I feel honoured and humbled to have been given the opportunity to share in the historic 175th anniversary of The Witness.
Over its long journey, The Witness has successfully captured the readers of Pietermaritzburg and its surrounding areas and has become an essential part of homes, institutions, businesses and communities.
The benefit and significance of reading newspapers like The Witness extends far beyond imagination. Besides adverts, entertainment and news articles; editors, reporters, opinion makers, analysts and even letter writers offer write ups on different issues.
In a rapidly changing and evolving world, and with the increase in the use of social-media platforms to transmit information and even hearsay; the need for trusted, well-written and well-balanced news articles are not only crucial but also helps readers to unpack news.
It is also a good way to get to the reader who seldom ventures beyond their personal spaces. A responsible journalist will cast reporting in a direction that presents news stories from different angles answering the who, what, why, when and where questions so readers can extract their own balanced perspectives, draw conclusions or can even change readers prejudices.
I was born at the old Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg and grew up in Richmond during the peak years of apartheid. The education system at that time reflected the government’s discriminatory way of life — segregation based on colour and race. I went to an all-Indian school; I lived in an all-Indian neighbourhood. The apartheid regime, for example, funded separate libraries for non-whites and whites. During my primary schooling years, as an Indian, I could not visit the local library as it was mainly reserved for whites. For non-whites at that time in Richmond, there was no library and this made learning difficult.
In primary school our teacher asked us to read a daily newspaper to improve our English and general knowledge. Being a second-generation South African in a household where the main language was the vernacular, The Natal Witness (colonial name) went a long way towards the improvement of my English. With no exposure to libraries under the apartheid system, The Witness filled the void of not being able to borrow books from a library.
Back then and even currently, The Witness is the main newspaper that is read in our household. I come from a family of avid newspaper readers. Both my late parents were news followers and would read every page of the newspaper. My late mother who, due to patriarchal and cultural norms hardly went to school, improved her English just by reading the daily newspaper.
Ever since I was a young kid, I also remember my mother doing the daily crossword puzzle. After her death, in her cupboard we found an album of all the articles that she found interesting in The Witness.
Similarly, my late father had an interest in company shares. Besides studying the daily business adverts in The Witness in order to purchase stock for his general dealer farm shop, he read vastly well beyond his business interests and would daily study the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in The Witness. Right until his recent death due to the Covid-19 virus, he would study the markets.
My main interaction with newspapers such as The Witness was reading for news, general knowledge and casual reading until 2003. In March 2003, the American army invaded Iraq, a sovereign country, to destroy so called weapons of mass destruction. At that time the mass media was very hostile towards Islam and Muslims. A friend of mine, Yusuf Haffejee, the elder brother of Hoosen Haffejjee, approached me and requested that I should respond to the many untruths, distortions and negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims being published in the newspapers. On his advice, I wrote my first letter, under a pseudonym, to The Witness, hardly expecting it to be published. I wrote under a pseudonym as to not attract any reprisal from law authorities. I must confess that I was really surprised when it was published. Most editors those days were very reluctant to publish anything “outside the box” or critical of governments.
However, the editor of The Witness was an exception and went against the grain. I recall some interesting discussions with local and international letter writers on the 911 terror attacks, Osama bin Laden and Al- Qaeda, former U.S. president George Bush’s “war on terror”, the burka ban in France, and my cherished topic, the liberation of Palestine, among many other debates. Many who read the letters in The Witness express their interest and support.
Whether we like to admit it or not the media directly affects our lives, it influences our thinking, opinions and it penetrates our subconscious — we are all affected by the media. I have a very high regard for The Witness as it always published articles on truth and justice, especially during the repressive years of the nationalist rule. Newspapers like The Witness play an important role in the survival of communities, as they add value to life and knowledge.
Mabrook (congratulations) on the 175th anniversary of truly wonderful accomplishments of having been part of so many generations throughout the years. Best wishes for the future!
• Mohamed Saeed is a teacher, religious leader and Witness letter writer.