20 Years of Unshackled Journalism

A paper delivered by Mathatha Tsedu on December 1, 2013, at the Vodacom Journalism Awards 2013, Johannesburg.

Thank you Programme Director. Acknowledgements are in order for the Editors, Vodacom Executives, Judges of these awards, Journalists, Finalists and fellow nobodies like myself. I was asked to look at 20 years of journalism in a free SA. I have chosen to call it 20 years of unshackled journalism.

In delving into this look back in time, I think it is proper that as we gather to honour good journalism tonight, we ask and answer the question what is good journalism? John Pilger, in the foreword to a book he edited called Tell Me No Lies, quotes TD Allman, an American journalist, as saying “Genuine objective journalism is journalism that not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. It is compelling not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by reliable sources but by the unfolding of history”.

So in terms of this definition journalism is called upon to record the facts right, but to also get the meaning of those events around the facts right. This means even if the meaning may be part of what Indian writer Vandan Shiva calls “subjugated knowledge” that is fighting for space against “dominant knowledge”, those views should come through for the meaning of the event to be right.

I am saying the first test of good journalism is to get the facts right. But once that is in, the meaning of those facts and events has to be also in and right. And when people collide with the story in whatever format, they must feel it is going to stay with them today and tomorrow and forever. Because as history unfolds, the facts as put forth will not change to suit history, but instead history will validate those facts.

So, when Diepsloot burns, or Bekkersdal or Khayelitsha and its poo protests happen or Saldanha, to what extent do we go beyond the fact of the poo pouring, or the burning tyres, the booing, into the meaning and root of the facts and events we are reporting?

The winning entries tonight hopefully pass both these tests, of getting the facts and meaning right and also ensuring that subjugated knowledge of the affected comes through in their own voices and not just in the interpretation of the chattering classes like me who don’t live their experience.

I thought that in looking at the 20 years of unshackled journalism, we should look at what shackled journalism was like? Let’s take three examples.

From around 1984, the SADF camped inside Turfloop or the University of the North in Limpopo where I was a bureau chief. I mean there was a base inside the university with soldiers patrolling the campus and setting up viewing points on the many boulders around the campus.

They were part of Group 45 which was a battalion that was based in several areas such as Seshego and from where they terrorised villages and townships. There was a state of emergency, and stories about “security forces” had to go through the misnomered Bureau of Information which was anything but.

One time Group 45 from Turfloop had gone into villages around the university beating up people. I had all the eye witness accounts and had interviewed victims. I travelled to Joburg to write this major expose. We were still on typewriters so I had typed my story in triplicate, gave the news editor one copy, and kept the other two.

After looking at the story, the news editor said it was a very good story. He then added: “Get a car requisition and go and see the lawyers with it”. And so, from the Sowetan offices in Industria I took the trip to downtown Joburg to the Webber Wentzel offices with the story in my pocket.

The lawyer read through the story and shook his head muttering things about how bad the government was and how important it was to tell these stories. I waited for the verdict. He then took a green pen and started telling me we cannot say this and this and this and this and this and this and this because of the state of emergency regulations.

In the end, what remained that could be published said nothing about the brutalities visited on the villagers. I took my copies and left and told the news editor I can’t run a story that is saying nothing. I then sat brooding about how to circumvent the system. I removed all reference to the SADF and instead spoke of a group of men in dark khaki uniforms and rifles who terrorised the villagers.

By removing direct reference to the SADF we did not need to pass the story with the Bureau for Information as we were not talking about “security forces”. I knew that all our readers would know who exactly we were talking about. And so one story survived and opened a window for a while to report about the soldiers and cops without mentioning them. It was just the latest trick. Initially, we would call the Bureau for comment, and they would say they do not comment on military matters. We would run the whole story and use the no comment as sufficient balance. Until they realised what was happening and said their no comment does not constitute comment to be used.

Or take Bra Nat Serache who was writing for The Rand Daily Mail, I think, and Major Arthur Benoni Cronwright. Some of the big political stories of the time were detentions. So one day Bra Nat got information of the detention of some political activist. He phoned the police and was put through to Cronwright, who was a notorious John Vorster Square based security head. Cronwright asked who it was speaking and then said they had no comment.

Late that night when Nat was at home Cronwright arrived. He wanted to know if it was Nat who called that afternoon about some detention. Nat confirmed. Cronwright grabbed Nat by the collar and pushed him against the wall and said to him: “Ek praaat nie met kaffir verslaagewers nie, hoor jy my? Nat, being throttled infront of his entire family, said yes he understood.

Or Makompo Kutumela and the ultimate of sacrifices when he was killed by police in the cells at Mahwelereng on April 5, 1986, at the age of 25.

The post mortem revealed that at least 41 sjambok marks were counted on his body, amongst other injuries. It is a gruesome tale that is captured oh so painfully by Tsoaledi Thobejane in his book: “The Fight for an egalitarian South Africa/Azania, Towards Politics of Racial Harmony and Equity”. Let us listen to Tsoaledi as he takes us into the torture chamber of apartheid, as Makompo takes his last breath.

“When Makompo’s turn of torture came, they leaned him against the wall, and was told that as a journalist, he had a lot of reporting to do the next day pertaining to our beatings. He (Makompo) told them that it was his duty to report about any significant event in the township, and that he regarded ours as news worthy too. One heavy whip sank into his body. I saw him flinch and readying his body for more lashes.

“They took Makompo to the ground so that all of them could have access to his lean body. He was kicked repeatedly while another was violently banging Makompo’s head against the floor. He screamed and later passed out. The same response of laughter from the soldiers echoed in the corners of the four walls of the building. When Makompo regained consciousness, a constable by the name of Rampedi hit him hard on his head with a pistol and sent him staggering again to the floor….

“At midnight, Makompo started to behave differently. Makompo started to pace up and down in the cell, and demanded a lot of water. He started to pull our blankets. His train of thought was no longer that of a normal person. He then vomited, and started to breathe deeply.

“We concluded that he needed urgent medical attention. We shouted for the wardens and the police to no avail. We banged the doors and screamed so loud that the people outside the police station could hear us. The response was the same laughter from the soldiers who seemed content with the unfolding events. Out of panic, we told Makompo to hold on until the next morning. He agreed.

“He sighed heavily and turned his head. We thought that he was asleep and felt a bit relieved. His face was still, and he looked relaxed more than before, assured that nothing would disturb him again. Not even the pain he was feeling inside. Not even the pain the entire black population was feeling for its oppression.

“I slowly moved my hand to feel his heartbeat. It had stopped! I checked for his pulse on his hand. I looked at my inmates. We all battled to stop the tears that voluntarily started rolling down our cheeks. Our cries were turned into the sound of music to the police who never bothered to come to our assistance. We did not want to accept that Makompo had departed from us.”.

But he was gone. That was shackled journalism. The story had to be told, no matter the risk. At some point, all members of Mwasa’s leadership were banned: Zwelakhe, Subrey, Phil, Joe, Mono, Charles, we were all stopped from writing.

Those were the challenges then. Today a free media exists but it did not come free, people like Makompo died for this freedom. Whilst the story then was a simple but dangerous one, today journalists deal with a much more complex story of a free SA still trying to find its place back into the community of African nations, witness JZ’s gaffe about Africans in Africa generally and Malawi in particular.

It is the story of SA’s reintegration into the world economy, into the global geo politics and global economics of the G20 and Brics.

It is also the story of a liberation movement in power being torn asunder by greed and corruption on a scale difficult to imagine and or comprehend. When statutory institutions mandated to hold power in check are filibustered through apartheid key points acts, it is journalism that is the saving grace.

Things are seemingly going to get worse before they get better. The ruling party, by its own admission, is now heavily infested with characters that see the organisation and the public service it controls as cash cows and an open vault. As you write the stories that are going to be recognised tonight, you may even feel like it is a hopeless case, you expose but it does not stop.

It is not hopeless. They still listen. Pravin Gordhan’s mid-term statement last week on the cuts and measures to be introduced is mostly based on media expose’s around the million a piece ministerial cars, the excessive catering at government functions, and the use of 20 star hotels by leaders who profess to act on behalf of the poorest or the poor.

The media tribunal that started off as a mooted mechanism with the potential to even jail journalists has been shelved, the attempt to use the Film and Publications Act to bring us into line has failed, and as it stands today, the Protection of State Information Bill has been watered down through more than 100 amendments.

A round of applause for the collective work of journalism is in order. Keep doing it, one story at a time, knowing that you live in unshackled times, and that the constitution guarantees your right to do your work and our right to know. However the Constitution is a piece of paper. It must gain life through us.

Many of us have a romantic affection with freedom, with being unshackled. We tend to think because the ex liberation movement now in power fought for freedom from oppression and for freedom of expression, they should remain committed to both. It does not necessarily follow.

I hold the view that we should not be surprised by attempts to bring the Media Tribunal or the Protection of Information Bill. Media freedom is never won, it is always contested and defended. You have to stay at the barricades because power always pushes the frontiers back. It is not South African power that pushes the frontiers back, or power in Africa in general or Malawi in particular, to misquote the now infamous words, it is universal.


Julian Assange and Edward Snowden
Julian Assange and Edward Snowden

Witness Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. They are today fugitives being hounded by supposedly bastions of freedom. And where are they finding refuge? In the Ecuadorian embassy and Russia respectively. Who would have thought?

In eastern Europe, as the socialist regimes tumbled in the early 90’s, the new democratic powers that had been in the trenches with journalists became the new enemies of freedom of media, demanding the same pliancy that we are asked to produce here.

The pushback is universal and while we are able to galvanise into action when a threat comes, it is not journalists at the forefront of these battles but other civil society structures. It is a shame, I think, that there is no journalist organization in this country at the moment, with due apologies to what remains of Mwasa and the feeble attempt to create Pro Journ.

In the recent fights against the demagogues within government and within the ANC who would not bat an eyelid to move against media freedom, what role did journalists play besides sometimes tarty coverage?

When crisis happens, are we found in the trenches as journalists? If truth be told, journalists are conspicuous by their absence in many of these battles. I mean had it not been for the R2K, where would the fight against the POI have been? In an era where SA journalists have no organisation of their own after the FBJ debacle, how do journalists organise to defend their turf?

Sanef is an organisation of editors, not journalists. But even Sanef suffers from the same malaise of few mostly has beens like me, attending meetings and standing at the barricades. We seem to have little or no memory at all of where we come from and how easily we can slip back. Back then, in organisations like Mwasa, we would at every meeting chant slogans such as “Freedom is the law of nature, justice is deeply rooted in the universal order of things. I am because you are, you are because I am.”

It was a way to remind ourselves at all times that strength lies in solidarity. The absence of a coherent organised approach by journalists to issues that confront the profession, is for me the greatest danger to our freedom as we approach 20 years of our hard won freedom. Freedom from general political oppression seems to have brought with it a complacency within journalists that endangers our long term ability to defend our gains.

Every generation produces the journalists that meet the demands of its time. Many of you gathered here tonight are living embodiments of this. You are holding power to account, whether it is for the red soled shoes of Dina Pule, or the villa in the rolling hills of KZN, or the hypocrisy of forgetting that the best curry one ever had was at the Guptas.

Unshackled South African journalism therefore is meeting its challenges and should continue to do so, but you also need to get your own house in order.


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