Eastern Cape media expert Gavin Stewart looks back on a fascinating history that coloured the province’s media and kept it in the headlines.
Terry Briceland, former proprietor of the Daily Dispatch, once told South Africa’s bullying Prime Minister John Vorster: “Jimmy Kruger has lost control of the security police in the Eastern Cape. Wild cards in the security police have taken power to themselves.”
Briceland secured the interview with Vorster after the banning of Dispatch editor Donald Woods in the crackdown of 19 October 1977. The World and Weekend World had been banned and hundreds of people had been detained. A dedicated opponent of apartheid, Woods had become known around the world after the brutal death of Steve Biko in security police custody.
Briceland’s interview with Vorster marks the most notorious episode in Eastern Cape media history – events that made headlines around the world. But this episode also encapsulates centuries of conflict between advancing settlers and pastoralists, disruptive modernism and settled tradition. The aftermath of these conflicts continues to produce headlines and capture awards for enterprising journalists. George Bizos, defence advocate in more political trials than anyone could remember, regarded the Eastern Cape security police as the harshest in the country; the sentences handed down by the province’s magistrates in political trials were among the toughest.
Says Briceland: “Against the security police, we were powerless: our post was opened, our phones were bugged, but we invented a security policeman’s wife (he was very bad) who was sexually kind to us, acrobatic and insatiable. Discussing her on the phone (all imaginative) meant the security police were very aware. She ended up with a black eye from her thug of a husband. Childish, but there were so few ways to fight back.”
The security forces included the military as well as the police, and business was willingly drawn into local security management committees. Banning and arrest were not the harshest of their remedies. For her investigations into third force activities in this province, Louise Flanagan won the Ruth First Award for courageous journalism in 1995.
Why the Eastern Cape? Tradition and modernity meet, abrasively, in all developing countries, do they not? Complex, layered conflicts happen everywhere; politicians always appeal to local, emotional loyalties.
Many of the earliest shipwrecks in the search for India and the first, often violent meetings between African and European happened here. Geography, climate, history and politics contrive to keep the province in the headlines.
South African author Noel Mostert chose the Frontier of the Eastern Cape as the fulcrum of his history of expansion and dispossession on the southern end of the African Continent. What were known as the nine Frontier Wars are now often referred to as the 100 Years War of Dispossession, from 1779 to 1879.
The Eastern Province Herald and Daily Dispatch of those years resounded with reports of frontier battles, clarion calls to arms, offers of military posts for those with and without horses, different levels of payment for different regiments.
First-class education and second-class citizenship are certain chemistry for political conflict. And conflict is the hunting ground of political police.
For generations the Eastern Cape produced articulate voices of liberation and generations of security policemen trying to silence them.
One phalanx of leadership went into exile or into prison; another phalanx was murdered, poisoned or disappeared; another made up much of the first parliament and cabinet of democratic South Africa; another took the top civil service posts. With the premier players now gone, the Eastern Cape sometimes seems to be running
The first independent black newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, was published in Alice. Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown is the oldest surviving title in the South Africa. The Evening Post in Port Elizabeth, remarkably, was the first newspaper in the country to grant to all people the courtesy titles of Miss, Mr and Mrs, now little used in the mainstream media. It was also the first to drop “native” in favour of “African”, tiny gains by the standards of today, but significant achievements at the time.
Today ‘border’ still describes the rough line of conflict between advancing settlers and settled people – a swathe of land from East London through King William’s Town, Queenstown, Stutterheim and Aliwal North. The names tell the history.
The same buffer of land and the apartheid policy of rule by division separated Transkei and Ciskei. The Transkei was cut off from the prospering Witwatersrand by the Drakensberg mountains and the independent kingdom of Lesotho, and distanced from the world by a notorious coast and formidable topography.
For Dr Hendrik Verwoerd’s grand plan of ‘separate development’, the Transkei was the ideal candidate – a reservoir of labourers who would never be citizens of South Africa. The excision began in earnest with the Transkei Constitution Act of 1963 and, for the next
30 years, the Transkei was to be South Africa’s ward – nominally independent, but financially dependent on the parent. It existed in a curious limbo, included out of South Africa.
Traditional leaders made up the majority in parliament and their lifestyles depended on government beneficence, as they do today. Under the Matanzimas and Stella Sigcau, the Transkei developed an unenviable reputation for corruption at all levels. Bantu Holomisa’s 1987 coup changed the leadership, cleaned the house to some extent, but left a civil service in decay.
The Ciskei and several other homelands around South Africa were given the same ‘homeland’ status and nominal independence, the traditional leaders being suitably mollified in all cases, the classic formula of rule by seduction.
With a legacy of underdevelopment, political office and government employment are among the very few economic opportunities. To get them, political connection is frequently more important than qualification, experience or ability, helped on by insistence on equity.
While the political battle is being fought on one front, other life-and-death battles are being fought on other fronts.
Circumcision, in spite of ever-increasing provincial law-making, defies both law and tradition in the unwashed hands of commercial ‘surgeons’. Every July and December are marked by the maiming or death of dozens of young initiates, the yearning to be ‘men’ overwhelming all concerns for safety. Every summer brings ferocious thunderstorms, lightning deaths, divining of the ‘guilty’ and the murder of an old woman with her grandchildren.
In its modern gear, the Eastern Cape boasts three of the five most dangerous roads in the country: Mthatha to East London is the most dangerous; Mthatha to Kokstad is second, and Mthatha to Queenstown is also there. The roads are, in truth, not that bad and parts are excellent; many drivers are anarchic, with no regard for speed limits, weights, white lines or living things, including themselves. Thinly disguised solicitations from traffic police are commonplace. At the opposite extreme, the province has three state-of-the-century motorcar plants, exporting vehicles around the world: Volkswagen and General Motors at the Port Elizabeth end of the province; Mercedes-Benz in East London. It also has a state-of-the-art port at Coega, an essential gateway to the country’s growing container traffic.
Reporting the turbulence has seen Eastern Cape journalists win a plethora of reporting and photographic awards. For example, Gary Horlor’s picture of the sinking Oceanos was voted one of 100 photographs of the 20th century, one of more than 150 shipwrecks on this coast. Dawn Barkhuizen, leader page editor of the Dispatch and organiser of the Dispatch Dialogues, credits Andrew Trench for the award-winning quality of journalism on the newspaper, particularly its investigative work. A former reporter at the Dispatch, who spent time at the Sunday Times, Trench was brought back under Phylicia Oppelt as deputy editor.
“He had the ability to see stories in ordinary things and he trained the reporters to develop them. These were not depth investigations with confidential documents. They were there to be found – the baby deaths at Frere Hospital, slumlords in East London and King William’s Town, xenophobic attacks on foreigners.”
Trench went on to be editor of the Dispatch before he was persuaded to join Media24 as investigations editor, with visible results in City Press and Rapport, Die Burger and Beeld.
The Herald so irritated former Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Mayor Nceba Faku with exposés of corruption before the last municipal election that he called on his followers to burn down the newspaper.
Recent reporting awards have been given for reports on crumbling state healthcare, circumcision rites, collapsing state healthcare, forced removals from an informal settlement, education and mud schools.
The province, which once hosted the finest schools in the country, now has the worst matric results of all. Hospitals that once attracted more doctors than they could employ are now chronically understaffed. Rural clinics exist, in many cases, only as buildings. The provincial government is threatening to place both its metropolitan municipalities — Nelson Mandela (Port Elizabeth) and Buffalo City (East London) — under administration, along with several lesser municipalities.
The Eastern Cape is well served by its newspapers and it continues to generate more than its share of news, but it is not all good.
Gavin Stewart is a former editor of The Daily Dispatch.
This story was first published in the February 2013 issue of The Media magazine.