Subversive Firestart

Andrew Worsdale meets up with Sylvia Vollenhoven, the National Coordinator of Input 2008 – the International Public Television Conference that is celebrating its 30th Anniversary in Johannesburg. (article available in this week’s Mail & Guardian)

“I went to a school where the kids were mostly quite snobbish and ambitious. Everyone was going to UCT medical school or going into exile,” says Sylvia Vollenhoven, “My family was too poor for either of these options. I got the top marks in languages despite being thrown out of the English class for insubordination, so I thought journalism was the best option. I didn’t think you needed any particular training and I had a vague idea that I would be expected to write and travel extensively, at the drop of a hat. So, I carried my passport with me every day to work.”

Born in District Six in the 1950’s, which belies her vivacious good looks and testifies to her intelligence and maturity, Vollenhoven decided to move into journalism in the early 70s working for The Cape Herald before receiving a Diploma from The Argus Cadet Journalism School in 1976 – the same year that television came to South Africa and two years before the first ever INPUT conference was held in Milan.

Those were the dark days of apartheid and the struggle was coming to a head, “The Cape Herald was fun and subversion was the order of the day. Everyone smoked Gaulois and drank brandy for breakfast. When we weren’t planning grand revolution we partied with a vengeance.”

The Argus School, by way of contrast, was a shock to the system for her and was heavily ingrained with racist attitudes so Sylvia learnt how to bunk classes and hang out in Soweto and at the defiant ‘The World’ newspaper, “I learnt most of the important things about journalism from the veterans there who took me under their wing. People like Don Materra, Percy Qoboza, Jon Qwelane, Phil Molefe…the list is long. They taught me that journalism is either subversive or you go and work in a bank.”

After many years working as a print journalist, including being the SA correspondent for Swedish daily ‘Expressen’ where she won the country’s Journalist of the Year Award, Vollenhoven was approached by the SABC to help with its transformation process and she became part of a team that would kick-start transformation, ahead of the 1994 elections.

Together with a team of twelve other journalists and producers she went to Canada and the UK working with the CBC and the BBC and later the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Thomson Foundation of the UK, an international ‘media for development’ NGO, to come up with a new ‘scheme’ for the national broadcaster. “We dreamed big dreams and devised grand strategies. It started with razing the Piet Meyer ‘gebou’ (the Radio Tower – a notorious apartheid icon) and its bomb walls to the ground,” she says.

The group of lefty idealists took positions inside the broadcaster and became heavyweights in their own right. “It was a bruising cycle in the media struggle and at this stage the old style Nationalist guard at the SABC won many rounds. Then we got serious tackling current affairs head-on and I finally ended up being part of the team that started Morning Live.”

At the time these journalists founded the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI), with Sylvia as director, which became the pressure group that steered the Corporation’s transformation. But Vollenhoven didn’t spend all her time behind the scenes formulating strategy, for many years she was a news anchor and presenter of current affairs programmes such as ‘Face To Face’ and ‘Focus on One’.

She remembers those heady days of tests and conquests as fundamental to creating her point of view as a broadcasting professional, “The central challenge was that coming from print I did not have a clue how television worked. The most significant issues we faced were not so much pulling the old guard into the new South Africa, it was more the fancy political footwork needed to deal with all that dead wood in a place like that, and the time consuming, enervating endless political parlour games.”

She’s very proud of having been involved in those early transformation processes around in-house training, current affairs and the special election programmes that she designed but says she’ll never go back to flaunting herself in front of the cameras again, “I never again want to be faced with the stress of putting on so much make up and making my hair lie down for the camera, just so you know you also can’t wear shiny, dangly earrings. Life’s too short to wear demure little studs.”

The twelve years she spent at the SABC have made her a strong defender against the barrage of criticism that the broadcaster faces from the media and film and TV producers. She believes, “it is such lazy journalism to fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from the SABC and making it our favourite whipping boy (this is our institution and we are responsible for the direction it takes). It is an incredibly complex organization with a giant mandate.”

The role of the SABC as a public broadcaster even whilst it straddles the demands of a commercial one are distinctive and one of the main reasons South Africa was chosen to host the INPUT conference. “The SABC’s model is unique in the world. The reality is that until the people of South Africa come up with an alternative way of funding public broadcasting, this is the one we’re stuck with and so let’s make it work. There is no God of PBS who says we can’t do it this way,” she says convincingly.

“As programme makers and even as viewers we don’t understand our power with regard to institutions like the SABC. We engage with it as if it is a thing apart. We kind of know that it is wrong to allow it to be controlled by the politicians but we don’t much care who the alternative is. We debate endlessly who is pulling the strings but we don’t care a damn about the endless American crap we watch.”

Then she gets a dig in at the trendy newsmakers who believe they are the ‘in-thing’, “The reason why the media debates are so lacklustre is because the parameters are set by journalists who wear suits (even the women), hang out at swanky Melrose Arch and think Peroni is real beer! My real concern is this constant diet of mediocrity. I think journalists collectively should be ashamed to be getting on their high horses all the time when they are mostly lazy, middle class armchair specialists who have become like doctors… they just don’t do house calls anymore.”

Sylvia became involved in Input ten years ago when she helped put together the first Mini Input in Africa held at Sithengi and she’s been to every conference since the 2000 event held in Canada’s Halifax. “I still get people coming to me saying Cape Town was one of the best Input experiences ever, because it had heart. As South Africans we put so much passion into that event and the people who came will never forget it.”

Local players headed up by Vollenhoven put in the Johannesburg bid four years ago and she says that one of the main reasons it has returned to South Africa so soon after 2001 was because this time it is designed as a pan-African venture, “This time of course you will have the big doses of South African passion but we’ve grown up quite a bit since then, so now we’ll throw in quite a large measure of Afropolitan flair as well.”

Although she’s left hands-on journalism Vollenhoven’ s interests have become more wide-ranging within the field. Her company VIA – Vision in Africa – is committed to pan-African joint ventures and global co-productions and collaborations whilst Dream Weaver Trading is a black female investment group that she chairs.

“My forte is creating massive projects from concept to execution. So I am working on a global collaboration with the SABC and UNESCO for the Human Bondage project, which will feature at Input. I have several projects in the pipeline with the UK’s Thomson Foundation. And of course here and there I might put in a bid in response to the SABC’s regular call for proposals, but my sights are set on the Continent and global storytelling and TV ventures.”

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