The Sankofa Bird & Pioneers

Capturing the courageous spirit of SA Journalism

The Pioneers is one of our flagships sections. Since our launch we have developed this unique contribution to South African journalism into a showcase for our profession. Before the team takes a year-end break along with our founding partners, the students and staff at the University of the Free State, we reflect on the impetus behind this section of our website.

THE SANKOFA BIRD, a mythology emanating from Ghana, has the power to return to the past for seeds or lessons it may have left behind. The bird is then able to bring the forgotten kernels of knowledge into the present where it can be consumed. Ethiopian film artist, Haile Gerima, used this symbol of memory and restoration in his film Sankofa, to show descendants of slavery they are not condemned to the shackles of the past and can reimagine their destiny.

The story of the Sankofa bird begins to explain why The Journalist has been celebrating the Pioneers of South African journalism. The stories of the Pioneers allow us to travel back in time to learn from the life, struggles and work of South Africa’s great storytellers, carrying the seeds for the next generation of South African storytellers.

Meeting Ancient Storytellers

For the past few months The Journalist introduced our readers to the stories of the giants of South African journalism. We met //Kabbo, the /Xam-ka! warrior, visionary and storyteller. We were introduced to Tiyo Soga, known as “Nonjiba Waseluhlangeni” (Dove of the Nation), a composer, preacher, leader and one of the first editors of Indaba newspaper. We spent some time with Sol Plaatje, described as “a pioneer amongst pioneers” who was the first Secretary General of the African Native National Congress (now the ANC) and editor of the black owned newspapers Koranta ea Becoana and Tsala ea Batho. We got to know Nontsizi Mgqwetho described as poet, imbongi, political commentator and a renegade of her time. We stumbled into the “madhouse” as the editorial office of the iconic “Drum” magazine was called, where we met legendary journalists Nat Nakasa, Can Themba and Henry Nxumalo.

And now, after opening a story circle with some of South Africa’s pioneering journalists, what are the lessons or “seeds” to be gathered?

Some common threads that emerge is that most of these masters of the story arts come from indigenous communities who were adversely affected by European colonial expansion. Almost all of the Pioneers were steeped in ancient storytelling practices but were able to combine new media technologies with traditional knowledge. Another thread is how these Pioneers had managed to use the media as a tool to work toward a more equal and just social order.

Lives Lived Large

In a 1909 editorial, the APO newspaper published in Cape Town framed the historic mission of journalists in the following way:

“The white commercial press promotes only the rights of property for the few who have it, rather than the broad rights of humanity. It acts on the assumption that South Africa belongs to the whites… by rights of conquest.”

The profile of Sol Plaatje published here at The Journalist, described his efforts to document the social conditions of black people throughout the country during the early years of land dispossession, making use of first-hand accounts or interviews. In the opening words of his book, Native Life in South Africa, Plaatje wrote; “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Our profile on Bessie Head quoted her thoughts on the pain of being born as a person of colour in South Africa, which drove her to the pen. Head wrote; “There must be many people like me in South Africa whose birth or beginnings are filled with calamity and disaster, the sort of person who is the skeleton in the cupboard or the dark and fearful secret swept under the carpet”.

Driven by their historic mission to tell stories “in the interest of the broad rights of humanity,” many of the Pioneers innovated the craft, sometimes fusing it with indigenous forms. Tiyo Soga for example could blend indigenous storytelling forms with his sermons, translating hymns and wielding the printed word in the pages of Indaba. Nontsizi Mgqwetho a published poet managed to imbue her writing for Umteteli wa Bantu with the style of an imbongi or praise poet.

Another pioneer featured on the pages of The Journalist is Ruth First. Her pioneering human rights journalism is described as thorough and probing. Ruth First focused on social and labour journalism and was said to write up to 15 stories a week on poverty in the townships, gang violence and the bus boycotts. Using a participative approach to her writing, First participated in many of the protests she covered.

Celebrated recently was Drum journalist, Henry Nxumalo. In Mike Nicol’s book, A good- looking CORPSE, Henry Nxumalo is described as “Drum’s best journalist” and “the greatest investigative journalist South Africa has ever produced”. Nxumalo often donned disguises, went undercover, pretended to be a farm worker, got himself arrested, all as part of his journalistic mission to expose social inequality and to challenge unjust authority.

Memory Guides

So like the Sankofa bird, the stories of South Africa’s pioneer journalists, act as memory guides, transporting us back to the past where new generations of journalists are able to gather seeds or tools they can use in the battles to come, “in the interest of the broad rights of humanity”.

The clearest challenge to young journalists came from Suzette Nxumalo, who helped tell the story of her father Henry. She said, “There is a need for journalists to be courageous and spirited. They need to pursue their course with all they have, no matter the risk to their life and their well-being.”

As we use the end of year break to regroup, plan new strategies for 2015 and improve The Journalist we are confident that we will be your Sankofa bird, supplementing the courageous spirit of South African journalism.