There was plenty of reflection and nostalgia on Tuesday night at the launch of a book on two newspapers that opposed apartheid in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.
The book, Rhetorics of Resistance: Opposition Journalism in Apartheid South Africa, written by Bryan Trabold, an associate professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts, focuses on the Weekly Mail and the New Nation.
Trabold spent more than two years in South Africa in the late 1990s and that is when he conducted most of the interviews for the book, which has had a limited release in South Africa.
At the launch at Clarkes Book Store in Long Street, Trabold explained that the book started off as a dissertation towards his doctorate. He said it took much longer than anticipated for the book to be published.
He had interviewed me in 1999, when I was editor of the Cape Times, and invited me and another former Independent Newspapers editor, Shaun Johnson (now CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation) to share some of our memories at the launch.
Johnson had worked at the Weekly Mail, the forerunner to the Mail & Guardian, and I worked at the New Nation.
In attendance at the launch were several people who had worked at either of the two papers, including another former Cape Times editor, Tyrone August, who had also worked at the New Nation. August was based at head office in Johannesburg while I ran the Cape Town office. Most of the people, however, came from the Weekly Mail side because the New Nation was never strong in the Western Cape, except in what is still known as the townships.
When Trabold emailed me a few weeks ago and asked me to participate in the launch, I was apprehensive because the period he reflected on was a long time ago and I, like everyone else, had moved on since then.
But his request, which I initially refused, got me thinking, not only about what happened in the bad old days of apartheid, but what is happening in the media space today.
Johnson shared a lot of humorous anecdotes from his days at the Weekly Mail, but also pointed out that the journalists who worked there were often scared because of the tactics of the apartheid police.
Things were slightly different at the New Nation, where we might not have shared as much humour, but we also did not feel as much fear. We were driven by something that was much bigger than us.
Apartheid had been declared a crime against humanity by the UN and we were in the forefront of the opposition to it.
We felt that, if we had to make sacrifices, it would be in line with our commitment to the struggle. We did not see a distinction between the struggle for human rights and the struggle for media freedom.
There were other differences between the two newspapers. The Weekly Mail had a mainly white readership, while the New Nation had a mainly black readership.
The Weekly Mail journalists all had bylines, while the New Nation staff wrote anonymously. Part of the reason for this was security, to protect journalists from scrutiny by the security police, while part of it was because of the collective nature of our project.
When one looks at the freedom the media enjoy in South Africa today, it is difficult to imagine the difficult conditions under which we operated in the 1980s.
Many anti-apartheid journalists, including yours truly, ended up in detention, and journalists were often beaten up by police along with protesters on who they were reporting.
Many of the anti-apartheid newspapers, including the New Nation and Weekly Mail, were closed for different periods by the apartheid censors.
The editor of the New Nation, the inspirational Zwelakhe Sisulu, spent more than two years in detention.
The apartheid authorities thought that, by banning and detaining us, they would silence us, but they soon realised that it would not work.
Paging through the book, I thought back to all the other smaller newspapers that existed in the 1980s and who played as important a role. These included newspapers such as Grassroots, Saamstaan and Vrye Weekblad.
I realise that we are failing those who sacrificed so much for our freedom by letting the history of these papers die without any of it being recorded. The fact that an American had to write the history of two of our most important anti-apartheid newspapers is an indictment on local writers and researchers who shun away from these subjects.
Trabold quoted me in the book as saying that the main reason we were involved in alternative media was because the mainstream media were not doing their work properly and did not reflect society properly.
This got me thinking about the media today. Are we doing our work properly now that we do not have all the inconveniences that we suffered during apartheid? Are we reflecting society properly? Our mission in the 1980s was to provide a voice for the voiceless.
Have the media done that in democratic South Africa? Or have we just continued to exclude the people who were excluded under apartheid?
There are no easy answers to these questions but all journalists, especially the young ones who hold the future of the media industry in their hands, should think about the role we are expected to play as those who report on our society. Journalism has always been more than a job to me.
It has always been about serving people whose voices would not be heard otherwise. I hope that the young journalists of today feel the same.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 11 August 2018)