We have no choice but to transform
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Isolezwe’s success has helped Independent Media transform through adding a new and powerful voice, says editor Mazwi Xaba.
There are few things that can leave you with a feeling of more pride than reading your own appointment letter for a better-paying and more prestigious job. But when I was officially appointed chief sub-editor I had mixed feelings.
Excited and proud of course I was, but it also soon dawned on me that I and the whole team would have to ensure that our brand-new newspaper really took off, or we’d find ourselves with a great but empty dream and no newspaper, and no jobs.
It’s now history that Isolezwe was a roaring success from the start in April 2002, from zero to over 100 000 copies within the first 10 years.
All thanks to exemplary leadership by founding editor Philani Mgwaba and hard work by the team with support from colleagues in Durban and other regions of Independent Media.
We had left behind our stable jobs at 100-plus-year-old newspapers, including the Sunday Tribune, in my case Ilanga, and the Daily News.
We were confident, but we needed inspiration.
Nat Nakasa’s sister came out of the blue and provided loads of it to me very close to the launch.
Gladys Maphumulo, a neighbour who lived just across the road from my uMlazi home but whose background I didn’t know, told me about her brother like she had just seen him.
She was so proud of his contribution to journalism and the struggle against apartheid.
I could see in her age-defying face that pretty-boy look captured in photographs of her famous brother who died at only 28 on July 14. (At the time his body was still lying next to Malcolm X in New York City.)
She left me proud to be a journalist, and reminded me that while he became famous for writing for the famous Drum magazine, the Rand Daily Mail and New York Times magazine, he had started “here in Durban with Ilanga LaseNatal”.
I felt proud but ashamed that I didn’t know much then about Nakasa and what he and his cohort of pioneering “native” journalists did for our freedom and for the freedom of the press.
I had read about him but had missed the part about how he came to be awarded the ultra-prestigious Nieman Fellowship, how he had defied apartheid in the way he lived and through his journalism.
I had missed the significance of his travelling abroad on a one-way ticket the then-government referred to as “exit permits”, going boldly to exile as a “native of nowhere'.
So it had to be forward ever, backwards never for us too as founding members of Isolezwe as we prepared to launch the first daily published in an African language.
Of course, signing up for Isolezwe pales into insignificance compared to the “grave step” that Nakasa took about 50 years ago.
But it was still a significant and challenging step and an opportunity to grow and transform Independent Media.
Isolezwe’s success helped the company transform through adding a new and powerful voice in its stable of newspapers. It quickly became a springboard to better positions for its staff and, most of all, helped enhance the sustainability of its sister newspapers.
The self-proclaimed “permanent wanderer' is now resting in his childhood home of Chesterville, and apartheid is gone.
However, the struggle to transform the media is not over. Some of the challenges that inspired journalists to converge in Windhoek and give life to World Free Press Day about 26 years ago are still with us.
In our constitutional democracy we may be enjoying a relatively free press but there are still many challenges, one of them being the slow transformation of South Africa’s press.
I was very encouraged to hear upon rejoining Independent Media in 2014 the executive chairman, Dr Iqbal Survé, talk openly and unashamedly about transformation.
“Sekunjalo is a Xhosa word which means now is the time’. When the company was formed it was in response to the requirements of the country to transform,” Survé' explained.
And he followed up his words with action as we saw the launch of I’solezwe lesiXhosa in the Eastern Cape and the African Independent, adding more colourful voices and helping grow and further diversify the group and the media in general.
Nakasa could have chosen to stay home with his family in warm and friendly Durban.
Like Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, he felt he had no choice but to seek freedom, first by living and working in Joburg, and then New York.
He lived and worked defiantly as a wanderer who was of the correct view that the apartheid laws were only fit to be honoured in the breach, and never in timid observance.
Like Nakasa, media owners and journalists of today can accept the status quo and say “it’s the way it is”, or we can say “don’t you believe it”.
We have no choice but to transform.
Our constitution enjoins us to remember Nakasa and others, recognise the injustices of our dark past and work towards healing our land and transforming it into the utopia that is contained in it.
We have no choice.