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Black Wednesday: Never forgetting

When Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger unleashed police on journalists and publications critical of apartheid’s excesses on October 1977 it was part of the National Party government’s systematic oppression.

Kruger and his fellow ministers were acting in order to rid the state of what they saw as irritants.

Lock them up, ban and censor them so the majority cannot hear their voice.

However, what the government of the day was unable to accept was that they were wrong in their presumption. They thought that by putting uppity journalists in apartheid’s dungeons or stopping them from inviting their kinsmen to an important conversation about the state of affairs would stop the flow of information.

His grave mistake was to try and banish an entire people’s reality which history has shown judged his party and his government extremely poorly.

It is easy to see why history eventually absolved the journalists and Kruger failed. Jim Crow and all his laws could not stop the jazzmen from the American South from swinging nor could it silence Harlem.

Still, Kruger thought he could silence marabi and what is written about the the people who danced to them just because they sometimes danced the toyi-toyi.

This week South Africa commemorates that moment back in October 1977 known as Black Wednesday when there was an official attempt at silencing the critics of apartheid.

Throughout history freedom has always presented itself as a layered inheritance. The legacy of those who sacrificed is not important for only those times when we feel pressed to speak our minds. It is a heritage with the kind of richness only a quest for true humanity can imbue. Not just a simple bequest.

The bequest

Kippie Moeketsi (saxophone), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone) and Hugh Masekela (trumpet) were part of The Jazz Epistles band. Image: BAHA/Drum Social Histories / Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online

Having worked at Drum, many Black Wednesday veterans were direct inheritors of the celebrated literary tradition of the fifties. Lewis Nkosi described some of them them as eager, fast-talking and brash, the kind of person who symbolised how urban South African’s had shaken themselves away from the identities of “native from the tribal reserves”.

The same era had given birth to some of South Africa’s important cultural developments in music. Miriam Makeba founded the Skylarks band and Todd Matshikiza had composed King Kong. Jazz At The Odin shows in Sophiatown also unearthed the talents of Dolly Rathebe and Tandie Klassens.

Sophiatown had this beauty about it. In his Requiem for Sophiatown Can Temba said the magic of this cultural melting-pot could not be missed - regardless of what anyone thought about it being a squalid and overcrowded slum. He thought the brazenness that made some uneasy was really Sophiatown’s clean-faced frankness.

​​​In his letters to Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo the famous poet Langston Hughes admired the flourishing literary output reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He said “Africa is a honey.”

The hard hitting journalism that started bubbling in the fifties with Mr Drum and his daring exposes was learnt in prison cells by the likes of Joe Thloloe following the Sharpeville Massacre.

Nathaniel “Nat” Nakasa also reinforced the message that what sprouted out of Sophiatown was important.

It was the only place in South Africa where African writers lived closely and formed a community of sorts

The same spirit nurtured the journalism at Can Themba’s House of Truth, and under the boisterous Percy Qoboza when he turned The World from a tasteless tabloid about soccer and witchcraft to a publication that held a mirror to society. It is elements of this same fast-talking and brash bunch that formed the Union of Black Journalists.

Time for the Hero

In his “Time for the Hero” the poet Mafika Gwala served a bitter pill to those who think change comes through laments.

The poem was published in the April/May issue of the literary magazine Staffrider, less than a year after the apartheid regime had killed Steve Biko in detention on September 18 1977.

Black Wednesday was to follow a month after Biko’s murder on October 19. In the poem Gwala used his licence as a griot to anticipate the blow to the morale in the aftermath of the uptick in state repression.

He reckoned that before the oppressed were ready to finally cast off their shackles they would have to wait awhile. To some the memory of how the spirit of resistance dissipated and the lull that followed the Sharpeville massacre was still fresh.

The time of the hero would arrive, he said, when “blacks start pissing on Mankuku's lament refusing to bemoan their blackness,” and when young people “blow Graffiti Blues on the System.”

He had reason to warn against false hope. After the then Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger’s men had rounded up editors, banned the The World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate papers and extended this to others who had reported on the Soweto uprising the crackdown seemed complete.

The World and Weekend World editor Percy Qoboza was detained for five months after the crackdown on October 19 1977. Image: Bert Verhoeff / Anefo

Unbeknown to Kruger, among the harassed editors and journalists were veterans who had either been banned or detained for reporting on previous uprisings.

Some of those arrested or banned for reporting on Sharpeville massacre still went on to report on the wildcat strikes and labour unrest in Durban during the early 1970s courting further harassment and persecution. When Soweto erupted in 1976 the same faces were among those wielding pens and notebooks to report on the massacre.

When Biko was murdered and the bannings were announced a month later, the government’s repressive apparatus invariably had to hunt down these same troublemakers. This in addition to newer voices who had become new irritants to its grand scheme.

Gwala wrote his poem without the hindsight we use today to string together our tragic past. Nevertheless, he still foresore that among those who would blow Graffitti Blues were Ongoye students. Ongoye was the popular name for the University of Zululand, Steve Biko’s alma mater.

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