Journalist Aggrey Klaaste was imprisoned 42 years ago during a police crackdown on anti-apartheid activists. His son reflects on those heady 1970s days and the state of South Africa today.
All of this week, my mind kept racing back to a momentous event that took place on 19 October 1977. On that day, in one fell swoop, the apartheid government arrested a number of black political leaders and banned a host of community organisations aligned to the black consciousness cause.
The swoop was as comprehensive as it was brutal. It sought to finally break the back of opposition to apartheid. Some of those harassed were awakened in the dead of night and taken from their families. Others were picked up at their workplaces in front of bewildered and frightened colleagues. It was a comprehensive dragnet. There was no room to escape.
This was the infamous Black Wednesday.
My father, Aggrey Klaaste, was one of those detained. In his later writings, he recalls the events of that day.
“They came to my home in Meadowlands, the morning of the 19th, complaining bitterly that we had given them, the police, sleepless nights. They found me at my home, alone with my mother. There were about four or five white and black policemen who read me the notice about my impending detention.” At the time, he worked as the news editor at the Weekend World newspaper.
While this was not the first time my father had been arrested he later wrote about how he feared for his life. He knew the reality of state brutality, the mistreatment and torture of detainees, with some “disappearing”.
This time he was held at Modderbee Prison, east of Johannesburg. He spent six months there, frightened and never once getting used to the hard life of prison. “This is jail with bars on the windows. No curtains. No cups and saucers. This was jail where they locked you to go to bed at 3pm and on holidays like Christmas at 12 noon,” he later wrote.
Longing for home
A gentle soul with a passion for books, he longed for his home. I can imagine how much he missed his work, typing his stories on his typewriter and reporting for his community. I can imagine how he missed witty banter with his colleagues.
But there he was, held against his will and without a trial for months on end. Despite the dreadful surroundings of prison, being imprisoned with leaders of the black consciousness movement that he had long admired kept his spirits high. I can imagine the discussions among them as they pondered their fate and the general state of affairs in the country.
My father quickly figured out that he had been arrested not only for his uncompromising writing against apartheid in the newspaper but also for his involvement with the Committee of Ten. This was a legitimate body that ran civic affairs in Soweto, Johannesburg, after the floundering of the discredited, state-supported Soweto Community Councils.
Though a respected figure in his own right, he was typically self-effacing when he remembered how “strangely out of place” and “honoured” he felt being in the company of these black consciousness leaders. He recalled how “many of us were so incensed with the events preceding this date that detention seemed inevitable, almost the honourable thing to happen to one”.
Among the big names arrested on that day was his larger-than-life editor and friend Percy Qoboza, who was picked up at his office and had his paper banned, as well as Nthato Motlana, a highly respected doctor who was instrumental in the running of the Committee of Ten.
Eventually, my father was released from Modderbee Prison in March 1978, along with Motlana, and they rejoined their communities. My dad went to work at the newly formed Post Transvaal newspaper (as The World was no more) under the editorship of Qoboza once more.
Around 19 October, when Black Wednesday is commemorated, I think back to those uncertain times. And, together with my family and a group of respected trustees from various walks of life, I’ve started a non-profit trust – the Aggrey Klaaste Trust or AKT – to revive my dad’s legacy.
Later in life, as editor of the Sowetan newspaper from 1988 to 2002, he famously championed a ground-breaking philosophy of nation-building to help revive the shattered pillars of the black community through various initiatives that aimed at bringing back, among other things, self-pride. This was after years of horrific violence in the black community.
His community-building initiatives still echo today. Whenever I meet someone and I tell them he was my dad, the first thing they often say is: “Aha, nation-building.” He is intricately linked to this concept.
Knowing your history
These days, I’m forced to read a lot of history to understand the difficult times my father and his contemporaries lived through. I never fail to get goosebumps when I read about the harassment of well-meaning opponents of apartheid, earnest men and women who were simply calling for a just, free and more equitable society for all – whether as political leaders, passionate activists or committed journalists.
Reading books and scouring the internet has shown me how turbulent the 1970s were as state repression intensified. It was a decade that saw the mobilisation of black labour into a unified, potent force. A decade of empowering black consciousness. A decade of Onkgopotse Tiro, Steve Biko, Barney Pityana, Mafika Gwala and Ahmed Timol. A decade of the unforgettable Soweto Uprisings. A decade of saying enough was enough.
Looking at the rear view of history then, it seems Black Wednesday and all its ugly repercussions was inevitable, as my father alluded in his recollections.
Today, I shudder at the thought of being unjustly incarcerated without trial to smother one’s freedom of expression. I wonder how I would have coped back then, living under constant fear of police harassment when simply doing your job, as my father and his generation of journalists and editors were doing. Would I have spoken out for the voiceless and what would have been the price? Would I have cowered in some corner and spoken in undertones and pretended I didn’t see what was going on around me?
The state today
I ask myself these questions as we commemorate Black Wednesday as Press Freedom Day, when we salute the bravery and gallant fighting spirit of folks who, like my father, took a stand.
These celebrations evoke anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I worry about the state of affairs in our country and what I, as a young South African, can do to help fix things. I worry about the state of the media – when renowned newspapers carry scoops that turn out to have been planted misinformation. I worry about erosion of governance – when various commissions of enquiry dig up all kinds of dirt showing how personal principles have long been compromised by those in charge of leading the country. I worry about the weakening of moral fibre – when two youngsters could brutally shoot and kill security guards in broad daylight in a township mall, when a so-called man of God can groom an innocent young woman for sexual favours and when a mutual bank set up to help a community ends up being the personal kitty of the officials in charge.
I also worry about how the poor working class can be given a voice about matters affecting their lives. I worry when Africans turn against Africans in an ugly explosion of xenophobic violence. When women and children experience wanton abuse in public and private spaces.
Today, I think about what Aggrey Klaaste would say and, more importantly, what would he do about some of the happenings in the country. Sure, it’s a good thing to remember Black Wednesday. But as a society, can we afford to commemorate the day without honestly holding up a mirror to our face to assess how we are doing as a nation?
In my journey to understand my father and his thinking, I have come across a number of great journalists, old and young, his contemporaries and those he influenced a generation or two later. With great enthusiasm, I listen to their fascinating stories. I value their taking the time to mentor me. I’m lucky. I know they are doing this because they loved and respected my father.
Interacting with these old hands of journalism helps me understand their world and our history and what still needs to be done during our country’s transition. Mostly, it helps me shape the agenda of our trust, to make sure it responds to urgent, contemporary needs of our communities. That’s what my father would have liked to see.
We, at the Aggrey Klaaste Trust, aim to be committed just like all the men and women who suffered during Black Wednesday. We cannot afford to go backwards in our struggle.
This article was originally published by New Frame.