These days the 75 year-old Joe Thloloe is the executive director of the Press Council overseeing the work that he has done for over half a century. Forty years ago he was a dashing young features writer on The World newspaper in Johannesburg. The only problem was the radical words he wrote upset the government of the day.
“From the time the National Party took over in 1948, they were determined to stamp down on the black population. The repression is much older than the 70s, the banning of publications, including books, had started by the 60s. So what happened in the 70s was merely a continuation of what had been happening,” says Thloloe.
Long before Black Wednesday, police harassed and detained Thloloe for his social activism as a student.
“I was first arrested in 1960, on the day of the Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960, where 69 died), as a student. I spent that whole year in jail. When The World was banned, I was a features writer for it. But, unfortunately for me, on the day the newspaper was banned I was already in jail,” says Thloloe.
The founder and president of the defunct Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) says he was arrested for the second time, eight months before Black Wednesday, under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, which provided for detention without trial. Sathasivan ‘Saths’ Cooper was the secretary of the Black People’s Convention (BPC), which was among the black organizations banned in the build-up to Black Wednesday.
“It was an eerie period because a few weeks earlier Dullah Omar (a late African National Congress veteran) had brought the news that Steve Biko had been killed in detention,” Cooper told Radio702 in 2016.
Biko was the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) who died from his injuries after he was tortured in Port Elizabeth and then driven, naked in the back of a police Land Rover, to Pretoria. He died on September 12.
“I remember driving through the streets of Johannesburg that morning and the street posters said, ‘Government Bans The World’. Okay, the newspaper was called The World, but it meant the government was trying to shield South Africans from being part of the world, shield white South Africans from information. We expected a lot of bad things from the apartheid government, but I didn’t think they would be as stupid as trying to ban a newspaper. It was quite devastating at the time,” says Max du Preez, Thloloe’s contemporary at the Rand Daily Mail, in Johannesburg.
“If I remember correctly, that was one of moments in my life which fired me on to say ‘one of the things, Max du Preez, you have to do is in your own way fight for freedom of speech, for freedom of the media’. Eventually, in 1988, I decided to launch an anti-apartheid Afrikaans newspaper which I think was a very stupid idea,’” adds Du Preez. The newspaper was Vrye Weekblad (The Free Weekly).
Du Preez hoped to educate his Afrikaner people about the evils of apartheid.
You could argue, The World, founded, in 1932 by mining companies in Johannesburg to entertain their employees, grew in the struggle.
“Over time it developed to become a newspaper with news and politics etc. But it was always under very tight white control, the likes of the Nhlapos and Moeranes were the black nominal editors, but above them there’s a person called editorial director, who was in fact the actual editor. He would be the one who would tone down stories making sure that a particular style was kept. Although it carried politics, it carried general news, it was not radical stuff. In fact our competition, The Golden City Post, was much more outspoken,” says Thloloe, a Nieman Fellow in 1988.
The appointment of editor Percy Qoboza, in 1975, saw a radical change in the paper’s editorial line. He accepted the editorship on condition that there would be no editorial director looking over his shoulder.
“Percy was a radically changed man and the texture of the publication changed, its tone changed, it became much more radical in its approach. Percy is credited to have exposed June 16, but that exposure was in fact the work of Joe Latakgomo who had been acting editor while Percy was abroad,” says Thloloe.
Qoboza, who died in 1988, returned to South Africa on June 1976, after his Nieman Fellowship in the US, and threw himself into black activism. Thloloe says under the stewardship of Latakgomo, The World was already covering stories about students’ political events leading to the uprising of June 16. Qoboza landed on the day it happened.
In those days, several black journalists were embedded in students’ activities in the townships, he says.
“They were the ones saying tomorrow we need to be in such and such place because they knew what was going to happen, where and at what time. That was the way in which journalists worked with the community,” says Thloloe.
Thloloe founded the Union of Black Journalists in 1972.
“We felt we were not given a space in the newsroom to write the way we wanted to write as blacks. Our slogan used to be: ‘We are black before we are journalists’. So, our writing should reflect our blackness and our thoughts as black people and our lives as black people,” says Thloloe.
“There was a very close relationship between the Black Consciousness Movement and the Union of Black Journalists. That was the ideology that was driving our society at that time; that we blacks had to fight the shackles around us.”
Du Preez and other white journalists were not directly threatened by the draconian press laws until things got worse in the 1980s.
“That came a little later in the 80s, when the political temperature was higher. The government resorted to closing down more newspapers, like the New Nation and the Weekly Mail, and arresting journalists, like I was, and people like Zwelakhe Sisulu and others,” says Du Preez, a multiple award winner and prolific author.
Du Preez and Thloloe agree that the South African media landscape has changed for the better since democracy in 1994.
“The atmosphere in the country is far more open. What we have experienced in the last 23 years was a Constitution where freedom of speech was guaranteed and also we have the dealings of social media. That all contributed to the atmosphere where rigid censorship will be unthinkable in South Africa… We are a truly open society,” says Du Preez.
“There’s no danger that a newspaper can be closed at the whim of a minister, in the same way The World was. There’s no chance that anybody can get detained in the way we were. Freedom of expression is now guaranteed in the Constitution. On the surface we should be able to practice the best journalism we are capable of,” says Thloloe.
But Thloloe thinks the technological revolution is hindering the standard of journalism, as advertising has dwindled and the profession is losing quality journalists.
“Every person with a cellphone can become a reporter, editor, sub-editor, distributor. That has led to a number of things; newspaper readership has gone down very sharply, advertising has gone down, newspapers no longer make profits. Now you find drastic cost-cutting in newsrooms. Newsrooms are juniorized and the quality of journalism suffers,” says Thloloe.
At least, for now, for most newsrooms, the biggest threat is economic depression rather than ruthless authorities.
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