The formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) Ã¢Â€Â“ which turns 25 in August Ã¢Â€Â“ was a defining moment not only in the politics of the country, but in how journalists would be perceived by the communities and political activists.
When 1976 exploded, the mainstream media Ã¢Â€Â“ white-owned and staffed Ã¢Â€Â“ were caught unawares, just like the rest of the country. In a desperate bid to understand what was really happening in Soweto, they had to speedily hire black journalists who could, in the first place, enter the huge metropole and blend in easily and who, secondly, could speak the languages of Soweto and therefore understand the nuances of the story as it unfolded.
But even after taking great risks to cover Soweto, back in the newsrooms they were treated as poor, inferior cousins to their white counterparts. This persisted for a long time. With the formation of the UDF, which sprung the non-racial fervour upon the country, this was about to change.
The UDF made activism and community involvement meaningful and practical. It made activism Ã¢Â€Â“ at whatever level Ã¢Â€Â“ necessary. UDF activities, as in the aftermath of the 1976 uprising, catapulted black journalists into a position of importance. In today’s language, the UDF succeeded in getting black journalists embedded in its activities. Journalists were important to the communities because they communicated the travails of the common man, but they were equally important to their employers because they understood the Big Story intimately.
In addition to highlighting the importance of black journalists, the UDF, by its non-racial nature, managed to insinuate itself not only into what was called the “alternative press”, but they were equally successful with the so-called mainstream media.
Even those journalists who resented the UDF’s connection to the ANC Ã¢Â€Â“ which was called a terrorist organisation Ã¢Â€Â“ found themselves drawn towards the affable personalities associated with the UDF.
What the UDF stood for was the destruction of apartheid and a new political realignment that spoke directly to the hearts of millions of South Africans across the political spectrum who were crying out for change.
Journalists who, by nature, are catalysts to societal change, couldn’t therefore swim against the flow. They became guerrillas of sorts in the fight against apartheid. Many did keep the expected “safe” distance from the sources, but circumstances dictated which way the river flowed. Apartheid could no longer be explained away.
Now, 14 years into our democracy, we have been praised all over the world for having a very vibrant and robust press. Ironically, however, those now in power Ã¢Â€Â“ the former activists who shared figurative trenches with members of the press in the fight for press freedom and other freedoms that are at the core of any democracy Ã¢Â€Â“ are at loggerheads with the press.
Threats to pull government advertising from newspapers as punishment for their reports critical of government are the tip of this worrisome iceberg. Outpourings of scorn against the media have become a pastime for many of those in power.
It’s generally said that relations between the government of the day and the media should be adversarial but conciliatory; but what we are seeing daily is sheer animosity towards the press Ã¢Â€Â“ and you get the sense that if some public figures had their way, some newspapers would simply be shut down.
As we commemorate the vibrancy of the UDF and the freedoms that it helped secure for this nation, we have to rededicate ourselves to those values that were at the core of the struggle, the freedoms in whose pursuit we were once united.
What happened to that unity, that commonality of purpose? Did it go away with the UDF, or has power corrupted the former freedom fighters into despots in the making?
!_LT_EMFred Khumalo is a!_LT_/EM Sunday Times!_LT_EM columnist and award-winning novelist.!_LT_/EM
This column first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008 edition).