REVIEW: Karen Jeynes
Wa Afrika, best known for his award winning investigative journalism, has written “Nothing Left To Steal”- part a collection of his writings, part memoir, part an ode to the role of the Fourth Estate. It is perhaps this last element which shines through most brightly: Wa Afrika’s love affair with journalism.
It’s not a common story, for a young boy from Sibambayani, in Mpumalanga, to grow up to be such a feared wielder of a pen. “Nothing Left To Steal” relates what a struggle it was just to go to school, a rarity in the apartheid era, especially in rural areas. Wa Afrika writes compellingly of “losing his virginity” in political terms, of learning for the first time about apartheid, Mandela, Robben Island – and of discovering that while he might have been “clever”, he knew little of real issues.
“Do you know anything about 16 June 1976?”
“Then, my friend, you are not living but stealing the oxygen from those who deserve it.”
Once the political fire had been lit, there was no stopping it. Wa Afrika soon began writing, and sharing that writing, understanding the power of words to ignite, and inspire. Eager to be valuable, and have a sense of meaning, Wa Afrika turned to journalism.
“…there are two kinds of journalists: those that write about missing cats, and those that write about missing money.” It seems Wa Afrika could never be the first. The book reveals the determination and passion with which Wa Afrika pursued stories, particularly around corruption. His dedication seems to border on the obsessive, perhaps a necessary streak in investigative journalism.
Wa Afrika’s style shifts between the personal and the journalistic, never seeming to settle in private moments, always viewing them from the outside, assessing and analysing. It seems easier to discuss work, the challenges, and how he overcame them, rather than dwell on the emotions which must have been stirred up. There are wonderful behind the scenes insights into how stories were obtained juxtaposed with the stories themselves. As with so many accounts of journalists lives, there’s the sense that the stories and the job take over, and leave no space for anything else.
And of course, as Wa Afrika’s reputation and body of work grew, so did the stories he tackled. There’s a real sense of delight in exposing the big guns, in uncovering wrongdoing and corruption. In fact, there is an overwhelming sense of pride throughout the book. In every area Wa Afrika tackles, such as his short music career, he relates how well he succeeds, and shares the praise he receives. The book climaxes in Wa Afrika’s arrest in 2010, when he exposed the R1.7 billion deal between Bheki Cele and Roux Shabangu.
“Nothing Left To Steal” is an angry book. Wa Afrika has lost nothing of his fire, and is going to continue his work, whatever may happen. The books gives a few insights into the drive of a man like this, and the myriad difficult decisions investigative journalists are faced with on a daily basis. For that reason, it is well worth a read.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.