Senior writer in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Communication and Marketing Department, Helen Swingler, retires at the end of this year. As this 25-year chapter of her career comes to a close, UCT News spoke to the wordsmith to get some insight into her time at the institution.
Swingler’s fascination with words began in her early years, when she would get lost in the pages of fantasy novels. The wondrous worlds she was reading about spurred her inquisitiveness; something that would be a great asset when she joined UCT decades later.
“I was a voracious reader as a child and wanted to be Enid Blyton when I grew up – I was a child of the colonial era. I wanted to inhabit the lands of The Faraway Tree and that sense of curiosity and the power of writing as a vehicle for imagination never left me,” she explained.
25 years of navigating the newsroom
She would join UCT after the birth of her daughter, having chosen to change tack slightly from a career in newspaper journalism and corporate communications.
Although she was aware that she would find the nature of the work at an educational institution engaging, Swingler didn’t necessarily foresee herself staying at UCT for 25 years. However, the interesting subject matter in which she could immerse herself and the many benefits that come with working at the university kept her on staff.
“UCT is a gold mine for anyone curious about the world and its people.”
“After a career in newspaper journalism and corporate communications, I came to this emporium of knowledge and knowledge makers and stayed for a quarter of a century. UCT is a gold mine for anyone curious about the world and its people.
“The range of stories and subjects I have been privileged to cover have stretched me in every way. From astrophysics and restorative justice to San and Khoi culture and oceanography to blast impact engineering and drug discovery, I was the child in the sweetshop!” she said.
“My third son was also born in these years, and UCT’s parent-friendly leave and working conditions ensured I returned. Thanks to the generous staff fees rebate, I was also able to see three sons study here (my daughter chose to study elsewhere, despite the ‘cute boys’ at UCT).”
While there have been many wonderful aspects about working at UCT, Swingler’s time at the university hasn’t been without challenges. From the stresses that came with heading up the newsroom to the often-difficult conversations and engagements that come with transforming an institution.
As tough as these times could be, though, her innate curiosity only fuelled her growth and encouraged her to see the learning opportunities that came with overcoming these obstacles.
“At one stage, I held the role of Head: News and Publications. It was a traumatic time, for more reasons than there is space for here. But I was fortunate to return to what I enjoy most. In that, I learnt that life is not linear, but often circular, to bring us back to our ‘sweet spot' – and ourselves. As TS Eliot writes in Little Gidding:
‘And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
“Other than that, there have been significant changes in these 25 years. The move from paper-based to electronic communications, the recent advent of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT. Social media has become the opium of the masses, although it does have a central role in a well-constructed and ethical communications strategy,” she added.
“There has been dramatic transformation at UCT (I am viewing this from the late 1970s when I studied here). That’s not been an easy journey. The years 2015 to 2017 changed UCT forever but came with hidden costs. Many ‘ordinary’ staff still hold trauma. That is an untold story. But the vital debates about gender, race, culture and knowledge-making have enlarged my thinking – and in turn, I was able to take those debates home to my children.”
Crafting community through personal narratives
Throughout her career, Swingler has always enjoyed writing about people. Whether writing about scientific breakthroughs or the maintenance of the university campus, her mission has been to shine a light on the people who make UCT great.
“I always tried to present the human faces behind the discoveries, the laboratory work, the publications, the awards, the administrative and support work. Putting names and faces together was an important part of building UCT’s community,” she explained.
“Some examples are the gardener who tended the heritage gardens of Welgelegen and the Irma Stern Museum on middle campus. The electrical engineering staffer who was part of a band that played at Kenya’s first country music festival, the neurosurgeon who could have been a concert pianist.”
“Trauma requires a different journalistic approach. A question-and-answer format does not work as the narrative flows here and there, in and out of time and place. It was a lesson in listening and absorbing.”
Impactful and important as all of the stories she mentions are, the one that has been the standout for her is that of Dr Julius Okello, a Ugandan child soldier “who managed, against inhuman odds, to survive the civil war and complete a PhD at UCT”.
“He approached me out of the blue. He had been hounded by news agencies interested in writing his life story. But he asked me because I shared a first name with a missionary in Uganda who was the start of his imagining a different life. Serendipitous,” she said.
“The challenge was to keep the news lead alive while Julius was doing his PhD fieldwork in Uganda − and to be ready when he was ready to tell his story – and providing a safe space for him to do so.
“Trauma requires a different journalistic approach. A question-and-answer format does not work as the narrative flows here and there, in and out of time and place. It was a lesson in listening and absorbing.
“The tragedy, the inhumanity of child soldiers, of civil war in Africa, his will to survive, his hope and endurance, and the tenacity to see his PhD through touched me deeply. I will never forget him.”
Outstanding achievements in penmanship and parenthood
In a world where fewer and fewer people are cultivating careers and opting rather to hop around a variety of different jobs, Swingler is a rarity. Her commitment to her craft and her enthusiasm for learning have meant that she has not only been able to continuously find joy in writing, but also become terrific at it.
“I learnt that everyone and everything has a story, sometimes several. Writing in this way is like unpicking a tapestry and then ‘threading’ the pen with different colours to recreate and highlight parts of the whole that describe a particular chapter,” she said.
“I learnt how to translate technical subjects into accessible information (hours of research). And a careful vetting process – essential to building trust – ensured the integrity of the final copy. I learnt to listen and always to ask: ‘Is there anything else you’d like to add?’ This often elicited the gems.”
Swingler has had many triumphs over the course of her career, but there are two that stand out in her mind as her greatest achievements.
“To them I want to say thank you. You are the stars in my universe.”
“The International Association of Business Communicators Gold Quill Awards for the story on Julius (it is his award) and for The dead speak in a universal language, about the experiences of three medical students of different cultural backgrounds when first faced with cadaver dissection. I was interested to know how each dealt with cultural taboos and restrictions when dealing with death and the dead. No student brings the same life experience to campus,” she explained.
“Second, and it may sound trite, raising four children largely as a single parent in those years. It was highly chaotic and stressful, but it is the achievement that is most meaningful to me.
“I want to pay tribute to them for staying the course with me; waiting hours in the car while I attended meetings, launches, lectures. They slept on makeshift couches in the Welgelegen attic office while we put the Monday Paper to bed late on Thursday nights. To them I want to say thank you. You are the stars in my universe.”
Life beyond the newsroom
After 25 years of service at UCT, Swingler intends on slowing down slightly, but has no plans on putting a stop to learning. Besides a little relaxing, she plans to start exploring some of life’s bigger questions.
“First, a ‘sabbatical’: cricket at Newlands when the Proteas play India and a Summer School course on nature writing,” she revealed.
“Then comes the serious life review, taking up Socrates’ challenge that ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ (I hope it’s not too late). Second, is answering a question that Richard Rohr, a contemplative Franciscan whose writing I love, asked on his own retirement, ‘What, now, is mine to do?’
“Third, is the fun part: early-morning swims, getting onto my bike and into my walking shoes. My husband has gone into hiding as the map with roads going nowhere has come out to play. And then there is a gorgeous small boy who surely needs his gogo to lead him astray (in a nice way) – and teach him useful stuff, like how to hide his peas.”
Before she dives into all of that, though, she would like to express her gratitude to all of the people whose stories she has reported on during her time at UCT.
“Last, a heartfelt thank you to all those who entrusted me with their thoughts and work over so many years. You have enriched me in ways you will never know,” she said.
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