Karima Brown stood on the shoulders of giants in journalism
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On Sunday, independent 24-hour news channel eNCA paid a fitting and final farewell to its TV host, Karima Brown, and did a reprise on some of her excellent interviews on her show, The Fix, that relived the prowess of a brave-hearted commentator until Covid-19 ended her colourful and controversial career last week.
Coronavirus continued its ruthless march at the weekend, taking more high-profile lives of that of top business leader Peter Matlare and Durban’s first black mayor, Sipho Ngwenya, and scores of other victims.
Born Karima Semaar of Muslim faith in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, on May 20, in death, Karima Brown shone a light on the country’s controversial and complex media landscape. At 53, she lost her battle to survive coronavirus.
Her death in a Johannesburg hospital immediately lit up the print and electronic media – with her TV station, eNCA, breaking the shocking news of her demise after three decades of occupying a ringside seat in radio, television and newspapers. In this difficult terrain and environment, she was always on top of her game, brooking no nonsense and getting to the heart of the facts and figures in black and white.
She retained her married name though she became a single parent of a son, Mikhail, 30. Her legend is her fighting spirit and privilege of asking her interviewees tough questions, and she came from a family and community of activists. Her father Achmat Semaar, was a top ANC community activist leader.
Comrade-colleagues in Cape Town recalled how she cut her political teeth in the militant anti-apartheid campaigns with the Cape Youth Congress and SA Students Congress at the University of Western Cape.
Social media went abuzz with many colleagues and citizens posting tributes and offering condolences on Facebook, WhatsApp and other online platforms.
The publicity of her sad demise brought our media into sharp focus, with many of her colleagues and comrades recounting and reliving their personal experiences with one of the Fourth Estate’s best-known bylines and media mover-and-shaker.
Karima Brown was a hands-on prolific writer, political commentator and TV and radio host. Memories of her forays into one of the most difficult professions were refreshed – especially from apartheid to a democratic state fraught with a multitude of political, economic and social woes – and began resurfacing from her professional prowess to controversial interviews and tiffs.
TV viewers were visibly moved by the stills image of her simple, white coffin placed on the grass near her grave site on TV ahead of her funeral according to Muslim rites at the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg.
Her colleagues, media personalities Eusebius McKaiser and Faith Daniels, paid their last respects and gave TV crews fascinating insights at the cemetery.
After the moulana delivered the final rites and her coffin was lowered into the grave, Abdul Karriem Matthews posted a photograph of a wooden grave marker pegged into the red soil: 4/3/2021 Karima Brown B124 and wrote: ‘’A simple burial as befitting someone who believed in equality.’’
Her on-air battles with the political heavyweights, ANC, EFF and DA, are legendary, and yet controversial. No-one could gag, muzzle or intimidate the mother of all media.
Karima Brown stood on the shoulders of giants in journalism – among a pioneering brigade of women journalists ever since Zuby Mayet wrote her first story in the Golden City Post in the 1960s.
A fearless and feisty practitioner, she emerged from Cape Town publishing houses and then to Johannesburg’s SABC, Radio 702, CNBC Africa, Business Day, and finally at the 24-hour news channel. Every Sunday, she hosted and powerfully presented and anchored The Fix on eNCA.
She was a fiery “fixer” – always tirelessly trying to fix the politics and social issues of a broken country in crisis and at the crossroads of change. She lived by the old-styled journalism tradition – publish and be damned!
Literally shooting from her hip, she belonged to a pantheon of legendary, warrior-like wordsmiths.
Big-hearted and ubiquitous, there was a softer side to this battle-hardened communicator. After defeating EFF leader Julius Malema in court, she told SABC that she did not know him ‘’from a bar of soap’’.
Cartoonist Zapiro saw red and sketched an Idi Amin-lookalike military general of the EFF commander-in-chief, frantically touching his mobile phone keypad and sending a flurry of e-trolls, saying ‘’Target: female journalists.’’ Published in the Daily Maverick and posted on social media, it is headlined: Cyber-Fascism to Fascism. It shows an angry red-beret brigade of EFF mobs shouting and hurling a brick through the window of a terrified, bespectacled Karima Brown. This while she is seated at her desk, working on her laptop, cellphone flying off her hand and her grey cat as only witness to this frightening home invasion.
The stunning graphic relates to Brown’s 2019 court case against the EFF when Malema encouraged his supporters on Twitter to harass and issue death and rape threats to the broadcaster after accusing her of “attempting to spy on the EFF’’. The court found the EFF had contravened parts of the electoral code.
Brown did not emerge smelling of roses. The judgment criticised her ‘’strident and political’’ conduct towards the EFF. She had mistakenly posted a watching brief comment intended for eNCA to Malema, which he misread as if Brown was spying on the EFF as an ‘’ANC security operative’’ and not a journalist.
Journalists have to live by a strict credo: audi alterem partem – publish the other side of the story.
Tributes for a trailblazing titan of the Fourth Estate’s world of the printed word, sound bites and footages poured in:
Ryland Fisher, former Sunday Times Durban bureau chief and Cape Times editor: ‘’Karima Brown was an important face in media and democracy and when you lose a voice like that it is a big loss.’’
Lisa Bingham, business consultant to the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) and a colleague at CNBC Africa: “Your voice was loud but you spoke from a soft heart. You were a stalwart at the time of democracy and always kept your voice above the crowd to remind us of the struggle.’’
Uveka Rangappa, presenter at eNCA: ‘’Her death left us all in shock. She was loved and feared for her unwavering pursuit of truth and justice…passionate about politics and certainly leaves a legacy of fearlessness and brave journalism. She was super-intelligent and simplified politics. Off-air she would discuss walking or menopause.’’
John Bailey, eNCA head: ‘’She has been battling Covid-19. She was a strong woman and a fierce fighter against sexism and racism, and never shied away from tackling people. She was very principled. I am going to miss a whole bunch of SMSes on story ideas.
Melody Emmet, executive member of the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea), posted a poem penned by Athol Williams, headlined: Warrior for Karima Brown.
Peter Bruce, former editor of Business Day: ‘’She could be intimidating, but I was not intimidated and she charmed her way around me. She could call politicians when others couldn’t. The foreign correspondents read her reports first. She knew what was going on in the ANC and that is why we employed her.’’
Zubeida Jaffer, former political editor at Independent Newspapers: ‘’She was influenced by me and Rehana Rossouw. She was a feisty individual. Though she was not recognised, she shaped the behind the scenes radio debates for John Perlman and Tim Modise on SAfm.’’
Rebecca Davis, in her obituary in the Daily Maverick, described Brown as a ‘“tiger”. She never let criticism silence her voice and she was utterly fearless in holding politicians “feet to the fire”.
Kate Skinner, outgoing executive director of the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef), paid a glowing tribute to the fallen foot-soldier, whom Sanef supported during her battle with the EFF.
A colleague wrapped up her persona and demeanour: ‘’Her entire personality was: This is me – take it or leave it.’’
*Marlan Padayachee is a veteran journalist and heads a media communication strategy, publishing and research consultancy.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.