Online only

Too many of us have paid too high a price to give up

ZUBEIDA JAFFER, an award-winning South African journalist, author and activist, addressed our October meeting from South Africa. She started her career at the Cape Times in 1980 and helped with developing local community newspapers such as Grassroots.

Zubeida Jaffer

Zubeida Jaffer

In this meeting during Black History Month, she spoke about the place of journalism in resistance to the "apartheid" system that enforced the status of "Coloured" and "Black" residents of South Africa as second- and third-class citizens.

Branch Treasurer Jenny Vaughan introduced the meeting. The UK is (still) one of the wealthiest countries in the world - and there is not enough acknowledgement that this wealth is founded on the fruits of colonialism, slavery and the polices that were formalised as apartheid in the years after (white) South Africa gained independence from the British Empire in 1931.

Zubeida opened by saying "I'm so satisfied to be speaking to you tonight". It's a challenging time for all of us. As she understands it people in South Africa are still under a more severe covid lockdown than those in the UK. "So, for the moment discussion of the rôle of the journalist on the ground and in the community has gotten lost."

‘Black Wednesday’

The day when Zubeida first started to do journalism was close to the events of 19 October 1977, when the apartheid government closed down The World, Weekend World, other publications and 19 Black Consciousness organisations. It arrested Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, and others. Percy was detained in his house for nine months under the Internal Security Act. This day was known as Black Wednesday and has become South Africa’s official Media Freedom Day.

Zubeida is now a member of the collective that publishes the South African publication The Journalist, which serves as a knowledge bank providing context and history for students, academics and other thoughtful South Africans. "A group of us," she reported, "have been putting our minds together to plan to mark Black Wednesday - and to celebrate how far we have come as a country, and to think about where we're going with journalism."

The Union of Black Journalists

She noted Joe Thloloe, Soobramoney Govinder and Zwelake Sisiulu as members of "a long list of others to be remembered" who were involved in forming a collective, the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), in 1972. That was banned in 1977. It had a bulletin that reported on matters not covered by the mainstream media, and that too was banned.

Restrictions on individuals who were "banned" included them being confined to their home or immediate surroundings and prohibited from meeting with more than one person at a time. They "did not accept the situation," Zubeida said, "though some were detained and tortured". After the UBJ was banned, colleagues set up WASA, the Writers Association of South Africa. This "was the Union of Black Journalists under a new name".

Empowering communities

Zubeida recalled that "WASA started preparing a community newspaper in Cape Town called Grassroots." The communities "were not being represented and their stories were not being told and the journalists felt they needed to create a platform for them. This happened in the Western Cape with the support of the national team - and by the time I joined as a young journalist the first edition had come out. Over the years, with the help of a core group of journalists, it stimulated the establishment of similar projects around the country - such as the Eye in Pretoria, Ukusa in Durban and Saamstaan in the Southern Cape."

Thus "we were able to bring about change internally, and support the creation of a community movement in South Africa. Most of the important rôles that journalists played were behind the scenes."

After the first year, the main organiser, Johnny Issel, was banned and couldn't participate any longer. "Any time we started to do something we paid the price," Zubeida recalled: "many were tortured."

"It was important to us to work in a way that empowered communities and that helped develop a social movement that helped to bring down apartheid. In 1980-81 a number of us, mainly the Black journalists, chose to leave the mainstream media. When I decided to leave my editor, Tony Heard, was generous and he offered me a column - but I chose to go because I wanted to be a part of the grass-roots movement."

"I still don't know whether it was the best thing for us to have done. But we felt it was the only thing to do, because we were detained and we were harassed and it became really difficult to continue working."

Tracing the survivors

The first six months of Zubeida's reporting life "coincided with an uprising in Cape Town. I wrote a story about people who had been killed by the Army. We had a report that 42 had been shot and killed: the editor requested names and information - and the response from the police major to the Cape Times was 'If you want to know this find it out yourself.' The editor sent me to find out. I was young and excited and I was happy to spend two weeks walking from shack to shack asking people. When I had found 26 of the families, the editor said 'Stop. Write the story'."

"Normally in a newsroom you're told to write 400 or 800 or 1000 words. He just said: 'write everything that you have'." Zubeida was using a small portable typewriter and it came to many sheets: "to my shock the story appeared on a full page of the Cape Times on 24 July 1980, with pictures that I had taken of some of the families."

"There was such a huge reaction to the story that the Cape Times decided to set up a fund for the families. We brought all of them together to discuss what their needs were.

"Two days later I was detained in the middle of the night, under the Terrorism Act. I was 22 years old and my life was never the same again." Listening to others who had been detained, Zubeida recalled that "there was no way we could do this in a half-hearted way. There was no doing a bit here and there. In the mainstream media we had to be careful about what we expressed. So I chose to leave and report freely."

Later Zubeida was detained again and faced a defamation lawsuit, alongside a trade union organisation, for reporting on difficulties workers were facing in clothing factories. "For all the 1980s it was like this," she said: "editions of Grassroots were banned and we organised a campaign to oppose the draconian laws that were being used against us. The journalists' organisations also struggled and it was always a cat-and-mouse game with the security forces."

On being invited to talk to us, Zubeida had "tracked down Rashid Seria of the UBJ in the Western Cape. I said that the NUJ in the UK had asked me to speak about what we had done. He told me that in 1985 he had smuggled two letters on toilet paper out of prison - and got them to the NUJ."

Zubeida Jaffer holding up the Journalist - see caption

Zubeida Jaffer holds up the Journalist headline "Plea to YOU from a Cape Town jail"

She showed us the resulting front page of the NUJ's publication the Journalist. The then editor, Bernie Corbett, ran the splash headline "Plea to YOU from a Cape Town jail". She "took this opportunity to say 'thank you' to all of you, to any of you who were involved in this. These things we do help a movement toward a more just situation."

Into the academy

In 2012 Zubeida "was offered a writer-in-residence position at the University of the Free State. She "had not had much contact with the academic community - and I was shocked to find that all these experiences we'd had have not really been studied in journalism schools. The old colonial and apartheid voices were still presented as the lodestar for journalists." The likes of Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn, who established the South African Journal in 1824, "were held up to us as the rôle-models for freedom of expression. They came to South Africa from Scotland and didn't stay very long... I don't think you'd like it if we came to the UK and told you the most important journalists to study were South African journalists."

This experience led Zubeida to help set up The Journalist six years ago. "We don't have much money, but we are doing a special issue this month." The Journalist is "not just about Black journalists - but we have found that the gaps in the study of journalism are where Black journalists are. We're working to fill in the gaps in the narrative."

Journalism as community organising

Opening questions from the "floor", Phil Sutcliffe noted that Zubeida had spoken about working on Grassroots to empower communities - "that's a wonderful aspiration, but what did you do?" He guessed there'd not been journalists striving to empower communities before - "so how did you start on that crucial project?"

Book cover: Love in the time of Treason

Zubeida Jaffer's book Love in the time of Treason: the life story of Ayesha Dawood, from her Number 10 Publishers

"We had the benefit of the experience of the Black Consciousness movement," Zubeida explained, "and the first organiser came out of the Black Consciousness student movement and went around the town and identified community organisations and discussed whether they wanted a newspaper. In the end when Grassroots was launched it had the support of 50 organisations. They came together and discussed the first edition. For example it was on nice paper and they proposed it be on newsprint. That event evolved into the monthly news meeting to which anybody could come - people in those 50 organisations and others who expressed interest. I ended up being the news convenor. We would listen to people's stories and choose the most powerful for the next edition that came out in five weeks' time.

"Say there was a story about electricity. We went with copies of the paper and briefed young people about how to go to people's doors, and they would all go out and find out what people had to say about the issue.

"There would be young people from various communities and they would come back to the hall after they had distributed the paper, and share what their experiences were. Then we would all eat together from a big pot of food. That was a very important part of the process.

"So we were choosing the most interesting story that everybody could learn from - and showcasing a particular community that other communities could learn from.

"The young people formed themselves into youth organisations; the parents into parents' organisations; and the women into women's organisations. Within three years there was an umbrella organisation for all the youth groups, and so on.

"I don't think we had all this in our minds when we started. It evolved. This model was repeated in the other regions.

"So you could say that journalists played a crucial rôle in opening up contacts in the communities. Now it's fun to see people who we worked with then in government positions. Some of them we're proud of."

The end of apartheid

And Phil noted that in many places still journalism offers you a great opportunity to get killed. What happened to Black journalists when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and apartheid was ended? When those great liberation moments happened?"

Zubeida reported that "It was amazing - and nerve-racking too." She "was one of seven chosen by the new government to head an independent media commission - to organise broadcasting time for political parties and make sure the government didn't use state resources for party purposes." But "there were still bombs going off..."

Book cover: Our Generation

Zubeida Jaffer's book Our Generation, from her Number 10 Publishers

"When Madiba was released," Zubeida said, using the familiar name for Nelson Mandela, "that was an amazing thing. I was at the inauguration... I became the founding editor of the Parliamentary Bureau of Independent Newspapers. I was appointed to transform the press corps in Parliament - it's in my book Our Generation.

"There were a small group of men who were extremely hostile and belligerent. After three years I collapsed and had to leave that job. It became easier afterward.

"Subsequently," Zubeida reported, "we've gone through lots of phases and challenges - but we're proud that South Africa's Constitution guarantees our freedom of expression. We're proud that over the past few years we've beaten both the US and the UK in the Reporters Sans Frontières Press Freedom Index. "We've been through difficulties and we're a proud bunch of people - people who've been through really tough things - and we're going to carry on, because too many of us have paid too high a price to give up."

The strength to carry on

Sarah Morgan, visiting from the NUJ's London Magazine Branch, noted that Zubeida had "said you changed as a person after being in prison. What kept you strong through those experiences?"

"Sometimes I don't know," Zubeida responded. "I have been raised in a religious and a spiritual environment - in a broad-minded family that always believed in a common humanity. As a child I was always sickly and being detained was a huge shock to my system - but it also showed me my strength. That and my religious belief that we are all one and it's not right to discriminate against people.

"I saw the depravity of the way people were treated in prison. By the second time I was imprisoned, in 1985, I was an activist and felt that whatever was happening was inevitable... in 1980, they thought I was a member of the African National Congress party (ANC) and they wanted names from me. I wasn't in ANC. I didn't get instructions from my handler to do certain stories… I followed the news."

"The whole process of imprisonment and interrogation is that they want you to think you're about to die. By the second time I knew it was a technique that was being used against me - and that made me much stronger.

"I detested apartheid and what the authorities were doing... I had seen men standing mute in court because they had come to Cape Town without the right 'pass' document - they didn't dare to say more to the court than 'yes baas'. Now we have freedom of speech and now people say the most ridiculous things.

"After the first time of being given the run-around and being tortured my desire for a better life and a better community was strengthened - though we're not there yet."

Post-apartheid challenges

Tim Dawson asked for reflections on changing imperatives in doing journalism: "I imagine that before it was essential to reflect the struggle and build consciousness, and after there came a point where it became necessary to be critical of the government..."

"It's a delicate balance that you need to find," Zubeida reported: "I should always be able to say what I want to say and be as independent as I possibly can be. I felt there was a time when I was able to criticise Madiba - and he couldn't handle it and he called me in. But then I didn't feel scared to see him. Many do now feel intimidated. They fear they're going to have difficulties - but, for those of us who've been through these things in the past... it's hard for journalists that go through difficulties now, but they seem mild compared to what we went through."

Julio Etchart introduced himself as political exile from Uruguay. He asked about the tensions in covering stories such as the corruption case against former South African President Jacob Zuma and his going to jail for contempt of court on 8 July this year. Was he in a sense an ex-comrade?

Zubeida responded that when President Thabo Mbeki dismissed Zuma as Deputy President in 2005 "I went on the record as saying it was the best thing that could have happened then.

"What is really sad for those of us who had hoped for more progress is to see the ANC split into two. But in the last two to three months there's been quite a change. Now it seems that one faction in the ANC has the upper hand, and we have to see whether that's good or bad - but you can't have the sort of split we did have. It's going to take the ANC time to get it back together - it's been a very difficult time."