The unprecedented COVID 19 Virus and subsequent Lock-down has had drastic and differing effects on people in South Africa. This series aims to explore that space, and document a bit of what life looks like during Lock-down in South Africa. All necessary health & safety precautions were maintained in the production of this article, and all persons involved had legal permits to work and travel.
The story is told and was photographed by Bernard Brand.
Elna Schütz is a South African freelance journalist. She has a particular interest in health and human rights journalism and in our current pandemic these two things are front and center. Elna has worked in journalism in some way or form for the past ten years, starting in radio and podcasting and is the founder of Podmeet, a networking and support project for the podcasting industry. I spent a day with Elna documenting and interviewing her as she was chasing several stories in Melusi – an informal settlement in the West of Pretoria. We begin the story there.
BB: What are we doing today? Why are we here and where is here?
ES: We are at an informal settlement in the West of Pretoria called Melusi. We’re visiting a container clinic run by Dr Ellenore Meyer and she is a family primary medicine specialist working with a variety of communities around Pretoria. One of the things that drew me to her as a subject is that when she sees other needs – outside of being a medical doctor – she finds a way to address them even though that is not her job.
As a freelancer your finger is always in all the pies. Ha ha. I’m here for three editors which is not normal for me and is a lot. I’m here for a story about the testing which is starting today and the beginning of a story about the Doc herself, as a profile.
“ I initially did not want to go freelance and when I finally decided to do so, as I took that final leap I was robbed. I started my career minus 20K in the hole, trauma and no work. I’m going into year two as a freelancer. I started in January of 2019. I think what happened is that incident built a resilience in me that I don’t think can be easily undone. I almost feel like I’ve been uniquely prepared for this in that I’ve experienced some of this trauma individually and on a smaller scale. Loss of income, loss of security, uncertainty all of that and with the pandemic it’s all these things rolled into one”.
BB: How has the last year and a half been after everything that happened? Have you worked through that trauma? And that being said, I suppose we are never not working through some kind of trauma.
ES: I do think the worst of the beginning is over. I quit my very decent job because I wanted to be a journalist and because sometimes it is very convenient. You can be very good at the thing you don’t want to be. The world can be very thankful that you are the best PA, or accountant, but that is not where your passion lies. If you don’t break away from that, then you’ll just remain there and do that.
I stepped out on a hard won personal instinct. Some people told me not to do it, I won’t be very good at it, but I needed to do it. It didn’t work out for what feels like a long time, but obviously this is only year 2 and in the beginning I took some bad jobs. And then you think, what is the point of this, because now I’m stuck here doing work I don’t want to do.
I put myself in these two niches, human rights and health. There was a little bit of work, but not much and then, boom, the pandemic happens and I am so busy. Now the next step is how do I make this sustainable? My background is in radio and podcasting. Writing is fairly new and photography is the mistress.
BB: Are there any regrets in your decision to freelance?
ES: Not at all. I mean there are particular little things, like staying in that bad paying job in the beginning, but that’s how I learned.
Freelance for me came at such a fundamental time. Me finding my strength and choosing who I want to be. One of the things is that I don’t regret things anymore. I think I’ve spent so much time in my life afraid of regret instead of just doing the thing.
Editors Note: I feel very privileged to have been able to tag along with Elna on this day and seeing the work the Doctor and the Community Healthworkers are doing. The world needs people like this. Selfless and empathetic and I felt the weight of feeling like I am not able to make any sort of difference, but the truth is, that little bit you can do makes a difference, so keep doing it.
BB: How was today for you? In regards to getting the coverage you needed and finding the story?
ES: I think it went well. My gut feeling is satisfied that I have enough, but you never know until you’re sitting at 2A.M. trying to piece together an article.
One of the angles took a while, I had to ask a lot of the same questions and using the same interview techniques with different people – but that is quite normal – until I could see it and know, okay I have it.
Most of all when I’m in that scenario I am thinking of radio quality, photographs, narrative for articles and trying to remember what the place feels like.
“I get such fulfillment of being let into someone’s life if that makes sense?
I always say this thing about journalism, I have this clear memory of realizing as a small child that asking all of these questions, not in a challenging way, but out of curiosity, that it was seen as not socially acceptable and that maybe you were not supposed to do that.
I feel that childhood desire of being curious and wanting to know more about everything and everyone especially and if you partner that curiosity with the fact that I am the kind of person who is not afraid of witnessing pain. I think those things together make me quite drawn to these scenarios and places that are tough”.
BB: Do you think that you have to sort of remove yourself emotionally to be able to do it, and can still show deep empathy for the terrible situation?
ES: I think I engage quite deeply, however I am fully aware that my engagement in that scenario is as an observer. For instance if somebody tells me that they have been raped or they are starving, I remain human in that moment even though I already know what my next question will be. How would a human react if someone tells you they have been raped? I know this sounds very removed. The way I reconcile that is that I do thrive in that space of being an empathetic observer and knowing we are sometimes not ethically allowed to interfere and my role is to be here and to listen.
What I am trying to get at is that stereotypically we think of journalists as having to leave their humanity at home and I think of it as crucial to my job. The more human I am the better of a journalist I’ll be and yet knowing at the same time I can’t cry or give you money or just accept what you are saying is the truth. I used to think that I would be a bad journalist because I am emotionally sensitive, but now I know it makes me a better journalist.
BB: How has journalism changed, because lately it feels like there is a lot of distrust surrounding journalism and journalists?
ES: I am going to answer this as if I am talking to a friend. Just like doctors or anything else there are good journalists and bad ones. I really think people can look at their news “diets” in a much more proactive way. The first thing is yes there are problems in journalism but you as the audience member have the opportunity to connect with really great people who are working really hard and that is also how you shift journalism productively.
The other thing is a lot of the problems with journalism are long term systemic problems. Through the digital shift for instance newsrooms are becoming younger which means less skilled, less mature. It’s becoming much smaller so the kind of investigative journalism that can change the world becomes more difficult because there aren’t budgets. You want that kind of journalism because that is what fosters democracy but if our system isn’t creating this kind of journalism and paying them we are just going to have clickbait.
BB: What don’t you miss about the “before” times?
ES: This is very specific to me. This pandemic played right into what I wanted my career to be. Now there is a large interest in health journalism whereas before I had to hustle and take on other jobs I wasn’t necessarily interested in I was able to just focus on the things I love doing. So that being said, I don’t miss taking on those “less interesting” jobs.
It’s been beautiful to just be where you are especially if you are fortunate enough to not have to keep up with the previous pace of life.
BB: What have you learned about yourself?
ES: The pandemic to a certain degree has been a moment to throw a lot out of the boat. Getting rid of weight. In terms of my writing I’ve done things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Long form, in-depth writing. Just doing the job has taught me a deeper sense of my capacity as a journalist.
It’s also maybe shown me some things I don’t need to ask of myself. And shown me that I am good at what I do. My learning has been not getting caught up in my issues and insecurities and trusting in my ability to do the job.
BB: What has kept you hopeful?
ES: At this risk of sounding grandiose. Always, the human spirit. Our ability and my personal ability to keep going.
I have this theory and there is science to back it up. Human pleasure and joy comes partly from surprise. We love to be safe, but we don’t want to be mundane. Seeking out hope whether in work or learning a new skill.
Editors Note: Elna and I got some takeaway lunch afterwards and whilst waiting for our order I had one last question that sort of popped up in conversation.
BB: What question are you sick of being asked?
ES: I got asked when will the lock down end so often; as if I knew. I understand it. These things affect people personally, but there is a responsibility to do the research and the work yourself.
”What should I or can I do” was another frequently asked question. It was well intended but it put responsibility on me. As a consumer of news and media the onus is on you to do the research.
I feel like Elna is one of the good ones out there doing the hard work and shining a light on the stories that need to be told and I am thankful for journalists like her. There is an intensity in observing her work and I thank her for allowing me into her world for a few hours.
Thank you for reading.
Editors Note: Answers edited for conciseness.