Writing In A Time of Racism
In the 70s the inhuman system of white domination was becoming increasingly brutal. Resistance to apartheid was on the increase and the racist regime responded with an iron fist. Many journalists took a stand and paid a heavy price, as Subry Govender recalls.
When we take a moment or two at this time to observe the 39th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings of June 16 1976, it’s crucial to recall the enormous sacrifices and contributions of black journalists in the struggles for a free, non-racial and democratic South Africa.
The picture captured by photographer, Sam Nzima, of the murdered 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by a friend was splashed on the front pages of newspapers in South Africa and around the world.
Nzima and other journalists went beyond the limits of their calling despite the oppressive attempts and actions by the then apartheid regime to suppress the media.
Before I go into the meat of the topic, I want to submit that suppression of the media started in the colonial period, long before aparhtheid.
However, I am not going to go back in history but deal primarily with the period when the National Party introduced all kinds of laws to suppress, oppress, harass and intimidate journalists – especially journalists of colour.
Being colonial and racially driven – the media during this period was mainly concerned with maintaining and retaining white domination of the social, economic and political fabric of South Africa.
Nearly all newspapers were white owned, controlled, managed and edited – with the exception of one or two minor and insignificant publications – and the National Party monopolised the airwaves in the name of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).
The apartheid regime, especially under the leadership of John Vorster, Hendrik Verwoerd and P W Botha, had in their arsenal more than 100 statutes that limited the freedom of the Press. The repressive atmosphere really began after the Sharpeville uprisings on March 21 1960 when police shot dead 69 peaceful marchers who were protesting against the carrying of the hateful Dom-Pass.
The National Party Government introduced a state of emergency and banned the ANC and the PAC and crushed all opposition to white minority rule. Publications such as the New Age, Fighting Talk, Advance and Guardian were forced to close shop and the journalists working in these and other progressive newspapers either had to flee the country or go underground.
During this period of repression, some of the only black-oriented newspapers that were allowed to operate were the Drum magazine and the Golden City Post. Although they reported on some political developments, they were, however, no danger to the existence of the white state.
Being white-owned and managed, these newspapers concentrated on the sensational – sex, crime and gangs and sport – in order to survive. There were some journalists during this period in the 1980s who dared to question the white status quo – but they too were quickly intimidated and forced to flee the country or tone down.
In the early 1970s – when the black consciousness movement took root after the establishment of the South African Students Organisation (SAS0) – a number of black journalists came to the fore – prepared to take on the white oppressors irrespective of the consequences. These journalists were primarily working at that time for newspapers such as the World and Weekend World, and socially-conscious journalists working for mainstream newspapers such as the former Rand Daily Mail, the East London Daily Dispatch, the Cape Times and Argus, the Johannesburg Star and the Durban Daily News.
They tried to introduce a new and dynamic approach to journalism by tackling the social, economic, sporting and political oppression of the black majority. The struggle for freedom of the Press and the liberty of the people had just started in earnest once again.
But no sooner had black journalists – with a black consciousness background – begun to tackle real and fundamental issues affecting the majority, the apartheid system struck back with a vengeance in 1974 when they banned a Frelimo rally scheduled to be held at Durban’s Currie’s Fountain and prohibited any newspaper coverage of the event.
As a matter of interest, black consciousness leaders like the late Strini Moodley, Saths Cooper, Aubrey Mokoape and others were charged under the infamous Terrorism Act and as a result of the rally were charged and sentenced to Robben Island.
Further onslaughts against the media began after the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Two months after the uprisings, nine black journalists, who played a leading role in reporting events in Soweto, were detained under the regime’s Internal Security Act, and two others were incarcerated under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
Among the very first to be arrested was Joe Thloloe, who was at that time working for the World Newspaper; Peter Magubane, South Africa’s world-famous photo-journalist who worked at that time for the Rand Daily Mail and Miss Thenjiwe Mntintso, who worked at the Daily Dispatch in East London at that time.
The majority of them were held for about four months without being tried in a court of law. They were released at the end of December 1976 but some were re-arrested in 1977. Joe Thloloe was held incommunicado for 547 days under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
The others were Willie Bokala, a reporter for the banned World newspaper who was held in detention for more than a year; Jan Tugwana, a reporter for the then Rand Daily Mail who was also held in detention for more than a year under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act; Ms Juby Mayet, a doyen of black journalists who was held incommunicado under the Internal Security Act at the Fort Prison in Johannesburg; Isaac Moroe, the first president of the Writers Association of SA (WASA) in Bloemfontein; Bularo Diphoto, a freelance journalist in the town of Kroonstad who was also detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act; and Mateu Nonyane.
Another journalist, Mr Moffat Zungu, who was a reporter for the World Newspaper, was an accused in the Pan African Congress (PAC) trial that took place in Bethal, near Johannesburg. He was first detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
The darkest day in the history of Press Freedom took place on October 19 1977 when the notorious apartheid Minister of Police, Jimmy Kruger, banned the only two newspapers respected among black people – the World and Weekend World.
Mr Kruger, who became infamous for describing Steve Biko’s death two months earlier as – “It leaves me cold” – at the same time banned the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) and 17 other organisations; the publication of the UBJ – AZIZTHULA; religious and student publications; locked up the editor and news editor of the World and Weekend World – the late Percy Qoboza and the late Aggrey Klaaste respectively; and banned for five years the Editor of the Daily Dispatch, the late Donald Woods.
The regime also raided the offices of the Press Trust of South Africa (PTSA) alternative news agency in Durban and confiscated all its stationery and equipment and seized its funds.
Six other journalists were also detained at this time – including Thenjiwe Mntintso, who became an ANC functionary after 1994 and appointed as an ambassador; and Enoch Duma – who worked for the Star newspaper at that time. He fled into exile after being released after more than two years in detention.
Almost every member of the UBJ was visited by the security police all over the country; their homes and offices raided and searched and interrogated. All the raids were carried out at the unearthly hours of 4am and 5am in the morning. I remember my mother knocking on my door and saying in our Tamil mother tongue: “Some white people are here asking for you.”
When representations were made to Mr Kruger for the release of the detained journalists, he had the temerity to announce that the detentions were not meant to intimidate the Press and that his Government had good reasons to detain the journalists.
It was during this traumatic period that another publication of the UBJ, UBJ Bulletin, and all subsequent editions were banned. The UBJ Bulletin contained some revealing articles about the activities of the South African Police during the Soweto uprisings. Four UBJ officials – Juby Mayet, Joe Thloloe, Mike Nkadimeng and the late Mike Norton – were charged for producing an undesirable publication.
Inspite of world-wide condemnation of the banning, detention and harassment of journalists, the state security police continued with their jack-boot tactics.
In Durban two Daily News journalists – Wiseman Khuzwayo and Quraish Patel – were detained without trial for more than three months.
On November 30 1977, the day white South Africa went to the polls to give John Vorster another mandate to continue to oppress the black majority, 29 black journalists, including Zwelakhe Sisulu and Ms Juby Mayet, staged a march in the centre of Johannesburg against the banning of the UBJ and the detention of journalists. They were detained for the night at the notorious John Vorster Police station and charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act and fined R50 each.
Some of our colleagues who found it impossible to continue to work in South Africa skipped the country under trying circumstances. They included Duma Ndhlovu, Nat Serache, Boy Matthews Nonyang and Wiseman Khuzwayo.
Those who remained – including Juby Mayet, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Philip Mthimkulu, Joe Thloloe, Charles Nqakula, Rashid Seria, this correspondent and many others – vowed to continue the struggle. We committed ourselves in the belief that there could be no Press freedom in South Africa as long as the society in which we lived was not free. But the regime was also determined to make life difficult for us.
In July 1977 when we scheduled to hold a gathering of former UBJ members in Port Elizabeth to chart our future course of action – the regime banned our gathering and prohibited us from travelling to the PE. But being determined to take on the regime head-on we quickly re-scheduled our meeting to be held in the town of Verulam, about 25km north of Durban.
Unknown to us the dreaded Security Police tapped our telephone conversations and had the Starlite Hotel in Verulam bugged. The Security Police were listening to the entire proceedings of our meeting and immediately decided that we were a bunch of “media terrorists” who should be taken out of society.
At our meeting we decided to establish our own daily and weekly newspapers and a news agency because we were of the firm belief that the establishment media was not catering for the black majority. The white establishment media of that era, as you have already been informed, was aimed at protecting and promoting the privileges of the white minority.
But sadly we did not have the resources to embark on such ambitious projects. Nevertheless many of us who became frustrated with the establishment media began to make arrangements for the establishment of regional newspapers that would provide an alternative voice to the mainstream media and the National Party-controlled SABC.
But resistance led to more repression. In June 1980 when school children all over the country boycotted classes against the unequal and inferior education system for black children, the security police once again targeted journalists. They detained many of us for lengthy periods, claiming that black journalists had been encouraging black children to boycott classes.
Zwelakhe Sisulu was during that period of repression detained for nearly two years.
In Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, East London and other centres – black journalists continued to work with the community in an attempt to establish alternative newspapers.
In Durban, the Press Trust of South Africa Third World News Agency was established as one of the first moves to provide the outside world with accurate information about the situation in South Africa. The news agency was established to operate alongside the running of the alternative newspaper, Ukusa.
But just when the newspaper was set to start publishing with the blessing of the community, the state struck again and banned its Managing Editor – this correspondent; and also Zwelakhe Sisulu, Joe Thloloe, Philip Mthimkulu, Mathatha Tsedu and Charles Nqakula in December 1980.
This was a massive blow for the alternative media because all the journalists were fully involved in the various projects.
Some of the publications that they were involved in were UKUSA in Durban, Grassroots in Cape Town, Speak in Johannesburg and Umthonyama in Port Elizabeth. The South African Council of Churches also sponsored the publication of a newspaper called The Voice. Philip Mthimkulu and Juby Mayet worked for this newspaper before they were banned.
The journalists in question were put out of circulation for three years until the end of 1983 when their banning orders expired. But during their period of forced exile, the journalists did not remain idle – for instance the Press Trust of South Africa News Agency continued to operate under some trying conditions, intimidation and harassment.
During this period Charles Nqakula skipped the country to join the ANC. Upon his return he served the new government in various positions, including Minister of Defence.
When our banning orders expired, most of us continued where we had left off. In Johannesburg, Zwelakhe Sisulu initiated the establishment of the New Nation newspaper with the assistance of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference; in Cape Town, Rashid Seria initiated the establishment of the South Newspaper; and in other parts of the country many other progressive forces and journalists began to establish alternative publications.
The apartheid regime began another round of repression and during the respective states of emergency, media repression reached a peak. It was a time when the discredited tri-cameral system was in place and the United Democratic Front had captured the imagination of oppressed South Africans.
Most of us – who were in the forefront of the alternative media – were under constant surveillance. For instance during the emergency regulations in 1986 and 1987 – the dreaded security police at that time raided all the alternative newspapers and intimidated the journalists.
The New Nation and the Weekly Mail – two alternative newspapers in Johannesburg – were banned several times from 1986 to 1990.
When peace negotiations began, there was some respite for journalists and the media.
The 39th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings is an occasion once again when journalists of today must recapture the struggles of the journalists of the era prior to 1994 and commit themselves to promoting media freedom in our new, non-racial and democratic order.
The new era journalists must be on guard on all the time. They must remember that a country without a free media is not free at all and this must be communicated to the current people in political power.
Our first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, repeatedly told us how much he appreciated the work that struggle journalists had done for their freedom and how it was important that media practitioners continued to keep a check on the new politicians. He made it clear that the new politicians are answerable to the citizenry and not the other way round.
What Mandela was saying was that journalists must keep a check on politicians who try to introduce new laws under devious means to curb the freedom of the Press.