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Leadership is delighted to bring you Sandile Memela’s speech from the 13th Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture held at UNISA on 19 October 2023

I wish to begin by making an assertion: no individual is greater than an organisation. As we are all aware, no part is greater than a whole.

So, how do you bite the hand that feeds you? This is the question that haunts Percy Qoboza. This is the question that confronts us now.

To survive, journalists, editors, and everybody else have had to throw out any moral principle and values.

“We have become part of the system that we fought against.” This is a declaration and condemnation of the transition by one of South Africa’s beloved sons.

In fact, we are not just part of the system, we are The Establishment.

Renowned South African writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, used and introduced the word ‘interregnum’ in a conversation. We were in a bus, traveling from one workshop to another during the African Women Writers’ Symposium in the early 1990s.

So, it was during the interregnum, the transitional period, when I interviewed rebel Afrikaner writer, poet, intellectual, dissident, and activist, Breyten Breytenbach.

He had temporarily returned to the country, for whatever reason. I went to interview him at the then RAU campus. One of the things he told me was that he would be leaving and not staying in South Africa. He would not return because he did not want to be part of the system that he fought against.

I loved how he put his words. He was a poet: part of the system that he fought against.

The thing is: you cannot hold two opposing thoughts and remain the same.

As an editor and journalist, what is the price of survival? What does it take to hold on to moral principles and ideals that question authority and challenge the system?

If correct, Breytenbach felt that you cannot be an ethical and moral person when you live and work in an unjust society. He felt that he could not live a life of principle when the political leadership had compromised by allowing apartheid to continue. And here we are.

This encounter with Breytenbach has stayed with me since then. The feature profile is buried somewhere in City Press archives, behind a pay wall.

Greeting and gratitude

Mangibingelele, ngibulise. It is yet another beautiful day in South Africa. We are blessed to be here. Baningi abangavukanga. Some of us are at that age where we collapse and die.

When Bra Percy died, on his birthday in January 1988, he was only 50 years old. He was too young to die. They say he suffered a heart attack. There was a war going on. The last push against apartheid.

You must read Susan William’s ‘White Malice’ to understand that the system does not think twice to kill and murder its opponents.

Bra Percy was an enemy of the apartheid state because of what he wrote.

To the National Press Club, UNISA and, above all, the Qoboza family, it is a privilege to be your special guest speaker, today. Thanks, TQ.

I tried to wriggle out of this engagement, but National Press Club deputy chair, Kennedy Mudzuli, was tenacious like a bulldog. He would not have a “No, try someone else” from me. He admitted, at a preparatory meeting, that he bullied me into this.

You see, I am not an academic who will cite this reference and quote this colonialist professor and/or expert from some journal. Neither am I a sharp intellectual who lives the life of the mind. I am just a guy next door who loves to think and write and probe.

So, here I am. You will have to bear with me. Let me thank you for coming to lend me your ears. But I am not here to praise journalists or Bra Percy. Being a journalist is a thankless job, to quote Bra Khulu Sibiya. Nor am I here to condemn or criticise them. They have their faults and limitations.

Those who know will tell you that journalists and editors are neither saints nor angels. They can be devils, giving people sleepless nights.

The context

I am here to contextualise the role of media practitioners, what they can do or cannot do within the constraints of their situation. What is the meaning of Bra Percy’s life, if any, and how did he navigate working within the system. He desired to be a moral voice. He was that. But how did he balance that with making money for the bosses? It is a very complicated subject matter that I have been asked to address: ethical journalism and survival of journalism. Yet it is simple.

We must think about what Breytenbach said or believed, then: you cannot uphold and promote moral principles and values—as a writer, journalist, or ordinary person—when you live, work, and want to survive in an unjust and immoral society.

It sounds harsh to describe Mzansi as an unjust and immoral society. But the World Bank says this is the most unequal society on earth. We know about the poverty, hunger, unemployment, and inequality.

So, how do you stand up against immoral employers that want you to simply make money for them? How do you bite the hand that feeds you? Can a journalist do that?

The media has an unavoidable incestuous relationship with government, politicians, and big business, among others.

An editor will be required or expected to have contacts with the President or Ministers to get advertising. A journalist will have to side with a faction or have close relations with a political party to get stories. And write from a particular perspective.

The newspaper will have to tread carefully about writing stories that embarrass corporations that bring in advertising revenue. It is a case of who pays the piper.

They are all part of the same racist, patriarchal capitalist economic system. And the owners, government, politicians, and big business all have a very clear agenda: to use journalists in the media to promote, protect, and preserve their interests, an unjust status quo. Above all, to make money and profits.

Thus, I will touch on ownership, the role of the invisible owner in newsrooms, the perspective of black journalists, how The World covered June 1976 and why, Tsietsi Mashinini and the rise of Black Consciousness, among others.

Above all, explore and speculate how Percy Qoboza walked the political tightrope, for he did.

One of my favorite Percy’s Pitch column quotes says: ‘If you sometimes get mad at me, because the sentiments I express keep you awake at night, then I am glad. In a PQ style, I will be provocative, give you something to keep you awake at night.’

Please note that there is no malicious intent. I am just expressing opinions. I am trying to contribute to discourse on the media.

To get to the right questions about the role and relevance of the media, we need to ask the right questions: who owns the media and what is their agenda, for instance?

If I can be provocative: the cronyism, corruption, State Capture, and failures of the ANC are not the be-all and end-all of the South African Story or problems that come with it.

Where are the stories about the landowners? Those that control the economy? And who continues to benefit from apartheid? They have vanished.

Above all, who guards the guardians of society? Who questions the media on the motives for the stories that they cover and those that they ignore?

To echo Breytenbach’s sentiments: the media have become part of the system we fought against. They always have been. Editors lost the war, a long time ago.

As you know, it is either you are part of the problem, or part of the solution. Media practitioners are part of the problem.

The stories we write are not for mental liberation but intellectual enslavement to perpetuate the economic system. I am not sure that how or why the media runs certain stories. They are not looking at the bigger picture.

The confrontation

Let me recall an encounter with Bra Percy. I have vivid memories of an interaction. I was thrust into his newsroom by verligte Broederbond Afrikaners who paid for my university education. I had just graduated, in absentia, from Fort Hare in 1984.

When I arrived at the paper, he was not the editor. Percy Selwyn-Smith, an amiable warm and kind white man, was.

But Selwyn-Smith was soon removed to make way for a black editor to lead a white-owned newspaper. There are various stories about how this came about. Bra Percy was unemployed, working as a consultant and strategist after the closure of the Post in 1981. City Press was relaunched in 1982.

No doubt, whites were under pressure to give the job to a black in the name of transformation.

So, I was present at the party to celebrate Bra Percy’s ascendence to the editorial throne in 1985. There was food, conviviality, music, and great conversations. Some of us were young and dreamed of being superstar journalists.

I remember leaving the party venue, a white tent filled with dominantly black staff of City Press, Drum, and True Love, to get something from the newsroom. On my way back, I was summoned and confronted by PQ who sat at a secluded spot with Bra Stan Motjuwadi, the editor of Drum.

I approached them with deference as they were both my role models and icons. But what Bra Percy said was, quick and sudden, like a bullet in the back.

“Yes, Sandile, the blue-eyed boy yamaBhunu. Sikubhekile, we are watching you.”

I knew where this was going. It meant that I was suspected to be a spy or stooge. I looked at both Bra Percy and Bra Stan. After a brief pause, I shot back, “But you, too, are working for, holding high positions, earning good money yamaBhunu. Is there a problem that I don’t understand?”

For me, it was a question of the pot calling the kettle black. They were playing the holier-than-though game. Planting seeds of black guilt.

They looked at each other and then glared back at me. I don’t remember their answer, but I left them as they lifted their glasses to enjoy a bottle of Beefeater.

I guess they had a beef with me or that my university education was sponsored by amaBhunu. Thus, they wanted to eat me alive for that.

I don’t know what you make out of this anecdote, but it is loaded. It is a question that haunts black journalists and editors, to this day. Who pays your salaries? Who gave Bra Percy his job and why?

In fact, I was so incensed that I recorded my experiences in the newsroom. This culminated in my book, ‘His Master’s Voice’, that explores the psyche and details the experiences of black journalists in media. It is a book that I wrote back in 1987. It was declined for publication. I only brought it out 22 years later in 2012. As far as I know, it is the only book that critically examines the plight of journalists and editors working in media.

For all it is worth, it is a sizzler. Maybe UNISA can prescribe it?

Media ownership

The undertone of our brief encounter with the legends was the question: Whose interests do journalists and the media serve?

He who owns the media, owns the narrative. When you own the media, you control how people see the world and the future.

Worse, everything that the average person knows is what they are fed by the media.

Now, Bra Percy and Bra Stan, celebrated as they were, were black editors. And black journalists and editors do not own the media. They are employees and must do what they are told.

Well, blacks own media houses, today. Nothing has changed. It continues to cover the South Africa Story like foreigners. Worse, the media is the least transformed industry in the country.

For example, the definition of news has not changed. The structure of the newsroom has not changed: top down. The fire wall between business and editorial has collapsed. Today, editors must have MBAs from Ivy League universities. Ivy League universities like Harvard campus, where Nieman Fellows go, do not teach or train you to fight the economic system. You go there to learn how to serve business owners to make more money.

In fact, journalism schools are good hunting grounds for the intelligence service.

This is not to cast aspersion or take anything away from anyone. But if a journalist or editor works in corporate controlled media, they are likely to make mistakes and commit sins. And when they make mistakes, the guilty party is not the journalists and editors but those who own the means of productions.

We need to be very clear about one fact: freedom of the media belongs to those who own it.

Only a fool would expect those who own the media to give a platform to black journalists and editors to write demands for the return of the land and equal distribution of the wealth of the country, for example. To constantly remind whites that this is a racist country. Anti-black.

Sandile Memela is a writer, cultural critic, and public servant.