A tribute to Harry Mashabela
Suzette Nxumalo Mafuna
Harry Mashabela, veteran journalist and writer passed away in August. His novels depict aspects of life in Soweto and black people’s endless struggles against an obstinate and racist South African dictatorship. He hoped that exposing police brutality would help garner support for the black struggle.
Veteran journalist and writer, Harry Mashabela, passed away on 23 August 2019 after a long battle with cancer. He was 89 years old. Mashabela was a journalist, writer and researcher who, according to The South African National Editors’ Forum, was a “thorn” in the side of the apartheid authorities. Mashabela was a reporter for the Rand Daily Mail and was arrested together with other seasoned journalists under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act on 29 July 1976 up to 1977. Mashabela also worked for The Star, Golden City Post and the Financial Mail among others.
“Sanef is deeply saddened by this loss to the media industry. We send our deepest condolences to the Mashabela family and colleagues across the media industry,” the organisation said. “May his soul rest in peace.”
Mashabela authored Townships of the PWV (1988), A People on the Boil (1987) and Mekhukhu: Urban African Cities of the Future (1990). He also penned numerous articles. He was the director of a scholarship fund that was founded in the early 1970s by African-Americans civil rights leader Andrew Young, among others, and he was deputy chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Council of Black Education and Research and also of the African Writers’ Association.
Some of Mashabela’s best work was his coverage of the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976. For him, June 16 was not an isolated incident but a culmination of the historical betrayal of black people by apartheid regime. His success in telling the story of this historical day was mainly due to his sharp nose for a story, community connections and underground communication with political operatives, which guaranteed him cooperation and protection from the system that kept him and his media colleagues under close and constant surveillance.
The 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread throughout the country profoundly changed the South African landscape, with thousands of students and high school learners mobilised by the South African Students Movement’s Action Committee and the Black Consciousness Movement. Thousands marched peacefully and were met by heavily armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students.
His book, A People on the Boil is a reflection on the 1976 uprising in Soweto from the perspective of a reporter and provides context and background for the historical events of that day. Speaking to the BBC about the book, Mashabela recalls the scene and being assured by a black policeman that no harm would befall the protesting crowds. He recalls turning to a black policeman and asking “are you really going to kill our children?”
The policeman’s bold “no” was interrupted by the booming sound of gunshots and a cloud of billowing black smoke that seemed to smother the environment and brought home to the writer a new realisation that he could no longer be a spectator. He had a responsibility as a somewhat privileged black journalist and humanitarian to make his own contributions towards the emancipation of his people.
Mashabela explained police cruelty as the reason for his rage and uncontrollable urge to write about the immense suffering of his people. He hoped that exposing police brutality would help garner support for the black struggle.
Mashabela was born to Morwamakgari and Molefe Mashabela at Machacha in 1931. He was the second of six children and grew up looking after his parents’ cattle and goats. At the age of 14, in 1945, while herding his father’s livestock, he learned about a friend who had started school. He had never been to school because the only mission school was eight miles away from the village and while the idea of going to school had never occurred to him before, he immediately went to tell his father that he wished to enrol.
“When do you want to go to school?” His father asked.
“In the morning,” said Mashabela.
“But who is going to take the cattle to the dip if you go to school in the morning?” His father asked.
“I will start at the dip with the cattle and then I go to school,” Mashabela insisted.
Though his parents had never been to school, his father supported him wholeheartedly and even accompanied him all the way to his new missionary run secondary school at Mokalapa Primary school run by one teacher from a church hall in Mokalapa Village, in Pietersburg (now Polokwane). He noted his mother’s disappointment who could not understand why her son preferred school when his peers in the village were all working to support their families.
He took his education very seriously, and with the help of a teacher, he completed his primary school education in just two years. He then enrolled at the then Jane Furse Combined Junior Secondary School in 1947 and completed his standard 5 and standard 6 in 1948 and continued on to Khaiso High School, a missionary boarding school, in 1949. In addition to studying towards his Matric, he also studied writing through the Cape Town international Correspondence School and photography through the New York Institute of Photography.
Being a writer and journalist, Mashabela had his fair share of run-ins with the police. He faced detentions, constant hounding and harassment by the special branch, culminating in a vicious assault which broke his neck and left him semi-paralysed. But his recollection of events was excellent to the very end. He remembered dates, settings, locations and the names of the deceased. He remembered Winnie Mandela’s military chant. He remembered the religious hymn which Tsietsi Mashinini led the students to sing while leading the1976 march.
Mashabela was self-effacing, and quite reticent to engage in personal discussions. He had a deep, commanding voice and was guarded and self-preserved, with the dignity of a black man who is a proud product of his traditional family heritage. He never seemed too eager to entertain small talk with strangers or engage in frivolous matters of a social nature or gossip. And he never let up, no matter what it took. Whether it be school or telling the stories of his countrymen, he remained focused on whatever task he set out to do. His was a life well lived.
This is an edited version of the original article which can be downloaded here.