Meet the 2017 KAS Scholars

Also available in Deutsch

German psychology student and KAS journalism scholar Anne-Lena Leidenberger recently met with the three exceptional young African journalists who were selected from 200 applications to be awarded the 2017 KAS Media Africa journalism scholarships. Read her stories on the people who tell the stories of others.

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Pictures for the research project of Anne-Lena Leidenberger: Pontsho in front of the Mail & Guardian

Pontsho Pilane

“It’s about telling complicated stories in a human way,” says Pontsho with a look of enthusiasm in her eyes. According to Pontsho, inequality between different ethnic groups and every kind of minority has to be addressed in her home country. “I want people to start to understand, to be critical, but less judgmental.” People starting to understand – that is also what Julius wants. Julius is 33 years old and from Liberia; in his life he has already had to experience war as well as the Ebola outbreak. Democracy, economic growth, human rights, rule of law, good governance and the fight against poverty – he lists the things that are most needed in his home country and for his work. Better education, responsibility in journalism and placing the interests of the nation in his stories are the most important things for Albert. The 29-year old was born in Zimbabwe and moved with his family to Malawi, when he was in primary school. “I’m interested in telling stories,” he says, and you would believe him.

Three young people, who not only have their African origin in common, but also the passion for journalism. Writing about, and for, the people of their countries and trying to change things is what motivates them. All three are scholars of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Media Programme for Sub-Sahara Africa, which enables them to do their Master degrees In Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. These are the stories of three people, who normally tell the stories of others.

“I want to go down to the roots of things”

Pontsho is the kind of woman you will remember. The green/orange dress that she is wearing this Tuesday morning seems to perfectly reflect her personality. Bright, colourful and brave. At the same time, she is the kind of woman who would probably not talk about clothes herself, but rather about human rights, women’s emancipation and supporting minorities. “I like bringing down scientific topics through the human angle and the human narrative,” she says. Only six months ago, Pontsho started working in her current position, as a journalist at the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism based at the Mail & Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg. Before that, she worked for the youth-driven online media start-up The Daily Vox. Back then, Pontsho and her colleagues covered the #feemustfall movement – the protests of young students against the rising tuition fees and the colonial influence at the universities of South Africa. “It was the first time since Apartheid ended that students mobilized,” she says proudly. Today her focus remains on other things. Things that are often kept under wraps in South Africa. In her first story for the Mail & Guardian, she wrote about medical aid schemes and how they neglect the fears and hardships of infertile women. Today, while sitting on the white leather couch in one of the editorial offices, it looks as though she has done this her entire life. “Health is a more social issue than anything else,” Pontsho says. Topics like HIV, sexuality and menstruation are still highly stigmatized and related to shame among South Africa’s population in Pontsho’s opinion. “It is a social problem if a girl, coming from a poor background, has to sleep with much older men to buy food for her family,” she says, “but if she gets infected with HIV because of that, it becomes a health problem as well.” Those things would become health issues, but they are not rooted in health, she continues. “I want to get down to the roots of things.” Teenage pregnancy is, according to Pontsho, another example of that. The journalist says if a 13-year old girl fell pregnant and her community ostracised and insulted her, we would have a social problem, but if the girl got an illegal abortion as a result of the social judgment, it could quickly become a health problem as well. As a journalist she wants to raise awareness of those problems. When it first occurred HIV was covered more as a political topic than a health issue, explains Pontsho, whose mother was a HIV counsellor in those days. “They seriously discussed on TV shows whether garlic and ginger can cure the HI-virus,” Pontsho says indignantly. “That’s why it is so important that we, as journalists, are aware of our responsibility to disseminate information – good or bad – but be careful in how to report.” She also thinks that journalism mustn’t be sensational. “Is it still freedom of expression if it causes harm?” she asks. Silence is what followed. Besides the health-related topics, there is something else she is fighting for: diversity in the newsrooms. Only the ones that can understand cultural backgrounds and racial tropes are able to report properly, is what Pontsho believes. This helps to gain a better understanding for sensitive debates, for instance, the one on why it is unethical for a cartoonist to draw a coloured person as a monkey, with respect to the history of South Africa. “We must be aware of the context and the environment we exist in,” Pontsho believes. “That’s why we need diversity in our newsrooms: people of every colour, every social class, every sexual preference and every gender,” she says, and makes clear that this includes more than just men and women. Pontsho also says that news and media should be translated into all the eleven official languages. Journalism that caters for every person is what she is wishing for.

“As a journalist you can’t be in doubt – you must be informed”

Julius walks through the hallway of the university. He has been on campus for two months and seems to know his way around. He eventually sits down on the lawn in front of a University’s Great Hall building that resembles a Roman palace and opens up his laptop. It is easy to imagine how he sits here after one of his lectures, studying together with his classmates. “I have worked as a journalist for more than 10 years now,” he starts. What sounds quite unspectacular under normal circumstances, but is impressive in Julius’ case, as his circumstances have been anything but normal. Julius, born in 1983, fled in the early 90s with his family from Liberia to Guinea, escaping civil war, which broke out in his home country on Christmas eve, 1989. “That was perhaps what inspired me to become a journalist,” he recounts, “everyone always sat together in front of the radio and listened to the Liberian News”. Julius recalls that during that time the media helped him to stay informed about the happenings in Liberia. “They really tried to mediate between the disputing parties to end the conflict.” After the end of the war in 1997 the family went back to Liberia, but only two years after their return, the conflict resumed. “During this time, Liberia was very unstable again,” says Julius. While the armed conflicts started in other parts of Liberia, they eventually reached the capital Monrovia in 2003, where Julius lived back then. He had just graduated from school. They didn’t have a graduation party, “too dangerous”, explains Julius. He says that it was especially hard for school children, as the schools had to be shut down for several months. During his High School time, Julius had already been active in journalism and decided to attend the School of Journalism at the state radio Liberia Broadcasting System, work for their broadcaster and later for the privately runned Star Radio Liberia. Civil war ended officially in 2003, but the next disaster hit just a decade later. In March 2014, Ebola – a highly contagious and usually fatal viral infection – broke out in Liberia. “Initially the people thought Ebola was a rumor,” explains Julius, “many people didn’t trust the government and doubted their information and safety precautions.” Responding to the question whether he was in doubt, Julius doesn’t hesitate: “No,” he answers determined, “as a journalist you can’t be in doubt – you have to be informed.” The virus first claimed its victims in the neighbouring country, Guinea. It then spread over the border to Liberia. Life under the Ebola crisis was hard. Visiting friends, going to work, shaking hands – all these things were not possible anymore. Basic state bureaucracy could not operate fully. Back then, Julius was a correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. He wrote a commentary in response to the German government’s decision to send it’s military and civilian health personnel to join the Ebola fight, titled “German help for Liberia better late than never.” Even though none of the more than ten thousand Ebola infected in Liberia were from Julius’ family, the crisis affected him personally. “We lost many compatriots to Ebola. Also, I had just received my acceptance letter for the KAS scholarship, but I couldn’t enter South Africa, because of the Ebola outbreak in my country,” he explains. So Julius scholarship was deferred by the foundation, and he was only able to start his Journalism Master’s degree in Johannesburg in February 2017, a year after the epidemic had passed. By reporting on the Ebola crisis, he learned how important it is not to be sensational. “Report and educate, that is important,” he resumes. The literacy rate in Liberia is estimated at less than 50 percent – not much more than five percent of the students continue higher than class six. The youth unemployment rate is over 70 percent. Education is therefore a very important topic, says Julius. Besides the challenge of education, corruption threatens the country and the work of journalism. The question whether he wants to work in Liberia after his studies in South Africa seems to surprise Julius a lot. “Of course!” he says and frowns, “in this age of globalization you can live anywhere, so to speak, but I think journalists like myself have a challenge to face in Liberia.” Contributing his service to Liberia to help improve the country as a whole is the most important thing to him. “As an African and Liberian journalist, you have to make yourself available.” He dreams of a stable Liberia and is going to work for it.

“There is always somebody who doesn’t know something and here I can intervene”

It is a hot Thursday afternoon. Albert is sitting in the sun on the big campus lawn. He is speaking very fast and it feels like he knows exactly what he wants to say. “I discovered my interest in journalism in the first grade,” he explains. “We were asked to tell an English story in front of our school class. I remember how everyone clapped when I finished my story. That was when I knew: I’m interested in telling stories.” That was in Zimbabwe, where Albert was born. When his grandfather died, his grandmother – a Malawian emigrant – decided to go back to her home country and the whole family went with her. He has a lot of good memories about his time in Zimbabwe. “I remember the day when I found 50 Zimbabwean cents on the street. They were worth a lot back in those days. My mother was very happy and bought me a lot of things.” The time after the family moved was not easy. After their arrival in Malawi, they lived less than one kilometer from the border of Mozambique, which was in civil war. To fade out the frightening sounds of the gun shots at night, Albert used to listen to the radio. Mentioning that they hardly speak about the sufferings in Mozambique on the radio, his uncle explained that the happenings might be ignored, as they don’t take place in Malawi. This made Albert pensive. “I started to think about being a journalist,” he says, “but it was a far-fetched dream because unlike in Zimbabwe, I had no access to newspapers.” When Albert was 13 he lost his biological mother and mainly grew up with his grandmother, uncles and his brothers. In the grandmother’s house they didn’t have electricity supply and drew water from a communal borehole. His passion for journalism was confirmed when Albert moved again after finishing High School, this time to join his older brother, who also worked as a journalist. “Nobody really supported this idea. Because I was good in sciences and maths, my family said I should rather study engineering or medicine,” Albert recounts. But that didn’t prevent him from pursuing the career. He also began his work as a freelancer for the The Nation Publications Limited (NPL). “Only after I earned my first 175.000 Malawi Kwacha, which equals about 1.300 US dollars, and reinvested the money in my journalism career did my brother start taking me seriously,” Albert says, “he said I must work hard and that is what I did”. In 2008,he became a full time correspondent for NPL. From this point onwards his career sky-rocketed. He has won prizes, amongst them the award for the best Malawian journalist in 2016. Albert says he thinks that journalism has always been inside of him. “There will always be someone who doesn’t understand something and I can intervene here.” The 29-year old says that his chances of going to study in the UK last year were very good, but he dropped everything for the Konrad Adenauer scholarship. “I like that KAS specifically supports African journalists,” he says, “I want to be a part of the solution. I can learn a lot from African media and they can learn from me.” Journalism in Malawi has to deal with a lot of problems, one of them being a lack of education. “I guess we have less than 50 journalists with a Master’s degree in Malawi,” says Albert, “and probably not even five with a PhD”. Also despite the journalism, the country has to fight a lot of other difficulties. Corruption, droughts and the weak economy of the country make life hard for the population. “It is also the people’s mindset that needs to change,” says Albert, “many people still think: the government has to do this for me, even if it is about things they could do themselves.” For Albert, fighting hard in life is a necessity. “I grew up with the mindset that I want to achieve more.”

“It looks so easy, when we are already here”

KAS Media Africa is financing the three scholars for their Master’s degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The purpose is to support promising young Africans to enhance journalism and freedom of speech and expression in their countries. The criteria for selection include working experience, an undergraduate degree and passion for journalism. Pontsho, Julius, and Albert tick all of those boxes. “It is a wonderful opportunity,” Julius says. The Media Law and Ethics course has specifically influenced him so far. “For me it has, once again, pointed out how important independent journalism is. Journalism should speak the truth and minimise harmful consequences like stigmatizing.” The Liberian can see himself establishing a media foundation after graduating from University, which enhances quality journalism in his country. “People from Liberia have to be educated about their rights and the government has to be held accountable for their actions.” Albert could see himself working in a similar field. He also wants to establish his own media organisation, which focuses on fact checking. The Malawian also strives for his PhD and wants to become a University lecturer. Inspiration and academia is what is lacking in Malawi, he says. That is also what Pontsho would like to achieve. “We have a lack of black female lecturers in South Africa,” she says, “I don’t want a black girl to go to University in ten years’ time and still not find herself being represented in the universities of her country.” The combination of lecturing and work as a journalist is what the 26-year old is striving for. The scholarship is a privilege and a burden at the same time,” Pontsho says. “Working full time and studying at the same time is exhausting, but I know that this is what I want to do and have to do, and I’m ok with that.” All three scholars only report positives about their time at Wits. “It looks so easy when we are already here,” Albert contemplates, “but looking at the challenges someone faces when looking for a scholarship, makes you understand why I’m proud."

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Republic of South Africa, May 17, 2017


Christoph Plate

Director Media Programme Subsahara Africa

Christoph Plate
Phone +27 11 214 29 00
Fax +27 11 214 2913
Languages: Deutsch,‎ English,‎ Français