the African in Wa Afrika in a time and place where parents were truly parents. Reading closely you sense the impact and influence his mother, Deyiwe Ilina Nxumalo, had on the person that he has grown up to be: the multi-award winning investigative journalist able to pick himself up from the rubble of broken dreams and continue on with the mission.

Underlying these early recollections is the discrimination experienced by African women at the time: “Though my mother had never been to school, she was an intelligent woman. …”

‘It was not the practice at the time…’

He goes on: “One day when I questioned my grandfather on how an educated man like him only managed to send my uncle to school and university but did not do the same for my mother, he said it was not a common practice at the time. He prevaricated when I probed further.”

‘It was not the practice at the time…’ Wa Afrika’s mother certainly wasn’t the only woman to have been denied education on the basis of her gender. In fact, around the world some girls are being denied that right to this day. One just needs to look at Northern parts of Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, to mention but a few examples. However, as Wa Afrika emphasises, his mother was extremely intelligent and possessed deep wisdom that she tried to instill in her son.

His mother’s influence is reflected throughout the book. He also introduces us to his childhood friends and describes the respective roles they have played in his life. Wa Afrika recognises that he is not an island and he fully acknowledges the various individuals who have contributed to his greatest moments as well as his darker ones. He gives credit to the journalistic colleagues who became part of his professional life, the likes of Justine Arenstein, Sharon Hammond, Sylvester Lukhele, and Eric Mashaba of AENS…

“Besides our backgrounds and personalities, we were like one big family, eating from the same plate while cracking some of the biggest stories in South Africa,” he pens.

Your Pockets PleaseThe first chapter opens with the account of his arrest in August 2010. This is the story through which most people initially got to know about Mzilikazi wa Afrika. Those committed to serving the public through journalism are never interested in being the news themselves, all that is important is telling the stories and giving voices to the voiceless. But when Wa Afrika was arrested in a dramatic fashion, he became a newsmaker. His cover had been blown.

No PicturesThose whose improprieties he had exposed surely knew of him already, and here we return to the crows of cocks and the clucks of chickens. When chickens cluck at odd hours, a real farmer would go out and try to establish the reasons. Even if the fowls were to go quiet after a few minutes, the farmer would still be interested in investigating. The same applies to real journalists: if there is a stench, it would not help simply to report the fact of it; there would be a compulsion to investigate the source and reasons. All the reported cases described in the book highlight that true professional who is willing to go out and examine issues and places where some of us would rather not venture.

Like a livestock farmer who would be all too conscious of the effects of possible dangers around his farm, Wa Afrika seems fully aware of the effect his investigations could have on those close to him. If the rotten few we expose cannot get to us directly, they would not hesitate to reach us through our families or friends.

“For years, many people have been trying to get a glimpse into my life. I had kept it private to protect myself as an investigative journalist and to keep my children and family safe from retaliation to my work. I have always resisted any temptations to be a celebrity socialite.”

Many journalists, especially those operating in the developing world, would readily identify with his concerns. Some of us even resist falling in love and having families; we don’t want our families and friends to become mere collateral damages in fights they never signed up for. As much as we know that the bad guys would always be on our trail, we sometimes hope against all the odds that they won’t identify our friends.

By opening himself up in this book, we get to see Mzilikazi wa Afrika like we have never imagined. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have known him personally, will be surprised if not shocked at some of the revelations contained within the pages.

Through some of his childhood friends in the book, we get to know of the role he played in the struggle for liberation of the Republic of South Africa from the oppressive regime. He revisits his October 1989 arrest for, amongst other charges, being a gun smuggler for the liberators.

The role played by this schoolboy may have appeared minor, but his josaka - school bag – fed the starving comrades. As he describes it: “… BA loaded my school bag with groceries – 9-mm pistols.” He was a courier who played his chosen role in liberating his mother’s people. And that hasn’t stopped him from exposing improprieties involving those who are now in power, the very ones who were propelled to leadership by his ‘groceries’.

The MusicianWe also get to meet Wa Afrika the music producer. I must confess that I had never listened to any of his songs before getting to the book, but that’s no longer the case. “Music has been my bosom friend, in good times and bad times… My intrinsic love for music is invigorating, the fuel I need in my daily journey.”

 The 268 pages are self-turners. It would be well worth keeping a copy of the book for posterity. But his fight appears far from over. Here, with the permission of his publisher, Penguin, we reproduce extracts from a chapter of the book.


Win with Penguin Books

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