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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

A salute to the journalists dying to tell stories

While no medal is bigger than dying in the line of duty, these colleagues deserve more recognition.

In my journalism career, I have seen many guns being brandished by both apartheid-supporting security forces and members of community self-defence units (SDUs) – some towards the direction of journalists.

Among several of such encounters, was at the height of state repression in the Eastern Cape’s Zwide township in the 1980s – where weekend mass funerals of apartheid victims was like a tradition.

As if showing a middle finger to bereaved families of several people gunned down during anti-apartheid protests the previous week, security forces would pull into townships of Zwide, KwaZakhele and New Brighton on armoured vehicles in a show of strength – pointing their rifles at anyone, including journalists.

Covering mass resistance against apartheid meant braving it out face, taking notes and photographs of the protests – amid the lethal reaction from security forces in dispersing crowds.

While you would expect a press card to come in handy in the event of being confronted by either members of the SDUs or riot police on patrol – there was no smooth sailing for the media.

To fulfil the mission of telling the story, the likes of myself, Chris Qwazi and Elijah Jokazi, had to find a creative way of hiding a film or notebook – in the underwear.

Aware of the bad press generated locally and abroad by their heavy-handed reaction to protests, members of the security forces would not hesitate to confiscate a notebook and a film from a journalist’s camera.

Moving from the Eastern Cape to work in Johannesburg in the 1990s, I faced the same hostile reaction – this time from the SDUs in Evaton on the Vaal.

A trip from a Johannesburg newspaper newsroom to Evaton with driver Mr Mathe, to investigate the aftermath of a weekend bombing, nearly turned fatal for both of us.

Stepping out of a petrol bombed home, where I interviewed residents to understand what happened, a group of youths waited outside.

With Mr Mathe and myself sweating heavily, besieged by the angry mob of young people in Evaton, we had to plead for our lives.

“You guys are sellouts. Why are you here?” asked one.

“I am a journalist and Mr Mathe is the driver who has assisted me to come here and conduct interviews to establish what happened.

“I am not a sellout but a journalist – here to tell your story,” I replied, showing them my press card.

Similar to my previous experience in the Eastern Cape with security forces, my press card meant nothing.

When facing such encounter, you can only prepare yourself that death is imminent, especially when seeing AK-47 rifles being brandished.

After several minutes of pleading, it took an order from a young “commander” of the unit, emerging from a street corner, to give the mob an all-clear signal.

While relieved no one spoke to each other during the entire trip back to the office.

I think it is fitting to honour journalists who have paid with their lives, while in the line of duty.

These have included:

  • SABC reporter Calvin Thusago, who was stabbed to death by a mob of youths as he and colleague Dudley Saunders were on their way back from Sharpeville, where they had filmed the desecration of black graves by right-wing extremists.
  • Freelance photographer Abdul Shariff, who died in Katlehong on the East Rand in January 1994 after being shot, while on an assignment for the Associated Press.
  • Award-winning photojournalist Ken Oosterbroek, who died on 18 April, 1994 in Thokoza, when an SA National Peacekeeping Force opened fire during clashes.
  • Journalist Henry Nxumalo, who died on the New Year’s Eve of 1957 – murdered while investigating suspicious deaths at an abortion clinic in Sophiatown.

While no medal is bigger than dying in the line of duty, these colleagues deserve more recognition.

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