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Dennis Pather’s righting the path to balanced journalism

Award-winning editor Dennis Pather’s documents his journalism journey. Picture: Supplied

Award-winning editor Dennis Pather’s documents his journalism journey. Picture: Supplied

Published Aug 6, 2023


HIS entry into the world of journalism might have come shortly after a random July 1967 meeting with a newspaper editor at an eatery in Durban’s Casbah.

But by the time Dennis Pather retired in 2010, the imprint he had made on the profession – mostly on broadsheets – was plucky, purposeful, and pronounced.

Swatches from Pather’s lengthy journalism career are weaved into Copy Boy: Journey from Newsroom Gofer to Award-winning Editor, a memoir he penned, which will be launched at the Durban International Book Fair on August 12.

Award-winning editor Dennis Pather’s documents his journalism journey. Picture: Supplied

Having started as a cub reporter with the old Golden City Post newspaper after bumping into its editor, GR Naidoo, at the G C Kapitan restaurant on then-Grey Street, Pather achieved newspaper editorships with the Daily News, The Mercury and the Post.

He had stints as the senior assistant editor and later as deputy editor of the Sunday Tribune, in the Independent Media stable.

The book delves into a “crowning experience” for Pather, his selection as South Africa’s Nieman Fellow in 1987. He joined 19 other international mid-career journalists for a year’s sabbatical from newsroom activities to study at Harvard University in the US.

However, a prominent theme in this written work is his abhorrence for apartheid, particularly the impact it had on his profession of choice.

Pather provides insight on close friendships which include those with freedom fighters of yesteryear like Steve Biko and Phyllis Naidoo.

He cherished his interactions with author Aziz Hassim, who wrote extensively on the Casbah when he heard it was to be rezoned.

Howard Simons, the former managing editor of the Washington Post newspaper, whose staffers cracked the “Watergate Scandal” causing the undoing of US president Richard Nixon’s tenure, also had a significant impact on Pather.

The fifth person to make the chapter in the book titled “My Inspirations”, was journalist Percy Qoboza, also a Nieman Fellow.

Pather was moved by Qoboza’s commitment to empowering marginalised black journalists during the apartheid years and contributing towards a stable and peaceful South Africa.

Dennis Pather hacking away on his trusty typewriter during his time at the Graphic newspaper in 1973. Picture:Supplied

Like the individuals that Pather singles out in the book for their strength of character to uphold their beliefs and principles in the face of adversity, he too has shown resilience and determination, at different times, when tackling the machinations of the apartheid regime.

Notably, during his days at the bush college “for Indians” on Salisbury Island (1960s), he was among a group of Black Consciousness comrades who defied the oppressive Broederbond rules governing the institution.

And, again, when he tried to swim with the big fish in the deep waters of mainstream media that was ensconced in “white” matters, Pather did not compromise. He remained balanced in his journalism and also advocated for the “darkie” narrative.

Pather had ambitions to qualify as a pharmacist from his studies on Salisbury Island where the curriculum was “narrow and uninspiring” and the custodians constantly stifled free-thinking.

In spite of the authorities, student activism gained momentum and Pather was among a group of nine agitators called the “Clan“.

Clan members had interactions with black consciousness leaders like Biko, Aubrey Mokoape and Barney Pitanya and became a “thorn in the flesh” of the university’s heads.

The Clan cleverly vented their frustrations through a satirical theatre revue they conjured called “Black and White“, which was never permitted on campus.

A pivotal moment came in May 1967, when police raided a dormitory where Clan members had gathered for a birthday party.

Pather was arrested, assaulted and taken to the Fynnland police station for interrogation from Special Branch policemen which lasted many hours, before his release.

Days later, he was one of three students who were expelled.

The expulsion left him desperately seeking a job. GR Naidoo’s offer left him “gobsmacked”.

“I always enjoyed a love affair with words.”

Scandals and salacious content was not Pather’s “cup of tea”, he yearned for something more “professionally challenging and fulfilling”.

A year later, he had an opportunity at the Leader, covering various news beats before switching to the Graphic. Attorney Pat Poovalingum was at the helm when he arrived.

But Pather became restless and longed for a mainstream post.

Politics was a favoured beat of journalist Dennis Pather, left, who is seen posing a question to then-IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at a press conference in the 1970’s. Picture: Supplied

He was flabbergasted when he was told he had lost out on a Daily News job because he was regarded as a “political hot head”.

"We're concerned about reports that you are associated with people like Steve Biko, Strini Moodley, Barney Pityana and Saths Cooper,” the paper’s news editor told him.

Another position for a “black journalist” was advertised a year later and he re-applied.

The same interviewer quizzed him about his “questionable political associations”, but a fired-up Pather stood his ground and refused to apologise for the company he kept.

Having landed the job, Pather had to deal with the awkwardness of being surrounded by a “sea of white faces”.

Relations with his Daily News colleagues were “decidedly chilly” and it took time before the frost thawed.

Pather felt like he did not belong but it didn’t break his resolve.

In the dark days of the 1970’s and ’80s, Pather recalled how black journalists came under scrutiny. At times, he was followed by police, searched, various items and notes were confiscated.

“It was an easy way to harass journalists.”

Police raids at Daily News’ offices were not uncommon.

He shared those experiences at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in the 1990’s.

He was among a group of black journalists who questioned the paper’s purported anti-apartheid stance, yet its news coverage was white focused, like the other titles in the then-Argus Group.

They also questioned why there were separate toilets and eating areas for staff at the workplace, and led a campaign of defiance, which got support from a growing number of white colleagues.

As it became apparent that apartheid’s days were numbered, newsroom imbalance issues got gradually addressed.

Being an editor was daunting but you learnt as you went along, Pather realised.

“The first night’s the worst. It gets better every night after that.”

While Pather jumped off the editor’s saddle in 2010, he weighed in on some of the more recent issues in the book, like State capture, load shedding, the prolificacy of the internet, and doings of the political elite.

Writing columns has been his passion as it gave flight to his views. He included 12 of his favourite Tongue in Cheek columns that ran for many years in the Sunday Tribune, beyond his retirement.

Dennis Pather with his wife Kay, daughter Nisha and Brendan his son before their trip to the US in 1987. Picture: Supplied

He acknowledged his wife Kay for the sacrifices she made being married to a career-driven journalist for more than 50 years.

“It was never going to be a bed of roses,” he said.

Betty Govinden, an academic and prolific writer wrote the foreword, noting that he inherited his fighting spirit against the evils of apartheid from his father Samuel, a hotel worker and a fearless activist.

For more on the launch event, contact Nireshnee Chetty of Rebel Rabble Publishing at [email protected]