THERE was a time when black journalists were the pride of their community. Political meetings would not start until someone from The Star - Africa Edition, the Rand Daily Mail - township edition, The World or, later, The Sowetan was present. This respect flowed from the fact that black journalists had, under the influence of black consciousness, contextualised their role in terms of their reality in the dynamics of the day - just as white journalists interpreted their responsibilities in line with their world view.
These two world views constituted the dialectics of the day in the media and it is not surprising that publications such as the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) and Die Vrye Weekblad emerged as a result of this synthesis. The World, later The Sowetan, took pride of place as intellectuals vied for space in the pages of these publications. To crown it all, correspondents from around the world used The World and The Sowetan as a source to understand events in SA. Needless to say, the government hated editor-in-chief Percy Qoboza and his staff. This period saw the likes of Qoboza, Allister Sparks and Benjamin Pogrund emerge as the conscience of SA, much to the chagrin of successive apartheid prime ministers and ministers of police and Bantu administration.
What a joy it was to be part of this period, which is now a distant memory. Gutter journalism is becoming all too frequent as publications fight for readers - who then translate into profits.
There is nothing wrong with newspapers trying to be profitable as this guarantees the paper's independence. However, the lurid and explicit picture of a cavorting couple that appeared on the front page of The Sowetan last week took this profitability thing a bit too far. I listened in sheer disbelief as the editor of the paper, Mpumelelo Mkhabela, justified the use of the picture, saying the newspaper had a responsibility to show South Africans how their taxes were being abused as the people involved were in uniform .
The problem with this explanation is that we are being told that if a public servant plunges a knife into another's neck and the handle sticks out, there is nothing wrong with using the picture. Indeed, there would be an outcry.
What depressed me further about this particular story was that the video from which the picture was published had been doing the rounds for four weeks. The Department of Correctional Services and the South African Police Service had already taken action against the culprits. So this picture was not even that newsworthy - it was history. The newspaper's boast that the paper was sold out by early afternoon tells the whole story - that it was more about the bottom line than public interest.
To recall a little, and remind The Sowetan's staff where the paper comes from: Qoboza extricated The World, The Sowetan's predecessor, from the depths of sleaze journalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the black community hated the publication with its stories of rape, murder, divorce and soccer. This, as far as the white owners were concerned, was what was of interest to blacks. Parents used to hide it from their children. Numerous delegations visited the owners of the newspaper complaining about the contents of The World. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.
Qoboza took over as editor in 1974-75 and within months had changed it into something the black community became proud of.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Aggrey Klaaste, who died two years ago after retiring as editor of The Sowetan, launched the "national building campaign". According to Klaaste, institutions in the black community had to be rebuilt. In no time, business and society in general was giving Klaaste support and the African National Congress even gave its blessing to the campaign. Many of us have watched, horrified, as The Sowetan has since relinquished its position as the standard-bearer of black pride and advancement.
Qoboza and Klaaste must be turning in their graves as they look at daily editions of the paper. If only Mkhabela could see himself as another Qoboza and return The Sowetan to its former glory. If only.
. Mazwai is director of the Centre for Small Business Development at the University of Johannesburg.