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.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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