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Mount Qiloane, symbol of the Basotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – The passport is stamped U.S., but I’m unabashedly a citizen of the world.

Indeed, I maintain a toehold on four continents. As a foreign correspondent, journalism educator, communications consultant, and father of three, I live in tiny Lesotho – high in the mountains of southern Africa.

Here in one of the world’s sickliest societies, I’ve taught Health Journalism for two-plus years. Meanwhile, from next-door South Africa, I’m co-producing a documentary film – The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story – which explores racial healing and equal opportunity in “The Rainbow Nation,” twenty years later.

At the same time, in Hong Kong, I’m a five-time Visiting Scholar teaching International Journalism, mostly to bright, young mainland Chinese; and in Prague, I’m Senior Trainer of a biannual course in story-telling from around the world. In fact, post-Communist Central Europe flows through my veins; that’s where I launched my own foreign-correspondent career two decades ago.

Thank you for visiting my website – and for reading! … Michael

(The following commentary appeared July 15, 2014, on The Mantle in New York.)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

A Basotho nurse preps an infant for immunization in a rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho, a mini-model of African democracy!

That’s what I trumpeted two years ago, when reporting the great political achievement scored by the ethnic Basotho of Lesotho.

In the latest test of democracy in Africa, Basotho political elites produced their first elections without violence, then carried out a peaceful handover of power – a first for southern Africa.

Today, though, this beacon of democracy flickers dimly. Amid the jockeying for power, some whisper of a coup. Even South Africa – which surrounds “The Mountain Kingdom” and sent in soldiers before – warned Lesotho to cool tensions.

Yet all this gamesmanship obscures the real crisis: in Basotho health. Indeed, while the politicians fiddle, Rome burns. (Or in Lesotho, while Roma burns.)

The 1.8 million souls who dwell in Lesotho rank, by virtually every health indicator, among the sickliest on the entire planet. Moreover, Lesotho has become a case-study for the limits of international development assistance – and a cautionary tale for what happens when a nation is reluctant to tackle the real issues that plague ordinary people.

For starters, Lesotho suffers an HIV infection-rate of 23 percent, a tragedy that has touched and traumatized every Basotho family. I’ve seen this first-hand, while preaching the virtues of Health Journalism here for two years. All along, I’ve cited Lesotho as enduring “the world’s third-highest rate” of HIV infection – among those within the most sexually active ages: 15 to 49 years old.

But while Basotho lawmakers play politics, Lesotho quietly achieved a bit of notoriety: the UN agency, UNAIDS, elevated Lesotho from third to second place. (Behind only Swaziland, our neighborhood’s other mountain kingdom.)

Curiously, Lesotho’s new ranking is not because the infection rate has risen.

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(This is Part VI of my six-part travelogue on the making of our documentary, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. For more about it, visit our Indiegogo site; for more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV & Part V.)

Monte and Samuel: two black golfers who've shared a remarkable journey. (Photo: Justin Keane)

Monte and Samuel: two black golfers who’ve shared a remarkable journey. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – I thank Derrick for his time, with sincere gratitude.

Getting him to say as much as he just did is a minor coup.

Honestly, I don’t know if Derrick was already planning to clear the air with Samuel – and even apologize. Or, after I presented him a noble path forward, he pounced on it like a life-preserver. Have I shaped the story? Time will tell. But if my outsider-influence nurtures progress, I can live with that consequence. (Could you?)

Moreover, it now dawns on me. Not only is The Clubhouse drilling deeper into the core of inter-communal relations within this one infamous farming town – and extracting some illuminating evidence of racial healing and black empowerment.

Now, thanks to Derrick’s angry slip of the tongue, we have a cliff-hanger, too.

Will they? … Or won’t they?

Will the Golf Club investigate the incident? And mete out tough punishment?

Will Derrick offer an apology? Will he do so willingly? Or unwillingly?

Even then, will Sam accept it? Will he be placated by how Club leaders deal with this nasty episode? Or, disgruntled, will he make good on his threat – and quit?

Likewise, if Charles is disappointed by his colleagues’ verdict, will he also quit?

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(This is Part V of my six-part travelogue on the making of our documentary, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. For more about it, visit our Indiegogo site; for more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV & Part VI.)

When it comes to race relations in The New South Africa, progress is two putts forward, one putt back. (Photo: Justin Keane)

Race relations in The Rainbow Nation: progress is two putts forward, one putt back. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – It’s not hard to figure out which golfer bellowed that dreaded insult, kaffir.

This fellow, Derrick, had already sent our crew a negative vibe, standing out from the friendlier folks with his gruffness. I hadn’t yet met him, but now need to confront him, respectfully: Why’d you use that word? And what will you do now?

I ask around at the Club for his phone number, explaining that I want to give Derrick a fair chance to explain his actions. Defend himself. Maybe, express remorse.

I don’t look forward to a combative call, though I prefer it to a gotcha-journalism that might force me to drive out to his farm. Where he may slam a door in my face. Or, greet me by the barbwire with snarling dogs and loaded shotgun. It’s a possibility, in a town that’s seen several white farmers killed in recent years.

Finally, on Tuesday morning, I get around to calling Derrick – 36 hours after the Sunday-afternoon incident. Minimally, I want reaction. Even a raging No comment! and abrupt hang-up is still a comment. It speaks volumes, no less.

Fortunately, my cameraman is a seasoned hand. He suggests, brilliantly: If you’re going to call him, let’s get the mic on you, put him on speaker – and film it.

(We’ll eventually stream this and other interviews on our website for The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story, preserving it as if in a time-capsule.)

As the phone rings for Derrick, my heart beats faster. A touch of anxiety. I need this potentially reluctant source to talk – and say something of real value.

And boy, does Derrick talk. Although, not at first.

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(This is Part IV of my six-part travelogue on the making of our documentary, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. For more about it, visit our Indiegogo site; for more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, Part V & Part VI.)

Samuel shoots, while Jonny looks on. (Photo: Justin Keane.)

Blacks, whites, golfing together. Par for the course in The New South Africa. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – Facing a fork in the road, white leaders of the Ventersdorp Golf Club beat their chests in despair and howled to the heavens.

“How can we denounce one of our own,” they wailed, “for cursing blacks the same way everyone did – and was completely normal – just 20 years ago?”

Ok, that’s probably not what’s unfolding inside The Clubhouse. Maybe there is no crisis of conscience. Maybe they sensed, instinctively, their course of action. I’ll never know. Because I’m outside, waiting on the terrace, pondering.

If they handle it well, then … Or, if they handle it poorly, then …

The conclusion’s the same, though. Either way, no matter what path they choose, our story is infinitely better. It’ll be much richer in texture.

What will surprise me, though, is how Club leaders will vow to take action.

One leader, at least. With a bold gesture.

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(This is Part III of my six-part travelogue on the making of our documentary, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. For more about it, visit our Indiegogo site; for more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part II, Part IV, Part V & Part VI.)

Allan Jones is no ordinary sheep-farmer. He's helped lead another flock toward racial equality. (Photo: Justin Keane)

Allan Jones is no ordinary South African sheep-farmer. He’s also helped lead a flock of golfers toward racial equality. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – In 2009, Allan Jones, a successful sheep farmer and progressive town councilman, was elected President of the Ventersdorp Golf Club.

And as The Clubhouse describes, Allan is also the local mover-and-shaker who would soon play the pivotal role in steering the whites-only Club to finally admit Sam and Monte as their first black members. A mere 15 years after Apartheid.

Allan seems an unlikely revolutionary – until you learn his back-story. During Apartheid, though he enjoyed the privilege of white skin, he also felt “marginalized” amid the white reign over the black majority. Reared in this heartland of Afrikaans-speaking Boers, who trace their roots to the hardy voortrekker pioneers of the 19th century, Allan instead descends from “the English” who later settled in the region.

Meanwhile, unlike the conservative Boers, Allan belongs to the Methodist church: one of the few places during Apartheid where blacks and whites sat as equals.

Fortunately for me, Allan was one of the first people I met in Ventersdorp, during my initial visit in April 2013. I’d read that he was the only white on the black-dominated Town Council, so wanted to ask how life had been flipped upside-down. It was Allan who sparked my idea for this film, by casually noting, “So much has changed, that our Club now has not one, but even two, black members.”

He bought into The Clubhouse – and cleared with Club leaders our full access to the golf championship. So at this moment, with us reacting to a dramatic twist to our story, it’s Allan I seek out. Again, to grease the wheels of Club cooperation.

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(This is Part II of my six-part travelogue on the making of our documentary, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. For more about it, visit our Indiegogo site; for more travelogue, here’s Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V & Part VI.)

Interviewing Samuel on the Ventersdorp Golf Course. (Photo: Justin Keane)

Interviewing Samuel on the Ventersdorp Golf Course. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – As we race back to the Golf Club, my mind churns with strategies and tactics for how to “cover” this story.

The white leadership granted us unfettered access to the course, the clubhouse, and the championship itself – trusting our intent to highlight actual positive progress in their infamous hometown. Yet now a K-word grenade has exploded in their faces.

For a white to spew kaffir at a black in “The Rainbow Nation,” twenty years after Apartheid – well, those are fighting words. Or worse. On the golf course, no less?

Yet it’s now past 5 in the afternoon, the golf tournament is winding down, and our natural light is dissolving. But here we are, car-bound, our crew and gear rattling over the ever-present potholes of provincial South Africa.

A few streets from the Club, we spot two of the black caddies, done for the day, walking along the road. Screeching to a stop, we bounce out and switch on the camera.

Both caddies are about 40, though their weather-beaten faces made them look much older. They began caddying in their early teens – during Apartheid, just like our black golfer-heroes, Samuel and Monte. However, while those two are now full-fledged members of the Club – and solidly middle-class – these two fellows are still just caddies. Hovering near the bottom rung of society. Their skin color no longer keeps them out of The Clubhouse; only their empty pockets do.

In a mix of English, Afrikaans and their native Setswana, they describe what happened on the course, expressing anguish that it’s been a “very long time” since they last heard the k-word – and spit with such venom.

“It was very painful for me,” recounts Henrik Petersen, who heard it up close. “I was feeling to fight, but it’s not right … As people, we must live together. That’s the way it is. He must respect us – as we must respect him.”

Fellow caddy Phillip Mazwi goes further, demanding justice.

“We are busy trying to build up, and this takes us back – to the Apartheid,” says Mazwi. “It’s discrimination. And they must take that whitey to the police station and open a case: for defamation of character.”

Defamation? I jot it in my journal. Even a caddy in The New South Africa now recognizes hate-speech when he hears it – and calls for legal action against it? (More evidence, I note, of how far the country has come.)

As we park back at the Club, I tell my cameraman: Keep the camera rolling.

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