Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Mourning the death of a legendary white African journalist

It was with deep regret that some of us learnt of the passing on of legendary African journalist Patrick Laurence.

Obituaries were carried in the Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times recently.

For over 50 years, Laurence was a passionate and committed political writer whose life and work made a clear distinction between radical African journalism and the widely accepted version of mainstream journalism whose agenda is superficial objectivity that upholds an unjust economic status quo.

But he held a somewhat unique position in that his perspective was undeniably anti-apartheid and thus reflected an inclination towards the promotion justice and equality.

In fact, he was the only ‘white’ journalist who was allowed into some of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness meetings in the 1970s when every other white journalist was barred.

However, the advent of journalists like Laurence needs to be critically examined not only because they came from privileged backgrounds to use the media to espouse radical Pan Africanist thought but were, unavoidably, part of the oppressive media infrastructure and society.

There are many journalists like Laurence who burst into the mainstream following the banning of the liberation movements in the early 1960s.

They became self-appointed spokespeople of the voiceless black masses simply because the authentic African leadership was in prison, exile, banned, cowering in fear or just wasting away in booze.

The biggest problem with the role of journalists like Laurence was not the quality of their work and its commitment to the struggle for justice and equality but that they could easily be co-opted to serve the interests of white liberal domination that desired to project itself as spokespeople of the silenced black majority.

In a way, they could be regarded as reconsolidating and expanding the totality of white power by keeping the expertise and other media resources in the white community.

It should come as no surprise that journalists like Laurence who were men of integrity will, in some quarters, remain controversial despite their self-sacrifice, commitment and dedication to using the media to promote the interests of the African majority.

Yet, how do you question the character of a man of integrity?

Much as no one can deny that a man like Laurence was anti-racist, anti-classist and wholly committed to the total liberation of the African masses – he was even imprisoned for his activities – he can, if you will, be perceived in some quarters as quite happy to straddle the unjust white world and dispossessed black world.

What this means is that much as Laurence and his ilk were vehement and fiercely denounced injustice and white racism but they were found to be quite lacking in enabling blacks to tell their own stories.

In the complex situation that South Africa finds itself in, it should not surprise us that a journalist who was radical and/or revolutionary, who was truly part of the redefinition of the role of a journalist in an unjust society, would be controversial.

But we should have no holy cows and everybody should be subjected to interogation, alive or dead.

For example, much as the media talks too much about justice and equality in contemporary South Africa, it is one of the least transformed segments of society except for a few blacks who are at the top.

One only needs to look at the scroll of any magazine or newspaper to see who is exactly in charge.

We are regressing to the old apartheid style of media where strategic jobs are given to people who come from outside the African community while a few cohorts are appointed as assistants and deputies.

Often, radical white journalists are comfortable to stay within the system which continues to provide them with opportunities and positions of power and influence at the expense of their black counterparts.

If the true spirit of a journalist like Laurence is to rest in peace, we need an urgent intervention to get the media not only to be seen to be addressing the burning issue of transformation but create genuine opportunities for black journalists, particularly Africans to tell their own stories from their own perspective.

There must be something wrong with a society where those who are ‘experts’ on it do not come from what can be considered the indigenous community, whatever that means today.

This situation will always leave a black cloud hanging over the integrity of a journalist of the calibre of Lawrence.

Of course, the man has to be appreciated for his integrity, professionalism and uncompromising commitment to truth, justice and equality in the country.

But will someone tell why the African community, cannot deliver a loyal and long serving journalist of the calibery of Laurence?

It has a lot to do with white monopoly of power and positions in the media.

  • Elaine

    This article proves to me that in black eyes the whites are irrevocably tainted and that nothing anyone does will be seen as sincere.So what is the point of trying. Sandile gives faint praise with one hand and then takes with the other hand by blaming whites for the lack of black journalists of the calibre of Laurence! I ask you. Laurence was a truly fearless journalist who went to prison for his ideals. That generation of principled men is passing away and we are left with grubby men like Sandile who sits in the gutter sratching the sores on his knees.

  • Elaine

    Of course Laurence straddled the world of whites and blacks… He was a white man after all and you despise him for that, although he pursued justice for blacks when they had no voice. What would you have had him do? Change his very skin colour to please you?
    I knew Patrick Laurence in the sixties and a man with more fearless integrity would have been hard to find.
    Do you, Sandile Memela attribute you obvious lack of greatness as a journalist to White monopoly of power?How pathetic. Look inside yourself instead. Great men are great IN SPITE OF opposition as Mandela is and OR Tambo and Steve Biko and others were.

  • Alastair Grant

    “But will someone tell why the African community, cannot deliver a loyal and long serving journalist of the calibery of Laurence?”

    I’m sure Patrick is chortling in his grave at the irony of your clumsy in-opportunism.

  • Lennon

    @Elaine: Don’t forget that when any black journalist shows the same integrity as Laurence when investigating ANC / government dealings he’s automatically classed as a “counter-revolutionary” “race traitor” who is doing his “garden boy” “slave work” for “white” “corporate” “imperialist” “neo-colonial” “right-wing” “bastard” “masters”.

    I think that Sandile is merely pointing out the fact that (in some eyes), nothing a white person did / does for blacks will ever be good enough in much the same way as nothing a black person does at work will (again, in some eyes) be good enough thanks to the misguided belief that he is there under the AA ticket.

    I don’t believe that this is a reflection of Sandile’s beliefs, but is is an indictment of our society as a whole. Why can’t we just accept the merits of a person’s work? Is trust really such an issue or am I just being naive?

  • Gert Vermaak

    How is him being white relevant? You feel so strongly about it that it’s part of the title. Then you call him ‘African’. From your prior columns I know you jealously guard that term for your racist self, even though it’s a geographic notion. “…the African community cannot deliver…”, but they DID- you just called him African? I’m confused.
    I feel sorry for you Sandile, and people like you who see the colour of the animal before you even notice the animal, because I believe just like Thabo Mbeki and Jimmy Manyi, you have a lot of hurt and issues to delve into.

  • John Patson

    Firstly, look around you and admit, the Liberals were (and are) right…. Everything radicals touch turns to a slimepit of corruption.

    As to the question about black journalists, the answer could lie in the fact many good ones are now earning far, far more than Patrick Lawence ever did having skipped to the other side of the fence and joined the world of either PR or other corporate management positions.
    The generation now entering their 50s in South Africa had the opportunity to become rich on a scale journalists elsewhere in the world can only dream about — and most took it.

  • MLH

    Perhaps even the best black journos of today are enjoying the luxuries bought by full-time salaries too much to put their lives on the line for their ideals?
    We have black publishers (although at least one of them went bankrupt after mismanaging his clients’ [mainly government’s] money). We have black editors. We have black journalists. What can it be that holds them back? Because it certainly has nothing to do with ‘white monopoly of power’. It takes hard work and long hours to climb the corporate ladder and there’s only ever room for one at the top.
    Instead of whining and whinging Mr (presently advantaged) Memela, I’d be pleased to see you get on with the work your position in governement circles pays you to do.

  • Judith

    Sandile – please reread your article and see how it answers your own quesstion

  • David Brown

    Patrick laurence taught me at school.He used to practice writing articles before he became a journalist and would write articles about the Vietnam war and its transfer from the French to the Aemrican’s. In depth analyses of the Geneva accords etc. He was interesting,taught us Geography and hit us with the blackboard compass if we got out of control. He also wrote a practise article explaining Freud’s explanation of bullying which we would remind him about as he reached for the compass. A stern product of CBC but a good person for raising the consciousness of his students to the world.I remember him covering the riots at Wits in 1972 when I was a first year student. He was a Rand Daily Mail man who did a great deal to help lead the M and G. without which the 1980’s would have been pretty empty of discussion. This article trivialises someone but hey– many are happy to stand in the shadows. I am sure he was one. Sandile you are being a solifuge I suspect your shadow is permananent. A sense of the other is crucial in times we live anywhere you find yourself. In elke glas wyn is daar a bietjie gal.In jou glas is daar net gal.

  • http://hardtalk Siphiwo Siphiwo

    “…they could easily be co-opted to serve the interests of white liberal domination that desired to project itself as spokespeople of the silenced black majority”

    Are you by any-how talking about the following pawns:

    * Justice Malala
    * Barney Mthombothi
    * Mondli Makhanya
    * Kino Karmies
    * and the likes ?

  • Steve Goodrick

    Because, Elaine, Memela feels a desperate need to explain away the failures he claims for himself and for blacks in general; and he does so by blaming whites, instead of taking rightful ownership. Not only is it dishonest, it really is quite pathetic, and of course, quite fruitless. Blaming others won’t change his situation one iota; an honest day’s work will. It is the labours of many white people that has also made for much of that is good in South Africa, we can be proud.

  • George Nowak

    As an aspiring intellectual midget, perhaps you could contemplate further on some of Laurence’s principles, his durability and his capacity for seeing the world and its people for how they act. You’re a sorry excuse for a journalist and a modest pretender to be anything more than a party hack.

  • Sandile Memela

    @ whingers & whiners: it was neither easy nor fun for me to write this post nor engage on the issues around it. i did it because it is something that needs to be done, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
    there is an urgent need for an account of what the working life of a journalist or people in the media is really like in south africa. there is no doubt that everyone’s integrity is at stake because of the racial and corporate politics that pervade the media.
    as someone who has worked in the media since 1985, i am aware that there is a thin line between ‘uncle tomming’ when you are black and being part of the ‘oppressor camp’ when you are white. in fact, working in the media is more than just earning a living to provide a decent life for the family. it is about a day-to-day battle to preserve one’s sanity and upholding integrity. and far too few men succeed.
    i hold nothing against laurence of azania. he is a man i respected and admired for his skills, deep insight, knowledge of liberation politics and commitment to this country.
    this is a disturbinig issue. i am not an angry man who wants to accuse ‘whites.’ but it is important that we push the limits. we have got to learn to take the bull by its horns.
    mr laurence was a brave man. we all have to be BRAVER for our own sake!!!

  • Oscar

    Mr Memela I am proud to be one of the ‘whiners & whingers’, i.e. someone who regularly disagrees with what you write.

    I was also fortunate to have been taught by Patrick Laurence, in my case the subject was history. Mr Laurence tried to instil in his pupils some of the fervour he had for getting the facts right.

    In any event, I see that once again it is the truly awful whites who are preventing black journalists from taking their rightful place. I would love to know what Mr Laurence’s opinion of this would have been? My own opinion, Mr Memela, is that you will use any subterfuge to blame white South Africans for all this country’s ills. Your articles are riddled with it.

  • Melusi

    This guy Sandile, did he really get those fancy degrees to qualify to write to us this pure nonsense?

  • Percy Fitz

    Well, well the mouse squeaks. Drop the race card Thabo defence Sandile. See a man for what he is, not by the colour of his skin. I dare you to break from the tradition of DF Malan to Julius Malema. I dare you.

  • chris

    I think your question Sandile has been answered by Siphiwo. If you are white it doesnt matter that you have integrity, you can never speak for the black masses and are intrinsically racist. As per Siphiwo’s comment, in the new south africa as soon as a black person dares to uphold values of accountability, rationality and democracy, (Madlala, DA Youth and co)they are then seen as the servants of whites and imperialism, despite the fact that it is crystal clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that these are the only principles that ensure a successful country.

    So well done for writing another article that justifies afrcan mediocrity and blames it on the minority. What amuses me about your point of view is that the ANC have created the environment you complain about with BEE and the appalling mess they have made of our education system. This has ensured that the majority of black candidates are mainly not educated enough to cut it in our globalised job market.

    Why is accountability so sorely lacking in Africa?. Thank god there are people like Thuli Madonsela around, who will no doubt pay with her job for her recent integrity. Perhaps Sandile you should look at the question of accountability, because in solving that I think most of South Africa’s problems would be solved. Steve Biko must be rolling in his grave. What happened to black pride?

  • Jobe

    Sandile,you are right.Never mind these ignorant racists on this site.The media in this country needs transformation.Until we Africans fully own it we will not get loose from its chains.

  • Sibuqashe

    Come on boetie. This is an age where you don’t even need a newspaper to be owned by anyone but yourself. Did you post your blog by fax or was your hand written submission transcribed by the secretary of your white boss? If you can’t unearth a good black journalist (or be one yourself – free of the shackles of white ownership and answerable to yourself and your readers), how the hell do you expect anyone else to? Can I suggest

  • Ant

    now if and only if you had said “Mourning the death of a legendary African journalist” without mentioning that he was white, I would have respected and read your article. Do some of your best friends have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who have friends who are white?

  • Elaine

    Well said Chris, Sipiwho and others. Isn’t it funny that someone like Jobe can spurt on about full ownership and getting rid of chains when the only chains that bind him are in his own mind and very like caused by the lack of proper education.

  • DP from Durban

    You might not agree with Sandile’s point of view but why has everybody missed the fact that the title:

    Mourning the death of a legendary “white African” journalist

    suggests that he admired and respected the man highly…