1998 • Journalism and Media Award

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As a journalist and producer, Sylvia Vollenhoven has a powerful tool at her disposal to raise the awareness of South Africa to both the local and international public. 

Communication has been her strength since she first started her newspaper career in 1975 at the Cape Herald, a newspaper catering mainly for the colored people of the Western and Eastern Cape.  This newspaper was, however, closed by its white owners as it was considered a political risk at the time. 

Whilst employed by the Cape Herald, Sylvia attended the prestigious Cadet Journalism School at the Star newspaper in Johannesburg and she subsequently found employment with the Sunday Times. At that time the Sunday Times was published with separate supplements for each ethnic group.  Although Sylvia found this frustrating, she was writing at a time of enhanced black student politics and had an outlet to raise awareness of political issues that would not otherwise be included in the main paper.

She later joined the Argus newspaper where she concentrated on in-depth features mainly about the effect of apartheid laws on peoples lives.  Sylvia then returned to the Sunday Times but started her freelance career at the same time.  Writing for overseas publications gave Sylvia the opportunity to tell the unfolding South African story with an honesty and openness that would have prevented those stories being published in local newspapers. 

It was around this period that she joined a group of journalists who pressured the government by publishing several newspapers and news sheets containing stories that mainstream newspapers were unable, or unwilling, to publish. She was approached by the Swedish daily, Expressen, to become their local correspondent and this allowed her to travel widely, covering South African-related events such as the Paris Indaba (talks) between leading South Africans and the exiled ANC executive.

Her success at Expressen led her to being awarded Sweden's main journalism prize offered by the Publicist Klubben, a prestigious academy of writers and publishers.  It was the first time that a non-Swede had been awarded this prize which Sylvia was given for "doing a brave, professional job under difficult circumstances". 

Such was Sylvia's international success that the State-run SABC approached her to join thirteen other journalists on a three country training course that would lead to the group defining the SABC's training for news broadcasts and current affairs staff.  The Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI) was founded by these journalists, with Sylvia as director, and this became the pressure group that steered the corporation's transformation into a public broadcaster. 

Sylvia's work at the SABC progressed from news anchor to presenter of current affairs programs such as Face to Face and Focus on One.  She has since produced several documentaries profiling people and examining local issues. 

She has been honored by several international organizations for her contribution to journalism and, in particular, her reporting on South Africa.  Sylvia has presented papers, interviewed international leaders and has been published worldwide. In addition to her heavy workload, Sylvia is a member of the Women's Institute for Leadership, Development and Democracy – an organization that prepares women from poor areas for opportunities that open up in the public and private sectors, as well as helping battered and abused women. 

She also serves on the Advisory Committee for the African Women's Media Centre in Dakar, Senegal where the Centre fosters career advancement for individual women whilst strengthening the role women play in the African media.