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Journalists who told the story of Soweto to the whole world

‘Real’ journalists generally went out every day to do their jobs as best they could. They tried, especially after the Soweto uprising of 1976, to report on what was happening in black society

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“My greatest debt is to fellow-journalists, reporters and photographers alike, on various newspapers. Often at personal risk or cost, they told the story of what happened in Soweto. Some of them saw their newspapers closed down, others are still in detention as this book goes to the printers. They brought honour to their profession”.

This is the final paragraph of the preface to the excellent, path-breaking book, Soweto: Black Revolt, White Reaction, by John Kane-Berman, published in Johannesburg in 1978. And, at least in my view, it pretty much encapsulates, albeit briefly, the work ethic, commitment and harrowing difficulties faced by the majority of journalists trying to ply their trade during the apartheid era.

These journalists — the “real” journalists, that is, not the hacks or government stooges — generally went out every day to do their jobs as best they could. They tried, especially after the Soweto uprising of 1976, to report on what was happening in black society and therefore on the crippling effects of the apartheid system and on the conditions of those fighting apartheid.

It was not easy; and that’s an understatement. Obviously it was especially difficult for black journalists. Although there were some newspapers (initially it was primarily the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg) dedicated to the fight against apartheid — or at least to telling the “truth” about what was happening in South Africa — the owners and managements of the large companies that owned those newspapers mostly did not want to put their heads above the parapet. From their point-of-view, there were doubtless sound reasons for this: the government would have tried to punish them and, besides, they had a fiduciary duty to shareholders not to “destroy” the companies.

Moreover, bizarre as it might sound now, the idea that mainstream newspapers should actually report on “black society” was, in the South African context of the time, a huge novelty. There were of course newspapers and magazines that catered to black readers, but their coverage tended towards what we would nowadays call a “tabloid” approach: crime, showbiz, gossip, NO politics.

Essentially, the millions of black people “out there” were largely thought of by the majority of the country’s white people as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — certainly, I would say, until 1976. Additionally, black people generally did not have a great deal of what is euphemistically called “discretionary income”. They used their money for the basics, not for newspapers, unless these newspapers were priced inexpensively. This being the case, they were largely ignored by the advertisers until the 1980s and consequently did not figure much when it came to newspaper managements’ revenue projections.

In general, then, mainstream newspapers did not, for example, even have the requisite staff of black journalists trained to deal with issues such as politics and repression in the black sectors of society; and their white news editors and other newspaper executives did not have the necessary mindset or knowledge either.

I have chatted to the “struggle journalists” Zwelakhe Sisulu (1950-2012) as well as Jon Qwelane and Peter Magubane, all of whom worked on the Rand Daily Mail (RDM), as did I, and they told me — in surprisingly mild tones, almost in a bemused manner — how they were treated, and felt, “like fish out of water,” even on the RDM, simply because they were “black men in a white man’s world”.

But even more daunting (and dangerous) for journalists than attitudes and economic circumstances was that the government considered itself at war with those opposed to apartheid. There therefore existed a plethora of extremely punitive security laws (90-day and then 180-day detention without trial, to give one example) as well as censorship laws (newspapers could, and were, shut down); and the notorious security police and the government’s covert, extra-legal units were brutal.

Some journalists and photographers (Qwelane and Magubane spring to mind) were detained without trial for months in appalling conditions. Magubane spent 98 days in solitary confinement and then six months in jail. Their crimes? Reporting on, and taking photographs of events and people that the government did not want anyone to know about.

In short, being a “serious” journalist during the apartheid era was not for the faint-hearted. You could be arrested; your stories could be cut out of the newspaper, despite the time and effort that had gone into them; you could end up in court; you could be detained without trial; you could lose your livelihood; you could be killed.

It was a tense, frightening time. And yet I have never met a fellow journalist from those days, who would have wanted it any other way.

— Jeremy Gordin is a veteran South African journalist who from 1977 until 2017 worked on major South African publications, including the Rand Daily Mail, Financial Mail, Cape Times, and The Sunday Independent. He has written two books of investigative journalism and a non-authorised biography of President Jacob Zuma