Veteran journalist Dr Thami Mazwai was honoured with glowing tributes from fellow contemporaries at a recent luncheon held in his honour at the SAB World of Beer Heritage Centre in Johannesburg September 12.
Boasting a sterling journalism career spanning more than 40 years, Mazwai has been recognizable figure and a leading light in the South African media industry, local political landscape as well as an outspoken proponent of black empowerment (BE).
An array of celebrated black journalists lined up to bestow praises on Mazwai at the event, whose highlight was a decision to publish a book chronicling the stalwart’s illustrious career and other aspects of life as media activist and BE campaigner.
Welcoming guests, former City Press political editor Sello Sekola paid tribute to the father of Black Consciousness philosophy Steve Biko as well as media personalities and journalists who recently went the way of flesh – such as former City Press and Sowetan senior journalist Mike Ndlazi, former World and Weekend World and Rand Mail journalist maSophie Tema and Elizabeth Manana Ndulula, long-time editorial secretary at World, Post Transvaal and Sowetan.
Mazwai-lifetime friend and veteran journalist Joe Thloloe told the gathering that their association stretched to more than 50 years ago. Heremembered recruiting students for the Pan Africanist Congress those days, including explaining to Mazwai what Pan African stood for in the context of South African politics and persuading him to join the liberation struggle.
Mazwai’s career as a journalist started 1969, having joined the Golden City Post as a cub reporter at the time. He had been expelled from the University College of Fort Hare the previous year. He was detained in June 1981 for interviewing one of the June 1976 student leaders Khotso Seatlholo, after which he refused to give evidence and was sent to jail for 18 months - in addition to the eight months already spent in detention.
He is the former news editor of Post and later Sowetan, where he also served as Day Editor. He holds an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University.
Other achievements include also being the owner of the defunct Enterprise magazine; former director of small business at the Univesity of Johannesburg and current resident executive at Wits Business School.
Thloloe, who went to prison for his political activities in 1963, recalls: "I came back from prison as a member of PAC ‘s Viljoenskroon branch. Mazwai came back also come back from Robben Island as a journalist. Our life after these experiences was to enrich sheeben queens. I drank just a bit. And Thami had the same problem.”
Of course, drinking “just a bit” was a real understatement, considering how journalists of the time lived for the bottle and often starting their mornings almost goofy-eyed. Hardly surprising then that both Thloloe and Mazwai launched their working careers right at the source of their drinking troubles – at the liquor store.
Both would inevitably report for duty barely sober and much less leave work in steady feet.
"From working for the municipality-owned bottle store, we went on to become Data Capturers, and we both stopped drinking. Both later joined The World and Weekend World, and got involved in the activities of the Union of Black Journalists. It is very sad to see the Media Workers Association of South Africa in the state it is now.
"We became targets of the system. We were detained and tortured, and even today Mazwai is still in the forefront of that struggle of fighting for the black community. He has being invited as a visiting professor for the University of the Western Cape. He is still a brother to us and the black community,” Thloloe summed up their parallel lives with nostalgia.
Former City Press Mathatha Tsedu said he came from the then Northern Transvaal, now Limpopo province, reporting first for Post Transvaal and later Sowetan under news editor Mazwai . Tsedu said the late Ndulula served as a link between Mazwai and the newsroom at both papers. He said Ndulula, a highly competent and empathic Dictaphonist, was a great and ever-reliable help to journalist who filed from outlying areas as she would step in to help with timely grammatical corrections during phone-in sessions.
“I worked with Bra Thami in two ways, both as reporter and as a fellow union activist at the Writers Association of South Africa. He came to lunch at a union branch in Limpopo. The lunch happened at Dan Langa's house. Thami became the treasurer of the union, and there was no holy cows during his stint. The union used different means to access funds from the International Federation of Journalists.
"The apartheid police banned meetings of WASA. Bra Thami was very strict and would always question the role of liberals in the struggle. I remember this very well. Mike Tissong was around that time in those meetings. When Bra Thami wanted a story, you just had to deliver. I remember the day Mosibudi Mangena being released from prison. At the time, the release of a political activist from prison was a big story. Thami wanted the story of Mangena’s release to be written as soon as possible to ensure that Sowetan was not scooped by other newspapers."
Tsedu recalled Mazwai saying that he had messed-up his front page after he(Mathatha) was briefly detained and released the same day. Mazwai fought for his salary to be paid while he was banned and in detention. Mazwai was indeed at the forefront of the battles of black journalism.
Journalist-turned-entrepreneur Morakile Shuenyane said one undeniable thing about Mazwai was that “he is a man of essence”. He said there were two factors which nurtured Mazwai's life: "It is who you are born. That is used to shape someone’s essence and the case of many people.”
Shuenyane said the other key element was audacity, Mazwai was no doubt courageous. “ I remember the days of the World newspaper when Thami used to say that he is writing a front-page story and nobody in the newsroom would beat him for the cover of the front page. He would boast that I am the man! Thami was first a Black man, second a journalist."
Shuenyane praised Mazwai for changing Sawubona to a publication of black business. He added that even Enterprise Magazine, a business publication once owned by Mazwa, pushed the black agenda. According to Shuenyane, Enterprise magazine was a black project and championed the agenda of black community in business.
Bokwe Mafuna, founder of the Union of Black Journalists who also worked at the now-defunct Rand Daily Mail, said he was happy to speak at the occasion to honour Mazwai. He said the Mazwai event was an opportunity to focus on the development of journalism in South Africa. He urged fellow journalists to follow the example of stalwarts like PQ(Percy Qoboza).
Mafuna said he came from Mahikeng to join the Rand Daily Mail. He said he was a migrant worker, selling sweets on the trains before joining trade unionism. He said was not educated and did not even have JC (Grade 10).
"I said I am coming in. It is good that today we are able to express the pain that we are feeling. I did not know the Afrikaans language and Ike Segola helped me to do court reporting in the Rand Daily Mail. We were all separated in some little cluster. I was James Mafuna and changed to Bokwe because of the Black Consciousness Philosophy."
Mafuna remembers how his picture won an award, but it was not credited to him but to someone else. "I could not do anything. It was the apartheid system in the newspapers. The police would ask for pass book. We were not registered at the Rand Daily Mail. It was a situation that made us look different from other journalists. We realized that there was a need to be organized and ours was a political struggle.
"The thinking and feeling behind the Union of Black Journalist came as a result. We need to record our our history. Black journalists need to record this rich history of the struggle for the next generation; the richness of our experience in this country. We are creating history. I worked on radio overseas. I have been taking pictures. Malcom X said we must learn from the Devil. The problem with us, black people, is that we don’t record these things. We still need to catch-up. I took pictures of Steve Biko and worked with him but I don’t have these pictures today. We should be on each other’s shoulder to progress as black people."
Joe Mdhlela, former journalist who worked with Mazwai on the Sowetan, said there were many things he had learned from Mazwai. In his time, Mazwai worked very hard, and even now he was still the same workhorse. Mdhlela said he still regarded Mazwai as a first-rate journalist.
"We need this hard tough master. Yes, it is almost difficult to please everybody all the time. Mazwai is a compassionate person. He is a thread of good journalism; a hard taskmaster. He expected others to be self-driving. He always initiated the breaking of good stories. He was a leader. He showed the country that every black child is capable of becoming anything he wants to be despite difficulties."
Former business-journalist-and –newspaper-executive Mzimkhulu Malunga said thanked Mazwai for where he was today in life. He knew Mazwai since 1989 when he hired him at the Sowetan as a business journalist.
Willy Bokala, former World journalist and Sowetan news editor, said he got into the newspaper through the back door. He said the then World sports editor Leslie Sehume had asked him to report on local football in White City before PQ intervened and asked him to join the newsroom as news reporter instead. Before that, he was worked as Telex operator. He said Mazwai trusted as he sent him to dangerous assignments like the June 1976 upsurge.
Len Kalane said he implemented to good effect what Mazwai taught him in journalism. He said he knew Mazwai for 42 years. Mazwai was the chief reporter the first time he met him at the World.
Mazwai knew how to write good stories, Kalane said. He hoped that South Africa would remember the role Mazwai played in journalism. He was a tough master and the best-ever news editor in the country.
Professor Sipho Seepe said Mazwai re-invented himself from being a journalist to a business person, intellectual and scholar. Seepe said Mazwai and his colleagues looked at South Africa through through the prism of blackness.
Gabu Tugwana, also a veteran sports journalist and one the former editors of the defunct New Nation, said he joined journalism through Mazwai, who had played an important role in his life.
"I am here because of bra Thami. I want to take this opportunity to thank you."
Mazwai’s protégé Len Maseko gave a book to Mazwai as gift in gratitude for recruiting him as a 21-year-old – his first job – back in 1980 on the Post Transvaal.
The event was organised by a group of Independent veteran journalists with the kind sponsorship of the SAB World of Beer Heritage.