OPINION: Joe Latakgomo, the the unsung hero of black press
By Nhlanhla Mbatha
I remember vividly when I chanced upon the Industria offices of the Sowetan newspaper in Johannesburg to look for a job late in 1981.
News editor Willie Bokala and editor Joe Latakgomo welcomed me with a short interview.
A few weeks later I was a freelance reporter for the newspaper that turns 40 years old next year.
A few months later I was assigned to cover a memorial service of trade union leader Joe Mavi in Soweto. As was the case those days, police descended on to the venue and arrested everyone.
We were all bundled into police trucks ... your Dr Nthato Motlana, Albertina Sisulu, Ellen Khuzwayo, Tom Manthata, Emma Mashinini, Eric Molobi, Pat Lephunya are some of the political heavyweights I remember in the police trucks. From the media, I recall Stan Hlophe from Rand Daily Mail, Len Kalane and Len Khumalo from Sowetan, to name a few.
After our release, I was told that Latakgomo had told company lawyers that I was not a freelance reporter but a staffer and had to be accorded legal assistance. I heard through the corridors that an employment contract was “cooked” while I was at Protea police cells.
As we in the media remember October 19, 1977 – Black Wednesday – one name keeps escaping many of us.
Throughout the 43 anniversaries, names like Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Moffat Zungu, Phil Mtimkhulu, Sam Nzima, Thami Mazwai, Joe Tlholoe and Bokala keep coming up, but one name – that of Latakgomo – seems to be forgotten.
The current Public Advocate at the Press Council of SA joined The World newspaper in 1967 and became assistant editor and news editor in 1972.
In an interview with him recently, he told me that most of the senior reporters of the now-banned The World and The Weekend World newspapers, including himself, were members of the then banned Pan Africanist Congress. Most spent a stint in jail for their membership, notably with Zungu being sentenced together with the late former PAC leader Zephania “The Lion of Azania” Mothopeng.
Latakgomo’s immediate boss Qoboza – who was then editor of the newspapers and was detained in a world headline-grabbing spectacle in the newspaper’s office on that fateful Black Wednesday – had become a symbol of press freedom. The newspaper was banned and succeeded briefly by Post and Weekend Post, edited by Latakgomo.
In 1981 Sowetan newspaper was born and Latakgomo again held the reins as the founding editor.
In yesteryear politics, Nelson Mandela was the face of the ANC from the prison walls while Oliver Tambo was keeping the fires burning in exile.
I draw parallels and dare say that if Qoboza was the Mandela of the press, Latakgomo must have been the Tambo of the Fourth Estate.
When Qoboza and the likes of Klaaste, Bokala, Tlholoe, Mazwai, Sisulu and Zungu were spending stints in jail for their coverage of news among others, Latakgomo steered the ship and kept the newspaper going.
In retrospect, when the June 16, 1976 Soweto uprisings started, Latakgomo, as news editor, directed the coverage of the events, briefed and debriefed his reporters, who were later to be called “the riot squad”.
Latakgomo, an unsung hero of the black press, was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, US, in 1991.
Nhlanhla Mbatha is The Star’s sub-editor.