REFLECTING on the life of Zwelakhe Sisulu once again underscored the integral relationship between the liberation struggle and media freedom. It is appropriate that we remind ourselves that among those who gathered at Mangaung in 1912 were at least three founder editors, who consistently fought the good fight for a free press.
Receiving the sad news of the passing of Sisulu made me recall my encounters with the man. I knew him by the reputation he had earned as a courageous journalist and liberation activist. Besides his pedigree as one of the sons of a distinguished family in the liberation struggle, Sisulu had crafted his own identity over many years of persecution at the hands of the apartheid regime.
Our eyes immediately fell on Sisulu when filling the office of the first post-apartheid CEO of the SABC. Tension between those tasked with governing and the media, as purveyors of information and opinion, is inevitable, even in a democracy. Accepting this tension does not betray a temptation to censor. As a seasoned journalist, Sisulu brought to the job an integrity honed in the struggles he had waged in the local media and against a repressive regime. He left the SABC with his reputation untarnished.
One day, the story of the struggle on two fronts that black journalists were compelled to wage will be told. Newspaper proprietors insisted on a staple of crime, gossip, celebrity and sport, pandering to the worst vices of tabloid journalism to realise profits.
That is where most black journalists cut their teeth in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1976 Soweto uprising compelled editors to treat news about the urban black community more seriously. Sisulu was among the black journalists who drove that transformation through interventions in the profession.
The apartheid regime exacted a heavy price from those who opposed it in earnest. Beginning with the banning of the Guardian, a leftwing weekly edited by communists Brian Bunting and Ruth First in 1952, it also banned the Guardian’s successors, People’s World; Advance, New Age and Spark. Banning orders served on the papers’ editors in 1962 prevented them from working as journalists. The Torch, aligned to the Unity Movement, fell before their axe too, in 1963.
A multifaceted censorship regime, which Lawrence Gandar and Benjamin Pogrund were prosecuted for violating by publishing the prison experiences of Harold Strachan, was also in force. Strachan was sent back to jail for the "crime" of discussing his experiences with the journalists.
It was in that authoritarian environment that a young Sisulu learned how to navigate the repressive laws of the time. Some editors had the courage to employ black journalists. When trouble came, they stood by them. But the print media’s record was inconsistent. Anthony Holiday lost his job the day after he was detained by the security police. No Afrikaans editor ever criticised these overt repressive measures. Some even supported the state against the media.
The mere act of reporting accurately on the lives and experiences of black people constituted a political action during those decades of white minority rule. The indefatigable Henry Nxumalo, "Mr Drum" of the early 1950s, deliberately engineered a week’s imprisonment by violating some degrading curfew law and brought out a harrowing report on prison conditions. But rather than improve its prisons, the apartheid regime passed the Prisons Act, making it illegal to report on any South African prison — the law Gandar and Pogrund fell foul of. Yet imprisonment for breaking one or other of the hundreds of laws and ordinances that regulated the lives of black people was the experience of thousands in urban areas.
Sisulu and the generation of black journalists who helped to found the Media Workers Association of South Africa faced the more daunting challenge of telling these stories in an environment of intense repression by a regime facing the active hostility of the majority. Though never charged, tried and convicted of breaking a single one of their repressive laws, Sisulu served repeated bouts of detention without trial. Undeterred by these persecutions, he returned to the trenches to take up the fight after each. It was these qualities that recommended him to the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference when they sought an editor for their newspaper, The New Nation.
Under Sisulu’s stewardship, the paper became the pioneer of the "alternative press", offering accurate information and servicing an ever-widening network of democratic activists. Working together with others, they mentored a number of aspiring black journalists, some of whom now hold senior positions in our print media. They had the good fortune of training in environments far more friendly and supportive than previous generations. But making the country’s media demographically more representative proved as great a challenge as freeing it from repressive laws.
Sisulu was a journalist in the tradition of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC).
It is by reclaiming its historic standards, such as media freedom, that the ANC will renew itself and restore its credibility. Lala ngoxolo Xhamela!
• Jordan is a former minister of arts and culture.