Andrew Worsdale meets up with Sylvia Vollenhoven, the National Coordinator of Input 2008  the International Public Television Conference which is celebrating its 30th Anniversary in Johannesburg. They chat about her life in broadcasting and journalism and the challenges her team faces in hosting a public television showcase of international renown.

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Sylvia Vollenhoven, the National Coordinator of Input 2008
Veteran South African journalist Jon Qwelane once wrote an article about Sylvia Vollenhoven entitled 'The Witty and Beautiful Sylvia' remembering his days as a mentor to the novice journalist, "Sylvia was a tear-jerker supreme, and a born flirt with an incomparable sense of humour (she) was the extrovert who enjoyed a bit of exhibitionism. She took baloney from no one; editors knew exactly where they stood with her, the scourge of everyone. For sheer loyalty and dependability, Vollenhoven had no equal."

Born in District Six in a year I" won't give away but it belies her vivacious good looks and testifies to her intelligence and maturity " Vollenhoven decided to move into journalism in the early 70s working for The Cape Herald before receiving a Diploma from The Argus journalism school in 1976 the same year that television came to South Africa and two years before the first ever INPUT conference was held in Milan.

"I went to a school where the kids were mostly quite snobbish and ambitious. Everyone was going to UCT medical school or going into exile," she says, "My family was too poor for either of these options. I got the top marks in languages despite being thrown out of the English class for insubordination, so I thought journalism was the best option. I didn't think you needed any particular training and I had a vague idea that I would be expected to write and travel extensively, at the drop of hat. So, I carried my passport with me every day to work."

But those were the dark days of apartheid and the struggle was coming to a head, "The Cape Herald was fun and subversion was the order of the day. Everyone smoked Gaulois and drank brandy for breakfast. When we weren't planning grand revolution we partied with a vengeance. It was clear to me that apartheid could not survive this onslaught. Many years later I realized how right I was at 20. The Afrikaner rulers were drinking themselves to death on the opposite side of the fence."

The Argus School, by way of contrast, was a shock to the system for her and was heavily ingrained with racist attitudes so Sylvia learnt "how to bunk classes seriously for the first time and hang out in Soweto and at the World newspaper. I learnt most of the important things about journalism from the veterans there who took me under their wing. People like Don Materra, Percy Qoboza, Jon Qwelane, Phil Molefe the list is long. They taught me that journalism is either subversive or you go and work in a bank."

Vollenhoven is gregarious, outgoing and effervescent hardly the kind of profile one associates with hardcore journalists, SABC bureaucracy or people working in the broader television sector. She loves life and people but is a determined and focused journalist/media worker, "I know that this is going to sound a bit at odds with my public persona. But I believe quite fervently that journalism is a calling. Not in the way that meddlesome, sanctimonious priests and their ilk talk about a calling. I am a storyteller with a gift to see into the heart of things and an idealism that knows there are alternatives to misery and suffering. Journalism helps me pursue my dreams and explore these alternatives. And on top of that I believe that if I am not causing trouble (or at least minor discomfort) I am completely missing the point of being placed here, at this time, on the third rock from the sun."

After many years working as a print journalist, including being the SA correspondent for Swedish daily 'Expressen' which gave her the opportunity to tell apartheid and struggle stories that would have had trouble getting printed in the local press, Vollenhoven was approached by the SABC to help with its transformation process. "I was minding my own business in Cape Town earning a fat salary as a foreign correspondent when John Matisonn (journalist and former IBA/ICASA Councilor) called me up and asked if I wanted to be part of a team that would kick-start transformation at the SABC, ahead of the 1994 elections. I dropped everything and relocated to Joburg."

Together with a team of twelve other journalists and producers Vollenhoven went to Canada and the UK working with the CBC and the BBC and later the ABC (Australia) and the Thomson Foundation of the UK to come up with a new 'scheme' for the national broadcaster. "We dreamed big dreams and devised grand strategies. It started with razing the Piet Meyer 'gebou' (the Radio Tower - a notorious apartheid icon) and its bomb walls to the ground," she says. Then the group of left heavyweights took positions inside the broadcaster, "It was a bruising cycle in the media struggle and at this stage the old style Nationalist guard at the SABC won many rounds. Then we got serious and tackled firstly current affairs. I finally ended up being part of the team that started Morning Live."

At the time these journalists founded the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI), with Sylvia as director, which became the pressure group that steered the Corporation's transformation. Vollenhoven more recently was the first head of the Factual Genre when the Content Hub was started. But she didn't spend all her time behind the scenes formulating strategy and commissioning projects, for many years she was a news anchor and presenter of current affairs programmes such as 'Face To Face' and 'Focus on One'.

She remembers those heady days of tests and conquests as fundamental to creating her point of view as a broadcasting professional, "The most important challenge was that coming from print I did not have a clue how Television worked. On top of it all I am very arrogant and I easily underestimate complex processes, especially if it involves technology. I've been drawn to many of the 'heady' projects in my life mainly because I didn't appreciate how difficult it would be. Being involved in the transformation of the SABC was a humbling experience. The most important issues we faced was not so much pulling the old guard into the new South Africa... It was more importantly the fancy political footwork needed to deal with all that dead wood in a place like that. Pushing ahead with change and innovation despite recalcitrant colleagues in key positions, many of them black. And then the time consuming, enervating endless political parlor games. But my time at the SABC strengthened my belief in myself. It helped me understand that when even a small group of people with integrity operate in sea of chaos, you can defeat the negativity around you. I am very proud of having been involved in those early transformation processes around in-house training, current affairs and the special election programmes which I designed."

But she says she'll never go back to flaunting herself in front of the cameras again! "I never again want to be faced with the stress of putting on so much make up and making my hair lie down for the camera. Just so you know you also can't wear shiny, dangly earrings. Life's too short to wear demure little studs. And then there's all that time you have to spend researching and preparing for those moments of national glory. After all these years people still look at me strangely in the supermarket. It's like I am forever doomed to wear a kind of Mark of Cain that everyone can see no matter how many times I have washed off the last make-up traces."

The twelve years she spent at the SABC have made her a strong defender against the barrage of criticism that the broadcaster faces from the media and film and TV producers. "What is extremely important for me to convey is that it is such lazy journalism to fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from the SABC and making it our favourite whipping boy (this is our institution and we are responsible for the direction it takes). It is an incredibly complex organization with a giant mandate. People who stand on the sidelines and heckle are mostly lacking in courage and imagination, what my friend Jon Qwelane calls the 'Chattering Classes'."

The role of the SABC as a public broadcaster even whilst it straddles the demands of a commercial one are distinctive and one of the main reasons South Africa was chosen to host the INPUT conference. "The SABC's model is unique in the world. The reality is that until the people of South Africa come up with an alternative way of funding public broadcasting, this is the one we're stuck with and so let's make it work. There is no God of PBS who says we can't do it this way. Public Broadcasting anywhere in the world and at any time in history is hotly contested terrain with journalists and politicians both claiming the high ground. It has always been that way and will always be," the forceful but never strident Vollenhoven says. "But what is of particular concern in South Africa is that we do not understand our power with regard to institutions like the SABC. We engage with it as if it is a thing apart. We kind of know that it is wrong to allow it to be controlled by the politicians but we don't much care who the alternative is. We debate endlessly who is pulling the strings but we don't care a damn about the endless American crap we watch."

She believes that the real threat to an emerging democracy and a nation in the making is the complete erosion of culture, not how many ministers are cutting ribbons on the 8 o'clock news. "Debates such as this in South Africa are boring, repetitive and going nowhere. This is not because South Africans are not intelligent. On the contrary I love my country because you get better debates in the average shebeen or on a street corner than you get on some kind of Face the Nation current affairs show."

Then she gets a dig in at the trendy newsmakers who believe they are the 'in-thing', "The reason why the media debates are so lackluster is because the parameters are set by journalists who wear suits (even the women), hang out at swanky Melrose Arch and think Peroni is real beer! My real concern is this constant diet of mediocrity. I think journalists collectively should be ashamed to be getting on their high horses all the time when they are mostly lazy, middle class armchair specialists who have become like doctors, they just don't do house calls anymore."

Sylvia became involved in Input ten years ago when she helped put together the first Mini Input in Africa held at Sithengi and she's been to every conference since the 2000 event held in Canada's Halifax (The conference has taken place in amongst other cities Toronto, Marseilles, Washington DC, Montreal, Dublin, Guadalajara and Taipei). "I still get people coming to me saying Cape Town was one of the best Input experiences ever. It's because Input 2001 had heart. As South Africans we put so much passion into that event and the people who came will never forget it. We aim to make Input 2008 an equally unforgettable, pan African event. This time of course you will have the big doses of South African passion but we've grown up quite a bit since then, so we now throw in quite a large measure of Afropolitan flair as well."

Local players headed up by Vollenhoven put in the Johannesburg bid four years ago and she says that one of the main reasons it has returned to South Africa so soon after 2001 was because this time it is designed as a pan-African venture, "It is greatly advantageous for Input to spread its wings in Africa and Input 2008 gives it this opportunity. Johannesburg is one of the most exciting cities in Africa. People are even talking about a future thriving film industry, a Jollywood?"

She says that hosting such an important conference - it's the organisation's thirtieth anniversary - offer numerous challenges, "We have to secure adequate funding and make sure we put together a great team as well as source absolutely the right sub contractors as well as suppliers. Then of course there is the daunting task of taking care of so many VIP's and dignitaries. But we have a great team and some excellent people working with us at the SABC and at our other partners. We have also negotiated with Joburg Tourism and the City of Johannesburg and they have come on board." (The Gauteng Film commission is a partner in the event).

Although she's left hands-on journalism her interests have become more wide-ranging within the field. Her company VIA (Vision in Africa)  - is committed to pan-African joint ventures and global co-productions and collaborations of which Input is just one project whilst Dream Weaver Trading is a black female investment group which she chairs. "My forte is creating massive projects from concept to execution. So I am working on a global collaboration with the SABC and UNESCO for the Human Bondage project. I have several projects in the pipeline with the UK's Thomson Foundation. And of course here and there I might put in a bid in response to the SABC's regular call for proposals, but my sights are set on the Continent and global storytelling/TV ventures."

And with all the committees and meetings and conferences she obviously deals with loads of bureaucracy, but she takes that in her stride, "Bureaucracy is like a complicated network of dark catacombs in the midst of a vast, sunny field. There is always a way around it and the man tied to his desk in the middle of the gloom won't even notice when you completely bypass his system and have fun in the big, wide open spaces. I grew up on the Cape Flats. We laugh a lot, take nothing too seriously and when in doubt we get completely scatological. If you keep jou ma se pudding at the back of your mind you can sail through most rough seas."

But how does she relax and still manage to smile with the massive workload? "I dance a lot and I laugh, sometimes all at once. Most importantly I meditate. If I leave home without at least an hour of meditation in the morning I might start taking television seriously. In order to cope with egos I need to keep my own under control. Egos are like dogs. You keep one calm and the pack is relaxed. One gets out of control and all hell breaks loose. So if I can keep my ego on a chain life is great." Next time you run into Sylvia Vollenhoven don't be intimidated, just rise to her challenge, and you might actually find out it's not only productive, it can also be fun.

See our accompanying article on Input 2008 for more info on the event itself or go to www.input2008.org.za