Skip to main content

Students document borderland issues

July 03, 2008

The images from South Africa are haunting. Streets strewn with trash. Children hanging out beside a pile of burning garbage. A young man gazing from a window with a broken pane hanging precariously beside him.

Students from the Cronkite School documented the lives of immigrants in South Africa during a venture into the country in June.

The 10 Cronkite students were joined by students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, as part of a reporting project supported by a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. After two weeks in the country, the students are creating a Web site that explores borderland and immigration issues in the country.

In a blog they created for the project, Cronkite students say the experience of reporting in South Africa was challenging and eye-opening. For example, in a June 25 blog, student Daniel O’Connor describes Alexandra township, known as one of the country’s poorest areas and a hotbed for civil unrest and violence.

“A drive down London Road past the apartheid-inspired sniper towers, rubble fields and tin shanties reveals a daunting comparison to the makeshift battlefields that consumed the area in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” O’Connor wrote. “Not much has improved since Alex(andra) was liberated by its people’s revolutionary efforts and blanketed by the hopes of a democratic change to come. In fact, the township, surrounded by sprawling upper-class residential areas, continues to descend into the depths of poverty and chaos. Some officials speculate that less than 10 percent of its residents hold a steady job and more than half of the population suffers from HIV and AIDS. By economic and health standards, Alex may just be the worst place on Earth.”

Prior to their trip, students, who are enrolled in a summer school class taught by Cronkite associate professor Carol Schwalbe, researched the region’s border and immigration issues and practiced working in multimedia teams made up of writers, videographers and photographers.

Students are spending four weeks writing and editing stories, creating narrated slide shows and preparing video for the Cronkite School’s Web site, says Schwalbe, who accompanied students on the trip along with Sue Green, director of the broadcast division of Cronkite News Service.

“One of the goals is to have students think and report like multimedia reporters,” Schwalbe says. “Print students are taking photos and recording audio. Photojournalists are also recording audio and shooting video. Broadcast students will try their hand at creating slide shows that incorporate still photos, text and maps as well as video.”

The trip was financed by a $76,267 grant from the Buffett Foundation, an Illinois-based non-profit organization founded by the international photojournalist, author and philanthropist. The grant covers a three-year international exchange project that examines the complex issues that surround immigration and border regions in South Africa and along the Arizona-Mexico border. Cronkite students previously completed two

Buffett foundation journalism projects that examined the lives of children along the Arizona-Mexico border and the plight of families divided by that border.

Cronkite students who traveled to South Africa coped with the challenges of working in a country without the conveniences that are a part of everyday life in the United States.

Jen Wahl described working without a cell phone or a car and how that experience forced her to learn how to “really report” by talking to people and developing a network of South Africans who are living through xenophobia.

“I met a woman who takes care of orphan children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, been inspired by a married couple that lost everything but still found time for a good laugh, and met a man who was part of the mob responsible for killing and injuring foreigners. (They told him if he didn’t join, they would kill him too.),” she wrote in her blog.

Cronkite student, Keridwen Cornelius wrote: “We navigated by an unusual set of landmarks: ‘Turn right where we heard the music;’ ‘Turn left at the river of garbage’ and ‘When you see the roosters and the house that looks like a garage, we’re there.’

In an e-mail, Schwalbe said the students held up well in a country that presented many challenges. “This has been an amazing opportunity for them to hone their skills in situations that have often been challenging - from heart-wrenching emotions to safety and technical issues.

They're learning how to build trust with people who are afraid to talk because they fear for their lives. The students have learned so much about themselves, pushing their limits and reporting under difficult circumstances.”

The students will report their findings, share their photos and post videos documenting their trip at The site will be operational later this summer.