Journalism, Resistance & State Intimidation: In a rural town
There was a time when a distinctive brand of South African journalism rose up to meet the challenge of an increasingly brutal South African state. One of the anti-apartheid newspapers that epitomised the courage of the media at the time was Saamstaan. The paper was banned, its office was petrol bombed and its journalists were among the most persecuted in South Africa. Last week the publication was honoured in its hometown by the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK). This is an edited version of the Afrikaans commendation delivered by Professor Hein Willemse. The event was also addressed by the Dutch ambassador to South Africa, Marisa Gerards who spoke about international solidarity against apartheid. An exhibition, Signs of Solidarity, about the Dutch against apartheid is on display at the CJ Langenhoven library in Oudtshoorn.
There was a time when Oudtshoorn was mostly known for the Cango Caves, its ostrich feather industry and the famed Afrikaans poet, C J Langenhoven, the author of the ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’, the old anthem. It was known as a deeply conservative town that maintained separate ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ entrances and tours to its natural wonder, the limestone caves. A place where one of its well-known sons, the local pianist John Theodore, was not allowed to play to a ‘mixed’ audience in the town’s Civic Centre.
Oudtshoorn was steeped in a rigid military culture where the South African Army trained its cadet leaders at its Infantry military base. Here white citizens fought impassioned election battles between the conservative wing of the National Party, their even more conservative counterparts in the Conservative Party and the hopelessly dour Herstigte Nasionale Party.
Today it is mostly known for the annual Klein Karoo National Arts festival and its place in the national festival industry. However, for a period in the 1980s and 1990s it was known as the ‘town of Saamstaan‘, a spirited community newspaper staffed and managed by people with the names of Reggie Oliphant and David Piedt, Mbulelo, ‘Spi’ Grootboom and Humphry Joseph, Derick Jackson and Patrick Nyuka, Louis, Harry and Frieda Noemdoe — names not associated with the contented burgers of the serene bo-dorp.
Humble but Courageous
The publication in tabloid format, initially with a red masthead replaced from the second issue onwards by a green one, was rarely longer than 12 pages — a humble paper but one with a courageous heart. In Oudtshoorn and its immediate surrounds few, if any, anti-apartheid organisations existed or were allowed to exist. Those that ventured even the mildest of protests were swiftly brought to order.
The Saamstaan project, established in 1983, became a beacon for the burgeoning activism against apartheid and the Tricameral Parliament in the rural areas. It was a paper that deliberately chose the side of the people in the townships, their struggles and concerns. The publication was partial to the broader democratic movement and ensured that the nascent forces of the United Democratic Front (and later the African National Congress) were not confined to the cities or major towns. In Oudtshoorn, the Karoo and the southern Cape Saamstaan became a vital cog in the mobilisation of rural people. In 1988 the South African Society of Journalists’ awarded Saamstaan their coveted Pringle Award for Press Freedom.
In a country where the mainstream media bore the imprint of apartheid, our world was dominated by news that was determined by white middle class interests. The same held for the description of our country and its happenings. The concerns of its habitants were filtered through the excluding perspective of the then ruling order. There was not really a place for the coloured and black voice in the mainstream newspapers. Newspapers dedicated to black readerships had the feel of bywonerskap, the so-called “Extra” newspapers: the Ekstra-Burger, Rapport Ekstra, Sunday Times Extra. These papers mostly carried news that exemplified apartheid and separateness. They were generally harmless and offered no threat to the status quo. Papers sponsored by the Department of Coloured Affairs fostered eiesoortigheid and the Cape Herald reported on a Cape environment that was clearly defined along racial lines; they chose to report exclusively on the sins — especially the sins — and joys of the coloured people. None of these papers could be associated with the political resistance, alternative political traditions and an underclass in struggle.
Making A Difference
In this regard Saamstaan clearly made a difference. In the tradition of the alternative press in South Africa and especially in the Cape their struggle centred on the interests of people excluded from political power, their daily struggles for survival and their insistence on social rights and political liberation. In the 1980s Cape Town-based publications such as Grassroots, Learning Roots, New Era, Ons Leer Mekaar and South left indelible marks in a continuation of a long alternative media tradition. People like Saleem Badat, Johnny Issel and Mansoor Jaffer played leading roles in the establishment of Grassroots, the urban precursor of Saamstaan while Chris Gutuza established Namaqua Nuus in the arid regions of the Northwestern Cape.
Although these publications differed they shared a number of characteristics: they stood apart from the mainstream media, they had alternative foci with a defined political agenda and their editorial collectives were organised democratically, although their print runs were relatively modest their influence was considerable. These publications often served as the entry level opportunities for young writers and activists, and they were mostly supported by the international solidarity movement. In the case of Saamstaan the Dutch solidarity organisations Cebemo and Vastenaktie provided financial support until its demise in 1994.
Initially known by the rather staid title of Suid-Kaap Nuus (Southern Cape News) the first issue was published on 27 November 1983. From the second issue the editorial renamed it to Saamstaan from their first front-page headline ‘Ons moet Saamstaan’ (‘We must stand together’), a widely-held sentiment expressed on the sale of municipal housing stock. Saamstaan was to become a unique voice of the region. It started out as an initiative of local activists after a visit by members of the Grassroots collective. A Grassroots staffer, Mansoor Jaffer was seconded to Oudtshoorn for six months and with the first editorial collective laid the basis for an approach where political and social activism and grassroots journalism were intertwined. It was an approach that emanated from the activists’ obligation to popularise, to organise, to educate and to mobilise.
People’s Power & Democracy
Saamstaan with the sub-caption ‘ons eie nuusblad’ (our own newspaper) wrote forcefully about topical affairs. Concepts such as people’s power, people’s action and democracy were ventilated throughout the publication and through its coverage of local issues. For instance, in the first issue of Saamstaan proper of February-March 1984 both the lead story and the editorial in Afrikaans dealt with housing issues in Oudtshoorn. Aunty Anne and Uncle Kaptou Lewis were quoted as saying: ‘We must stand together to fight our problems. If we are one or two [the Council] will not even take note of us.’ This single quotation resulted, according to Humphry Joseph, a member of the first editorial collective, in the security police harassing these octogenarians — a first act of intimidation and a foreshadowing of what was lying ahead in years to come. The spirit of Saamstaan permeated throughout that first and subsequent issues and as Uncle Nicolaas Baardman said, ‘We can stand together if we wanted to.’ DMS Grootboom from Bhongolethu wrote a poem with these lines that exemplified the idealism of those years of struggle:
My Oudtshoorn is dominated by NP policies […]
But, Black and ‘Coloured’ do not give way to this segregation
Because you also have a say in this hot little Karoo
Stand together, because there are freedom sounds not far away
Yes, it won’t be long.
So stand together before it is too late.
It should not be surprising that the first issue dealt with housing. The government through their Group Areas and Influx Control legislation determined where people could stay; people were generally impoverished and they relied on sub-economic housing with high rentals, poor quality, and maintained poorly and irregularly. In the February-March issue of 1985 Aunt Fem of Knysna is quoted as saying: ’The Council only promises […] I pay rent for so long, how can I buy a house with a crack in the wall through which you can see right into the house […] We were promised better houses but nothing has changed. Now we are sick and tired of these empty promises.’ Many of the tensions in civil society have their origins in the politics of housing and places of settlement. At the roots of our current service delivery protests are the similar issues of housing and the nature of settlements that characterised those turbulent years in the 1980s.
Militant & Filled with Ideals
From the outset the Saamstaan editorial collective had to soften their ideological militancy to accommodate the relative conservative values of their community. It is significant that the first message of Saamstaan was that of Bishop Edward Adams, the first black Catholic Bishop in Oudtshoorn, and like several other supporters of the project his message also emphasised the import of Saamstaan: ‘Everyone knows from experience that a single string of yarn is easy to break but spin them together and try then! […] Our people are God-fearing, let us ask God to richly bless this newspaper and its management.’
In Saamstaan we saw the shoots a future South African democracy, to quote Grootboom again: ‘But, Black and “Coloured” do not give way to this segregation / Because you also have a say in this hot little Karoo.’ On its pages the lines of division created by apartheid were actively whittled away, not only those of ‘race’ and class but also those of culture and language. The Afrikaans in Saamstaan was an Afrikaans of liberation. Here the language lived as the tongue of ordinary people; alongside it Xhosa took its place without the prejudice of ‘race’ but simply as a language of working people.
Around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Afrikaner nationalists had cultivated legitimating images and myths in their struggle against British imperialism, among them their claims to ownership of land and the Afrikaans language. Seventy years later pupils in the streets of Soweto bought the myth and declared Afrikaans to be ‘the language of the oppressor’. We as Afrikaans speakers in this country’s southern towns and cities knew that such claims were half-truths. Here in the rural areas and our townships Afrikaans was the language of impoverished, struggling people. It was the language of people struggling against apartheid and the oppressors, the National Party and its associates. In Saamstaan we had irrefutable proof in its news reports and readers’ letters that the oppressed were expressing themselves in fluent, assertive Afrikaans. This was the oppressed’s language, it was an Afrikaans that the authorities did not tolerate.
In countless ways the government and its security agents tried to frustrate the people of the southern Cape in their attempts to express themselves on their demands for liberation and political rights. In a medium-size town like Oudtshoorn political opponents were far more exposed to the security apparatchiks than their comrades in the urban areas. There was no place to hide: everyone knew everyone else. Besides the standard fare of police surveillance, wire-tapping and postal interference Saamstaan received some special treatment: newspaper vendors were regularly intimidated; people interviewed for reports were harassed on publication of those reports, thrice agents attempted to burn down the Saamstaan offices; the Saamstaan chairperson’s car inexplicably caught fire and burnt out; the offices were raided and office machines damaged and confiscated; the local printer refused to print the paper and a printer had to be sourced 350 kms away in Cape Town; on and off the police seized hundreds of copies; once, in March 1987, a full batch of 7 000 copies disappeared mysteriously; and equally mysteriously, the subscription cheques of subscribers were defaced so that the bank could not honour them.
Attacks, Censorship & Jail
The most persistent and far-reaching attacks on Saamstaan were those against its staff and leadership. Activists were censored, detained without trial and brought before court on charges of treason. Its primary organisers Mansoor Jaffer, ‘Spi’ Grootboom, Humphry Joseph and Derick Jackson were often detained, and by 1986 the authorities were brazen enough to detain all of its staff, bar one, so that the paper could not be produced or published. Grootboom was charged with stock theft a charge that was later withdrawn. Once Joseph, the paper’s second organiser-editor, after his release from a five-month spell in detention, was almost immediately redetained and taken out of circulation for another extended period. When the photographer Patrick Nyuka refused to hand over his camera he was shot by a kitskonstabel, a lowly trained policeman. Derick Jackson, the last organiser-editor of Saamstaan and one of those who had been with the project the longest, was by the end of the 1980s arguably the most persecuted journalist in South Africa. As with his comrades his freedom of expression and freedom of movement were severely curtailed: he was detained without trial or charged several times. On 3rd November 1989 he appeared in court for publishing a picture of Nelson Mandela, a mere three months before his release. Jackson was banned in March 1988 which meant that he could not address meetings of more than ten people at a time (just enough to have a staff meeting), he could not leave his house between the hours of six in the afternoon and five in the morning and he had to get police permission to travel outside of the precinct of Oudtshoorn.
At the height of its attack against the alternative media in March 1988 the government threatened to close down Saamstaan, along with several other publications. The Saamstaan leadership’s response was predicably defiant. In eloquent Afrikaans and Xhosa they wrote: ‘Saamstaan bluntly refuses to keep the truth from the people of South Africa. For us it is no offence to speak the truth […] Apartheid is the injustice that must be removed. It is not Saamstaan that detain people without trial, or forcefully remove people from one place to another, or ban organisations and individuals but the apartheid government of the day.’
Impact on the Region
Not everyone in Oudtshoorn agreed with the cause that Saamstaan took up. I do no think that the ordinary folk of the quiet, tree-lined bo-dorp wanted to have anything to do with it for it did not speak for them; there were those in the dusty townships to the east that supported the government’s tricameral project or other political forces or those who stood by indifferently. Whatever their position at the time they cannot deny the deep impact Saamstaan had in this town and in the broader southern Cape region. Not only did it popularise the struggles of ordinary people, it educated them on their rights, and its activists’ moblisation spawned several people’s organisations, among them the Oudtshoorn Advice Office, the Oudtshoorn Youth Congress, the Bhongolethu Youth Congress and the Bhongolethu Women’s Congress. Saamstaan was a homegrown activist project that gave direction to the liberation struggle and at the end of legislated apartheid captured their demands for freedom and justice. In short, in this part of the country Saamstaan was an undeniable and key contributor to our democracy and liberation.
Today we must recognise that we need continued activism because our democracy and liberation are not yet complete. We have deepening social divisions, high levels of unemployment and our educational inequalities persist, ethnic particularisms and claims to entitlement have deepened, the political elite and their fellow travellers at national, provincial and local levels have shown themselves to be corrupt and thereby betrayed our ideals of freedom. We know that the scourge of xenophobia goes against everything that we have struggled for, and when the Speaker of Parliament says that the President is ‘not our equal’, we must know that that is not what we have struggled for. Our struggle was that everyone will be treated equally, that everyone will be equal before the law and that justice will be meted out without fear or favour. Yes, there remains work to be done.
We need a new activism, like that of Saamstaan to give further form and content to our shared future. It is therefore apposite that the KKNK at this occasion pays tribute to Saamstaan and its legacy of struggle and commitment; it honours its contributors and every activist associated with the project and specifically commends the commitment and activism of Mansoor Jaffer, Humphry Joseph and Derick Jackson. We thank them for their personal courage during the most repressive times of apartheid when they and their comrades were the standard bearers of humaneness, compassion and liberation.