Last week I’ve spoken about the world celebrating September 9 as International Literacy Day and how passionate I am about it. Although a culture of reading goes back to my upbringing in a Hammanskraal rural village where there were no entertainment amenities, I actually became familiar with the day in 1988 when I started my working career as a journalist at Learn & Teach Publications in the golden city of Johannesburg. I think the universe made it possible for me to join this anti-apartheid outfit.
After I was released from a thirteen months detention-without-trial under the the draconian State of Emergency – which disrupted my final fourth-year university education studies at the then University of the North, and the institution refusing to readmit me and one of the other three fellow comrades released – I returned home and since it was in April, I had to look for a job. It couldn’t be teaching as, unbeknown to me though not expected, I was blacklisted by the then Bophuthatswana bantustan that warned the high schools in early 1987 around Hammanskraal not to accept my application for temporary teaching as I “was going to politicise the learners”. The mistake they made was to introduce the “troublemaker” to schools as Kgomotso Molobi. And when I went to speak to Rev Emmanuel Motolla about doing teaching practice at his school, Dilopye’s Ntsoane High School, he was impressed by the enthusiasm and knowledgeable young fellow who introduced himself as Saul Molobi. I was excited and even did the unthinkable: I went to the hair salon over the weekend to perm the unkept bush on my head – which was a defiant political statement then.
*** I was with Kenny Makgaga (left), Alex Mashiane (middle) and Thabo Makete (behind Alex): AZASO activists at Turfloop in 1985 ***
So on Monday I became a formal student teacher. On Wednesday as I was teaching, I saw a police van driving into the school yard towards the administration block. I became apprehensive. There were two police officers inside. Fortunately as Hammanskraal is hot, all the classroom windows were opened. I politely asked one student to close the door. I continued teaching my English literature class as if nothing bothered me but my eyes kept on looking at the administration block’s side. I was ready to jump out of the window if the door was to be opened.
I was relieved when I saw the van driving out. I felt very relieved. I then continued to give a political analysis of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending wall” – looking at the wall that apartheid tyranny had built across the races and how our struggle was meant to mend it. My learners loved the refreshing interpretation.
Going back to the staff room, I gathered an aura of uneasiness among the teachers. But I chose to ignore it thinking maybe I was just overreacting. Before I could leave for home, Rev Motolla invited me into his office. This told me I wasn’t wrong about the teachers’ reaction. He politely said to me: “I have just signed all your university forms confirming that you did your full month-long practicals here because we both know it’s safe for both of us that you no longer come to my school from tomorrow. I have post-dated them…”
Before I could ask him anything, he retorted: “Why didn’t you tell me you were Kgomotso?” Before I could explain, he chipped in. “My son, go home and be safe. God bless you.”
Indeed he gave me all my forms post-dated. I went into the staff room, grabbed my bag, and said my goodbye to the teachers who were there.
I was happy that I was going to save the money I was meant to use for the bus fair. I was also going to spend time with my friends at home before the university reopened.
This is what made me realise there was no way I could find a teaching job in the bantustan.
So I visited our not-so-distant neighbour, Mme Johanna Malete, who worked at the official residence of the American Ambassador as a cleaner, she used to bring many old newspapers at home. By the way, the newspapers and Telkom Directory books were used by the villagers as tissue paper in their pit latrines. So I asked her for all the newspapers for the past three months. I was going to do two things with them: to read them to catch up on what has been happening in the country as we were only allowed to read the bible in detention and non-political books from the prison library; and to look for advertised jobs I could apply for.
I applied for over 100 jobs, went to Temba post office which was about 10 kilometres from my village to go post the letters. I was just trying my luck because all the closing dates had passed. A few weeks later I received a letter of regret from an independent newspaper, Saamstaan. First week of July I got a telegram from Learn and Teach Publications indicating I should call them to arrange a date to come to Johannesburg for an interview. I didn’t sleep that day, anxious.
In the morning I caught a taxi to go to Pretoria where there were public phones in the streets. I called the Deputy Editor, Simon Ngomane. I made an appointment for the next morning.
This was my third trip to Johannesburg in my entire life. I first went to visit my eldest sister, Alice, in 1984 January after receiving my matric results, informing her I needed support as I wanted to go to university. The second was when I served in the University Student Representative Council’s Central Cultural Committee in 1986 when we were going to buy entertainment equipment.
So I invited my cousin, Setlhong Lebudi, to accompany me to Johannesburg. We arrived earlier and went to my sister’s office to have coffee. Then proceeded to Learn and Teach Publications’ office after getting directions from my sister who knew the city in and out as she worked as her company’s messenger.
I was impressed by the protest posters that were put on their walls. These were brave comrades, I thought. There were books and magazines all over. I was received by Simon, who then invited Marc “Sutts” Suttner, the Editor, and Teboho “sis Tebs” Maitse, the office manager, to interview me.
They then decided to give me cash for me to use for travelling as I had to write two feature articles in Hammanskraal, submit them, and they were then to make a decision whether to appoint me. I had suggested to cover the workers’ strike in Babelegi – an industrial area in Hammanskraal. This was the first ever strike in Babelegi as trade unionism was banned in Bophuthatswana. I also suggested to profile a famous shoemaker, nicknamed “Shumi”, in my village. His story was also to cover the history of my village, New Eersterus, as he was one of the first residents who were removed from Eersterus, outside Pretoria, which was declared a “coloured” township in 1969 so Africans had to be forcefully removed to a village 40 kilometres from the capital city. This was a double blow for Africans as they were first forcefully removed from Lady Selbourne – it was to Pretoria what Sophiatown was to Johannesburg – which was declared a white area.
Two weeks later I submitted the articles and I got the job as a journalist and I was to report for duty at the beginning of August.
On 1 August as I walked out of the lift, I was met by three white men in suits who didn’t look like Learn and Teach Publications. There were about five uniformed police officers in the rook loading books onto crates. Inside the offices there were about two more in suits talking to my colleagues. The latter told me the crew had come to seize the booklets of the Nelson Mandela Rivonia trial speech which Learn and Teach Publications had published. The State of Emergency didn’t only give the security forces to arrest anyone at will but also the right to seize or confiscate anything that they thought threatened the security of the state.
How did the publisher take such a risk? Marc got a call from the company’s lawyer, Kathleen “Kathy” Satchwell (now a Judge of the High Court), and she informed him she had found a loophole in the law: that it’s not illegal to quote court proceedings, which technically means, though Mandela’s speeches and writings were banned, his trial speech couldn’t be banned. Yes, his collected speeches, “Long Walk to Freedom”, published by Heinemann Publishers under the African Writers Series (AWS), was banned. So Kathy advised him that they challenged the system by taking advantage of this legal loophole. Marc was excited. Gave feedback to the team, and they decided to take the apartheid bull by its horns. Yes, in the middle of the most brutal period in the history of apartheid as many activists – including Zwelakhe Sisulu, the Editor of the New Nation – were languishing in prison and heavy media restrictions were imposed that included that they couldn’t carry reports about the atrocities committed by the police and soldiers who were placed many townships under siege (these included my Turfloop university campus where soldiers had erected tents in the university’s stadium and were manning all the entrances since mid-1986).
Kathy filed a challenge to the seizure of the Mandela booklets with the Film and Publications Board. The state lawyers opposing. After heated arguments against and for, a very interesting judgment was delivered: the publisher is within their legal right to publish the Rivonia trial speech but the police also have the right, in terms of the State of Emergency, to seize the booklets. So we then adopted the slogan: the more they seize, is the more we’ll republish. But this time, we signed confidentiality agreement with the printing company and warehoused the booklets in a secret storeroom far away from our offices.
By the way, Simon was serving his notice – he was relocating to the Eastern Cape to go join a progressive news agency. So he offered me to take over “his” apartment in Hillbrow. Yes, the lease agreement was signed by our colleague, Stephen Rothenburg, as blacks were still not allowed to live in the white suburbs as per the prescripts of the Group Areas Act. So they decided to test the integrity of the landlord, Anglo-American, that claimed it was liberal. Yes, it was too embarrassed to evict us. There were about a few of us in this skyscraper: I allowed my friend and cousin to move in with me; ausi Amanda Kwadi (a fierce leader of the Federation of Transvaal Women); Robert Chilenga and his family (he later became my Heinemann Publishers’ colleague after the 1994 elections); legendary artist Mzwakhe Nhlabatsi who worked for SACHED; the legendary music promoter, Arabi Mocheke; and there was another “coloured” family. Later after 1990 the number of black residents increased and included musician Don Laka.
Excuse my detour. Learn and Teach Publications published a regular magazine, Learn & Teach, and books all targeted at people with low levels of English literacy – primarily for COSATU affiliates. I worked on the magazine as a writer and photographer (they paid for my documentary photography training at the Market Photography Lab conducted by the legendary David Goldblatt; and my graphic designer colleague, Ramotsei “Tsuks” Mokolobate, taught me to print photos in our darkroom). Though Marc was our Editor, I worked under Michael “Trompie” Aldridge who had replaced Simon. We both literally unpacked every article I wrote into a list of single sentences and I had to justify every word I had used as the articles were to be highly accessible to our readers. I also had to take classes at our sister agency, Learn and Teach Adult Literacy Trust, to teach workers to read and write using the magazine – this provided me with immediate feedback on whether our articles were pitched too high. So we used our adult literacy classes as platforms for politicisation and also to develop new audiences for our publications. We published stories about people and subjects ignored by the mainstream media. We rejected the mainstream media distributors and opted to distribute through individual comrades and community-based organisations that earned a commission – thus generating revenue for themselves. Some of the individual sellers sold our magazines in trains, worker and community meetings, and to targeted comrades they knew. Our distribution officer, Phistus “Bra Phis” Mekgoe, also attended community and labour meetings and rallies on weekends selling our publications. We reached people who wouldn’t normally read newspapers and magazines that were elitist and avoided reporting on the atrocities of apartheid.
To read the archived editions of Learn & Teach, please click here.
Our sister publications were SPEAK (women’s magazine); Work in Progress (current affairs magazine targeted at the higher LSMs); South African Labour Bulletin; Challenge (a progressive church magazine edited by Bishop Albert Nolan); Upbeat (youth magazine by SACHED); and The Shopsteward (COSATU’s journal). In 1993, when I served as the Editor-in-Chief of Learn & Teach Publications, we embarked on a commercialisation drive and we established with these sister agencies the Independent Magazine Group (IMG) – I smile each time I go into my CIPC account and realise I’m still listed as one of the directors of this company which was unfortunately forced to close down after the 1994 elections.
Back to this narrative’s core theme, these agencies nurtured literacy and inculcated a mass culture of reading among our people. We were inspired by one of the successes of the Cuban revolution which was eradication of illiteracy. We got our people to embrace the principles of “never too old to learn” and lifelong learning. With limited resources raised from donor agencies, we built the hegemony of our anti-apartheid movements – as led by the African National Congress (ANC), and many of us were its underground operatives. The articles from these publications were read and discussed by comrades in branches of mass democratic movement’s structures.
Side by side with these agencies, we were founder members of the Association of Democratic Journalists (ADJ) and the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) which both subscribed to the ethos of the Freedom Charter.
The advent of democracy was the tolling of a bell marking the death of these publications and the agencies – including Saamstan and the Eastern Cape News Agency. Only a few survived: the Weekly Mail became the Mail & Guardian; The Shopsteward; and the SALB. Donor funding was redirected to an ANC-led government. It took years for the finalisation of the policy and the law establishing the Media Development and Diversity Agency – which to this day remains ineffective and ideologically myopic. Most of us then joined the ranks of the public service. I was headhunted by Heinemann Publishers where I worked for six years – four of which as their Publishing Director. I was first recruited as their Publisher for languages and literature – including developing an ABET series, Adult Readers Collection. I only joined the public sector in 2000 as a marketing and communications specialist – starting my public service career at Telkom as a Senior Manager: Corporate Communication and ending it at the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA) as a Group Executive: Trade, Investment and Regulatory Enablement in June 2020.
After this 20-year hiatus, I’m back in the world of independent publishing. Looking at the crisis our country – particularly the education sector – finds itself in, this is as necessary as it was before 1994. The situation is dire. The National Planning Commission review of education tells us there’s a 47% drop out rate between Grades 1 and 12. Another study says 8 out of 10 Grade 4 learners can’t read for meaning. Stats SA reports my generation is more educated than the generation of our children. The majority of the branches of the tripartite alliance structures plus the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) are led by comrades who are alliterate – they harbour a passionate reluctance to read. The mainstream media’s reporting doesn’t really empower our people. The book publishing industry remains untransformed – as I have argued in my new book, ”De/constructing brand Africa: A Practitioner’s Perspective”. The left has lost its hegemony, it is under siege. It is up to us to join the effort to salvage “what is left of the left”. Yes, we’re broadly politically non-partisan.
As the contemporary socio-political and cultural spaces do not inspire at all, I decided to go back to our roots. I went for a drink in a classical space that served since 1927 as the centre of non-racialism and defiance against apartheid. I went to the Radium Beer Hall on 282 Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Groove for a drink with Leslie Dikeni – an accomplished sociologist of six books. The Radium was described by New Frame as “a place for progressives and misfits, malkops and musicians” during the heydays of apartheid. We were joined by our legendary jazzman, Herbie Tsoaeli – his debut album “African Time” was the 2013 Best Jazz Album at the South African Music Award, followed by the melodious “At This Point in Time (Voices in Volume)” in 2021.This iconic venue has weathered all storms of apartheid tyranny and post-apartheid migration of business from the centre of Johannesburg to the northern suburbs – leaving the city decaying. On the cultural front, this resulted in the closure of such hubs as Kippie’s, Cotton Pub, Sof’town, Shikisha; and the dilapidation of Downtown Studios, Newtown precinct, and the shock of the World of Beer hub being occupied by Dove Funeral Services. This centre was donated by Ab-InBev to the City of Johannesburg after it took over South African Brewers. By the way, I was equally shocked to see how Rotunda Park iconic building in the Park station precinct is in such a decay. I shudder to think if the fate won’t befall the nearby 1 Hellen Joseph Street – this building used to house such cultural organisations as COSAW and the Film Resource Unit (FRU) that distributed third cinema documentaries and African films to couldn’t be aired by the SABC.
Before signing off, let me say I am humbled for having been nominated by the US-based World CEO Rankings for “The CEO of the Year Award 2022”. They did nominate me for the first time in 2021. Although I didn’t receive enough votes then, I did appreciate the gesture.
Enjoy your weekend.
Saul Molobi (FCIM)
Publisher: Jambo Africa Online
Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer: Brandhill Africa™
Tel: +27 11 759 4297
Mobile: +27 83 635 7773
Social Media: Twitter / Instagram / LinkedIn / Facebook / YouTube / Jambo Africa Online
Physical Address: 4th Floor, The Firs; Corner Bierman and Cradock Avenue; Rosebank; JOHANNESBURG; 2196.
RESEARCH. INNOVATE. RE/ENGINEER
– a pan African competitive identity and public diplomacy agency decorated with the “Best Brand Award” at the World Brand Congress’ “Brand Leadership Awards 2021” –
A Strategic Partner to UNISA Enterprises (Pty) Ltd
A Strategic Partner to Enterprises UP (University of Pretoria)
A Strategic Partner to Proudly South African (Proudly SA)
A Supporting Partner to the African Agri Council (AAC)
A member of the World Free Zones Organisation (World FZO)
A member of the African Tourism Board (ATB) and World Tourism Network (WTN)