In 2012, the South African-based Mail & Guardian newspaper covered few health issues. The health stories that did make the publication’s pages appeared in a sponsored pull-out supplement, hidden inside a newspaper filled with "more worthy" political and investigative articles.
With fewer than 3 500 monthly online hits, the M&G’s online health section was barely read and buried on the site as a sub-subsection of the news subsection.
But this scenario has since changed drastically.
With support from the German government, the M&G launched a health journalism centre, Bhekisisa, in January 2013. This enabled the publication to appoint a health editor and two reporters and also to offer reporters from other publications fellowships so they could be mentored when writing health stories.
In September 2015, Bhekisisa received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to expand its health coverage to the rest of the African continent. In March 2016, the centre launched its own website. Our Africa editor mentors fifteen reporters across Africa who file solutions-based health features for our website. Moreover, we work with health policymakers, activists and researchers to write opinion pieces for our website.
Bhekisisa regularly hosts and organises critical thinking forums on subjects such as South Africa’s National Health Insurance scheme, tuberculosis and the decriminalisation of sex work.
Bhekisisa is currently the M&G’s largest specialist editorial desk. It has seven full-time staff members, including a director/editor, news editor, senior multimedia journalist and three health journalists. Bhekisisa also has a part-time Africa editor and monitoring and evaluation specialist.
The newspaper edition of the M&G has two weekly health pages, but Bhekisisa reporters also publish articles in the newspaper’s comment and analysis and general news sections. Between 2012 and 2017, the online readership of the M&G’s health stories has increased 35 fold.
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Meet the team
Mia Malan, Founding director and editor
Mia Malan founded Bhekisisa in 2013 and is also the Mail & Guardian's health editor. Prior to starting up the centre, she was a Knight Health Journalism Fellow in South Africa.
Under her leadership, Bhekisisa expanded from three to close to 20 permanent and freelance staff members within four years.
Malan specialises in narrative journalism and is the recipient of more than thirty African journalism awards, including the CNN Multichoice African Features Journalist of the Year in 2016, the Discovery Health Journalist of the Year in 2013 and 2016, and the Standard Bank Sikuvile Newspaper Journalist of the Year in 2015.
She began her journalism career at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, where she worked as a radio and television health reporter. As a young journalist in 2000, she was named the CNN African Radio Journalist of the Year for a documentary that detailed a young girl's journey with Aids and her fierce fight to access HIV medicine.
In 2003, she established the first health journalism programme of the international media development organisation, Internews Network, in Kenya.
She headed up the Kenya programme for just over three years before moving to the Internews head office in Washington, DC, where she was the organisation’s senior health journalism adviser. During this period, Malan managed the implementation of training programmes in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Namibia, India, Haiti and Thailand. She also trained and mentored Roma journalists in Eastern Europe.
"It was wonderful to be involved in health journalism in so many countries and cultures, but, throughout, I was hoping to eventually find the financial support to start a health journalism programme in my own country," she says.
Malan has a master’s degree in science journalism from Stellenbosch University and taught health journalism in the journalism and media studies department at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. She was a Reuters Foundation Medical Journalism Fellow at Oxford University in 2001.
She serves on the board of directors of the Centre for Science & Technology Mass Communication at Stellenbosch University. Malan is also an an advisory board member of the Women In Media Network of the Graca Machel Trust.
A firm believer in social justice, Malan maintains that “if we can tell the stories of ordinary people and grassroots projects and make those voices become alive through powerful storytelling we will have done our jobs".
To read more stories by Mia Malan click here.
Laura Lopez Gonzalez, deputy editor
Laura Lopez Gonzalez is Bhekisisa's news editor. Before joining Bhekisisa in July 2016, Lopez spent three years as the print editor for Health-e News Service.
Lopez began reporting on health in 2003 as part of an in-depth reporting project on HIV among men who have sex with men in Chicago and Cape Town. In Chicago, HIV was spreading through marginalised communities who were dealing with stigma and unequal access to care in a country where treatment was available.
Meanwhile, South Africa was toyi-toying for access to antiretrovirals.
“People were fighting for their lives and arming themselves with knowledge. Whether it was in small drop-in centres on Chicago’s west side or the streets of Cape Town, activists were teaching themselves and each other the science to combat the lies about treatment and stigma.
That’s something that has always stuck with me and influences my reporting to this day. It was this tactic that I saw repeated again and again as I covered HIV internationally.”
Lopez spent seven years covering health in Southern Africa and globally for the humanitarian news service, the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). She has also written for specialist publications such as Aidsmap and as a research consultant for the Open Society Foundation, where she examined international HIV and tuberculosis funding.
She also spent several years working as a communications officer, researcher and writer for Doctors Without Borders and has partnered with organisations such as the Johns Hopkins Centre for Global Health to train fellow journalists in the reporting of clinical trials. In 2011-12, Lopez was an International Women’s Media Foundation HIV Investigative Fellow.
Lopez is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism and holds a masters degree from the University of Chicago.
Pontsho Pilane, Health journalist
Pilane’s passion for gender justice, youth empowerment and media related issues is evident in the work that she’s been involved in throughout her young life. She was a TEDx Johannesburg 1830 Fellow, one of 20 young South Africans (between the ages of 18 and 30) who were identified as having “ideas worth sharing”. She has been involved in various youth organisations such as Model United Nations.
“There is no better time to be a young African woman than right now. We are changing the world and shaping it for the next generation. I feel privileged to be a writer during these momentous times,” she says.
Before joining Bhekisisa, Pilane was a news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She debuted as a journalist at The Daily Vox, where she primarily wrote about gender and race, and how they intersect. She was one of the leading journalists covering the #FeesMustFall student protests in 2015. She holds two degrees in Media Studies from Wits University.
Demelza Bush, Senior multimedia journalist
Demelza Bush studied journalism, specialising in television and photography, at Rhodes University. In 2008 they won the SABC Young Journalist of the Year award for a mini-documentary on the food crisis in South Africa.
Bush spent four-and-a-half years as a multimedia reporter at the Mail & Guardian from 2010 to 2014. During this time, they exhibited their photography in South Africa and Europe and won two Standard Bank Sikuvile awards for their reporting on corruption and police brutality.
In 2012 Bush, together with Craig McKune and Verashni Pillay, was the first ever recipient of the CNN African Digital Journalist of the Year award.
Bush left the news world to work for the nonprofit organisation Sonke Gender Justice. While there, they explored issues of gender-based violence, documented the legal battles of gold miners suffering from silicosis, and investigated the inhumane conditions in which awaiting-trial prisoners at Pollsmoor Prison are housed.
Bush returned to the M&G to work at Bhekisisa because they wanted to expose injustice and tell people’s stories.
"Health relates to everything, from gender to prisons. Health is everything," they say. "Multimedia is a wonderfully powerful tool to use to tell those stories."
Demelza Bush is gender queer and is referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns "them" and "they", as is international practice. Many languages have gender-neutral pronouns that are used to refer to gender queer people. English doesn’t yet have such a term.
Nelisiwe Msomi, Junior health journalist
Nelisiwe Msomi is a junior journalist at Bhekisisa. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Johannesburg.
Previously, Msomi was a volunteer member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s media team and started off her career as an intern at Bhekisisa.
She is interested in the effect of government policies on ordinary people and hopes to one day find a solution for long, 6am queues at state clinics.
“I have always seen journalism as a means of making the world a better place," she says. "Being part of Bhekisisa allows me to do just that, especially through the practice of solutions-based journalism."
Joan van Dyk, Health journalist
Joan van Dyk graduated with an honours degree in journalism from Stellenbosch University in 2017. She was the top performing student in the class of 2016.
Joining Bhekisisa marks Van Dyk’s debut as a journalist, but she was instantly captivated by the all-encompassing nature of health reporting in Africa. She grew up travelling the continent and aspires to reveal issues that are relevant to the well-being of its populations.
“Health stories expose the human fragility that unifies us all. I am looking forward to writing stories that unravel the health policies and politics that impact on the lives of everyday people across the continent.”
Adri Kotze, Africa editor
Adri Kotze works with Bhekisisa’s network of talented journalists across Africa to tell health stories that matter.
“Our journalists know their communities and they know what matters to them. They are best placed to tell the stories of their people’s struggles and triumphs,” she says.
“They often work under difficult circumstances, but deliver stories that not only make you think, but also feel.”
Adri’s journalism career began in 1991. She has worked extensively in both print and television, including stints as specialist writer and political reporter for the South African daily newspaper Beeld, senior producer at the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s current affairs programme Special Assignment and insert producer at Carte Blanche, M-Net’s flagship current affairs show.
Since 2009 she has been working as a freelance journalist, writer and researcher.
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