Bongani Mandodo

Bongani Madondo pays tribute to Journalism’s “Man of Letters”

The Pimville born and bred journalist Zuluboy Molefe, who went by the initials “ZB”, with his professorial look and low-voltage voice, was on the quite side of things. But his send off at the Protea Community Hall on the other hand evoked memories of holly rollers and mobile spiritual tents.

The sort of evangelical tents that for a while in the 1970s-1980s wheeled from place to place with pastors whipping mostly women and chirren, the poor and the infirm into trances as the main attraction. Theatrical Black Theology in praxis.

Although at ZB’s it wasn’t so much the drama as the spirit taking responding to the proceedings conduction. Conducted by the ebullient  MC, veteran journalist Phil “Bra Chippa” Molefe, the service resembled a blues, jazz, ragtag, funk and African gospel gumbo. Anecdotes, hot quips from family and friends, and musical traditions ranging from the blues to amaHobe entangled and climaxed into a multi-tribunal river of sounds of blackness.

ZB was the sort of music digging type simply and deeply deferred to as a “jazz cat.” That’s less of an affectation than merely a cognitive awareness of the global black traditions of jazz.

In turn or recipro-creatively, ZB utilised the searching, lyrical and questioning sonic traits of jazz in his daily work as a journalist. He understood instinctively the metaphor and parallels between a loaded solo, as improvisation, and writing, an improvisational exercise itself, within the confines of space and media ownership, while delivering the message to his people.

It’s a trapeze act mastered mostly by black folks, the poor, differently abled and women: The besieged, as it were.

ZB did not live for jazz or with jazz. He jazzed lived. Which is to say he lived  by the exacting tenets of jazz as soundtrack to the multivalent black experience(s). Jazz as life philosophy. Jazz=Jah Is: The music of God, from the outhouse to the church house.

It was not surprising then that the taped anthology of Duke Ellington, Sonny Stitt, Gene Harris, Count Basie featuring Ray Brown, and whiffs of John Coltrane especially in his godly gaze towards the East and Africa, the ’Trane of Om and Ascension, piped from the hired sound system, lent the ceremony its indigo  upbeat air.

The séance within which we were all entranced, hovering above us in the same manner his presumably approving spirit looked down on us, almost countenanced the chest-tightening pain his friends, in particular two former colleagues Mike “Sponono” Mzileni and Sekola Sello went about recounting the exit years that characterised ZB’s departure from the profession.

Mzileni’s testimony was not for the faint hearted. He stepped on stage and poured out a narrative about how the paper ZB gave his life for City Press, rewarded him by hounding him out of the newsroom to make way for greenhorns.

To listen to Mzileni in particular tell the story of how deeply defeated in his soul ZB was in his last years in the newsroom, and how quickly forgotten he was immediately after, was an aural, classical lesson in tragic grief.

“As the paper celebrated its 30th anniversary with a fancy shindig, ZB was conspicuous by his absence. Somebody forgot to invite him. It was deliberate. It was not long after he was forced to go into early retirement.” The sound of Duke Ellington, Stitt, ’Trane and ’em Live at the Five Spots, also went needle-pin mute.


You could hear the sounds of the Chattanooga steam train chugging along and up in our tummies as we struggled to keep tears in check. Men, usually the weakest links, started to file outside for a smoke, one drop a time. I was one of them.

ZB Molefe’s career as a reporter and literary buff, his place in the African ink-sport canon, his quiet intelligence, from the days of the 1970s Post has been well documented elsewhere by proximally better journos and even far gifted scribes.

Colleagues such as Len Kalane, Suzette Mafuna and Sandile Memela, Sbu Mseleku and more have supplied the requisite, contesting testy-monials in spaces ranging from online publications to that filter-free mosh pit of the rock ’n rolling buffoons with too much time on their hands, Facebook.

Hopefully, and with the benefit of hindsight, much more cogent further  notes on his life and specifically, the time they lived in will be composed in weeks, months, and eons to come.

Looking at ZB’s colleagues it struck me as odd that the late 1960s to late 1980s journalism generation is much more understudied, definitely less romanticised than their 1950s forebears were even though they were far deeper in the bull’s eye of the storm for a full generation.

I speak for many but not all when I say the passing of ZB and others before him is particularly resonant in our hearts, because they were the very best the profession has ever seen.

Indeed, ZB’s work and versatility, from reporting on and analysing the literary and culture wars of his time to venturing into political journalism was formidable any which way you look at it.

In fact as with the current screeds by Barney Mthombothi, the lyrical beauty of Joe Tlholoe, in-your-face craftsmanship of Jon Qwelane, sonic impressions of Thomas Kwenaite, and of course incisive, seductive narrative skills of Suzette Mafuna, erudition and high-ballast of Aggrey Klaaste, combative dance of Thami Mazwai, and a whole lot of others, ZB and the very sublime of his generation illustrated a truism that still elides whoever is left in the newsroom: Writing is both an act of war and a practice in love.

At the heart of that they are all the proof we need that writing and all journalism, specific beats be damned, is cultural reportage.

That culture and aesthetical considerations are at the heart of all timeless journalism. And yet that is not the reason why grown-up men and women of the trade have suddenly gone all gooey and, wet-eyed over ZB’s passing. We are weeping for ZB as much as we are for the passing of an era.

With his knee length khaki coat and countless Saville Row tailored suits, pipe aslant on the corner of his mouth, and his love for English verse,  African rural anecdote and take no prisoners attitude ZB was not only a “jazz cat” but a Fleet Street feline master among  the wildest and most elegant of cats.

I first experienced ZB in the winter of 1994 at City Press a fart’s distance from Doorenfontein rail station. I had tumbled into the newsroom straight from Hillbrow’s crime infested boulevards, alleyways swinging with New Jack rare groove; a place oppie-koppie where I led an itinerant life of a hopeless short-fiction writer pining after the “golden” days of Sophiatown, which of course were not so golden, The Beat Generation and the New Journalism.

Folks such as Bloke Modisane, Lillian Ross, down to Pete Hamill meant everything to me. Men and women who could sling arrowed sentences right into your heart with the precise poetic economy and leave you for dead or revived, just at the subliminal beauty of it all.

I nursed dreams of joining the South African version of the Algonquin Gang with its home-grown, nicotined  jive talkers.

I could neither type nor go out on the beat by myself. ZB kept watch over the young naïve young guns from a close-distance, sometimes over his reading glasses like the literary professor he surely should have been in another life time.

He was stern, scolding, and pushed all of us to do our best. Once he realised your love for books, a close affinity quickly emerged, and he would tease and test your literary knowledge at every turn.

He’d take my articles and run a red ink over themselves with a Gotcha!-smile dangling from his often pursed lips. And every time I’d feel like a fool, but never really undermined: A fool intent on impressing the unimpeachably  unyielding Master.  Little did it occur it was a father’s desire for his sprogs to push the bounds of possibility.

ZB cherished his books. He loved Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, up to the “Negro” scribes, Richard Wright and Chester Himes, although he reserved a soft spot for James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and pop-feminist auteur Terry McMillan.

A few years earlier I had read, loved and stalked McMillan for a while over the Black Atlantic, including cornering her at a book do on Cold Harbour Lane, South London a few years prior.

By 1996 the stars had aligned: McMillan swept into town in a silky floor-sweeping cream number, matching cream pearls and high-bun tied bronzed hair-do, to promote her chic-lit bible How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

The poet Duma ka Ndlovu introduced her at the Morningside launch where I espied ZB in his fine-wool three-piece suit and a pipe holding court in a corner diagonally facing the stage.

The Sunday my piece on her appeared ZB called me and said: Finally, you have arrived on the seventh room, before chuckling and dropping the phone.

Up to today A Common Hunger to sing, a painstakingly researched compendium he co-authored with “Sponono” Mzileni remains my touchstone on the subject of women performers, the literary yoke I’d rather be dead without.

Go well Zulu Boy: You came, you saw, and you jitterbugged away.

Bongani Madondo’s latest book is Sigh the Beloved Country (Picador Africa). He is an Associate Editor at the Johannesburg Review of Books.