In September 1997 Juby Mayet testified at the special hearings for media at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC hearings, which started in 1996, were South Africa’s attempt at national reconciliation after years of bitter conflict. The hearings were convened to explore the relationship between the media and the state over the period: “to get at the truth about what actually happened, what aided and abetted the apartheid system.” Image: Drum Staff/Baileys African History Archive/Africa Media Online
The alarming retreat of democracy around the world, and the consequent decline in the hard-fought freedoms that underpin it, will demand extraordinary levels of fortitude from journalists with the audacity to continue speaking truth to power.
And in the already-ensuing battle of attrition, women and women journalists have an integral role to play to preserve and extend the frontiers of freedom of expression. The bold steps taken by women in the media to speak truth to power, however, are not without risks, and expose them to a range of threats and intimidations that range from name-calling to death threats and physical attacks.
In a report by the International News Safety Institute, two thirds of the 1000 women respondents said they have experienced intimidation, abuse, rape and death threats related to their work.
While female journalists often suffer this violence and abuse in silence, history is replete with women in the media who have stood their ground with inspiring courage - often at at great personal risk. These are the women who have shown exceptional courage and admirable composure when staring down the might of powers inconvenienced by the truths they told.
As the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) marks its 30th anniversary, the organisation is celebrating the women who have reported, against the odds and in the face of unprecedented hardships, to hold power to account and amplify the voices that need to be heard.
The late Zubeida “Juby” Mayet is the epitome of this resilience, and one of the #JournoHeroes that helped shape the South African media landscape as we know it. She understood how crucial it was to retain a stubborn steadfastness in the face of even the most cruel and pernicious social systems.
"I will say this. Journalists should feel free to do their jobs and not have to worry about who's watching me, who's tapping my phone, who's going to do this, that or the other to me if I write this story."
Born December 27, 1937, in Fietas, Johannesburg, Mayet began her journalism career in the late fifties, with the nascent apartheid regime at the country's helm for almost a decade. She died on April 13, 2019, at the age of 81.
Her writing showed an overriding concern for gender equality and a strong commitment to the fight against racial segregation and oppression. These two guiding beliefs would inevitably pit her against the juggernaut that was South Africa's apartheid regime.
Mayet was detained for five months in 1977 and was barred from speaking to anybody during this ordeal. After that she was slapped with a five-year banning order by the state.
The transcript of her testimony at South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in September 1997 paints a picture of the relationship that existed between South Africa's apartheid forces and those journalists who spoke truth to power. “I don't think the system liked us very much at all,” she explained simply.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mayet said journalists should be empowered to do work independently, properly, conscientiously and with the truth always at the forefront of what they do. “Journalists should feel free to do their jobs and not have to worry about who's watching me, who's tapping my phone, who's going to do this, that or the other to me if I write this story.”
Today's journalist, who find their work made more complex by the apparent decline in global democracy and the growing threats to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, may find some worthy lessons in Mayet’s defiance.
In her day it was arguably easier to see where the battle lines were drawn - it was the apartheid regime that was largely inconvenienced by the truth. In today’s context, the lines delineating conflicting social interests are much more blurred, and the hostility faced by ethical journalism comes from various quarters. The profession and its practitioners have drawn the ire of individuals, governments, businesses, industries and unscrupulous political actors - often in equal measure. Today, the attacks against them are often orchestrated and executed by anonymous players hiding behind the safety of a computer screen.
The similarities between today's challenges and what Mayet and her contemporaries faced are clear: “I don't think they liked the way we wrote about what was happening, so whether we were politically inclined in whichever way at all or not, this was going to happen,” she told the commission.
At the TRC Mayet said that for journalists, it should not matter who was in power. Regardless of the players, she believed that a journalist’s job was “to tell the truth about what's happening, whether it's high up or low down or in-between - the truth must be told at all times.”