A Soldier Armed with A Pen
By Shepi Mati
We reflect on the life and times of legendary editor Percy Qoboza who transformed The World newspaper from a sensationalist rag to one more in tune with the aspirations of Black South Africans suffering under apartheid.
Percy Qoboza was The World and The World was Percy Qoboza. The destiny of this newspaper was inextricably bound to the will and life experiences of its legendary editor.
A fellow journalist at the time, Thami Mazwai, describes how Qoboza impacted on the destiny of the paper. Mazwai recalls, before Qoboza took over the editorship of The World, ‘parents use to hide it from their children and the black community hated the publication with its stories of rape, murder, divorce and soccer’.
Qoboza, The World & Me
Allow me to share my own personal experience of these times. I bear witness to the courage of the journalism and of the writers of The World. As a teenager at secondary school in Port Elizabeth, I made it my pre- occupation to collect all the editions of the insert Learning World between 1976 and right up to the very last edition in 1977, when the apartheid government banned the paper. Through those pages I educated myself about the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) and its leaders – Tsietsie Mashinini, Dan Sechaba Montsitsi, Murphison Morobe, Tsofomo Sono, Khotso Seatlholo – as well as about science and African history. Sadly I was to lose this collection to one of those many police raids in the early hours of the morning in which everything was turned upside down by men who had no respect for privacy and dignity.
Early Life in Sophiatown
So who was Percy Qoboza? Percy Peter Tshidiso Qoboza was born on 17 January 1938 in Sophiatown, also known as Sof’town or Kofifi. His mother Flora and father Joseph lived in this sprawling freehold township where black people could own property. Qoboza grew up in this ‘close-knit, vibrant and lively community’ where ‘cooking, singing, washing, talking, learning, fighting, partying took place in communal yards and streets’. Life in Kofifi was hard but dominated by ‘cinemas, shebeens, jazz dens, political meetings and tsotsis or gangsters.’ Perhaps it was his experience of the harsh life of Kofifi coupled with ‘growing up in a devout Catholic household’ that made the young man ‘believe from an early age he was destined to become a priest’.
School and Responsibility
He began his schooling at St Cyprian’s Anglican School in Sophiatown. Then he went on to Pax Training College in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) in the then Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo). He then proceeded to Roma University Seminary in Lesotho to study priesthood. And by this time, he was already involved with the Young Christian Workers (YCW) where, according to Van der Walt, ‘he regularly attended religious camps and often touched on the social and political problems of black communities’.
Like many young black men of his age in the black community, he had to abandon his studies after only two years to get back home to take care of his father, who had suffered a stroke, and to look after his sisters.
And so in 1958 he found a job as a clerk with the Johannesburg City Council working at the municipal offices in Soweto. As time went on, he began to have an interest in politics and in 1960 he left his job to join the then all-white Progressive Party as a full-time organiser. This was kept a secret, as black people were not allowed to join whites-only parties. According to Van der Walt, ‘he was opposed to this secrecy and over the years he became known as an honest, courageous and articulate commentator on black oppression’.
It was at a YCW camp in 1962 that he met his future wife, Anne. They were both militants of this young Christian movement started by a Belgian priest Father Joseph Cadijn. His love for this young woman and his need to inform his community and encourage them to improve their situation changed the course of his life, says Van der Walt.
In 1963 Qoboza resigned as party organiser and went to work as a municipal reporter for The World.
Editor of The World
This was a white-owned daily newspaper targeting black readers. Although the paper had a black editor – a former teacher by the name of M.T. Moerane – white editorial directors – Derrick Gill and later Charles Still took editorial decisions. Both Gill and Still were put in place by the Argus Newspaper Group.
In 1967 Qoboza became acting news editor. And in 1974 he was appointed editor of the paper. One of the first things he did was to ask for the removal of the paternalistic editorial director. And he won.
Then the following year, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism. With his family, he spent a year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. This was to prove a turning point in his life. Of his time at Harvard, he writes:
“For the first time in my life, I could distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. The thing that scared me most was the fact that I had accepted injustice and discrimination as part of our traditional way of life. After my year, the things I had accepted made me angry. It is because of this that the character of my newspaper has changed tremendously.”
And the character of the times changed too. Inside the country, the black students were in the streets refusing to be taught in the medium of Afrikaans, Steve Biko was banned and restricted to Ginsberg in King Williams Town, the Afro hairstyle was the in-thing, as was wearing dashiki shirts while listening to Nina Simone’s “To be young, gifted and black”.
The trial of nine Black People’s Convention (BPC) and South African Students Organisation (SASO) leaders was on in the Pretoria Supreme Court. Mozambique and Angola became independent and the name Samora Machel was on the lips of every serious black youngster.
Transforming The World
Joe Thloloe, a fellow journalist, says Qoboza ‘changed the newspaper from being a soccer, witchcraft and crime sheet crafted out of a white perspective of what black people wanted, into a genuine voice for the black population’. He began to distribute educational supplements in his papers to help black learners overcome the deprivations of ‘Bantu Education’, and promote dialogue between black and white leaders. His office was always open for all who cared about the present and the future of the country. Here the Soweto Committee of Ten, led by Dr Nthato Motlana, was born.
As a Joe Thloloe recalls, Qoboza would send his driver to go and buy iskopo (sheep’s head) and he would sit and eat it there. He also loved his drink – neat brandy. Thloloe says on Sundays, Qoboza liked to send his handwritten leader for the Monday paper with his driver.
The change he brought about in the newsroom has been described as ‘a revolution’. And this changed The World as a newspaper. As Mazwai recalls, ‘within months [he] had changed it into something the black community became proud of.’
About The World in those days, Qoboza says, ‘we were an angry newspaper. For this reason we have made some formidable enemies, and my own personal life is not worth a cent. But I see my role and the role of those people who share my views as articulating, without fear or favour, the aspirations of our people. It is a very hard thing to do.’
Banning & Detention
On a certain Wednesday 19 October 1977, South Africa woke up to be greeted by the headlines “The World is banned!” Seventeen Black Consciousness organisations, including the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the South African Student’s Movement (SASM) were also banned. The Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) also joined the list of banned organisations. And so, within three years of assuming editorship of the paper, Percy Qoboza was detained at Modderbee Prison in Benoni. There he languished together with fellow journalists Aggrey Klaaste, Willie Bokaba, Godwin Mohlomi, Moffat Zungu, ZB Molefe and Duma ka Ndlovu. Joe Thloloe, Peter Magubane and Gabu Tugwana joined them later. They were held for five and a half months and were only released as a result of international pressure. Many like Mathatha Tsedu, Joe Thloloe and Don Materra were banned upon release.
As soon as he came out of detention, Qoboza was appointed editor of Post and Sunday Post, which had replaced The World and Weekend World. These two were forced to close down in 1980. And in 1981, Qoboza once more left for the United States where he spent time as a guest editor of the Washington Star. A book he wrote titled Comrade Pinkie, was banned in this country but published in the United States. In addition to the Nieman Fellowship, Qoboza received the Pringle Award of the South African Society of Journalists, the Golden Pen of Freedom of the International Publishers Association, and two Honorary Doctorates in Human Letters.
Although he could have chosen to go into exile, he returned to South Africa to continue the fight for freedom. On his return, he worked as an associate editor of the City Press, owned by the publisher of Drum magazine, Jim Bailey. The paper was then sold to the Afrikaans publishing company, Nasionale Pers. In 1986, Qoboza was appointed editor of City Press.
On his fiftieth birthday, 17 January 1988, Percy Peter Tshidiso Qoboza died in hospital after succumbing to cardio-respiratory failure. Thousands came out to honour this soldier of the pen ‘in a four-hour, police-restricted funeral in Soweto’s Regina Mundi Catholic Church.
An award for courageous and outstanding journalism bears his name. He had left a legacy of courage in journalism and the pursuit of the truth that has yet to be recognized and acknowledged.
Qoboza, Percy Peter, entry by E.A. Van Der Walt in the New Dictionary of SA Biography, p.190