Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Black journalists’ role in the struggle needs to be re-examined

It was 34 years ago that the apartheid regime mounted its assault against the freedom and integrity of so-called black newspapers.

On October 19 1977, the government silenced the World and Weekend World publications, which were mistaken for revolutionary voices simply because of the skin colour of the staff and the racially segmented market they catered for.

Less than a handful of senior journalists, including the editor were detained without trial.

In the highly charged political atmosphere, it was easy for the public to misunderstand this as confirmation of their radical political nature. But there has always been a need to acutely re-examine the role and relevance of black newspapers in the struggle for freedom.

To a large extent, black newspapers were instruments of a systematic and repetitive agenda calculated to soften or dilute political consciousness among readers.

A critical examination of the lives of black editors in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, soon reveals that they were not, necessarily, hard-core political activists, as they have made themselves to be.

When the World was banned, big business had to quickly re-invent a substitute that would tap into the sleeping giant known as the black market.

Perhaps in its own unique way, the story of the Sowetan newspaper represents an important milestone in the struggle for self-determination, freedom of thought and expression.

In fact, it punctuates the sad history of the constraints on so-called black media and its journalists to articulate the hopes and aspirations of the African majority.

There is no doubt that in their role as self-appointed custodians of freedom of expression or the political struggle, a few politically-conscious journalists exercised a powerful influence to give expression to the African majority’s demands for freedom and democracy.

But there will always be a need to critically examine and debate the claim that black journalism served a political agenda or was founded to pursue the commercial interests of its owners.

Significantly, the Sowetan and its predecessors — the Bantu World, World, Post and Mirror — did not develop under African conception, ownership or control.

The publications were, largely, the result of the colonial agenda to spread and co-opt Africans into the Western thought and lifestyle. Their purpose, essentially, was to dilute anything that was an expression of African heritage, history and culture or articulate it from a Western perspective.

What this means is that these publications were, in essence, imitations of European thought and cultural patterns. They were vehicles to entrench Western intellectual domination through the creation and promotion of African elite.

The Bantu World was founded by a former white farmer, Bertram Paver, who had no noble intention to propagate African desire for self-determination and independence.

Instead, not only did he desire for the newspaper to be in English but wanted it to propagate news from the standpoint of how Westernisation benefitted Africans.

Though Africans owned 50% of the newspaper’s stake, only seven out of 20 pages of the newspaper were in indigenous languages, thus encouraging the marginalisation of African languages from the mainstream.

The first generation of editors and journalists in the 1930s, 40s and 50s were highly educated and Westernised African gentlemen who enjoyed prestige among the African readership because they were representatives of the white man’s way.

These black editors, including Victor Selope Thema (1932 – 1952), Jacob Nhlapho (1953 – 1957) and Manasseh Moerane (1962 – 1973), were, over the decades, increasingly dependent on white editorial directors who guided and shaped their political orientation and outlook.

After the banning of the liberation movements in 1960, for instance, the so-called black newspapers did not step into the political vacuum as their primary concern was to make a profit and, at the same time, depoliticise the African population through an over-cautious editorial policy.

It was into this political void that young students like Steve Biko, Barney Pityana etc stepped in to popularise and mobilise the black community through the philosophy of Black Consciousness.

African journalists who worked in publications like the World and Post were, largely, conservative types who espoused the liberal philosophy of gradualism and were reluctant to embrace or reflect Black Consciousness.

But this did not stop journalists like Bokwe Mafuna and Harry Nengwekhulu, for instance, from organising them into a politically conscious formation.

To a large extent, black journalists were ensconced in middle-class lifestyles and outlooks that confined them to reporting on non-political stories that emphasised sports, entertainment, crime and “society”.

A dramatic change of attitude happened with the rise of Biko and the rumbles of discontent among students in Soweto in the early 1970s with the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

Much as Percy Qoboza (1964 – 1977) was an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime, he functioned under very strict white editorial control.

Thus when the paper was banned in 1977 only to be resurrected as the Post in 1981, Qoboza was forced to resign for reasons that may have been linked to his being “uncontrollable”.

He epitomised a new phenomenon of growing struggle consciousness among young and courageous journalists who had been banned or imprisoned ie Phil Mthimkhulu, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Mathatha Tsedu, Joe Thloloe, Thami Mazwai and Aggrey Klaaste among others, for deviating from the market-oriented, profit-making strategy to political activism.

The owners of the Sowetan were opposed to the notion of using the newspaper to express support for the banned organisations like the ANC and PAC or articulating political views.

Significantly, the first editor of the Sowetan, Joe Latakgomo, was a sports writer whose beat, presumably, posed no threat to the political regime.

Editors and senior writers in the Sowetan were expected to conform to the interests of capital and thus protect and preserve the status quo. Many of them were forced to ignore politics and re-adjust to promoting entertainment, sports, general news (crime, sex and scandals) and small business.

It was an accident of history that a few of its journalists were subjected to detention, banishment and imprisonment.

The owners did not subsidise the papers for black journalists to be freedom fighters but instruments that would be pivotal to the creation of a black middle class that would be a buffer between white economic control and the poor African majority.

More often than not, the editorial controllers were inclined to be hostile to any African journalist who uses the newspaper for political purposes.
For instance, any journalist who called for the return of the land, redistribution of wealth or condemnation of racism faced serious consequences, if you like.

The fact that men like Qoboza, Klaaste, Thloloe or Mazwai were, once upon a time, part of the Sowetan’s evolution or history does not absolve it of its role in being an instrument for white business to tap into the so-called black market.

Today the Sowetan has what can be considered an ambivalent relationship with the government, for instance, which raises serious questions about its role in the development of an African state.

But the claim that it was more of a political newspaper than a commercial institution on the side of capital needs to be debated. The true history and role of so-called black newspapers and their editors and journalists needs to be critically examined.

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