In Mbombela, Mpumalanga’s capital, speaking out against corruption can be deadly. In this small subtropical city, networks of political graft and cronyism ensure that few are held to account, and intimidation and assassinations are regular occurrences. In fact, apparently every January since 2008, activists and politicians in this region have been murdered, mysteriously and regularly.
In this environment, one of the country’s most fiercely independent little newspapers is fighting to gain ad spend and keep reporting on the corruption – and the good news too. Ziwaphi’s publisher and founder Tom Nkosi is the man behind the paper, and behind some of the most important developments in community media in post-apartheid South Africa.
When Ziwaphi was launched, six years ago – on the auspicious date of Friday 13 April 2007 – it was intended to cover developmental issues in the province. “But there was corruption… Stories were being lost, not being reported, so I decided to focus on these stories. We became very popular and people started feeding us with stories… We developed lots of followers – and lots of enemies!” says Nkosi.
Ziwaphi, which is published once every two weeks, shares offices in central Mbombela with African Eye News Service (AENS). Nkosi is no ordinary publisher: he also takes photographs, writes articles, edits copy and lays out the newspaper. He employs three reporters full-time and two others on a freelance basis, and supplements the content with stories from AENS. Nkosi is very grateful to the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), which helped get Ziwaphi on its feet and secure advertising.
Nkosi has never wavered from his mission to uphold the newspaper’s tagline – ‘Uncolonised’. Despite risking government advertising, Ziwaphi’s lifeblood; despite the fact that the newspaper has possibly cost him a job; and despite Nkosi receiving constant death threats, Ziwaphi has never missed an issue. It must take guts, but Nkosi doesn’t believe he has any qualities out of the ordinary. “I believe human beings inherently have integrity,” he says. When it comes to the death threats he is matter of fact. “I’m not scared. I always say I’ve faced a bigger enemy. I won’t be quiet.”
That ‘bigger enemy’ was the apartheid machinery. Pitting himself against it as a young struggle activist taught him resilience and optimism, he says. Nkosi was born in 1966 and grew up near Belfast, Mpumalanga. He went to high school in Pretoria, but didn’t get his matric and spent 1985 looking fruitlessly for work. “In 1986, I decided, you know what, I’m not going to get a job. I decided to involve myself in the struggle.”
As an activist and a member of the then-banned ANC, Nkosi faced repeated detentions and became adept at avoiding arrest. He suffered, though, from torture and beatings and harassment. He and his comrades discovered the power of hunger strikes, which would force the authorities to move them from prison to hospital. During these strikes, which could last up to 10 days, they ate Aquafresh toothpaste for the little sustenance it gave. Nkosi was never convicted of any of the charges laid against him, even when police once planted dagga in his cell.
Nkosi found it too difficult to stay in Mpumalanga, or the Eastern Transvaal as it was then, during the four-year-long state of emergency. He came to Johannesburg in 1987, where he got a job as an activist with the South African Council of Churches. His work included supporting exiles’ families and motivating for political death row prisoners to get prisoner of war status. In 1990 he was made redundant and returned to the then-Eastern Transvaal where his initial interest in the media was sparked. The United Democratic Front took him and other young activists to a farm where, he says, “we trained in the production of media. We were using these old methods, you know, stencils, even potatoes to cut out the letters”. They made anti-apartheid propaganda, producing posters and flyers.
Later while living in Johannesburg again, Nkosi received more professional media training with The Other Press Service (Tops). City Press journalists Chris Vick (now a media strategist) and David Niddrie (now Southern Africa Report publisher) started Tops as a sideline when Naspers bought the newspaper. They were concerned that the news would be censored and wanted a platform from which to publish alternative news. At Tops, Nkosi trained in desktop publishing and news generation, and helped put out a monthly newsletter, The Other Newsletter. He and fellow trainees would produce literature for the ANC and the Communist Party and were mentored by leading activists like Ronnie Kasrils, Gill Marcus and Pallo Jordan.
When the ANC came to power in 1994, Nkosi was selected to be part of the team that set up the government of the first premier of Mpumalanga, Mathews Phosa. He also helped transform the government communications sector. “The structures of communication that government is currently using are those we conceptualised,” he says proudly. Nkosi was involved in the Communications Task Team, which made certain recommendations to government. One of these recommendations was that the MDDA be formed. Nkosi didn’t know then that one day he would find this body so helpful for his own endeavours. He worked in various structures of government, including as chief of staff to the speaker of the legislature, until 2007 when he left for the private sector.
At that stage, Nkosi was adviser to Mpumalanga economic affairs minister, William Lubisi, and, he says, was becoming a “stumbling block” to people trying to involve Lubisi in unprocedural practices. The last straw came when Nkosi was working on the appointment of the board of a parastatal and tried to prevent other stakeholders from acting against protocol. “The authorities wanted it done a particular way and I wouldn’t let them,” he says. “There were repercussions.” Nkosi’s salary was docked for a technicality over unauthorised leave, a move Nkosi says was clearly harassment. “When I tried to explain to (Lubisi), he wouldn’t defend me, so I decided I was not wanted there.” Nkosi became communications manager at a large sugar producer. By this time he had started Ziwaphi.
He was dismissed from the sugar manufacturer in 2010, and believes this is partly because of Ziwaphi. The fact that he had a newspaper that was “attacking the government” came up at his disciplinary hearing. And he has it on good authority that a certain high-ranking government official congratulated the sugar company on getting rid of a troublemaker.
Nkosi has also been suspended from the ANC, again for protesting that decisions were not being made according to proper procedure. Given the corruption that Ziwaphi has uncovered and his suspension, it is perhaps surprising that he still believes in the party. He says, “We need to make the ANC what it was. What will we tell our children? When we were young we could not understand how our parents let apartheid happen. Our kids will say, ‘How did you allow the glorious movement to deteriorate? Because you just gave up?’”
Ziwaphi has had many a scoop. It has covered corruption that goes up to the very highest levels of provincial government and local business. A particular story that stands out for Nkosi was about an abattoir that took 10 years and R11 million to build, with the tenders for compliance and construction going to cronies of the Agriculture department.
Ziwaphi relies on government advertising and Nkosi says there are many brave and loyal government advertisers who realise that exposés of corruption are not the same as attacking the ANC or the government. Ziwaphi is accredited under the Audit Bureau of Circulations Grassroots, which covers the community press. It boast 20 000 readers, many of whom are in influential government and business positions and in high places in opposition parties. However, the newspaper does struggle to attract private sector advertising, due mainly to its relative geographical isolation.
“The media agencies are based in Johannesburg. And local businesses only want to advertise in school newspapers… but there have been some rather interesting developments from the MDDA. It has tried to get agencies to understand our sector. The MDDA has been very helpful in this area, because this is where we are struggling. This is good because sustaining community media is a big challenge. Before the recession, we were one of 40 titles (in Mpumalanga). Now there are about 20. We were one of the few that survived the recession.”
And the future of Ziwaphi? Nkosi intends to grow the paper as much as possible and even venture properly into the digital space. But he says he will remain true to his vision and stay uncolonised.