In celebrating press freedom, we reflect on those journalists like the World’s editor who, brave and angry, wrote for their readers, writes Joe Thloloe.
One of my favourite writers on writing is an Australian, Mark Tredinnick, who says writers have a duty of care, and they owe this duty to their readers, to the cause or purpose of their writing, to their societies, to their people and to their language.
The South African Press Code also expresses itself – rather more bluntly – on this duty: “The press exists to serve society.”
These are the standards by which we will look at Percy Peter Tshediso Qoboza’s journalism and at journalism today, as we remember Black Wednesday – October 19, 1977 – and celebrate the freedom of expression, press freedom and the freedom of other media we inherited from the Qobozas, the Aggrey Klaastes, the Can Thembas, the Casey Motsisis, the Mike Nortons, the Mono Badelas, the Moffat Zungus, the Es’kia Mphahleles, the Nat Nakasas, the Ruth Firsts, the Lewis Nkosis, the Zwelakhe Sisulus – a long, long list of heroes that could take weeks to recite.
Today, we remember the closure of the World, the Weekend World and the ecumenical publication Pro Veritate on that Wednesday in 1977 and we remember the banning of black organisations like the Union of Black Journalists, the South African Students Organisation, the Black People’s Convention and others.
Qoboza and Klaaste, one of his assistants at the World, and scores of other people were locked up by the security police on that day.
Today we also reflect on the veiled threats to press freedom embedded in laws like the Protection of State Information Bill.
But who was Percy Qoboza?
He was a complex, multi-layered personality, as most of us are.
He loved skaapkop – most days he would send his driver to a house opposite the Orlando police station to buy him his smiley. The driver would come back with the smiley wrapped in newspapers and Percy would eat it with pap in his office.
He also loved brandy and presided over the Litre Club – a group of journalists who met in Mofolo Village every night and consumed at least a litre of brandy. They had a roster for who would buy it, and very often a litre would become two litres or more. In the morning, Percy would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and was merciless with any members of the club who arrived late for work.
He loved the good life and was eccentric – how else do you explain the behaviour of an editor who absconds from work and is traced to a newspaper office in the US where he is ensconced as editor-in-residence and who, when he is asked about his absence from his desk, sends a telegram saying he was, in any case, resigning from his Joburg job?
He was an outstanding journalist and loved and nurtured good journalism.
Percy was news editor at the World when we formed the Union of Black Journalists in 1972. He was so vehemently against the formation of the union that he would assign all his journalists in such a way that they missed our meetings.
However, by the time he became editor, and the security police started locking up his journalists, he was a changed man.
Moffat Zungu, Godwin Mohlomi, Willie Bokala, Zwelakhe Sisulu and Thami Mazwai, among others, were arrested by the security police and Percy jumped to their defence and convinced the owners of the World, the Argus company in Sauer Street, to continue paying their salaries and looking after their families –at least until they were convicted in court.
Let me quickly tell you about a couple of events that will give you better insight into the man.
In 1976, he heard that Jim Bailey, the owner of Drum magazine, had sent me a letter dismissing me from his employ – a day after I had landed at the Modderbee Prison in Benoni. Bailey said my arrest showed I had defied him and continued to involve myself in politics against his express instructions.
Percy sent word to me in the cells that he had heard about Bailey’s letter, but I should not worry as he had a job waiting for me on my release.
As a result, I started working at the World as a features writer on February 1, 1977.
When I started, Percy told me the World was doing well with its news coverage, but he worried that there was no depth to its content and thought creating a features department would help. He had also recruited Dennis Becket from The Star for this department.
Exactly a month later, on March 1, 1977, the security police again arrested me – this time under the notorious Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, and I was locked up for 18 months to the day.
Percy persuaded the Argus to keep me on its staff and to continue paying my salary even though I had served them for only a month.
His generosity was again demonstrated when photographer Moffat Zungu returned to the newsroom after years on Robben Island: he gave him one of his cars as a gift.
Another event that will remain indelible in my mind: this time Percy was editor of Post and Weekend Post, the reincarnations of the World and the Weekend World.
He called his editorial executives to the conference room, where we found the executives from head office in Sauer Street and lawyers from the firm Webber Wentzel.
Sauer Street introduced the lawyers and told us it was not its intention to interfere with the editorial independence of Post and Weekend Post, but when the lawyers gave them a report about the two newspapers, they felt they needed to discuss it directly with the editors.
To cut a long story short, the lawyers told us that just before the World was banned, they saw the ban coming, but they could not interfere as we were not breaking any laws.
However, this time they felt they should warn us that we were again endangering the newspapers.
They analysed some material from the two publications and said although we were not breaking any laws, just as we hadn’t before, the tone of the newspapers would not go down well with the government.
They argued it was the same tone that had led to the banning of World and Weekend World.
After they left, Percy laughed and asked us if we had noticed that he had written all the examples the lawyers analysed – his column Percy’s Pitch and his editorials.
He told us to continue what we were doing and ignore the attempt by Sauer Street to tell him to tone things down.
We all know that Post and Weekend Post were closed by the owners after the government threatened them and the World was reincarnated – this time as the Sowetan we know today. Percy operated in a particular environment in the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s. He, himself, described the tone of his newspapers as angry. If you read some of his writing about the newspapers he says he accepts the fact that the papers are angry, but “they reflect the anger of my readers”.
He grounded his journalism in his duty to his readers, the majority in this country, to the cause of his writing, to his society – he loved South Africa: he could have remained in exile on any of the occasions he was abroad, but every time he came back.
We might argue that at that time, the South African story was quite simple; you were either against apartheid or you were for it, and everything else flowed from that choice. The South African story today is much more complex.
It is a story of a people, both the erstwhile oppressors as well as the oppressed, trying to pull themselves out of decades of inequality.
It is also a world that has been made much more complex by technology. But we as journalists still have a duty to our readers, to the cause or purpose of our journalism, to our societies, to our people and to our language.
I will concede at this point, as an old craftsman, that it is much more difficult to tell this complex story. It is easier to fall into the groove of corruption, crime… corruption, crime… and miss what in fact is the whole South African story today.
But do these weaknesses that the industry itself can look into merit some of the threats that are being levelled against it? The answer is obvious: no.
Is the Protection of State Information Bill a threat or does it mean the end of media freedom as we know it now? Again, I say, no. I say no on October 19, when we celebrate our media freedom. We have a constitution that protects us. It is a constitution embraced by all South Africans in 1997.
We might lose one round in Parliament but we still have lots of fighting space until we get to the Constitutional Court.
The role players in the industry are asking for one small item to be included in the bill – a public interest defence clause.
We have a live example in our practice: our Press Code has injunctions on what journalists should or shouldn’t do, but these are always accompanied by a concession in the end – “unless public interest dictates otherwise”.
We believe that the onus to prove the public interest will be on the person claiming that he did whatever he did because of the public interest. The decision on whether it is really in the public interest should be taken by the courts, not by politicians, not by bureaucrats. That is all we are asking for, and we find it difficult to understand why that wasn’t inserted when the bill was sent back to Parliament.
Having said that, today we celebrate because we are free to express ourselves, thanks to the suffering of people like Percy Qoboza.
* Joe Thloloe is the director of the Press Council. This is an edited version of the speech he delivered at Unisa to commemorate the Black Wednesday. Saturday marked the 36th anniversary of the darkest day in South African press history when the World newspaper, its editor Percy Qoboza and other organisations were banned. Qoboza and other journalists, including Thloloe, were subjected to detention without trial, harassments and other forms of torture.