The history of SA’s Media Freedom Day

Ongeziwe Babane and Phindile Xaba

What came to be known as Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977 –  has left an indelible blemish on the history of the National Party’s (NP’s)  rule and its suppression of freedom of expression.

On this bleak day, then apartheid state minister Jimmy Kruger clamped down on the media leading to the closure of The World and Sunday World, and the Christian Institute’s publication Pro Veritate that was edited by anti-apartheid activist and Dutch Reformed Church clergyman Beyers Naudé. Percy Qoboza, who was at the time editor of both The World and Sunday World, was frog-marched off to detention under Section 10 of the Internal Security Act.

Veteran journalist, Mathatha Tsedu, who suffered the NP’s wrath, along with other writers such as Don Mattera and Joe Tlholoe, were detained, tortured and even slapped with five-year banning orders. Last year in 2020, Tsedu put his experiences on record at the Azanian People’s Organisation seminar that focused on the events.  In a paper entitled, The real meaning of Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977, he said that  he, along with his colleagues, members of Media Workers Association of SA (MWASA) leadership Zwelakhe Sisulu,  Thloloe, Charles Ngqakula, Mono Badela, Subrey Govender, Phil Mthimkhulu were banned for organising journalists into a unitary voice of challenging the apartheid rule.

He asserts that these efforts by the apartheid regime did not dim the highly organised black journalists’ efforts.

Activist Malesela Steve Lebelo explains the events that led to the clamp down of NP’s attempt at squashing all freedoms, from a unique point of view giving credit to the media’s role in exposing the atrocities of the apartheid regime and fuelling its global condemnation. He wrote in Black Wednesday was not an attack on the media (October 18, 2020) published in the City Press, that what precipitated Black Wednesday was the NP “regime’s failure to contain the insurrection that erupted in Soweto in June 1976, heightening white society’s fears over a looming ‘swart gevaar’ [black danger] thus prompting “the apartheid government to ban publications and organisations such as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and its 18 affiliates.”

Tsedu explains that Black Wednesday was a culmination of all converged efforts including organised black journalists’ which could not be thwarted by the apartheid regime’s tactics: “However, the revolution was not going to be dimmed, just as the Union of Black Journalists was banned, Writers Association of South Africa (WASA) came into being and later became MWASA,” he writes in his paper.

He then points out that journalists such as Nat Serache who had been detained in April 1977, and had been subjected to 11 days of torture, went into exile when released. Thenjiwe Mtintso, who had worked with Steve Biko and Mamphela Ramphele in the BCM, at the time was a journalist at the Daily Dispatch, after being seconded by Biko to Donald Woods. She had also been detained (along with Biko) and tortured in the earlier parts of 1977, and she too fled the country once released to join Africa National Congress’ underground military arm Umkhonto We Sizwe.

It was a different time. Black Wednesday will not be erased from the collective consciousness of South Africans and particularly the journalist community. Today it has become the country’s official Media Freedom Day and will always serve as an opportunity for reflection on how it is important to safeguard freedom of expression.

More stories in Issue 126

THESIS Of – Onkgopotse JJ Tabane


Mancoba in a class of his own

Phindile Xaba The late Ernest Mancoba, painter and sculptor, should be to South Africans as Van Gogh is to the Dutch and Picasso is to the Spanish.  He, like others, have for too long been excluded from the South African narrative. He is considered to be in a class of his own and yet his […]

Towards a new national narrative

Shepherd Mphofu and Zubeida Jaffer South Africa’s transformative national narrative sprung from the intellectual strata.  Way back in 1911 a South African lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered a lecture that gave intellectual stimulation to the decolonisation process. Seme’s address was part of a cultural and intellectual movement of writers, artists, religious and political leaders […]

Decolonising Journalism Education

Ylva Rodny-Gumede, Colin Chasi, Zubeida Jaffer and Mvuzo Ponono These calls are not new. However, at the birth of South Africa’s democracy in 1994 they slipped into the background, as the word “transformation” became the dominant focus of the discourse. There was no widespread effort to place the issue of “transformation” into the historical context […]

Rediscovering grandeur in ourselves

Vusi Mchunu The carnival takes place in the streets. Dance is a celebration of form over fixity, a momentary triumph over gravitational pull, a symbolic conquest of gravity. In the vein of Afro-Brazilian capoeira, it becomes an anti-oppression martial art-cum-dance sequence. Motion is inherent in change, growth and development in nature and nurture. Orature is […]

Politics and Media Freedom

Dr. Onkgopotse JJ Tabane The tension that is alive between media and the government is caused by wrestling for either to be dominant over the other, to control the national narrative and the public sphere agenda. While South Africa as a country has come a long way since the dark days of apartheid where the […]

Black Wednesday Edition

As South Africa commemorates the 44th anniversary of this day – October 17, 1977 – which, in history became a dark spot and a reminder to reflect on how freedoms of expression were trampled upon, violated and suppressed by the apartheid government, this edition examines where we are today and where South Africa needs to […]

The history of SA’s Media Freedom Day

Ongeziwe Babane and Phindile Xaba On this bleak day, then apartheid state minister Jimmy Kruger clamped down on the media leading to the closure of The World and Sunday World, and the Christian Institute’s publication Pro Veritate that was edited by anti-apartheid activist and Dutch Reformed Church clergyman Beyers Naudé. Percy Qoboza, who was at […]

Media Freedom Statement

Zubeida Jaffer, Shepi Mati, Frank Meintjies and Phindile Xaba Known as Black Wednesday, the day has appropriately become the official South African Media Freedom Day. On that day in 1977, the whites-only racist government banned 19 Black Consciousness Movement organisations and detained scores of activists. It further closed The World and Weekend World newspapers and […]

Writing Ourselves Into History: The liberating narrative of who we are

Sylvia Vollenhoven “We are discouraged from taking history or politics too seriously and pushed towards the titillation of crime, sport and frivolity. The confines of being blinkered in this stifling box is a fitting metaphor for where we find ourselves in the 21st century. Our story is still controlled too often by bourgeois economic interests […]

Sol Plaatje – a writer as the righter of past (mis)representations

Sabata-mpho Mokae He added that he was looking for a publisher. Mhudi was only published ten years later, in 1930. Now, a century later since Plaatje sat down in the cold concrete jungle of London, England, to write this novel, Mhudi is as relevant now as it was back then. Many readers in many parts […]

Can Themba­­ – A form of self-liberation

Frank Meintjies Themba’s life testifies to a commitment to both journalism and creative writing, even though his gainful employment was squarely in the sphere of journalism and, at certain points, teaching. In one sense, educated black people in the 1940s and 1950s faced extremely limited employment options and we thus can’t deduce much from their […]


Subscribe to our newsletter and get notified of new issues.