Annual Press Freedom Address – 1997
DELIVERED BY ZUBEIDA JAFFER
GROUP PARLIAMENTARY EDITOR-INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS
5 MAY 1997
This is special moment for me returning to my Alma Mater on this auspicious occasion. When I received the invitation to give this address, my parents asked if they could accompany me to Grahamstown. They are not physically here tonight but are with me in their thoughts. They wanted to come with me because they had journeyed with me to this town 18 years ago. Grahamstown was a very different place then. After the long journey by car from Cape Town, we searched for a place to buy something to eat, entered the Wimpy and were refused service. There was no eating place in Grahamstown which would accommodate us.
After that visit, my parents were reluctant to allow me to return. But I wanted to study Journalism and Rhodes was the only English-language University offering a degree course. They did not stand in my way and have done so; despite the fact that they were told often enough that journalism was not a suitable profession for a “girl”.
The then Professor of the department, Tony Giffard, was so kind as to arrange special permission for to complete the degree within two years since I had already obtained a BA degree from UCT. So I enrolled at Rhodes in 1987 after obtaining a permit from the government to study at a white university. At the end of that year, a handful of us-about 30-were turfed out of the residences. The government had decreed that black students could not live alongside white students, so the university told us to leave our residences. I found an empty outhouse in Raglan Road which I shared with a friend but most others had no choice but to accept the separate black residences created by the university. We protested vehemently but to no avail.
We were a small number of young black women in the department at the time. Nalini Naidoo and Irene Freeman both did not stay in the media industry for long. Nosisi Kota from New Brighton changed careers to teaching and died of cancer two years ago. Charmaine Naidoo is editor of a Sunday magazine. I must use this occasion to pay special tribute to all South African women who have made a contribution to the journalism profession. I want to remember especially Sophie Tema, Joyce Sikakane, Ruth First, Rykie van Reenen, Zuby Mayet, Jane Raphaely, and Zelda Jongbloed.
Journalism has for so long been a predominantly male preserve. And our newspapers and media institutions have been shaped during a dark period of authoritarianism. Now that we have won the constitutional guarantees of a free press, the challenge is how to make the institution representative of the entire South African population so that the sensitivities of different perspectives can be captured. Women constitute more than half the population. The press is less than free if their voices are not heard.
While dealing with the question of women and the press, I would like to welcome the shift in government towards a greater commitment to eradicating violence against women. Now that state violence has been defeated, it is imperative that we defeat sexual violence too. Within our newsrooms across the country, there is considerable insensitivity to this issue. Women in the newsrooms, together with men committed to change, must not only change the public understanding of the issue within the workplace. Rape is about power not sex. Black women are the main victims but press outrage is expressed when the victim is white. This grave imbalance needs to be urgently addressed. It can be addressed partly by placing more women into positions of authority in our newsrooms. On the walls of the Press dining room at parliament are arrayed portraits of political correspondents dating back to 1929. The first woman appears in a portrait in the mid-70’s. She was Fleur de Villiers. I believe she was preceded by Jill Chisholm in 1972. The first black woman joined the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1994. She was Vasantha Angamuthu from the Daily News in Natal. She found it unpleasant to be in an all-male environment and left after two years. I then replaced her.
A white colleague at one of the Natal Newspapers told me recently that a few years ago she wanted to be a political correspondent but was told that she would not be chosen because she would not “fit in”. Instead, a male colleague with less experience than herself was sent to parliament.
I hope that as we seek to transform our institutions, we too will not strive to put together all those who “fit in” automatically. “Fitting in” will now have to come through give and take. We must all “fit into” being South African, learning to share adjust and accommodate.
For true freedom of the press, we must move away from the assumption that either white is best or else black is best. As journalists we have to find a way to look and listen beyond colour and political party. Only then will we be serving the public as we should be.
It is not at all easy because we have for so long been entrapped in different camps. We come from such vastly different experiences. It would be remiss of me not to share with you my experience of the absence of press freedom in years gone by. It is an experience that I share with the vast majority of South Africans and it is that which I bring into the national project of consolidating press freedom which I believe to be a constant Imperative. Journalists are not simply or even mainly the products of training institutions. We come with intense personal histories that shape the way we see ourselves, our country and the press. It is our job not to suppress our life experiences but to discipline them in a professional manner and to share them with our colleagues.
On the morning of the 7th august 1996-a year ago- I walked alongside a group of women into the main hall at the University of Western Cape to testify to the Truth Commission. Arrangements had been made for a special hearing of women to coincide with National Womens Day on August 9.
I was to be the second woman to testify. The first at nine that morning was Agnes Gounden, a woman I had met 16 years ago when I was a young journalist at the Cape Times. Agnes Gounden’s sister, Avril du Bruin was shot and killed in June 1980 when the Cape Flats were gripped by protest. In the months preceding her death-my first months as a reporter at the Cape times-Cape Town was engulfed in school boycotts, bus boycotts, a huge meat strike and other forms of civil unrest.
Towards the middle of that year, as protest intensified, scores of people were killed and injured. Yet the media carried virtually no information.
After news of the shootings filtered through into our newsroom, police refused to supply the Cape Times with a casualty list. Elsies River was a war zone. We could not move into Lavender Hill or Retreat because the police had blocked off Prince George Drive.
The crime reporter at the Cape Times could not confirm numbers of the victims nor their names. The police said they had shot gangsters who had looted shops. The chief of the counter-insurgency unit, Major-General V Vester said: “If you want the names of the dead, you must get them from the families of the dead. We are not going to release them.”
About a week after the shootings, the editor, Tony Heard, called me into his office. He needed somebody who could do an investigation into who the victims were and how they had died. We will give you whatever time you need and whatever resources, but we want you to find these people,” he said.
I agreed to do it. I was young to realise the full import of what I was undertaking. I was an enthusiastic 22-year-old who came from a loving and protective cape Muslim family. Little did I know that I was to experience first hand the complete lack of press freedom which I had only learnt about in theory as a student at Rhodes University. Little did I know that I was about to do an investigation that was to change my life. In July, 1980, I drove to Elsies River was like a maze. I found some of the families in the transit camp where there were no roads, no formal addresses-only an endless sea of shacks. “Over there,” somebody would point out. And although the mud and slush of the untarred pathways, I made my way to the distant dwelling where sometimes I found the family or was sent off in a different direction.
On to the sprawling flats of Clarkes estate, where families were still nursing their grief. A local student, Lynette Maart served as my guide to the area. After two weeks, with her help, I had tracked down 26 families. According to hospital reports at least 42 people had died but Tony Heard called a halt to the search. He wanted the story. Write everything you’ve got so far, he said. So I sat on the edge of my bed, next to my desk on which I had done all my Rhodes assignments- and the horror of the two weeks flowed on to pages. It was during that time that I had met Agnes Gounden and her mother had told me how she had seen her 25 year-old sister, Avril du Bruin, a bank clerk, slump to the ground beside her after being hit by a police sniper bullet.
Agnes and her mother, both distraught, led into their living room a three-year-old boy, Ronald. He was the son of Avril. When I met Avril last year, a few days before testifying, I enquired about her mother and then I remembered the child who had been orphaned.
“What happened to Avril’s little boy’” I asked Agnes. “My mother could not cope, so I adopted him,” she said. And then she lowered her voice as her eyes brightened with pride: “He is now a second-year medical student at UCT, “she said.
“Goodness,” I replied, “I have a nephew who is also a second-year medical student.
Perhaps Ronald knows him.”
“What is his name?
“Riaad,” I say.
“Riaad is one of Ronald’s best friends,” said Agnes and we both laughed.
Riaad was in the hall when I testified on August 7 but his friend Ronald had not come to hear Agnes tell how his mother was killed. “We don’t talk about it at home,” said Agnes. “I did ask him if he wanted to come, but he preferred not to hear what had happened,” she said.
We all have our own ways of dealing with pain and I will return to the issue of healing and the media later, but allow me to tell you how this story changed my life.
The Cape Times ran the investigation into the riot deaths across full page on 24 July, 1980. The day after the story was published, an anonymous donor gave the Cape Times R5 000 for the families of the victims. A fund was started and about ten days later, with the help of SHAWCO, Elsies River to decide how to distribute the funds. Three days later, shortly after I returned home from working night shift at the paper, Security policeman Spyker van Wyk and his team arrived to detain me. So continued a journey which had started the day I was called into Tony Heard’s office.
About ten four days, I found myself being beaten into the walls of the Sanlam Centre in Port Elizabeth. “Lies, lies, all lies,” said the captain as his heavy hands hit my body. I cannot remember his name but I remember that he discussed the story with a Captain Oosthuizen who said the lies had also been carried out in the Eastern Province Herald. He took me to the window of the sixth storey and said they would throw me down there if I did not confess.
They wanted me to admit that I was a member of the ANC or that I knew one name of somebody in the ANC. I did not know anybody of the ANC or that I knew one name of somebody in the ANC. I did not know anybody and I most certainly was not a member. What I had done as a student at Rhodes was to attend lunchtime meetings at the offices of the man who is now head of the Rhodes Journalism department. Guy Berger was my tutor and invited me and a number of other students to read Time Longer Than Rope by Eddie Roux to help us understand South African history. We did not do this in secret in the dead of the night. We met during lunchtime and I certainly did not consider this to be a clandestine activity.
This was eventually to be interpreted as constituting an ANC cell which I was accused of being part of. You must remember that at that time it was a crime to mention the ANC or any other of the organisations banned in 1960.
Reading about the history of this country other than that which was sanctioned by the state was against the law. You study under very different conditions today. Not only can you read what you want to about your own country, you also have access to information about countries across the world. This today you take for granted.
I was definitely on the way to becoming sympathetic to the organisation and the detention experience pretty much convinced me to become an activist. Listening to those stories of families had disturbed me to the core and then came the detention. They not only beat me, but drugged me and interrogated me until I was unconscious. For many hours, I lay in a stupor on the floor of an interrogation room. And then, when they did not have a case against me, they detained me father so that he could hand over my student books. After being held as a terrorist for two months, I was charged with possession of three banned books, one being Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Many months later, I was to be acquitted.
But my life was never the same again. I could not write the way I wrote before. I could not cry. I could not feel. To cope with the trauma, I had to suppress my feelings and this hampered my work. I realise that I had to step back from the main-stream media which limited me in the pursuit of truth. In an increasingly polarised country, my writing found expression through community organisations, through the United Democratic Front, through trade union publications, through the famous community newspaper, Grassroots, the parent paper of scores of local community papers across the country, alternative publications of all sorts.
I was to return to mainstream journalism in 1990after the unbanning of the organisations and the beginnings of greater freedom of the press.
Testifying at the Truth Commission represented for me a symbolic break with the trauma of the past-it was part of the process of becoming a whole person again. After I testified, I bumped into a former colleague at the Cape Times, who said to me he had had no idea that I had had such a rough time in detention.
“Why did you not tell me”, he said.
“You did not ask”, I replied.
Nobody really asked me what had happened. There was the assumption that I was a woman and that I would have been treated reasonably. There was also the assumption that I must have done something illegal to be held as a terrorist.
I must use this opportunity to acknowledge that I was very well supported by my editor and the management of the Cape Times. Tony Heard campaigned actively for my release. The journalist organisations, WASA and SAUJ called for my release and international support came from across the world.
At the time, I wanted to lay charges of torture against the police but was advised my lawyer, Mr Dullah Omar, who is our Justice Minister now, that I would get nowhere. “You have no witnesses, “he said. “It is your word against theirs. If you pursue this you must know that you will face further harassment.”
And I was harassed further. In the mornings when I got off the train in Cape Town and walked to work, I was followed by security police. In May 1981 when I reported on the anti-Republic day protests at UWC, my passport was withdrawn without explanation. I can go on and on.
Many friends advised me to leave the country. It was an option I at one point considered but then decided against. I just felt would be harder-being in exile, being away from my family.
I dreamt of a time when I would be free to pursue the career that I had trained for. I dreamt of a time when I would be free to pursue the career that I had trained for. I dreamt of a time when I could just go about doing my work like any normal person. And now that time has come. We are living at a time when journalists can be journalists, teachers, teachers, doctors, doctors. Each of us have our roles to play in order to make our country a better place for all its people. We have politicians now who can attend to politics as an institution. We in the media have now build our profession as a vibrant and meaningful part of the young democracy we struggled for.
To do this, we must acknowledge that we as professionals in the industry at this point come from completely different backgrounds with the most diverse life experiences. The media was polarised as the country was. And that if we begin to talk about freedom of the press, we need first to understand where we come from, to acknowledge the divide, so that an appropriate bridge can be constructed. Let us not sweep differenced under the table and pretend they do not exist. If we are honest with one another, we will be able to heal the wounds of the past.
Coming from the background that I do, it is important for me tonight to share with you my view on party political affiliation and the role of the journalist. I do not believe that journalists should be card-carrying members of any political party. Our commitment must lie solely with upholding the values of the new constitution, not of any political group. It is to this we must dedicate ourselves.
Since my appointment, I have been asked how my close relationship with the ANC in the past will affect my job. It is strange that this question is asked of those of us who have been part of building the anti-apartheid movement. Why are journalists who have close relationships with the National party and the Democratic Party not asked how this is affecting their work? In fact, I have known journalists to have had stickers of the Democratic Party on their doors at the workplace.
I am very proud of the fact that I have made a contribution to bringing about the end of apartheid. I am proud like the resistance fighters of Europe were when they helped defeat Nazism. There appears to be little difficulty, 50 years after the 2nd World War, for the international film industry to glorify the role of the French resistance fighters, to highlight the heroism of Schindler. Yet somehow, having fought for liberty in our country is seen as a disqualification for participating in the work of the institutions we helped to free.
I will make no apology for throwing in my lot with building the resistance to apartheid. It is through the efforts of many thousands of resisters, black and white, that we finally have entered an era of peace and democracy in our country. The ANC was the only organisation with the capacity to defeat apartheid. There were other organisations that made a contribution to the process but the ANC will go down in history as an organisation which led the process. Its success at the polls confirmed this.
I was formally a member of the ANC for six months after it was unbanned but then resigned after deciding to pursue my career in journalism. As a member, I would owe my loyalty to the organisation. This is entirely appropriate for some. But as a journalist I believe my loyalty should be to the pursuit of truth and to the values enshrined in the constitution. The constitution provides us with invaluable parameters which represent a compromise between South Africans of different political persuasions. It is a guide which can lead us to our children a media institution which can protect the hard-won freedoms which so many fought for and which Sam Mabe died for.
When I think back, I marvel at the strides we have made but I am only too painfully aware that much has yet to be done. The famous German architect Mies van Rohe once said God is in the detail. There will be no miraculous, once-and-for-all transformation of our country. We could lose what we have gained if we do not painstakingly and honestly attend to the detail, deepening the process of building a free press and finding institutional mechanisms to guarantee the hard-won freedoms. We need to move forward to close the divide which has torn our nation asunder.
The political institutions in our country have been transformed to represent all South Africans. The press as an institution lags far behind. There are no simple solutions. We as South African journalists have to put our minds together and restore our profession to a central position of honour. The effort of each one of us together, our varied talents, will move us towards a greater professionalism which all our people are entitled to.
Wherever I so, citizens complain about the press. I am speaking especially of those who are enjoying the rights of citizenship for the first time. For as long as we don’t give credit where credit is due, valid criticisms we make of the government are not taken all that seriously. We are failing in our duty to record one of the greatest experiments in recent world history. Foreigners travel here to marvel at our achievements. But we as South Africans take it all for granted. We take it for granted that we have been saved from the fate facing the Israelis and Palestinians. We take it for granted that the tortured are forgiving the torturers. We take it for granted that we have 80community radio stations, new commercial radio stations and new TV channels coming. We take it for granted that we can say what we want and write what we want.
If we are not careful we may find ourselves in the same untenable situation that American journalism finds itself. Several national polls in the US show widespread distrust of television and newspapers. A recent poll by the Times Mirror Centre for the people and the Press found that 71 percent of Americans think the press “gets in the way of society solving its problems.”
The difficulty facing the profession is how to move beyond bombarding the public with just the short snippets of spicy negative news. We are great at raising people’s anxieties but we do not leave them with much sense of hope or remedy.
A healthy scepticism is what won for our profession a revered position in history. Yet journalistic cynicism and negativism is of another order. It is is the lazy way out for journalists unwilling to do serious investigation and analysis: “Oh, they are all the same. Nothing has changed. Knee-jerk cynicism is not a shield that protects the public from scoundrels, but a virus that is being transmitted from the newspaper page and television screen to the public, and could eventually contribute to the decline in faith in democratic institutions. We are meant to be a modern version of the court jester, of the imbongi- the respected member of society tasked with pointing out the rights and wrongs of that society in order to maintain its health.
When Robert MacNeil, long-time host of the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS, approached retirement last year, he called on his colleagues to take up the challenge. “We have to remember, as journalists, that we may be observers but we are not totally disinterested observers,” he said.
“We are not social engineers, but each one of us has a stake in the health of this democracy. Democracy and the social contract that makes it world are held together by a delicate web of trust, and all of us in journalism hold edges of the web. We are not just amused bystanders, watching the idiots screw it up.”
A sharp scepticism-the mark of traditional journalism-will go a long way in restoring the profession to an honoured position in society. There has to be a return to high standards of journalism which could provide the public with all the information needed to make educated decisions. The public must know that journalists will ensure that society is open and not shrouded in secrecy.
We have ample precedent for this in the country. It is not as if we are without appropriate role models. The great Mr Drum, Henry Nxumalo, who was mysteriously killed, Sam Mabe, Sowetan journalist in whose honour this lecture was established, Percy Qoboza, Allister Sparks, Ruth First, were all fearless, independent and deeply engaged with the problems of our country.
And there are many examples of courageous journalism. This moment in history however demands of us a different kind of courage. Just like the Germans after the Second World War embarked on a special mission to heal their country with the help of people throughout the world, we are now called upon to prove that peace and racial harmony can become real condition humankind. Apartheid in a way has forced us to commit ourselves to fight racism. We cannot fail now. If we fail, there is little hope for other war-torn communities. The difficulty is how does the press make a contribution to this effort which is of such significance to the whole world? I do not have the answers. What our past experiences has proved, however, is that if we have the will, we will find a way.
A few years ago, the National Peace campaign enlisted the support of all newspapers in their efforts to spread the call for peace across the country. When we opened our morning papers, a brown envelope containing a white ribbon fell from the pages. We need to find the stories which act as these ribbons speaking of racial harmony and peaceful coexistence. We need to find a way a way to add our repertoire the portfolio of the peace correspondent so that we can capture peace as well as war. This does not mean that we must not continue to focus on the scourge of crime and other problems.
At the same time it is important to point out that it is unacceptable for the government to expect that journalists to become propagandists of government policies, however good they are or that we must tell them what they want to hear. Just as politicians accept that the judiciary must be built into an independent institution, so too must they realise that the press has to be independent of government. Politicians are less than used to being publicly criticised. Instead of responding by providing explanations that the public need, they threaten the press with defamation suits, with the Human rights commission, with legal action or even with “closing it down.” The press cannot do its work freely under threat. We are soon to enter an election year and politicians must know that their actions are going to be under constant scrutiny. They should welcome this.
South Africa now takes its place as honoured part of the world. We make our contribution to the world, not only take ideas from it. At an international level, there is a world movement towards a more enlightened future for the 21st Century. There are those who argue that we are about to make a major leap into a different age, an age of the coming together of the material, spiritual, intellectual and physical. The disjuncture which has characterised the 20th century wracked by world wars is expected to be supplanted by a greater interconnectedness of all manifestations of life.
Hence the growing strength of the environmental movement, the greater interest in developing the spirit, fresh acknowledgement that solutions to health problems can only be found by bringing together the wisdom of the old and the new.
As journalists we need to bring to the public the different visions of the future. As we become part of the global community, linked together through the internet, we are more and more able to learn about the contribution that different nations make to the advance of humankind. Our children now have the opportunity to be part of the world.
There is also a realisation in the world that change is coming to Africa. That the people of African have a special contribution to make to the notion of forgiveness and community. When I travelled across the hills of Rwanda, I experienced both the epitome of horror and at the same time met Rwandese who has transcended their catastrophe in a way which places them on a higher spiritual plane than of us lesser mortals. When we read about Africa and when we write about Africa, it is about disasters and wars. So the world can be forgiven if they view Africans as lost causes.
But we are not. We have moved away from war in all of Southern Africa. More than one hundred million Africans are living under politically stable conditions in this region. This past weekend, aboard a floating ship, arch enemies were brought together in central Africa. African intellectuals are returning to their homes from the West in greater numbers. The most admired leader of the 20th century is an African. We have the honour to be blessed with him as a leader.
The political project is well underway to completion. The economic imperative is now the focus. For the past few years, we as South Africans have lived through an intense debate about appropriate political systems that could serve us. Through the press, citizens have become aware of the different issues around negotiations which have led to the adoption of the final constitution. Now that we have in place an agreed upon political system, the press would be doing the country a service if it were to reflect on the debate around appropriate economic solutions to our problems. When Finance minister Trevor Manuel made his maiden budget speech, we all dutifully reported on it. Reporting was considerable balanced, giving both positives and negatives. What we have not succeeded in doing is questioning the basis of the policy. We have not told the people generally that there are other economic options which the government has rejected. We have not properly explained why other options have been rejected.
At a broad public level, we have very little idea what the alternatives are. We have been told that we have no option but to participate in the global economy. Perhaps that is so but we understand too little about the issues to make a descent judgement.
I believe that the press needs to urgently engage citizens in debating economic solutions for South Africa and Africa. Minister Manual has admitted that the government is not on track with job creation. The press must relentlessly focus attention on job creation and provide the public with the information the y need to decide whether or not the government is moving in the right direction. Wealth without jobs will be a complete disaster for us.
For the public to understand the changing world, journalists will increasingly have to sharpen their analytical skills so that they can provide the tools with which citizens can make sense of their lives. We need desperately to increase our professional skills, our investigative capacities, our checking on sources, and, above all, our ability to analyse in depth and pose meaningful questions.
To come back to the workplace and the more mundane. When I was appointed to the position of Group Parliamentary editor of Independent Newspapers, I was offered a bigger car allowance which meant that I was expected to buy a bigger car or pay more tax. I asked that I be given a child-care allowance instead of a bigger car allowance because I am a single parent and the job would place greater demands on me requiring me to employ help. But this I was told was not company policy and would not be possible. As women move into greater positions of responsibility, I hope that they will combine to bring about a shift in priorities within the business community. This is not a question of asking for more money. It is asking for a different set of priorities.
Those of us who are senior women journalists joining the upper ranks of our companies have to ask ourselves whether we will “fit into” the male world or bring into that world the sensitivities, the special qualities of the female life experience.
Only then, when male and female qualities work in parallel, can we attain the kind of balance which will bring about greater health within our societies. We have a long way to go. There are no simple answers. If we make a genuine attempt to hear what others are saying, then I have no doubt, solutions lie within our collective experience-black and white, male and female.
While the problems sometimes seem insurmountable, I cannot but feel honoured to live at this moment in our history when we are called upon to transform and shape the key institutions of our society. We have the choice of throwing up our arms in despair or rolling up our shirt-sleeves and getting on with the job. None of us are perfect. We will make mistakes. But let it never be said that we refused to try.
I am convinced that there is a dedication among many South African journalists making it possible for our profession to rise to the new demands of the situation, and help prepare our country and our people to enter the 21st century.