Burden of history on us all

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IOL  st cyril ramaphosaFILE GCIS Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and veteran journalist James Matthews during a Sanef meeting held at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town. Picture: Kopano Tlape

Today’s journalists need to be possessed of the same courage and spirit as Nat Nakasa and his peers, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - This weight on my shoulders is heavy and hard to lift off. I feel burdened and sad. This past weekend, at the Nat Nakasa Award ceremony in Cape Town, I had the privilege to sit next to James Mathews, this treasure trove of protest writing.

He has been arrested and tortured for his writings, some of which are very radical. It was an honour and a privilege to be in a room where Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that the remains of Nat Nakasa, that doyen of South African journalism, that great mind, are to be repatriated.

It just reminded me how everything, including the very fact of life, is temporary. It might have taken a long time, but the temporariness of Nakasa resting in a faraway land has come to an end.

Yes, society’s big names were in the hall as Mthethwa made the historic announcement. Sim Tshabalala of Standard Bank, who preceded Mthethwa, has been a great gift to journalism and the expressive art world about which he spoke.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke beautifully about how we ought to tell the South African story.

Earlier in the day, the country’s editors discussed issues of a disparate nature affecting the industry – the changing journalism landscape, mutations in regulatory frameworks available for digital platforms and so on. It was, all in all, a day of reflection and proactiveness.

The announcement by Mthethwa that Nakasa’s remains would be repatriated to his native home was a fitting pinnacle for the day. Yes, that was the pinnacle. Well, there were other storms in the Cape, but Nakasa coming home is a big deal.

The homecoming of this legend is occasion to force many of us in this industry to pause and reflect on what our legacies would be.

When future generations scour through the records to see what kind of journalists, storytellers and patriots we, the newshounds of today, have been, what will they find? Are we possessed of the necessary courage and spirit of Matthews, Nakasa and their generation, always to remain true to what journalism is about? Or are we the sycophants who kowtow to authority, be it political or corporate interests?

Is the current crop so indebted to Tshabalala’s and other banks that speaking truth to power has all but disappeared from our lexicons?

The thing about journalism is that it is hard to find anyone saying the media must not be fair. As Ramaphosa correctly stated, we should reflect on both the positives and negatives of our country. The distance, though, between what is said in public and what is demanded of editors and owners is at times the length of a marathon.

While a robust, investigative media is a nuisance and often not welcomed by those in power, it is in fact the very oxygen necessary for democracy to thrive. When the media becomes malleable or sheepish, the truth becomes a casualty. The apartheid system made it hard for Nakasa’s generation to get to the truth. It isn’t easier now, even though the challenges are varied.

What is democracy without the truth?

Journalism is indeed a higher calling. Many toil long hours not for the little pay they get, but because they know their words can heal a wounded nation. They toil long hours because they know that the price of failure to speak truth to power might lead to injustice. They do it at great personal cost for the broader good.

The truth is that integrity and honesty will cost you. It cost Nakasa his life and his family much more. It might cost some journalists their jobs simply because they insist on doing what Nakasa might have done.

Many in corporate South Africa are forced to drink because they have no courage to do what’s right, they can’t be themselves. The weight on them is too heavy.

Some throw their weight around like they have power, the new chickens on the floor. But they too are mere pawns. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts it most aptly: “Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”

So, in the service of humanity, we must humble ourselves and think of the tortuous road traversed by those who came before us. Those who made bigger sacrifices. Think of a series, for example, published in The World by Duma ka Ndlovu and Willie Bokala called Amandla, which led to the latter going into exile and the former enduring solitary confinement for over 24 months.

Think of the arrests and torture of Joe Thloloe, Mathatha Tsedu, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Amina Akhalwaya and many others. These names came to mind as I sat in that hall with Matthews as Nakasa was being honoured. These people, who came before us, endured the apartheid system. They walked the rutted path of journalism so we could be heirs. Worthy heirs.

The worst that could happen to journalists today is that they might lose their jobs. Compared to what the “native of nowhere”, as Nakasa became known, and his generation endured, losing your job is a small sacrifice, given what journalism is to society. The weight on the shoulders of those leading newsrooms today, those drafting history’s first version, is heavy.

It shouldn’t just be heavy for those in journalism.

In politics, the ANC this week fired four mayors in Limpopo following its assessment of its delivery record in the areas these mayors managed. This, if the Economic Freedom Fighters’ claim that they were fired for being EFF supporters is false, is great news for the country.

The ANC firing poor performers is something to be encouraged. This must not be limited to those who serve in local government. And it should not be an expedient exercise because municipal polls are around the corner. The congenital optimist in me is hopeful that the ANC has learnt something from its declining support in all provinces besides KwaZulu-Natal.

I am hopeful it will take voters more seriously than dismissing them as “clever blacks” or people whose votes are “dirty”. Many Struggle activists were killed or tortured for us to have the jokers in Parliament today. This legacy, like Nakasa’s, must never escape them as they go about their work.

Similarly, all journalists must know and understand who Nakasa is and how such a beautiful, courageous life ended so tragically thousands of kilometres away from home, shattering hearts and temporarily dimming that ray of hope.

Whatever happens, we must seek to be true to ourselves because, in the end, we have ourselves to live with, knowing and understanding that whatever difficulties we might face, everything is temporary. Nat Nakasa’s return proves this.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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