How apartheid stunted a career

2009-03-24 00:00

I FIRST met Shan Pillay in 1960, the year after Sharpeville. I’d just been transferred from a Zimbabwe newspaper to the Daily News office in Pietermaritzburg. It was a good move for a woman journalist. You were allowed to cover police and courts and politics — not the “social” of a bigger newsroom.

Shan was what we called a “stringer” — he used to drop in from time to time to tip us off on stories we might have missed. At the time he was working as a motorcar salesman, but his instincts were those of a journalist. He sensed stories before they happened, knew everybody and managed to be at the scene of big events, almost by accident. This hasn’t changed. What has changed is a world where black journalists now fill the newsroom.

In 1961 there were no openings for a man like Shan, and worse, the only newspaper in the country that had an interest in reporting on black political events was the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, where Benjamin Pogrund was African affairs reporter. Like Shan, Benjy knew everybody who was involved in African politics, but he could get his stories printed, and he would use our stories when the Daily News wouldn’t.

So Shan remained anonymous, which was not unusual in an age when bylines were banned, a journalist was taught never to use the word “I”, and never to treat a subject in such a way that you would not be welcomed back next time.

A serious constraint on hard news.

If anyone ever got near the ideal, it was Shan. He could sense a story forming before it happened, but he was incapable of harm. He couldn’t harm people. He wouldn’t harm people. It should have been a drawback in his pursuit of news, but I think his integrity cleared a path for him. He was trusted, and he never betrayed a trust.

We formed a long-standing partnership during the long years of political turmoil when leaders were banned and most political activity was underground. Shan knew the labyrinths of the political underworld. He would lead. I would follow. He would produce the stories. I would write them. He was close to the big names, yes, but he engaged with everyone. He never overlooked the smaller people, the street sweepers and the newspaper sellers whom he knew by name. They were often useful informants, but whether they were or not, the storyteller in Shan saw the narrative in their lives in the gutter. He saw a story in everyone, and his eyes would light up, passing the story on.

Shan didn’t have much support for his work as a stringer. I’m not sure he ever got paid for a tip-off — but he wasn’t after money. He was after news. He lived in a small flat with a bicycle for transport, which he cycled furiously between his contacts when he had tip-offs about police raids or arrests.

When we worked together we used my mother’s car, a loan she made without hesitation, although she knew a white woman and an Indian man driving together would arouse comment, especially at night. It didn’t seem remarkable at the time. My mother, Elsie Bond, and Shan’s wife Gwen were both very wonderful people, and our families formed a lifelong friendship.

It is a tragedy that somebody with Shan’s gifts should only come to journalism now, late in a career that was full of success, but which kept him away from newspapers. He would have transformed a newsroom with his drive after news, his intuitive sense of a story taking shape, and most of all his unique humanity. He has never left his heart out of a story — nor his critical faculties. He cares about everyone he interviews or observes — yet he sees the facts that jar, the motives and ambitions.

It is his heart, and his clear and critical mind, that make him such an exceptional ally and reporter.

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