Making a difference

2013-11-20 00:00

IT’S a funny old world that we live in. One moment you’re down in the dumps and the next you’re soaring like an eagle.

Last week was like that: a week bookmarked by tragedy and inspiration. By the time it was over, I had had a taste, and I hope you did too, of the kind of paper I hope The Witness will become.

Tragedy came last week with us leading the paper on Tuesday with the horrific rape of a woman doctor in Pietermaritzburg. The attack shocked many, including many of us here at the paper.

It occurred in Clarendon, a peaceful Pietermaritzburg suburb. But it happened in a neighbourhood with a strong running fraternity and in a neighbourhood blessed with people ready to step forward and take a stand.

This evil crime could have sent people cowering behind their suburban gates and alarm systems. Instead it ignited a movement of humanity and compassion, bringing us together to make a difference.

Witness reporters Niyanta Singh and Mlondi Radebe followed the story of the initial attack, but we rapidly saw how the crime had mobilised the community and Niyanta began to track its consequences.

On Wednesday morning, at our daily diary meeting, we spoke about covering the community meeting planned for that evening in Clarendon, where locals were due to discuss what to do in the wake of the attack.

The idea emerged for The Witness to help this community initiative and to show our support in some way besides covering it in the paper.

Deputy editor Zoubair Ayoob and our marketing team of Mary-Lynn Muruges and Sbonga Shelembe worked at great speed to organise 200 whistles to be distributed to those who attended the meeting, a small gesture to show that we shared our community’s concern.

Clive Henderson, who had found the doctor who had been raped on the morning of the attack, and his wife Margie, have been key drivers in this initiative to take back the streets.

“We cannot fix the world, but we can certainly fix our part of the world,” said Henderson at the community meeting.

That comment struck a chord with me.

It was the kind of sentiment that I reflected on in a previous column in this space, when I wrote about the power of civic journalism and how important it is for a newspaper not only to describe the problems of society, but to get involved in helping to solve them.

I believe, as I have written before, that there is an important role for a newspaper to play in being a catalyst for positive change.

The organic movement that grew out of the Clarendon rape provided an opportunity for The Witness to embrace these principles and to contribute to improving our society.

Our activism is motivated by the same desire for a better world that drove the people of Clarendon and surrounds to act in the face of this awful crime. The Witness may be an institution, but its walls embrace people who are part of this community, and who also share the hopes and dreams of the readers we report on.

On Thursday, we led the paper with a report about the community meeting and with news of the planned Red Sock protest run on Friday night.

After more discussion back at the office, we decided to commission several hundred more whistles and also to assist with printing special protest posters for the route of the run, and to hand out to runners at the start.

The groundswell behind this initiative was amazing, with some 600 runners and walkers turning out in the rain of Friday night to send a message that they would not be beaten down by crime, and that they were taking back their streets.

Runners are now organising themselves into safe running groups, people are organising to fence off dangerous stretches of open ground which could give cover to potential criminals, and there are moves to ensure streetlights in the area are fixed, among other initiatives. Our whistle and poster contribution was a small part of the response, but I’d like to believe that our support and coverage also helped some of the solutions that have been proposed to emerge.

For me, the experience of last week gives us a peek at the role that I see for The Witness in our traditional home of Pietermaritzburg and also in Durban, to which we have recently spread our wings.

Our intentions are heartfelt and genuine, and if you by chance meet any member of this editorial team, I invite you to check with them in case you think I am fibbing.

I send out a regular appraisal of the paper to the team here and most days I end it with this question: What have we done to make a difference today?

Last week, I believe, along with the people of Clarendon and the hundreds of others who joined in, we left a little dent in the universe, and that we did help to make a difference.

And that, in my book, is worth getting out of bed for any day.

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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