Back in the ’80s – at the height of PW Botha’s state repression – anti-apartheid activists and some journalists like myself, Mike Lowe, Mbulelo Linda, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Themba Khumalo and Vincent Mfundisi – found ourselves rounded up by the notorious special branch, to spend months and sometimes years behind bars without trial.
“The Botha regime” – as we referred to it at the time – had branded those like us who exposed state tyranny, as “media terrorists”.
We had to be watched, ultimately hounded and put away where visits would be restricted to close family members. And we were not allowed access to newspapers or radio.
Such was the trouble you found yourself in for choosing journalism as a career – not easy or glamorous because you were no different to your neighbour whose son or daughter was under arrest or detained.
While apartheid media laws were brutal – when considering that you were not allowed to take pictures of state buildings without written permission – operating under the two states of emergency of the ’80s meant working within a maze of tighter laws and restrictions, such as getting stories about violence cleared by the Bureau for Information.
With political and community leaders swooped on in pre-dawn raids and imprisoned without trial “for being a threat to state security”, Botha’s men in military camouflage – some in safari suits, some sporting large moustaches – had no clue about the watchdog role of journalists in society.
Take the case of former colleague Mziwakhe Hlangani, who worked at the Eastern Province Herald.
He was arrested and briefly detained at the notorious Louis le Grange police station in Port Elizabeth for having interviewed United Democratic Front activist Stone Sizani, whom the police were looking for.
Little did Hlangani – who interviewed Sizani during the course of his work as a reporter – think such an assignment would land him faceto-face with the special branch.
This was the most feared unit of the police who had powers to torture, poison and kill, backed by emergency laws.
All they needed was a mere suspicion that you were either “a terrorist” or “working with terrorists”.
Gone underground, Sizani, who was the only spokesperson of the consumer boycott of white businesses, had the police sweating as they combed the townships of Zwide, KwaZakhele, New Brighton and Veeplaas, looking for him.
What got the special branch men angry was that – despite being armed to the teeth, with the support of several informers residing among residents to inform them of Sizani’s movements – for months they could not find him.
Reading about an interview Hlangani had with Sizani was enough to send a squad of police to “fetch that reporter”.
With public meetings banned, security forces went on a spree to detain and torture anyone they suspected made the South African story more appealing to tell here and abroad.
Telling that South African story, is what led to my arrest and ultimate detention for nearly three years without trial at the St Albans Prison just outside Port Elizabeth.
I relate this account because many young journalists of today have never gone through what we experienced.
In a constitutional democracy like ours, press freedom is something to be jealously guarded because a heavy price has already been paid by many before you.