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 Johannesburg-based reporters travel to other African countries and Bhekisisa staff are also mentoring reporters across Africa to empower them to 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: Why we're here
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Today Bhekisisa is the M&G’s largest specialist editorial desk. It has six full-time staff members, including a health editor, health news editor, senior multimedia journalist, project manager and two health journalists.
The newspaper edition of the M&G has two weekly health pages. The online health section is displayed much more prominently than in 2012 and its monthly readership had increased more than twentyfold to 92 000 in December 2015.
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Meet the team
Mia MalanDirector and editor
Mia Malan is the founding director of Bhekisisa and also serves as the Mail & Guardian’s health editor. Prior to starting up Bhekisisa in January 2013, Malan was a Knight Health Journalism Fellow in South Africa.
She began her journalism career at the SABC, where she worked as a radio and television health reporter. She later established the first health journalism programme of Internews Network, an international media development organisation, in Kenya.
She headed up the Kenya programme for three and a half years before moving to the Internews head office in Washington, DC, where she served as a senior health journalism adviser.
During this period, she helped to implement the training curricula she had developed in Kenya in several other countries, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, Haiti and Thailand.
"It was wonderful to be involved in health journalism in so many countries and cultures, but, throughout, I was hoping to find the money to start similar health journalism programmes in my own country," says Malan.
"When the German government offered financial support for this in 2013, there was no better place to start Bhekisisa than at the Mail & Guardian. And when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided further funds last year for Bhekisisa’s expansion into Africa, the Mail & Guardian was – again – the best fit for this."
Malan has won numerous awards for her work, including the Standard Bank Sikuvile Newspaper overall Journalist of the Year award in 2015, the Discovery Health overall Journalist of the Year award in 2013, 2015 and 2016, the National Press Club’s 2013 and 2014 awards for print features and the Standard Bank Sikuvile Newspaper Journalism awards’ categories for commentary and analysis, and features, in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Malan has a master’s degree in science journalism from the University of Stellenbosch 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 believes the key to developing engaging news stories as Bhekisisa expands into Africa lies in developing journalists’ storytelling skills, and that it’s important to humanise health issues rather than to politicise them.
"If you can combine human faces with excellent writing skills – narrative writing skills with well-structured storytelling – you will get far more people involved than if you try to ride on controversy," she says.
"If we can give the stories of ordinary people and grassroots projects power – and make them come alive through including their voices in our stories – we will have done our jobs."
To read more stories by Mia Malan click here.
Laura Lopez GonzalezNews 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. She has also 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 PilaneHealth 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 BushSenior 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 genderqueer 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 genderqueer people. English doesn’t yet have such a term.
Nelisiwe MsomiJunior health reporter
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 has an interest in how government policies affect the ordinary person walking on Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge and hopes to one day find a solution to long 6am clinic queues.
“I have always seen journalism as a means of making the world a better place. Being part of Bhekisisa allows me to do just that, especially through the practice of solution based journalism. I believe that the work we do as journalist paves the path for better service delivery in our continent,” she says.
Joan van Dyk Junior health reporter
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 KotzeAfrica editor
Adri 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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