Black Wednesday: Rise of liberation journalism

Johannesburg – Black consciousness, black theology, liberation theology, all, in one mighty swoop, contributed to the new birth and new consciousness, with the Fourth Estate finding its mooring and ready to take on the oppressive political bull by its horns.

But then Black Wednesday, on October 19, 1977, nearly a month after the death of Steve Biko at the hands of his apartheid tormentors, disrupted and killed good initiatives by black people.

The state’s violent response to the black project of self-determination, spearheaded by liberating journalism, also endured violent attacks, calculated at stopping it on its tracks.

On that memorable day, the apartheid regime used its sledgehammer to close down a section of the media and banned political organisations. The apartheid state opposed truth-seeking journalism, for it sought to keep society in the dark.

All these liberatory philosophies propounded one common theme, which was that black people deserved better and would no longer acquiesce to the degradation heaped on them by the oppressive minority rule.

The black philosophy of Biko was finding resonance among millions of South Africans radicalised by its liberatory messaging, and also conscientising black people to reject staple food of tokoloshe and crime stories that black journalism had hitherto been churning out for its black readers under the tutelage of white editorial control.

Philosophies of black and liberation theologies were finding home in the hearts of many oppressed people that the reign of justice was not to be acquired in the afterlife, but in the here and now. And so, the church too would become a site of liberation Struggle, and in the process giving birth to its own apostles and adherents of black and liberation theology such as the Catholic Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, the Reverend Professor Itumeleng Mosala, Bishop Manas Buthelezi, among others.

In journalism, the new sheriff as epitomised by the incoming radicalised editorial leadership of Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste, Joe Thloloe, and Thami Mazwai, among others, had found root in the hearts of many ready to flex their muscles and to change the status quo, and to give teeth to black journalism with a liberation bent, to reflect on the ugly and unjust face of apartheid.

Qoboza, as the leader of the pack and editor of The World and Weekend World, was to champion the cause, which would cause the newspapers to identify with the Struggle of the oppressed while seeking the truth.

Unhappy with the new black pride and awareness, and bolstered by the previous year’s Soweto June 16, 1976, black students’ uprisings, the system would unleash its might, using force to quell political dissent. As all these events swirled and gestated, the seeds of evil gave birth to what would result in the madness of Black Wednesday, a day on which three news publications – The World, Weekend World, and a church publication, Pro Veri tate – alongside political organisations – would be banned.

Qoboza and his deputy Klaaste were arrested.

The peoples’ organisations, including the Black People’s Convention, SA Students’ Organisation, and Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) were banned.

In an interview in 2019, Thloloe said he had been taken into custody in Howick, now in KwaZulu-Natal, and placed in complete isolation under the feared section 6 of the Terrorism Act.

Thloloe recalled as he languished in the darkness of his political cell, he didn’t know that Biko had died and that his friend and political mentor, Rob ert Sobukwe had also died, and that his brainchild with his comrades, the UBJ, no longer exist ed.

It had been banned by the cruel system of apartheid. As the country this week remembered Black Wednesday, journalism is confronted with a new set of political challenges. Are we prepared to stand for the truth? Qoboza and his fellow editors did 44 years ago.

• Mdhlela is a journalist, an Anglican priest, and former trade, unionist

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