Jon Qwelane contributed immensely to the advancement, protection and promotion of journalism
If it were not self-restrictive, I would describe the late Jon Qwelane as a “doyen of black journalism”. But to do so would undermine his immense contribution to the advancement, protection and promotion of the craft.
Qwelane burst into journalism via the back-door. A wordsmith of note, he was lurking in his hometown of Mafikeng in the North West, working as a clerk in the post office.
Initially contributing as a freelancer to the legendary Mafikeng Mail, he never stopped telling the story of how Oom Leslie Sehume played a major part in recruiting him to the mainstream media in Johannesburg.
There, he excelled, frantically learning on-the-job as he had no formal training in journalism.
When he edited Tribute magazine, he asked me to contribute a piece to which without my prior knowledge he wrote a brief biography of myself, revealing details about me which I had thought was strictly a matter between both of us.
He wrote: “Before bursting into journalism, Abbey Makoe was a trench-digger in Rustenburg …”
Like him, and many black journalists of different generations, “trial and error” was the best teacher from the University of Life.
Bra Jon, as we fondly called him, had a complex character. He was my first black editor in a career spanning three decades when I first worked under him in the now-defunct Sunday Star at the famous 47 Sauer Street, Johannesburg, the HQ of the Argus newspapers (now Independent Media).
On behalf of the hordes of black scribes, he shone head and shoulders above the rest in sheer excellence as if to prove that although English might not be our mother tongue, we could still excel at the Queen’s language regardless.
To be honest, Qwelane was not always easy to deal with and had a streak of “my way or the highway”.
When together with other black scribes we prepared to challenge the SA Human Rights Commission’s adverse ruling on the Forum of Black Journalists’ race-based membership, Qwelane’s immediate take was either we take the matter to the highest court in the land – the Constitutional Court – or simply, in the light of the absence of black outrage, just close shop.
After extensive deliberations, we chose the latter. For 10 years as a talk show host on Radio 702, Qwelane drastically increased the listenership.
But Qwelane could also be his worst enemy. When he began to fall out with the powers-that-be at Primedia, he wrote a brutally disparaging column in the Sunday Sun about the Jewish mafia in charge at 702.
I was now working in London when he wrote me a deeply sad email, saying: “Abram, Whitey has got me where it hurts the most – in the pocket …”
At this stage, he was unemployed and his wife, a nursing sister, was being victimised at work for simply being Mrs Qwelane. In 2010, thankfully, the ANC government roped him in to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, appointing him South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda.
He kept friends who had earlier deserted him at bay. An adherent to principle, he believed till the end that it is better to be a peasant on your feet than a gentleman on your knees.
Fare thee well Bra Jon. Go well mate. Hamba kahle! son of the soil.
* Abbey Makoe is the SABC’s specialist editor. The article was first published on SABC online.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.