Fall 2003

Reporting in Southern Africa

A prominent white journalist revisits his reporting during apartheid and reflects on the news media’s work today.

By Wilson Wanene


One Man’s Africa
John Ryan
Jonathan Ball Publishers. 346 Pages. 14.99 Pounds.

One of the eight well-dressed men, on the last day of the seven-month trial, clenched and unclenched his fists as he and his co-accused stood, waiting for his sentence to be read. The ticking of the courtroom clock became audible for the first time as an uncomfortable silence settled in. Before anyone realized, it was being announced: life.

The scene was from Pretoria, South Africa in 1964. It was the conclusion of what came to be known as the Rivonia Trial. The man who toyed with his fists was Nelson Mandela who, with members of his African National Congress and the Communist Party, had been accused of treason and attempting to topple the state through sabotage.

The trial turned out to be a seminal event in South Africa’s history. Mandela would not be released until 1990. By then, his image had evolved into an iconic figure of resistance, as apartheid’s dismantlement got underway. Four years later, Mandela emerged as the country’s president after the first all-race election.

In John Ryan’s “One Man’s Africa,” the trial is just one of the events he recounts from his long career as a journalist, which included stints in South African newspapers such as the Sunday Chronicle, Sunday Express, Rand Daily Mail, Eastern Province Herald, and Cape Argus. Put simply, Ryan’s book demonstrates how the newspaper’s feature story can be a witness to history.

A South African and 1970 Nieman Fellow, Ryan’s account is interesting in several aspects. He covers not only his own country—from the 1960’s to the end of the 1990’s—but also Southern Africa as well, a region deeply affected by the economic and military dominance of South Africa, which was itself a unique case due to apartheid.

Reporting on Resistance Struggles

Reporting under apartheid was tricky business. Journalists were targeted for recruitment as government agents by South Africa’s notorious Bureau of State Security, which later became a part of the National Intelligence Agency. Once an agent actually presented Ryan with a briefcase in his office stuffed with hundred dollar bills, which he declined. Also, there were strict limitations placed on the press, especially during tense periods like in 1985 when marking the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 blacks were shot dead by police while trying to return their identity books that by law they had to carry with them. Newspapers had to constantly consult with lawyers to determine how to run stories. And scare tactics were employed by the police, especially towards female journalists, such as hanging dead cats on their front doors.

Also, the Police Act made it an offense for anyone to publish “any untrue matter” about the police without being fairly certain the story was true. At newspapers, the burden of proof lay with journalists. But they often relied on witnesses who feared for their safety and didn’t want to be identified. “Editing a newspaper in these circumstances,” Ryan recalls, “was like walking blindfolded through a minefield.”

Mozambique and Angola gained their independence from Portugal in 1975 only to plunge into bloody civil wars. Both governments were pro-Marxist. In each case, South Africa backed the rebel force. In Mozambique it was the brutal Mozambican National Resistance or Renamo, its Portugese acronym, while in Angola it was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola or Unita. South Africa conducted many strikes into Angola from its bases in Namibia. To assist the Angolan government in the fighting, Cuba eventually deployed 50,000 troops in the country. All of this impoverished the two countries even more as whites fled and took their skills with them. In 1975, Ryan points out, Mozambique had 3,000 doctors taking care of 10 million people. Only 300 of them remained three years later.

Zimbabwe, on the other hand, became the last British colony to be freed when it won independence in 1980, after a guerrilla war, but ethnic tensions simmered. And presently the country is in a whole different crisis after the government allowed its supporters to invade white-owned commercial farms.

Until recently, South Africa had a strange place in the popular imagination of black Africans outside the Southern Africa region. The country existed, yet it did not. This was due to the diplomatic isolation imposed on South Africa by black African nations due to its racial policies. As a result, it’s not hard to imagine how, in the pre-Internet age, the reporting of a white South African journalist would not have likely come to the attention of an African editor outside the region. His readers would more likely see reports picked up from Western foreign correspondents or the wire services.

In any case, the majority of Africans get their news from the radio. (The U.N. estimates that one of every four Africans owns a radio.) The 1976 Soweto uprising, for instance, in which thousands of black South African students  demonstrated  against being taught in Afrikaans, resulting in over 500 deaths, was major news. Africans heard of such events through their country’s state run station, the BBC, VOA, or similar radio services.

A White Journalist During Apartheid

“One Man’s Africa” therefore serves an important purpose: it conveniently compiles, in one volume, the long career of an honest journalist who operated under apartheid’s looming shadow. For an African based outside Southern Africa, it’s enlightening.

Ryan’s method is to present past stories he filed in their original form while adding context and hindsight commentary. For the South African reader, this may simply be rehashing. But for the outsider, it works quite well. Most importantly, one gets to see that even under a racially divisive system, there were newspapers and reporters calling things as they were. This is all the more striking since Ryan is a white South African. And he makes it clear, with pride, that he wasn’t alone.

The book is written in a liberal voice, but it’s different in tone—in subtle ways—from, say, the regular accounts by an American or British foreign correspondent. Ryan is a white South African. This makes him an African but not in the usual sort of way, and he puts his uniqueness to use. He has a wry humor that hints at his European ancestry. However, there’s also a slight though appealing brashness of someone who’s all too familiar with his environment.

For example, one gets an interesting peek into a world that a black journalist would find tricky to penetrate. “As a group, white Rhodesians [now Zimbabweans] could be patronising and even blindly insensitive to a degree many white South Africans would consider bad form,” he writes. “Many spoke about their domestic workers in front of them. They ignored strange blacks who performed a service for them—like porters and waiters.”

But being a white journalist also has its disadvantages. During the Soweto riots it was very risky for Ryan and his white colleagues to enter black townships where the action was. Instead, his newspaper group relied on novice black journalists it recruited who, in turn, performed beyond expectations. Sadly, though, they could not be given bylines, for to do so would be to endanger them.

Much of what Ryan reports is gloomy. By 1989, for instance, 600,000 Mozambicans had perished due to the civil war, which finally ended in 1992. Of these, 380,000 were children. (The country has a population of 18 million.) These deaths, he points out, amounted to 15 times the number of Americans killed in Vietnam. In Angola, the civil war pretty much continued from independence until last year, when hope for peace became more realistic following the killing of Jonas Savimbi, leader of Unita, the rebel force.

In this strife-torn nation, Ryan had a haunting interaction in 1989 with nine-year-old Miguel Isisho Lungi. Two years before, the boy had stepped out of his parents’ hut at night to relieve himself. Unfortunately, he walked over a Unita land mine that blew off his right leg below the knee. Ryan writes: “‘That thing wasn’t there in the afternoon,’ Miguel says reprovingly. ‘Why did they put it there? I think it’s bad, what they did.’”

There are also many interesting encounters and anecdotes in the book. And some of the descriptions are surprising, such as the active bullfighting business that once existed in Lourenco Marques, or Maputo, as the capital of Mozambique is now known. Reading about Angola and Mozambique is a refreshing departure, since Portuguese colonialism isn’t as well known in the English-speaking world as British and French colonialism. Lisbon, in dealing with its five African colonies—which also included Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe—wasn’t overly concerned with stipulating social relations between blacks and whites. Instead, the focus was on exploiting them as protected markets for its goods and their products, such as Mozambican sugar and cotton, which were imported into Portugal at prices set much below market price.

South Africa’s Press Today

As interesting as the book is, a few suggestions could improve later editions. Its publisher is based in South Africa. Either by design or not, it has the general feel of an account prepared for an audience already familiar with the geography and basic political terrain of Southern Africa. “One Man’s Africa” could use an index. A map of Southern Africa would not hurt. It could also contain a short chronology of major political events of the region. Such features would assist readers from outside the region.

The book is not just about events taking place in this region, but it also has a lot to say about the craft of journalism in South Africa: the risks or rewards of leaving one newspaper for another, salary worries, the importance of having a courageous editor heading the newsroom, and so on. By the time of Ryan’s retirement in 1999 he is clearly concerned about what he views as cases of government interference with the press, which smack of the experience during the previous oppressive apartheid era. But now it’s happening in the new, nonracial South Africa.

He is also worried that affirmative action in the newsroom is getting out of hand. Too many blacks and mixed-race South Africans, he states, are being promoted to editorial positions that require more experience than they have, while senior white editors are being pushed to take early retirement. But Ryan regards these problems as temporary setbacks in a nation that for so long deprived so many of its people of so much.

This book deserves a wider audience. Hopefully, more such books will come out to shed light to the outside world on how journalists managed to carry out their work despite the burden of apartheid.

Wilson Wanene is a Kenyan-born freelance journalist based in Boston.


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