Madala Thepa

Death recently snatched Veteran journalist and writer Zubeida “Juby” Mayet, a woman who had first-hand experience with the erstwhile apartheid system while practising journalism. She was an octagenarian whose full story had yet to be told in the memoirs she was working towards before her passing. The writer –  Madala Thepa –  is one of the fortunate few who managed to have a conversation with her almost three years ago and now shares fond memories of his experience in her company.

Meeting Juby Mayet, was like visiting with mom. Long white hair sitting at her waist, she came across like a mystic even though her oeuvre was journalism. The mysticism was warm and inviting – she was great company any time of day. She seemed to have been around when manners were still handed out at home.

It was 2016 when I first sat down with Mayet (or “Auntie”, as I liked to call her) but it was also my last, a theatre ticket for the last show so to speak. I still remember that it was around May 2016, a year that was relevant in terms of South African politics. The dice was firmly stacked against the ruling political class. The people of South Africa wanted change. They pinned their “what if” dreams to the ANC Polokwane conference, wondering whether they got a fair recompense for their work of getting former president Jacob Zuma to the highest seat in the land. Anyway, Auntie was waiting for me at the gate with a lit cigarette in hand and a smile on her face, glad that I had not lost my way.

Entering her cottage, it was clear that this was a writer’s workspace. Mayet seemed to want for nothing but a pack of ciggies and her daily newspapers so that she could do her crosswords and catch up on the news. She had a computer in her room, books, a television, a printer and newspapers. She received me with interested engagement and I was never made to feel unimportant.

Like visiting a family member, she offered tea, coffee, a fizzy drink and cookies. On her fifth ciggie she asked if I smoked, looked at the pack, rattled it in her hands and decided there were too few to share. The room filled with smoke as we delved into her memories, even though she refused to hold too tightly to the past.

Mayet was born Zubeida Mayet in 1937 in Fietas, Johannesburg. She served in the national executive committees of the Union of Black Journalists and the Writers Association of South Africa, forerunners of Media Workers Association of South Africa.

She had been living in Lenasia, in her words, ‘as an Indian woman since 1968’. She was never Indian before. She was reclassified from Malay to Indian by the Minister of the Interior under the Population Registration Act of 1950.

According to South African History Online Mayet was detained for five months in 1979 and was held under the Internal Security Act at the Fort Prison, in Johannesburg. Upon her release, the State served her with a five year banning order under the Internal Security Act. She and her family suffered continued police harassment and surveillance. She explained that the security branch used to call her ‘Dai Koolie met die Lang Hare’.

She wrote for a range of publications such as City Post, Drum, UBJ Bulletin Asizothula, The Voice and The Worker. At Drum she worked alongside veteran journalists such as Can Themba, Es’kia Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane and Casey Motsisi. She started writing a memoir in 1997. With an easy laugh she said the book was supposed to be called ‘Dai Koolie met die Lang Hare’ or ‘Mayet Meandering through the Mist of Time’. She was excited about the memoir, but at that time said she was lazy to write. “I should write but reading takes up all of my time. Everybody has been bothering me about this book,” she said.

She paused and took a long drag. “I’m used to deadlines with the editor breathing down my neck. But somebody said one day you will have your ‘dead’ line,” she said.

During my visit she searched for an old briefcase which held pieces of her life – pictures dipped in sepia of friends, family and her favourite writers Can Themba and Joe Tlholoe, and some newspaper clippings.

“I just opened a can of worms, hey,” she said of the briefcase. “You can spend three days here you won’t finish the material that I have here. I should include some of these in my memoir.”  She was eager to show me the article she wrote on the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Her career was long and rich, and in it she challenged censorship, exposed corruption and recorded the forced removals of the Group Areas Act.

Mayet died in her home in Lenasia at the age of 82.