Beauregard Tromp is looking forward to stepping up as convener of the African Investigative Journalism Conference. Photo by Paul Botes.

By Stuart Dickinson: Veteran investigative journalist and editor Beauregard Tromp is set to take the reins of the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC), one of the continent’s flagship journalism gatherings. The conference, hosted annually by the Wits Centre for Journalism at Wits University, brings together journalists, media professionals, academics and publishers for three packed days of networking, lectures and training.

Tromp will replace Anton Harber, who has led the conference for 19 hugely successful years, and who is set to retire from Wits at the end of 2024.

“Anton and the team have been doing an incredible job with AIJC for nearly two decades now. It takes a team to do this, and what a team it is,” says Tromp, who has been “looking over Anton’s shoulder” in the planning and run-up to the 2023 conference.  

“Taking over is a daunting task but one that I’m excited about. If you spoke to me about doing this 10 years ago, I would have said ‘not a damn’,” he laughs. “But I think in a way journalists are a little self-serving, and we have bigger egos than most. Ten years ago I was more self-serving, and I’d like to think I’ve become a lot less so. I’ve spent that time thinking about how I might be able to meaningfully contribute to our profession, a profession that has been so good to me.” 

Tromp is Africa Editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), working with a team of editors and journalists to conduct cross-border investigations on the continent.

“My current role at OCCRP is a real privilege, and an opportunity to redefine a relationship that has historically been exploitative. My primary purpose is to empower my colleagues across the continent with resources and access, enabling them to tell stories critical to their audiences. With teams of data journalists, researchers and investigators across the world, OCCRP is better equipped than most. I know how a lack of finances can curtail our best ambitions as investigative journalists,” he says. “I’ve visited colleagues throughout Africa cracking away with the most meagre of resources and under constant threat. The mission is to be a true partner and have our colleagues dictate their own narrative.”

During an illustrious career spanning more than three decades, Tromp has travelled across Africa covering major events like the Second Congo War – fought in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1998, Burundi’s civil war, and the Arab Spring. He was there when peace came to the DRC in 2002, when Daniel arap Moi eventually relinquished power in Kenya, and when Zimbabwe began to implode.

Here in South Africa, he was “the only scribbler in a sea of snappers” on the scene when Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, a Mozambican national who later became known as “The Burning Man”, was killed during the spate of xenophobic violence which rocked the country in May 2008. 

“I tried to make it more than just the moment [of his killing], and I think my experience on the continent really helped me do that. I tried to discover who Ernesto was, what had happened in the run-up to his murder. I think that helped provide greater depth for South Africans to understand what was going on with these xenophobic attacks through the lens of that single story,” says Tromp. 

That body of work won him the CNN/Multichoice Africa Journalist of the Year, South African Journalist of the Year for what was then known as the Mondi Shanduka Awards, and the Vodacom Journalist of the Year. Five years later he was there again when Emmanuel Sithole was killed in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg. 

But back then, warzones and hotspots of political upheaval were more appealing than positions of management, which Tromp actively steered clear of. However, he explains the trajectory of his career changed when he met and forged a strong friendship with Ludovic Blecher, who is currently the head of Google News Initiative Innovation, during their time as Nieman fellows at Harvard University in 2013. 

“Ludovic became managing editor of French newspaper Libération at a very young age – 28 or 29 – and I remember asking him why he would ever want that role. He said the problem with journalists is that we’re ‘always waiting for somebody else to do it’. We’re ‘always complaining about how crap things are’, but none of us want to step up. So, he decided enough of that, he’s stepping up [to enact the changes he wants to see]. I was really inspired by that, and since then I’ve been trying to step up, be more useful and serve my profession,” says Tromp. 

Tromp returned to South Africa and worked for the Sunday Times for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian (M&G) as temporary news editor, and then deputy editor.

“Working in that role [from 2014 to 2020] was honestly one of the most exciting periods of journalism for me. The M&G had been going through a very difficult period, but we [Tromp and editor at the time, Khadija Patel] managed to get some exciting, young and more experienced, new journalists in and transform the newsroom significantly. There was a buzz about the place, and a lot more input coming from the newsroom floor about the direction we should go in.

“We ran with some legends. Truly brilliant and committed journalists. We’d fight hard for our point of view. We would have big arguments, but we never brought titles into it. The deputy editor and a junior reporter could go at it and still have that respect for each other. It was brilliant, I loved it,” says Tromp.  

“We put a lot of exciting projects in place there. We launched The Continent, which is doing so exceptionally well now, and one of the innovations that I can proudly say I brought to M&G was the Slice of Life feature. I had seen a similar feature at the St Petersburg Times, a now defunct newspaper out of Florida, in a series they called 300 Words.

“As the name suggests, it gave a glimpse into slices of everyday lives across the country, like one might hear a story at a bar, a family gathering or a birthday party. It became so popular that some people would tell us it was the first thing they would turn to in the newspaper – they didn’t want to consume heavy, hard news all the time. They wanted something that made them laugh or cry or simply go ‘hmmm’; something insightful.”      

After his time at M&G, Tromp joined OCCRP as Africa Editor, and in the continued spirit of stepping up, now prepares to take on the additional role as convenor of the AIJC with gusto. 

“I’m duty-bound to share the things I’ve learnt with my peers not only here in South Africa, but across the continent. I’m excited to bring to bear the vast range of experiences I’ve had practicing journalism in Africa to AIJC and add to the great wealth of knowledge that the team already brings. As journalists we have to make ourselves valuable, if not invaluable, and AIJC is a great way to take on new skills. 

“There is a constant change that happens in life, and journalism reflects the constant changing of our world. We won’t look to reinvent the wheel [in bringing new elements to the conference]. People want to see some consistency, but you also have to give participants a new reason to attend year after year. Ultimately the conference can’t just be, ‘Oh I’m meeting up with old friends’. It has to be critical; it has to help inform and improve the quality and value of investigative journalism across Africa, which it has done so exceptionally well over its long history. I can’t wait to get going.”   

WCJ director, Dinesh Balliah, adds: “Anton Harber is a giant in South African journalism, and I am grateful for his tireless leadership of the conference, and of the WCJ, for most of its history. It is quite an ask to replace someone like him, but I have no doubt in Tromp’s ability to rise to this challenge and quickly make his mark on the AIJC. I am grateful that Harber is mentoring Tromp into the role of conference convenor which we expect him to take over fully in 2024.”

The 19th African Investigative Journalism Conference takes place from 20 to 22 November at Wits University. Keep an eye on the WCJ’s social media channels for updates.