Towering giant of African journalism still stands tall

Johannesburg – On April 10, a tiny knot of journalists, mostly those who have retired and a sprinkling of young ones met in Soweto to pay homage to one of their own, Joe Nong Thloloe.

The setting was the 16 June Memorial Acre in White City Jabavu although some residents of Central Western Jabavu claim this historic piece as their own.

Thloloe has warded off the ageing process rather well. He is turning 79 in a few months, but does not look much different from the individual I met nearly 50 years ago as a rookie journalist.

In 1973 to be precise.

Many of those journalists who started out with him are no more. Contemporaries that readily come to mind are Aggrey Klaaste, Juby Mayet and those who were a few years older, such as Stan Motjuwadi and Casey Motsisi.

Thloloe straddles many generations in the history of black journalism in this country. He came towards the tail end of Drum magazine’s golden era.

Then he ushered some of us and the likes of Willie Bokala, Maud Motanyane, Pearl Luthuli, the late Ruth Bhengu, Duma Ndlovu and too many others to mention at the height of Black Consciousness. When the SABC was forced to cast off its function as a propaganda machinery of the National Party, Thloloe was among a team head-hunted to ring in the changes within this institution that plays a critical role in shaping public opinion.

He entered the profession at a time when the era immortalised by iconic figures like Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba and symbolised by the destruction of Sophiatown was coming to an end. This was the era of Drum magazine.

Nxumalo had been killed several years earlier. Themba had quit journalism to take up teaching in Swaziland. Others had sought greener pastures abroad.

When Thloloe immersed himself in journalism, the political landscape on the continent had changed 360º. The winds of change were sweeping, from Morocco to Madagascar. Apartheid police became even more vicious, culminating in the Sharpeville and Langa massacres on March 21.

On that fateful day on March 21 1960, 18 years old Thloloe was part of those who joined Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) leaders including Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in a historic protest march against the pass laws.

These laws compelled African males over 16 years to carry an identity document all the time. Failure to produce such a document was a criminal offence.

The March 21 anti-pass campaign marked the turning point in the politics of South Africa. In the wake of the Sharpeville and Langa massacres, Pretoria went a step further by outlawing the less than one-year-old PAC and the much-older African National Congress (ANC). The politics of deputations and pleadings with the latter-day pharaohs had come to an end.

Both the PAC and ANC embarked on the armed struggle, the PAC in particular orchestrated the expulsion of South Africa from the UN, and the country became a pariah in most parts of the world. For his participation in the March 21 campaign, Thloloe earned himself a spell in prison.

Imprisonment was to scar his life intermittently for almost the next 30 years until the unbanning of political parties in 1990. His second spell in prison came in 1976, when he was detained for four months.

Typical of the times, he was not given reasons for his incarceration. As his colleagues, we knew why. His sin was being a journalist and leader of our union, the Union of Black Journalists. He was also a good and bloody stubborn journalist. Being a good journalist and known, but hard to prove PAC connections, were too potent a brew the boers could not stomach. Hence the arbitrary detentions.

The following year, he was detained for an even longer stretch, 18 months. He was held under the so-called Terrorism Act of 1967. He was banned for three years in 1981, then jailed between 1982 and 1984.

A former colleague, Phil Mtimkulu, says of Thloloe: “I have lost count of the number of times this guy was detained. In those days, if I had not seen him for a stretch of time, I knew he was arrested.”

It is Oupa Ngwenya who summed up his character when he said of him: “In all the years we were colleagues at Sowetan, I don’t recall Bra Joe showing his struggle credentials.”

The April 10 gathering was a modest celebration of a very humble but towering figure in politics, but largely journalism.

Sekola Sello

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