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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 was published on July 28th by GlobalPost. A longer version was earlier published by The Lesotho Times and The Mantle in New York.)

Basotho women await immunizations for their infants outside a sunny, rural clinic. (Photo: mjj)

Basotho women await immunizations for their infants outside a sunny, rural health clinic. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Some rankings instill pride. Others instill shame, and should inspire every effort to get off that list.

Two years ago, in a report for GlobalPost, I described how tiny Lesotho, a landlocked country high in the mountains of southern Africa, achieved a first for the entire region: a peaceful handover of power from ruler to opposition.

Two years later, the Basotho people of Lesotho have quietly climbed the wrong list. UNAIDS, reporting the “hope that ending AIDS is possible,” now ranks Lesotho as suffering the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection; at 23 percent, the tragedy has touched nearly every Basotho family.

The rate of Lesotho’s HIV affliction hasn’t changed in a decade. The country, under a fragile coalition government, has become a case study for the limits of international development assistance, and a cautionary tale for what happens when a country is reluctant to tackle the real issues that plague ordinary people.

The Basotho resist the need to confront the broader health crisis that makes their country, by nearly every health indicator, one of the world’s sickliest.

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(The following commentary was published on July 24th in Lesotho, in The Lesotho Times. It was originally published in New York, on July 15th, on The Mantle.)

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 I of my six-part travelogue from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. It was published in New York on July 22, on The Mantle. To join our team, please visit our Indiegogo site. For more travelogue, here’s Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V & Part VI.)

Welcome to Ventersdorp. (Photo: Justin Keane)

Welcome to Ventersdorp. (Photo: Justin Keane)

VENTERSDORP, South Africa – Heading into this road-trip to shoot our documentary film on South Africa’s “most racist town,” I have one nagging fear.

And the drumbeat will grow louder as the weekend progresses.

My worry is not whether we’ll capture enough compelling scenes and “beauty shots” to bring The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story to life. (We will, as you’ll soon see in our new trailer.) Or, if I can press our soft-spoken hero, Samuel – the first black golfer to kick down the door of the all-white Golf Club in notorious Ventersdorp – to expose more of his psyche, and enable our audience to actually care about his heroic journey from dehumanized caddy to card-carrying member of the club. (He will, and then some.)

Instead, I fret over our film’s content: “racial healing and equal opportunity” in post-Apartheid South Africa. If not explored deeply enough, it may damage my reputation. For being too positive. Or in media parlance: “a puff-piece.”

After all, we’re talking about Ventersdorp – home of Eugene Terre’Blanche and his violent AWB movement. Three loyalists even fought to the death, defending Apartheid. So from this town, which even some local whites are still ashamed to call their own, our film will show smiling white golfers glad-handing black golfers?

For the first three-quarters of our weekend in Ventersdorp, during which we’re filming the 2014 Golf Club Championship, we shoot plenty of smiles and glad-handing of Samuel and his buddy, Monte, who joined him on his 15-year crusade to crack the Club’s color-barrier.

“We need to find an older member here who’s not happy with this situation,” I tell my South African partner, Danny Lurie. “We gotta get their voice in the film.”

Danny, weighing the wrath of his compatriots, agrees.

“Yeah, or the South African media may tear us apart, too.”

We journalists are often criticized for focusing on the negative, for ignoring the positive. Now we’re desperate to do the opposite: dig up dissent.

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(This is Part VI of my six-part travelogue from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. To join our team, please 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 from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. To join our team, please 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 from shooting our documentary film, The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story. To join our team, please 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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