Opinion: Little has changed 43 years on, as South African media commemorate Black Wednesday

By Reggy Moalusi

The recent harassment of South African reporter Nobesuthu Hejana by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters while covering a story was a stark reminder of how the abuse and harassment of journalists around the world is prevalent and disgusting, and also how some are always ready to defend this abuse.

Hejana, an eNCA reporter based in Cape Town, was shoved and pushed and told to go away from a scene. Though the party issued an apology to Hejana, it needs to do a lot more in educating its members on why journalists matter and the importance of the work they do. As South Africa’s third biggest political party, they should know better.

This recent incident shows how little has changed in the past forty-three years. On Monday, 19 October, forty-three years ago, was a day the apartheid government showed its cruelty as it cracked down on the media entities it viewed as being hostile towards the regime, and not willing to toe the line.

This came weeks after the death of Steve Biko, the outspoken Black Consciousness leader who died in a Pretoria prison cell, at the hands of the police. Biko’s death due to police brutality did not only anger his family and comrades, it cut too deep with black journalists and activists at the time. He was killed on September 12, 1977, leading to several black consciousness organisations, civil society, media, activists locally and around the world to call for an end of apartheid. The apartheid regime reacted in the best way they know how – by being brutal.

One key name among the journalists at the time was the revered Percy Qoboza, the editor of The World. Qoboza was so critical of the apartheid government to a point he was imprisoned to shut him up. He was in jail for five months. Qoboza, widely respected by his peers and those in the anti-apartheid struggle, was described by Len Kalane as a man who was “different things to many different people. He was, you could say, the kind of man you loved to hate, and this would not be an unreasonable surmise.”

Kalane’s book, The Chapter We Wrote, The City Press Story, Media and Politics in a Changing South Africa, is a recommended read to both young and old journalists. It will further enhance the understanding of a man popularly known as Inja’mnyama.

Besides the closing of The World and Weekend World, nineteen other Black Consciousness organisations were banned, activists and journalists were arrested. Arrested with Qoboza was another renowned journalist, Aggrey Klaaste.

Joe Tlholoe, the retired veteran journalist and editor, said during the inaugural Aggrey Klaaste Annual Colloquium that the 1996 proclamation of Section 16 of the South African Constitution, ensuring freedom of the press and other media, is exactly what Qoboza and Klaaste sacrificed for. Tlholoe is with the Aggrey Klaaste Trust, which organised the session under the theme: Surviving 2020 and Media Credibility Going Forward, part of this year’s first virtual sitting of the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020), hosted by Wits University. The session was in commemoration of Black Wednesday, October 19, 1977.

Though a lot of strides have been made in respecting and recognising the importance of media freedom in South Africa, there is still a lot of work in teaching political party supporters, protesting communities, law enforcement members and some politicians about the critical work journalists do.

What has been encouraging is that President Cyril Ramaphosa is actively working on having a credible, frank relationship with the media. His recent interactions with the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF) are a good indication that he respects the media, and the critique it provides. This is good progress, a development Ramaphosa’s predecessor was not interested in.

So as the media faces the current turbulent times where revenues are dropping, news titles closing, journalists losing jobs, trust is lost on the media by audiences, it’s really time to honestly face and listen to what the broader public has been asking the media to do – to report fairly and get the African story accurately. The Trust Barometer has pointed out this malady, so it’s really up to us as current media practitioners to correct this, and keep the legacies of Qoboza and Klaaste alive, and to listen to frank criticism dished out by veterans such as Tlholoe, Mathatha Tsedu, Don Mattera and Thami Mazwai.

About the author:

Reggie Moalusi is South African based editor and media consultant with over 17 years of experience. He is an AIJC2020 Fellow.