Jon Qwelane Picture: Lori Waselchuk
Jon Qwelane Picture: Lori Waselchuk

Jon Qwelane’s own words before the TRC

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 10, 2021

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Black journalists are denied training and promotion, veteran journalist Jon Qwelane told the TRC hearings in 1997.

I have been one (a journalist) since my first days as a freelance reporter on the Mafikeng Mail back in 1972. At present I am the Editor In-Chief at Mapuga Publishing which is a blackowned publishing house.

I joined the full-time staff of The World newspaper in 1975 and since then I have worked for just about every major newspaper in Johannesburg. In the time that I have worked as a journalist, the media did render themselves guilty of human rights violations and I have examples to back up any such charges.

I think at the outset, Mr Chairman, it is not only important, but also a necessary act of honesty to acknowledge that the media in this country, particularly the English language newspapers, performed some noteworthy tasks in attempting to keep the South African public informed.

It is also important to acknowledge, with honesty, that those newspapers, in the main, stood out by supporting the families of journalists who were imprisoned without trial. This they did, for example, by continuing to pay the salaries of the detained journalists and, thus, not falling into the trap of finding them guilty without charge.

In one instance the Sunday Times even paid for the Supreme Court defence of their journalist, Enoch Duma, who was charged under the Terrorism Act.

Yet, curiously, these same media turned very angrily against us in 1977 when 27 of us, all black journalists, marched in protest against apartheid and were arrested. They did not care that it was a march of conscience and sparked, largely, by the banning of newspapers the month before and the murder of Steve Biko by the security police in the same month.

Ridiculous comments denouncing our march and our motivation were printed by the white editors. Notably, in this regard, the white editor of Post Newspaper, which was then owned by The Argus company, and editors, generally, instructed those of us on the march to choose between forfeiting pay for the time of our arrest or signing leave forms for that time.

Of course, the contradiction did not touch them at all, that our march was against the very things they purported to denounce in their eloquent editorials, but I must, Mr Chairman, also acknowledge, with honesty, that it was the English language newspapers whose journalists demonstrated periodic flashes of courage and brilliance by exposing the gross injustices perpetrated by the system of apartheid and, I guess here, one has in mind the reporting on the inhuman conditions in South Africa’s prisons, the Info scandal, the unmasking of the CCB [Civil Co-operation Bureau] and the expose on the Vlakplaas dirty tricks network and, of course, as I have already stated, these editors on these newspapers often waxed eloquent in stinging editorials condemning the apartheid system.

Yet again, as shown by our anti-apartheid march, which they never supported, those editorials were in retrospect acts of shallow self-righteousness which were very rarely matched by practice.

The only conclusion I can draw in the circumstances, is that they were playing to the international gallery and they opposed apartheid only to the extent that our oppression must be made more comfortable.

Mr Chairman, I am going to charge the mainstream newspapers with denying people information and, therefore, violating one of their basic rights. There will be other violations which I will highlight, but denying information to the public will service now and again as I go along.

Black journalists of my generation were not given any training at all. Indeed, anything and everything that I, personally, know about journalism and in journalism has all been learnt by trial and error.

I have never once spent a single day, not a single hour, in any course in journalism organised by anyone. I supposed in every sense of the phrase, I could describe myself, truly, as a selfmade bloke, but, then, so are many other black journalists. In very many cases the lack of training was used as a convenient excuse to deny black journalists promotion on the newspapers on which they worked.

It was the policy of job reservation and practice, notwithstanding the eloquent condemnations and editorials against the policy of job reservation itself. It often, of course, depended on the goodwill of the particular editor to correct what was evidently wrong in denying blacks promotion.

Nearly every single one of the liberal establishment English language newspapers had a so-called Extra or so-called Africa edition. Whatever the rationalisations, these editions, Mr Chairman, were apartheid editions intended for blacks and intended to segregate news on racial lies.

Typically what passed for news in these editions was often regarded by news editors as being unfit for white human consumption.

Conventional newsroom wisdom held that blacks loved to read about sex, soccer and crime. Indeed, these were normally the kind of stories that found themselves placed in the Extra and Africa editions.

Apart from changing the front and back pages of a newspaper to give it the so-called black feel, important finance and business news was dropped altogether in these editions destined for the black areas, and you can go to any newspaper library, you will find what I am talking about. It is there.

The existence of separate apartheid style newspapers necessitated the demarcation of news rooms on racial lines even if it was not said so in words, in practice it was there.

The staffing of the segregated news rooms was also on racial lines and I am speaking from experience, Mr Chairman, because I worked there on these newspapers. Obviously, from this flowed the next logical step, that pay scales were miles apart for white and black journalists.

Again, paying different salaries determined by race for people doing the same job was blatantly discriminatory and was an obvious violation of our human rights.

Indeed, the pay grievances came to a head in 1980 when black journalists across the country mounted what became the longest strike at that time in South African labour history.

Canteen facilities and toilets were also cruelly segregated.

Blacks had a separate canteen from that for whites and when we protested those protests only elicited a third canteen …

The Sunday Independent

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