SA’s day of infamy

2017-10-22 06:07
For those of us who shared a prison cell with media leaders, October 1977 is more than just a date on the calendar. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

For those of us who shared a prison cell with media leaders, October 1977 is more than just a date on the calendar. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

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October should be declared Freedom of the Media and Expression Month.

It is a shame that the banning of three publications and 17 anti-apartheid organisations in 1977 has not been accorded the prominence it deserves.

Thanks to our Constitution, we simply take freedom of speech and expression for granted. Lest we forget.

On October 19 1977 hundreds of leaders and political activists were arrested and detained.

Unsettled by the 1973 trade union strikes in KwaZulu-Natal, the victory of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in Mozambique, followed by the Frelimo rally in 1974 and the June 16 1976 student rebellion, the apartheid regime panicked.

In its attempt to stem the tide of freedom, Pretoria banned three publications and 17 progressive organisations without blinking an eye.

These included those already outlawed since the early 60s as well as black consciousness formations and liberation groups. It was unprecedented.

Security police swooped on hundreds of activists and had them locked up without any charge or trial. Scores of activists were already incarcerated in Modderbee prison on the East Rand.

The late Dr Nthato Harrison Motlana and I were among them.

In prison, the arrival of new detainees was always a cause for celebration.

Our responsibility was to welcome them, help them adjust to an unfamiliar environment and to understand the dos and don’ts of prison life.

Their arrival brought us fresh news about the latest developments in the country.

We quickly worked out a survival strategy, which included daily political debates and information sharing.

Since we did not know how long we would be kept behind bars, we encouraged comrades to enrol in colleges and tertiary institutions.

"We must stay united"

We volunteered to coach and teach those studying. Our lawyers agreed to arrange the required study material for all of us.

We least expected to be joined by eminent persons such as newspaper editors.

Fascist as the regime was, nobody thought it could be so bold as to arrest and detain a world-renowned newspaper editor.

Surprise! Surprise! One afternoon Percy Qoboza and his senior colleagues swaggered into our detention hall. Bewilderment was written on their faces.

Our welcome team took charge and gave them a pep talk.

It went something like this: “Welcome comrades. Feel at home. You won’t need your expensive ties and suits here. You will make your own beds, get up at 5am when the bell rings and be ready to be counted every day to make sure you have not escaped or hanged yourselves!

"The daily regime includes running on the spot, jogging inside the compound, calisthenics and volleyball. These exercises will shrink your boepens into a trimmed waistline.

"As for beverages, you will be allowed tap water, cold drinks from your relatives and of course, phuzamandla (prison brew).

"You will only enjoy “hard stuff” after your release. Whatever you do, please comrades, don’t fantasise or stress yourself about the date of your release from this dungeon. Only the security police know.

"Enjoy your stay. Don’t hesitate to call on us for advice. You are very lucky because you arrived at supper time, which is always served promptly at 3pm daily!

"You will be allowed about 40 minutes of physical exercise in the open, depending on the mood of the warder on duty.

"You will not mix or communicate with common law criminals for fear you might pollute them with your communist ideas.

"Comrades, whatever happens, we must stay united.”

"We too have balls"

While incarcerated, we organised heated debates on Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Samora Machel, the ANC’s strategy and tactics, Zanu-PF and Zipra, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jesus Christ, the Quran, liberation theology, health-related issues and the black consciousness movement.

Led by the irrepressible Qoboza and his colleagues, detainees argued about freedom of the media.

His colleagues included Gabu Tugwana, Joe Thloloe, Willie Bokala, Aggrey Klaaste, Duma Ndlovu and Makhosini Nkosi.

The apartheid regime had demanded of everybody to have the same ideas, beliefs, aspirations, the same sanitised information and uncritical patriotism.

Banning progressive publications was tantamount to stifling free thought and imagination.

We interrogated them about the occasional publication of blatant lies by the news media. Qoboza’s explanation was received well, but not without some scepticism.

All went well until something snapped. Inmates became oversensitive to criticism. Nothing unusual, as this happens to detainees all over the world, Robben Island not excluded.

Our debate suddenly degenerated into mudslinging.

The senior and better educated inmates engaged each other in sophisticated ideological debates.

The younger and more militant cadres overdid their enthusiasm.

In a fit of anger, one young comrade, Mongezi, attacked the seniors and called them “cretins”.

That prompted the late Motlana to fume as he explained what, in medical terminology, cretin meant. He demanded an unqualified apology from the offending youth.

The last thing we wanted was disunity among the detainees.

Just when some of us thought we had calmed the troubled waters, Qoboza jumped up and shouted “we too have balls. We won’t allow small boys to insult us. We won’t rest until the insult has been sorted out.”

For those of us who shared a prison cell with media leaders, October 1977 is more than just a date on the calendar.

It is a reaffirmation of our right to full and accurate information as well as the right to independent opinion and beliefs.

True to form, Qoboza waxed lyrical about the sanctity of the gift of speech and the inalienable right to use one’s brain for the benefit of humankind.

He conceded that editors and journalists sometimes made mistakes.

But gagging the media would suggest government was lying to the nation by only allowing selective and sanitised information to be published.

The apartheid government’s draconian action was an insult to readers’ intelligence.

If the apologists of the apartheid ideology were so convinced of their theory, why not allow their philosophy and practice to be contested in the open marketplace of ideas?

He was clearly passionate about his job.

He did not come across as someone who elevated freedom of the press to a fetish.

Anyone who was once detained in solitary confinement would appreciate the searing pain of being denied information.

It was intellectually and spiritually suffocating.

In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise for our media comrades to experience the effects of detention without trial on activists, their families and society.

They lived to tell it like it was.

Mkhatshwa is chairperson of the Moral Regeneration Movement


What threats are currently facing SA’s freedom of the media and expression?

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