Leslie Sehume: Neglected by history

Lifetime Achiever Award for pioneer journalist

Media stalwart Leslie Sehume, who previously got little recognition for his important work, last week received a Lifetime Achiever Award at the Vodacom Journalist of the Year award in Johannesburg.

Media leaders and journalism stalwarts whose stories and work are well documented are often celebrated by their peers – through awards, opinion pieces and other accolades. The more the media make this collective effort, the more the person is honoured and remembered.

But sometimes we have to ask ourselves if these efforts and achievements are more celebrated because their stories were told more and their contributions exceptionally documented? Either way, we can feel sure that they will never be forgotten and their names will be etched boldly in the archives of our media struggle history.

However, there are also those who took a more individual path on their media journey, who hoped to influence change from within an existing system. This choice would never be an easy path either. At times, it might even mean challenging the viewpoint of the majority who opposed the regime. Those who chose such path of individual effort would risk – and endure – anger, criticism and brickbats. Attempts at change from within may not have been well documented yet we should acknowledge that these efforts did happen. These journeys matter and can be critically measured and quantitatively evaluated. These contributions make our media landscape the tough mouthpiece it is today. These stories must be told and honoured.

So it with this in mind that the judges were unanimous in awarding this year’s Life Time Achiever Award to Leslie Sehume, popularly called Bra Les.

He was famous for enforcing army-like discipline in his news room. Journalists including Phil Mthimkhulu, Phil Nyamane, Joe Latakgomo (a former editor of Sowetan), Sekola Sello, Thami Mazwai, Siphiwe Nyanda and Aggrey Klaaste are known to have received a baptism of fire with Bra Les before they could get their chance at the news limelight. For Bra Les, it was less about who you were and where you came from, or who your uncle was. What mattered most to him was the quality and depth of copy you produced.

Sehume is known for his work for The World, Drum magazine, Golden City Post and he also edited The Mail of Bophuthatswana. A die-hard sports fanatic, he dared to speak out against the sports boycott during apartheid. As a member of the Committee for Fairness in Sport, his international lobby in this regard was well documented … “We black people didn’t make the laws. We suffered under apartheid laws. I couldn’t understand why we had to suffer again because of the sports boycott. A piece on the Sowetan Online refers: “Besides being one of the best sports and showbiz writers of his era, he dabbled in other things, such as music and training boxers. He wrote scores for the professional quartet in which he sang. One of his boxing charges, Jacob “Baby Jake” Ntseke, won the Transvaal lightweight championship in 25 seconds flat …”

Sehume paid a price for making his own voice heard and so far has been largely sidelined by media history. Yet he always retained the respect and affection of a newsroom generation. For example, the Chairperson of the SA Press Council and former Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, during his 2012 speech accepting his honorary doctorate at Rhodes University, credited Bra Les as being among the “family and friends who chipped away to bring out the person he is today”. Sehume has five children and, now retired and in his 70s, he enjoys his days with his former model wife, Merona.

Leslie Sehume’s acceptance speech

Good evening ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank all those who deliberated on this award. It is highly appreciated.

At the same time I would like to dedicate it to all, who with me in the 1950s, ventured into this career of journalism. We were abused, we were overworked, we were underpaid and we were exploited. As a result of which with dedication and with passion [we] tried to set out to inform, to educate and to entertain many of the people that we wrote for in our publications.

But we were underrated.

Not only that but we were hounded by the so called peace officers. The result of which many of my colleagues joined the ranks of Lord Bacchus, the lord of alcohol. They were honoured guests of shebeens all over the country.

Consequently many of them are no longer with us on this planet. They have gone to the pearly gates. Let their souls rest in peace.

Finally, I would like to thank my family who did not have a father or a husband who had a 9 – 5 personality. Not only that, he didn’t have weekends as a prerogative. In fact, he was on duty for 24 hours.

With that ladies and gentlemen I thank you all for your tolerance and listening to me.

– Leslie Sehume

2015 Vodacom Journalist of the Year Lifetime Achiever