Forty years ago this week, I left South Africa for exile in Lesotho.
I was then a celebrated young journalist who had courageously covered the 1976 Soweto uprisings and the subsequent upheavals, arrests and killings.
It was a chilling period in the history of South Africa and, in a strange and eery way, an amazing time to be a journalist as stories were a dime a dozen.
All you had to do was step outside your home and you were met by literally thousands of stories. Stories, it seemed, told themselves.
I had turned 23 a week before and was part of a group of journalists that was constantly hounded and continuously arrested for our provocative type of journalism.
Despite the various stints in prison, we continued to advocate the downfall of the oppressive regime. We were quite aggressive. We were prepared to do anything to attain our freedom.
The lines between journalist and freedom fighter were blurred.
As a member of the Union of Black Journalists, my responsibility was to visit detained journalists throughout the country and make sure they had all the support they needed (material, legal and otherwise).
Of course, being a journalist was sometimes a good cover for being an undercover operative.
Moffat Zungu was convicted and sent to prison for being a Pan Africanist Congress operative.
Joe Thloloe, Thami Mazwai and a host of others had encounters with the law, experiences that were associated with their membership of a banned organisation.
Peter Magubane was constantly harassed and banned, and he was a known ANC cadre.
Those were the days!
Our activism did not go unnoticed by the regime.
Advocacy through journalism
Between a period of slightly over a year, (July 1976 to October 1977), I was detained 12 times and spent more than six months in detention, a period that culminated with my leaving the country for exile.
This was all largely because of my advocacy through journalism. We went to great lengths to write stories with integrity and were prepared to die to see our country free.
Journalism was an ideal, a calling and a purpose.
Hence when the 17 black consciousness organisations were banned on October 19 1977, two of those organisations were newspapers.
We were on top of the mountain calling for an end to an unjust regime. Journalists were at the forefront of that war.
I am tempted to draw parallels with today’s journalists. Maybe I am jumping the gun.
Maybe I should pause a bit, so that the voice does not overtake the tongue in trying to tell the story.
One can’t help but try to draw parallels with today’s journalists and journalism as a profession.
Forty years on and the dawn of democracy being thrown in for good measure, journalism should have developed and grown, and should have reached unprecedented standards.
One is forced to look around and make comparisons, and maybe that is a huge mistake.
The substance of today’s writing is hampered by the fact that journalism in our country has not developed a fraternity that studies (academically) and researches.
Young people are more educated than we were 40 years ago, but there is no evidence of more scholarship.
We have neither developed more research methods nor have we contributed to the volume of literature that should have indicated that our journalists are writing academic papers and publishing books and journals.
We are not wiser in our collective experience as a people, and Steve Biko’s admonition – Black man you are on your own – is still as relevant now as it was almost half a century ago.
Ownership of the media is still in the hands of a minority.
We are still the hewers of wood and the carriers of water buckets. We are as yet to demonstrate the freed mind that black consciousness advocated so many moons ago.
We went to the polls in 1994 for the first time in a collective hysteria that seemed to signal the dawn of a new era.
We rushed to replace the insignia of a defeated system and, in haste, called it the dawn of a new dispensation.
Did we rush? Were we justified? Today, one struggles to show the gains of that democracy.
Our young people are hardly more educated and don’t seem to have learnt from our experiences at the hands of oppressors.
We, as the black consciousness brigade, advocated the freeing of the mind.
Yet, young university-educated writers of today are still dancing to “his master’s voice”!
Newsrooms are still dominated by the whims of those who have owned the newspapers for the past 100 years.
Where is the “black thought”?
Where is the “black thought” that we so much wanted to develop?
Most of the sins of our past can’t be blamed on young writers of today. However, the very teaching of black consciousness was for motivated and independent minds.
We argued back then that we as a nation, as a people, had to fight to determine our destiny, had to develop an independent thought pattern and, by definition, thought leadership free of foreign influence and domination.
When we shouted “Black man you are on your own, you have nothing to lose but the chains of your slavery!” we simply meant that we needed to develop our own voice without fear or favour.
I have vehemently argued in the past few years that as a Black collective we lack an agenda and an articulation of a thought pattern that signifies that we are “on our own” and are masters of our own fate.
This is hardly evident in anything that we do.
Young people are driven by greed and a desire to be famous and are therefore not developing a seriousness and an articulate scholarship.
We have more certificates than the journalists of old, but are not as studious and research oriented.
There is hardly any investigative journalism to speak of, and we have not contributed to the growth and development of the institution of Black journalism.
Newsrooms are producing robot writers who are fed information and sent on errands aimed at destabilising and destroying the development of a Black agenda.
Forty years after the banning of newspapers and the incarceration of Black writers and the suppression of a then-developing Black thought pattern, have we learnt any lessons?
It does not seem so.
Ndlovu is a television and theatre producer, and director. He is a former journalist with the World and Weekend World newspapers that the apartheid government banned on October 19 1977