Michelle Galloway

Media veteran Mathatha Tsedu is writing an autobiography detailing his life as a political activist and media warrior from his beginnings as a young boy who was born in rural Limpopo.

Mathatha Tsedu, veteran journalist and writer-in-residence at STIAS is a familiar face in the media landscape. He has served as editor of City Press and Sunday Times, he has been deputy head of news at SABC and head of the Media 24’s Journalist academy. Added to his many accolades is chairperson of the African Editors Forum and the SANEF. He was recently honoured by President Cyril Ramaphosa, during the awarding of National Orders at a ceremony in Tshwane.

Tsedu is also a writer-in-residence at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) and presented a seminar to STIAS fellows on his autobiographical book project with the working title And Still I Rise. At the seminar he talked about what it means to write an autobiography, the collective story of South Africans and black pain.

“My project is an autobiography. Whilst an autobiography inevitably centres around the author, I am shying away from it being about me,” he said. “I attempt instead, and hope the method will succeed, to tell the story of our people in the time that I lived, and my role, however small, in that part of our collective story.”

Tsedu’s autobiography will chronicle his extensive work in the media industry, his childhood on a white-owned farm in rural Limpopo and his life in a freehold township destroyed in the 1960s during mass removals. His mother died when he was five and his father lost his job when the young Tsedu was in primary school. In an interview with News 24 he talked about how little his family had. “I grew up in a family that had nothing, but there were people in the community who looked after me. If there’s something I can distill into a life philosophy based on this background, it is that I must always be worthy of the efforts of those who helped me,” he said at the time.

He says political literature that he was introduced to in his youth paved the way to his activism, which eventually led to his detention, torture and banishment.

His book will also trace his political awakening into the Black Consciousness Movement, his work in trade unions and the fight for agricultural workers’ rights through the Farm Workers Union. “I am essentially a black consciousness person – not within a party, not the ANC, not the PAC,” he said.

Tsedu treated STIAS fellows to a reading of the chapter entitled ‘The Banning’ which covers his three-year banning and house arrest from 1981 to 1984 which preceded his eventual detention.

“The three-year ban meant I couldn’t work, go to school, attend meetings or leave the municipal district. I had to be inside between 7pm and 6am with no visitors. It’s easier to list what I could do,” he said. “The chain of slavery had become short.”

He also described the anxiety leading up to the banning when his colleagues in the Media Workers Association of South Africa were being targeted one by one. “We wondered who would be next. It felt like it was a cat toying with a cornered rat. In a way it was better to get it over and done with. Detention, imprisonment, torture and banishment were almost inevitable – it was like our national service.”

Tsedu said that the hardest part of being banned was not being able to have freedom of movement and says that the trauma of those times has stayed with him well in the democratic era of South Africa. He did not go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and believes that the commission “traded justice in the interest of reconciliation”. He believes two main issues were compromised during the transition, the land issue as well as the lack of justice and reparations for the violence inflicted during apartheid.

“It’s difficult to exactly pinpoint where things went wrong. Much of the negotiations with Mandela happened while he was still in prison. By the time he was released the framework had been agreed…We opted to apologise and go in peace. This worked for a while in the euphoria of the Rainbow Nation but even by 1999 when Mbeki became President it was wearing thin. People are questioning these issues in the streets today. They are tired of waiting and want to see the benefits of freedom,” he said.

Tsedu said there are very specific links in his autobiography and he wants readers to make the connections between what happened to a young boy in a faraway rural village to the historical story of black pain and the national struggle to end that pain.

“It’s always very difficult to write about me,” he said during his presentation. “The only way is, while I’m inside the story I’m not the central point. The book must serve other purposes.”