What I learnt from Kader Asmal
It was the end of a long day for Kader Asmal, then Minister of Education. He'd wrestled with the disaster of schooling in the country, then had a long meeting with the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef). It was circa 2004, and I was part of the Sanef delegation. The memory came to me this week when hearing the news of his death.
Our request for the Sanef meeting with the Minister was twofold:
We wanted better schooling, so that University journalism schools didn't have to fix bad education and at the same time prepare students to work in the media;
We wanted schools to teach kids media literacy - how to understand and appreciate press freedom, how to decipher journalism, and how to produce school media.
The amiable, though tired, Minister agreed entirely with these sentiments, adding - as we had predicted - that the Irish newspapers were a model that South Africa could follow. Neither he nor Sanef took the issue further, but it was still an encouraging exchange.
I had asked for a short private period with him after the Sanef meeting, on a different matter. He had graciously agreed. Previously we'd met on several occasions, including when I was editor of South newspaper (1992-1994) when he'd been congratulatory about several editorial comments I'd written. Perhaps on this basis he'd been generous enough to give me some face time.
Our one-on-one session began with me explaining that Rhodes journalism planned to build the "Africa Media Matrix", and we'd like his support. Not a big thing to ask - we just wanted a letter endorsing our aim to boost journalism education in Africa through an amazing building and amazing projects.
To facilitate our meeting, I had prepared a presentation, and I fired up my laptop to show him the vision and imagery of the planned facility. The first slide read: "Rhodes journalism greets Kadar Asmal". He stopped me right there. "You've spelt my name wrong," he said.
Pause and picture the scene: a journalism professor purporting to improve journalism makes the most basic mistake ... to a VIP who is no less than the country's Minister of Education. To a person to whom Sanef had just been complaining about the quality of schooling. To an individual from whom I was now asking for support.
That screw-up slide in the powerpoint is a lesson I'll never forget. It's one I tell students about as a teaching tidbit.
But there was a further learning as well that came out of the encounter. I immediately apologised to the Minister, adding that given my error I would not waste more of his time, and made ready to leave. But he magnanimously encouraged me to proceed - even though it was more than clear he needed to call time on a long day and that I'd given him ample reason to do so.
I think he saw beyond my embarrassment to a deeper point which he made in his Finance Week "thebelovedcountry" column last year: "The press is the only effective countervailing body we have to the greed, venality and abuse of authority by public and private power."
There you have it: as inadequate and blemished the press - and its professors - may be, there's huge social value in these institutions.
Cherish them, and they'll never forget the need to live up to their self-proclaimed standards.
We eventually built the Africa Media Matrix; I hope it lives up to Kader's expectations.