As 2016 comes to an end, many South Africans would be reflecting on the year that passed and make resolutions for the new one. I’ve spent a bit of time reflecting on my tenure as a News24 columnist. Writing for a large audience is not easy. Not only can the writing process be challenging at times, but the way people respond sometimes gnaws at you.
Being a columnist doesn’t mean writing down your thoughts as if you’re journaling in a diary. Careful thought has to be put into the topic and the content. The topic has to be relevant and well-researched. This way a columnist can offer a knowledgeable analysis and provide different perspectives to give people food for thought.
It’s not always easy offering a different perspective, especially one that stands a chance of being unpopular. You’re almost guaranteed backlash, but sometimes an unpopular opinion opens up new avenues of discussion.
We live in exciting times, or so they tell us, where our audience is much closer to us than we expect. At least their feedback is, anyway. Before the internet (try to imagine that) you’d have to wait for a letter to be published to have your voice heard. Trolls were pretty much non-existent because it was easier to filter out comments, especially from anonymous sources. Now, you’ve got to watch out for “ILoveToTroll69”, “TrollingThroughYourHood” or some obscure Twitter handle like “GarlicNaan” leaving inflammatory comments after a thoughtful and well-researched piece. They do it for the attention and the “lulz”, but not every reader is interested in dragging a comment section into disrepute. It’s the cost of having freedom of speech, but it’s one most writers are okay paying.
Readers are always welcome to engage, whether they liked what they read or not. But it’s not uncommon for people to read without understanding, or even wanting to understand. They aren’t trolls, who are usually kept to a minimum when the comments section is no longer anonymous, but they do get riled up and they do love to spew hatred. In many cases, it’s clear they actually didn’t even read the column completely or were intent on misrepresenting the argument.
I’ve had people look me up on social media who would then send private messages filled with bitterness and insults because they disagreed with what I had written. By now I have developed a thick skin but sometimes I wonder what makes people so unhappy that they put time and effort into sending mean messages my way.
You’re not going to agree with everyone or everything you read, nor will they agree with you. The key is to be open to discussion. Don’t be afraid to try to convince the other person of your perspective. But don’t get personal. Play the ball and not the man. Behave intelligibly about it if you want to be heard or taken seriously.
South Africans are obsessed with race
South Africa is very racially diverse. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never escape mentions or discussions of a race-related matter. As much as people say they are tired of reading articles mentioning race, they still read them because the headlines pique their curiosity.
There were some columns I wrote which I felt tackled important social issues that were not read much at all, such as the link between FASD and crime in South Africa. I won’t lie – I was disappointed because it could partially explain why SA’s crime rate is so high and it is an issue that needs attention. The ones that were explicitly about race got the most views and generated the most responses. So South Africans may express exasperation at reading articles related to race, but they secretly get off on it.
Past and future
It’s been an interesting year and supplied many columnists with great topics to write about. Remember, you’re not always going to agree with what you read. Engage with the writer and offer your analysis without the need for ad-hominem attacks. We live in a democratic country where people are free to air their views and be heard. But please keep in mind that we are human too. I enjoy reading responses to my columns, especially insightful ones, so feel free to agree or disagree as cordially as possible, please. Hopefully 2017 will have more good news for South Africa, more interesting developments and better topics of discussion to look forward to.
Have a happy new year and a prosperous 2017.
Originally published here.