Percy Qoboza: apartheid’s journalistic nemesis

Tanya de Vente-Bijker is a freelance journalist and executive committee member of the National Press Club which honours Qoboza annually on October 19.

The 1970s were a turbulent time. Not an easy place for a journalist in South Africa. Reporters faced the possibility of being arrested, interrogated, assaulted, even tortured. Yet many bravely continued the fight for media freedom along with the bigger fight for freedom in South Africa.

It was during this time that Percy Qoboza, as a journalist and editor, was an example of one of those who fought relentlessly for media freedom.

Percy Tseliso Peter Qoboza was born on January 17, 1938, and grew up in Sophiatown. He was only 14 when his family was forcibly removed from their home in pouring rain. Qoboza was arrested under the pass laws, before travelling to Lesotho to study theology.

Media stalwart Joe Thloloe said Qoboza worked as a clerk for the Johannesburg municipality at the Jabavu office, and because of this position he saw what was going on and started working as a freelancer for The World. According to Thloloe, he submitted such good stories that he got a job as a cadet reporter.

Qoboza moved up the ranks to news editor and was appointed editor in 1974. The following year he was chosen as a Nieman Fellow and went to the US to study at Harvard.

Former editor Denis Pather recalls that it was during this time that Qoboza realised the extent of injustice in South Africa; his son Vusi said his father’s time in the US, where he was accepted as a black man, left him shaken.

He returned to South Africa angry and Pather said this played out in The World with Qoboza saying: “We are an angry newspaper.”

The ruling National Party saw the newspaper as an enemy of the state and in December 1976 Qoboza was taken in for questioning by the police after the newspaper’s reporting on the June 16 Soweto uprising.

Qoboza was released, only to be arrested again a few months later on October 19, 1977 (41 years ago today), according to Harvey Tyson in his book Editors under Fire. On this day – which came to be known as Black Wednesday – the government shut down The World and Weekend World and banned 18 black organisations.

Thloloe describes Qoboza as an “outstanding journalist” with a very good sense of news, and a man ahead of his time. Another journalist, Mandy de Waal, describes Qoboza as having “an unrelenting, subversive style (he) would strike out against tyrants or proponents of injustice with words that cut to the bone”. His column Percy’s Post gave a voice to the unspoken masses, and continued until his death.

Vusi said there were no grey areas for his father, who hated apartheid.

Vusi remembers him as loyal and comfortable in the company of kings and commoners. He kept an open door at home, and never turned anyone away, recalls daughter Ntuli.

Vusi said Qoboza helped activists leave the country and provided safe houses for them on their way to exile. He also kept in contact with them and ensured their families back home had food to eat.

In 1980 Qoboza went to the US as editor-in-residence for the Washington Star. Thloloe said Qoboza absconded from work to do this and when they questioned him about his move he replied in a telegram to say he had gone.

Vusi believes Qoboza’s career was bolstered by apartheid; exposing the brutality of the regime brought him the world’s attention. He wrote articles for publications including the New York Times. But Vusi also accepts that one could not imagine what his father might have become had it been a different time with different opportunities.

In addition to an honorary doctorate at Tufts University, Qoboza received an honorary doctorate from the Amherst College. The International Federation of Newspaper Proprietors awarded him the Golden Pen of Freedom.

Posthumously the South African government honoured him with the The Order of Ikhamanga in 2010.