Exodus investigation reiterated team's 'belief in the power of journalism'

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Exodus kwasizabantu
Exodus kwasizabantu

What do you do when you're tasked with telling the story of a monster so big it has destroyed countless lives and has tentacles reaching into the homes of millions of South Africans?

How do you tackle a story like this so that it makes a real difference?

These are the questions faced by the team behind News24's Exodus series when they first heard of the allegations against the KwaSizabantu Mission in KwaZulu-Natal.

The team recently collectively won the IAB Bookmark Award for best online journalist.

Journalist Tammy Petersen also won a gold award for her body of work done for Exodus, which included a series of interviews with the mission's victims.

READ | News24's Exodus scoops top honours at Bookmark Awards

It was the fruit of a seven-month investigation, in which countless hours were spent cultivating sources, listening to harrowing stories of abuse and checking and verifying every fact of the story.

KwaSizabantu, one of the biggest missions in Africa, stands accused of gross violations of human rights, turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, and money laundering spanning four decades. 

Petersen, who was tasked with interviewing victims of alleged sexual abuse at the mission, said:

It is stuff that sits with you even after you shut down your computer. The depth of the terrible things these people faced.

She is from Cape Town and has won several journalism awards, including the Vodacom Journalist of the Year award in 2019 for her in-depth news and feature series on the impact of gang violence on the Cape Flats and surrounding areas.

When News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson asked her to work on the story, she thought: "I'm a Cape Town journalist. I know nothing about KwaZulu-Natal."

But Petersen's strength is telling people's stories - this made her perfect for the project.

She spent months interviewing victims on the phone (at the height of the lockdown), giving them time to remember as much as they could.

"Not everyone's first language is English. You don't always have the words when you're speaking to someone. People kept remembering more things after that first tentative conversation. Some of it was 30 years ago and having to relive it was traumatic," Petersen said.

She wrote and rewrote, and allowed the interviewees to add to their stories, even after it had been written. Many had revisited the trauma they experienced for the first time in years, and it was a painful experience.

EXTRACT | Erika Bornman's 'Mission of Malice - My exodus from KwaSizabantu'

Capturing the essence of the story was a process. It took hours of having to sift through the details to not lose anything of importance.

"When everything was done and they read it, it had them in tears because they'd never been able to put their stories into words themselves," said Petersen.

From an editor's point of view, this is not the sort of news that crosses your desk every day. It had all the makings of a gripping story: religion, money laundering, sexual abuse, apartheid spying and even mention of the Zumas. It affected every South African who had ever bought a bottle of aQuellé water - which is produced by KwaSizabantu's close business affiliates.

During continuous conversations between editors and the wider editorial team, it became apparent the story would require more than one medium to be told fully. In addition to the written articles on alleged corruption and abuse at the mission, a documentary and podcast series were added.

Each medium allowed readers, viewers and listeners to gain a different perspective on the story.

Nokuthula Manyathi, the deputy multimedia editor, took the lead on the podcast with the assistance of Deon Wiggett, whose podcast My Only Story won high praise the previous year.

Manyathi had a special interest in the story, having grown up in the area and gone to high school about 30km from KwaSizabantu.

READ | ‘We did not hold a superspreader event’ | KwaSizabantu Mission believes there’s a campaign to taint their image

"There was always a cloud of mystery around the school, but we had no idea of the level of abuse," Manyathi said.

"The podcasts allowed us to take listeners on a journey and unpack one theme at length without feeling it's going on too long. It allowed us to let the listener hear more about what governs KwaSizabantu and the day to day at a mission that's so rigid … what the auditorium looks like, how the chair feels, what Erlo Stegen's voice sounds like. Audio allows you to sit in a moment that other platforms don't."

The podcast scooped top honours in the podcast and radio category at the prestigious One World Media Awards in the UK earlier this year. It is also a finalist in the New York Festivals Radio Awards that will take place in October.

For the team, the story was a reiteration of their belief in the power of journalism.

In an era of fake news, and mistrust in the fourth estate, Exodus reminded them the work they do is still important and the human impact real where it empowers people by giving them a voice.

"On a personal note, I left the project feeling a lot of empathy for people who are still at KwaSizabantu," said Manyathi.

"Anyone can find themselves at those gates. It swallows you whole and then it's quite hard to get out again. I have a lot of gratitude for what my support system offers me without exploiting it."

Visit the Exodus site, where you can read the series, watch the documentary and listen to the podcasts.

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