THE PIONEERS OF South African journalism are indispensable as guides to a new South African journalism, but we should not become too captivated by them. These are the thoughts of Mandy Sanger, the Head of Education with the District Six Museum in Cape Town.

Sometimes we feel resentment when foreigners simplify our liberation struggle to the heroic efforts of lone freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela. Neglecting the role of ordinary people in our media history, is tantamount to saying Madiba was the sole saviour of the nation.

Community, the true driving force of history

Mandy Sanger believes it is ordinary South Africans, their families and communities who are the true driving force of history. Sanger said, “The great men and women of the past do not tell the whole story, they are not the big picture of history. They become mega pixels of the big picture. They are not the change but they play important roles to spark and drive change.”

How do we tell the pioneers story?

And this seeming contradiction is something The Journalist also wrestles with in our attempts to tell the stories of the pioneers. With 2014 coming to an end and as we consider a new year of pioneer storytelling, these questions become even more important.

How do we celebrate the life of these exceptional individuals without over simplifying the past? How do we focus on someone brilliant without eclipsing the equally brilliant stories of the families, friends & neighbours who made all their achievements possible? How do we remember these icons of South African journalism in such a way that their stories do not silence our own?

How do we find ourselves in their stories, connect with their actions and participate in their achievements? How do the stories of the pioneers allow us the space to tell our own stories? How does one write the memory story so that it propels readers into action?

Performing Memory

Sanger tried to answer some of these questions by explaining how the District Six Museum, enables memory.

Sanger said the museum encourages ordinary people who want to remember District Six, to do so by “active remembering” & by creating memory sites where they can “perform memory”. Sanger said, “For people returning to the Hanover Street memory site, it’s not just important as an act of nostalgia, it is about healing, reconnecting and reaffirming peoples’ identities. Apartheid made black people invisible. When people come to the site of memory and engage in ritual storytelling, it affirms their own importance, also in the eyes of their children, children who are made to feel they have no place in a city like Cape Town.”

Each in their own way, writers for the pioneers section, attempted to do exactly this work of reconstructing the past, by making use of storytelling.

Qboza, teaching through the pages of the world

Writer Shepi Mati, an acclaimed journalist and veteran activist of the liberation war, could connect with the work of media pioneer, Percy Qoboza, legendary editor of The World newspaper. In the piece Mati wrote on Qoboza, published here on The Journalist, Mati, could situate his own story inside the story of the pioneer, bringing Qoboza’s work to life.

Mati wrote, “Allow me to share my own personal experience of these times. I bear witness to the courage of the journalism and of the writers of The World. As a teenager at secondary school in Port Elizabeth, I made it my pre- occupation to collect all the editions of the insert Learning World between 1976 and right up to the very last edition in 1977, when the Apartheid government banned the paper. Through those pages I educated myself about the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) and its leaders – Tsietsie Mashinini, Dan Sechaba Montsitsi, Murphison Morobe, Tsofomo Sono, Khotso Seatlholo – as well as about science and African history. Sadly I was to lose this collection to one of those many police raids in the early hours of the morning in which everything was turned upside down by men who had no respect for privacy and dignity.”

Sharing in an ancient song

Another pioneer brought to life on our pages was Tiyo Soga. Writer, Sibusiso Thsabalala shared how Soga made a personal connection with him across the divide of time. Tshabalala wrote, “My first encounter with Soga was in my grandmother’s tiny living room in Sebokeng. My Gogo Nonhlanhla Tshabalala, was a staunch Presbyterian. She spoke of the great “Reverend Tiyo” as if he were an old friend. His name was uttered with endearment, although none of us had ever met him. At my grandmother’s insistence my cousins and I learnt the words diligently to Soga’s Lizalis’ Idinga Lakho (Fulfill Thy Promise Father). We sang proudly with our wobbly childhood voices.”

Tshabalala’s story also speaks powerfully about how people are able to “perform” their memory of Soga’s work together, by singing the hymns he wrote. So the way Soga’s story is told, he becomes a “great man” of history allowing ordinary people to perform their own ritual of remembering.

Painting memory, remembering by painting

The story of Steve Biko, published here on The Journalist also demonstrates how the present interacts directly with the past. The story showcased the work of a young South African graffiti artist, Mr. Ekse, who identifies strongly with Biko’s ideas and paints Biko’s image on walls. The following quote from the piece demonstrates how story is able to connect the present with the past, “We see this kind of work as a revival, a shout-out to the people who brought us here. People like Tsietsi, Mbuyisa and Biko. Especially being from Orlando West, it’s impossible to ignore our political history while living here.” Rasik or Mr. Ekse said he wants to celebrate Biko on walls because; “Biko spoke about notions I believe in, notions like Black Consciousness, growing autonomous Black economies and self- upliftment.”

This story also shows how graffiti artists are actively “performing” memory”.

Retracting ancient footsteps

Writer, filmmaker and acclaimed journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven, told the story of //Kabbo, a storyteller, warrior and visionary and a Pioneer. In the film clip leading into the piece, Vollenhoven describes her calling to tell //Kabbo’s story. Vollenhoven’s quest to reconnect with the memory of an ancient storyteller is another powerful demonstration of how story allows us to enact, or perform memory. In Vollehoven’s case this literally means walking in //Kabbo’s footsteps.

These attempts by writers for The Journalist, give us some tools that allow us to connect actively with the past.

History as an unfinished process

According to Sanger we should constantly be looking for new ways to tell the memory story.

She said, “What the District Six Museum specialises in, when we introduce people to the past is not a finished, encyclopaedic approach, its an unfinished process that allows people a slice, an entry point into an aspect of the past. We can only ever see our engagement with the past as ongoing.”

So as we try to create here on the pages of The Journalist a site of memory, we will need your help and participation as we keep seeking for new ways to tell the story of South Africa’s Pioneers.