It was the year 1977: anti-apartheid activist and black consciousness leader Steve Biko was murdered while in police custody, sparking outrage and protest across the country.
The resistance was met with more hostility, arrests, torture and even death by the aparthied government.
One month after the murder of Steve Biko, on October 19 1977, the government banned 19 black consciousness organisations, arrested over 50 black leaders along with the World and Weekend World newspaper, the Christian Institute and Pro Veritate (a Christian monthly journal) under the Internal Security Act.
The day came to be known as “Black Wednesday”, and is also marked as “National Press Freedom Day.”
The World newspaper (formerly Bantu World) and Weekend World, were established in April 1932 and targeted the black middle-class elite. It was written in both English and indigenous languages, and distributed nationally. The agenda of the newspaper changed, following the philosophy of various editors over the yeras. In the 1950s, it focused on sex, soccer, and crime, and often ran polls for beauty competitions that attracted women readers.
In 1974, Percy Qoboza became the editor of the newspaper. He advocated for black participation in the South African political system and for a peaceful resolution to the divisions between black and white South Africans. Qoboza therefore shifted the agenda of the newspaper to a fully-fledged vehicle for credible political commentary away from a purely tabloid publication.
It became an active mouthpiece for black South Africans who spoke out against apartheid, and indeed a threat to said government.
Qoboza was a fervent and bold journalist who did not bow to the apartheid government’s instruction to halt the dissemination of his newspaper, which led to his arrest on October 19 1977 on the premises of The World newspaper’s offices in Johannesburg.
He was detained for five months in Modderbee Prison under section 10 of the Internal Security Act – which allowed forces to arrest, detain and or ban whomever it felt was a threat to the regime.
Pro Veritate was a Christian monthly journal which examined the National Party’s beliefs from a theological angle, discussing Christian views on topics such as conscientious objection, economic fairness, education, and discriminatory laws. Its goal was to raise Christian awareness for peaceful social change, urging the rejection of racism and pushing for governmental reforms to address deprivation and injustice. It was also banned on 19 October 1977.
Press Freedom in South Africa
Freedom was limited for non-Whites during apartheid rule, and freedom of the press was no different, especially if it spoke out against the unjust regime.
This was indeed the case for Qoboza and other journalists who were also detained at Modderbee during that time. These journalists included Aggrey Klaaste, Willie Bokala, Godwin Mohlomi, Moffat Zungu, ZB Molefe, Duma ka Ndlovu, Joe Thloloe, Peter Magubane, Mike Mzileni and Gabu Tugwana. While others, including Mathatha Tsedu, Joe Thloloe and Don Mattera, were also banned upon their release.
Forty six years later, “Black Wednesday” continues to be commemorated and remembered as the day the white government raised its hands on black media, but we also must reflect on the progress and extent of press freedom we see in South Africa today.
Even though freedom of the press is exercised as a democratic right in South Africa today, there have been recent incidents that have threatened the media’s agency and right to report on events.
Here are a few examples:
- The Committee to Protect Journalists noted three separate incidents earlier this year of journalists being threatened, harassed and attacked for doing their jobs. The first incident they mention took place in Newcastle, where the city’s mayor, Xolani Dube and his deputy Musa Thwala, accused Estella Naicker, a journalist from Northern Natal News of being paid to write negative stories about them. They then forbid her from reporting on them, deleted photos from her phone and threatened her and her colleagues about writing stories in the future.
Meanwhile, Sithandiwe Velaphi, a senior reporter for Daily Dispatch in East London received anonymous phone calls threatening to kill him for the investigative stories he had been working on.
- There have been separate incidents in which the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) attacked journalists. In 2019, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) took the party to the Equality Court in support of the journalists who were harassed and attacked by EFF supporters, as SANEF indicated:
“The journalists named by Malema have been subjected to a barrage of abuse and harassment by purported supporters of the EFF, ranging from name-calling and insults to threats of violence and calls for the addresses of journalists to be made public. This abuse appears to be a direct result, and in support, of the statements made by the EFF. SANEF has made Malema and the EFF aware of the results of their utterances and has requested that they condemn the abuse on the part of their purported supporters. They have however refused to do so. This has created an environment which enables the abuse and harassment of journalists whose reportage the EFF and its supporters do not agree with.”
In 2021, eNCA journalists were physically threatened while covering student protests, and those who had raised their voice were further bullied online. Read more here
The EFF has made it increasingly difficult for journalists on the field.
- The ongoing spat between the powerful businessman, Zunaid Moti and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism has shown the hurdles journalists face when speaking truth to power. amaBhungane has been investigating the Moti Group for dodgy business deals. The Moti Group attempted to silence the journalists through court processes which is also draining amaBhungane’s funds – who are heavily reliant on donors. The courts ruled in favour of the media, dismissing Moti’s appeal to prevent them from doing their work. amaBhungane continues to investigate Zunaid Moti and his infamous company, but constantly faces rebuttals from Moti. Read more here
- The case between legal journalist Karyn Maughan and former president Jacob Zuma shows how power tries to undermine the integrity of the media. The case which took off in September 2022 saw the former president accuse Maughan, and Advocate Billy Downer, a lead prosecutor for the National Prosecuting Authority and has worked on cases against Zuma, of leaking medical documents. Zuma attempted to have them criminally prosecuted. But the courts set aside Zuma’s summons to have them prosecuted – he subsequently made more attempts to appeal the ruling. In the most recent development, on 13 October, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) dismissed, with costs, another Zuma application against Karyn Maughan and advocate Billy Downer. Read more here
The state of press freedom in South Africa can be fragile at times, and though our journalists have been subjected to threats, harassment and bullying, we are fortunate that journalists in South Africa are not detained or killed as aggressively as in the rest of the world, but Reggy Moalusi the executive director at SANEF said press freedom in South Africa is not exactly where it should be, and we need to strive for a safe playing field:
“We need to educate the public about the work the media does. We need to keep on spreading the word that the media’s work is critical, and comes with equal responsibility on the part of the media. Government and the police can also act decisively when it comes to the prosecution of those harassing journalists and making deadly threats.”
Adding that crime, threats at courts and physical harassment are some of the growing concerns that need to be addressed.