Suzette Lucille Nxumalo-Mafuna

Zuluboy was the fearless African warrior who made me feel proud to be an African journalist and revel at being in his company.

It’s Monday morning in Toronto and Zuluboy “ZB” Arthur Molefe’s funeral was three days ago. There’s been no mention of my painstakingly prepared eulogy/tribute to my fellow journalist anywhere or by anyone. I don’t even care to know why it was excluded but I figure it’s OK to post it on Facebook essentially for his nephew, Sello Molefe’ s benefit since he re-iterated an earlier request that I write it, feeling his uncle’s tribute deserved to be written by a fellow journalist rather than himself. I promised him I would and I want to assure you Sello, I never make promises that I don’t intend to fulfil. This, Sello Molefe is to your family and you – from my heart.

To ZB Molefe’s family, friends, colleagues, I hope this humble tribute to a fellow writer and friend will be of comfort to you and help you replace your pain at his loss with joy at who he was and meant to those who were fortunate to cross paths with him.

Another former colleague departs and at first I am reluctant to oblige and write his tribute. I haven’t seen or been in touch with ZB for years so what am I supposed to say about him? I never worked in the newsroom with him because my role as “the women department’s fashion and beauty reporter” confined me to a tiny corner at the edge of the “boy’s” newsroom.

My first private questions about him was his odd name – Zulu Boy Molefe. Is he umZulu or umSotho? Then I figured he’s got to be Zulu because his Zulu was as impeccable as was his English while I had never heard him utter a word in Sesotho. When the Soweto troubles started simmering I began to follow the guys who made the bylines and singled out a couple for their bold and graphic reporting of the “gaanings aan” in black politics and got hooked by anything written by ZB Molefe, Duma Ndlovu, Willie Bokala, Sekola Sello and other news reporters as well as Percy’s editorials which were blatantly bold and critical – editors could get away with more pointed criticism of the racist regime and its deplorable impact on black societies than journalists were allowed to.

But ZB and I still didn’t hit off because I just couldn’t figure him out – suspecting he could be hiding something. Or maybe he was the arrogant type who couldn’t be bothered with rookies like me. He, on the other hand, had probably also assumed – as had some in the newsroom – that I had been hired because of my dad or certain connections with the editor perhaps.

When I started writing on more serious matters such as community leaders’ profiles and features as well as a provocative column, ZB slowly melted towards me and so did I begin warming towards him. I had realised that while we, “the happening kasi boys and girls” were busy dabbling in what we believed was poetry – thought by stringing together a couple of nice sounding and rhyming phrases, we were doing serious radical poetry and were “the in thing in protest poetry”. The silent man who never seemed to have much to say and seemed focused only on the troubles of the black man that he reported so passionately and critically on was privately writing “real poetry”.

Later when I read some of his poetry, it struck me then that ZB Molefe was deep. He had focus. He believed in himself, believed in his responsibility as a black journalist who is in a position to best reflect the struggles and needs of black societies nationwide as well as representing the voices of the voiceless and silenced.

I learned also that while ZB Molefe appeared to me like a very closed book, the man was a consummate reader of many books. I also realised that I stood a better chance at winning his friendship if I took the time to pry open the pages of ZB’s assumed closed book and that’s when it really didn’t matter what else ZB was hiding from me. I didn’t care that he was said to drink because he never faulted on the quality and amount of work and neither did he fail in carrying out his responsibility to his readers and those who paid his salary. He was able to produce a lot of shocking revelations on police brutal tortures of detainees and falsely accused cadres. And to be clear, I was never actually privy to anyone’s heavy drinking. I never saw a staggering drunkard in the newsroom, not ever. And if I had, this would not be the appropriate platform for addressing the issue.

I remembered my trepidation when ZB’s name got listed among the black journalists I was to spend almost eight weeks of traveling through Germany with at the invitation of an international human rights initiative of Lutheran churches in West Germany. The journalists selected on this programme included Sekola Sello, Joshua Raboroko, Sylvia Vollenhoven and Melanie San. I wondered what spending so much time in the company of ZB would be like. Our role was to help progressive German groups – who were concerned about the difficulties faced by South African journalists – to understand our predicament.

This is where I first witnessed the power of ZB’s prowess in formal presentations and in handling media questions which were often based on ignorance, naiveté or skepticism by conservative media. He would take his time fielding media queries and questions in a calm, calculated and assertive manner. Between ZB, Sylvia, Sekola and Josh, we had the media and socialist groupings eating out of our hands. I knew at that moment that ZB might have seemed laid back and unassuming but was a fiery opponent and ardent defender of his beliefs and principles. He was a relentless proponent of social justice and a fearless defender of the black liberation cause. On such occasions, Zuluboy became the fearless African warrior who made me feel proud to be an African journalist and revel at being in his company.

We lived frugally at what were known as “pension hotels” at major centres of West Germany and on days when we were not addressing various political and civil society groups, we visited the country’s many grand but semi-demolished ancient cathedrals. Throughout, ZB and Sylvia were to become our designated spokespersons because of their eloquence and concise knowledge of the country’s history and politics.

By this time all the barriers that had prevented us from bonding as a group were down and we had become close enough to spend evenings together either for meals or taking leisurely walks through the city. And as should be expected of news hounds from South Africa where brothels and prostitution were illegal on “moral grounds”, and even though our visit was fully sponsored by German churches, the highlight of our short stay in Hamburg was exploration of the infamous “Reeperbahn”. In German, it is also nicknamed die sündigste Meile (the most sinful mile) and is in Hamburg’s St. Pauli entertainment district. It took ages to persuade ZB to join us as we ventured into the den of sin where nude girls put their wares on display inside glass cages so you could look but not touch. Later on our return, it was ZB who explained how prostitution was considered formal business which was taxed, monitored for irregular activities and operated under medical supervision to prevent the outbreak of diseases and their spread outside the red-light districts.

Having started to appreciate ZB from that foreign visit. I began to look for his book on poetry which I couldn’t find but found about six books on South Africa’s female singers as well as the scholarly books he had read, reviewed and reported on. Molefe was an award-winning journalist who co-wrote with and published A Common Hunger To Sing: A Tribute to South Africa’s Black Women of Song, with Mike Mzileni.

On a personal level, I value the friendship that ZB had established with my late brother Henry Xolo Nxumalo who worked in the advertising and marketing department of the Sowetan.

Through the fellowship that helped them heal from their addiction they were able to use their love of jazz music for therapy and re-affirm the spirituality that had been lost to the bottle. I know that through this loss, though painful and irrational, we are able to paint a better perspective of ZB Molefe because through his death we have found traits and qualities in his character that should remind us just how fallible we all are. Most of us never had to contend with detentions and arrests as black news gatherers. ZB is a better man for having fallen, then risen as high again like the Phoenix, to be perceived as a valued member of society we should all be proud of and whose life is worth celebrating.

Lala ngoxolo Zulu Boy ZB Molefe.