Farook Khan (75) helped to open doors for many black journalists to work in mainstream media during apartheid, writes Ismail Suder who spent 20 years working alongside this legendary writer.
Iconic Durban journalist Farook Khan is with Allah now, but his time on earth will be remembered by the thousands whose lives he touched – including mine.
Personally speaking, Farook was my mentor in the traditional style of journalism, and I am ever grateful for his efforts to shape me in the writer I have become.
Farook Khan blazed a trail as a reporter for over 55 years, and was regarded as one of most colourful, engaging and wittiest personalities the world of journalism has ever produced in South Africa.
He started at a time when black writers in mainstream newspapers were few. He had a unique way of telling stories that was conversational in its style. Readers across the country hung onto to his every word – that was the power of his pen.
He was a doyen of journalists, carving a name for himself nationally and internationally. He had a knack of asking bold questions – questions which many others would be too afraid to ask.
His big coup was probably interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Iran on February 1, 1979, after being exiled in Paris. While in France,Ayatollah instigated an Islamic revolution that overthrew the Western-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Farook’s personal interview with Ayatollah in Tehran and his plans to form an Islamic Republic made national and international news across all mainstream newspapers in South Africa and beyond.
Last year Farook wrote in Al Qalam: “When I came face to face with the great Ayatollah Khomeini at his home in Qom, he said, “It is our fortune to serve.”
But his biggest triumph was his 40-year personal friendship with boxing legend Muhammed Ali. Farook shared a 40-year-personal friendship with Ali.
In a tribute to Ali’s passing, and published in Al Qalam, Farook wrote: What is it, that Muhammad Ali, the only man to win the heavyweight boxing title three times, each time over 15 rounds do so special that he earned the respect of the world and showed the true power of Islam ?
“For forty years, I followed Muhammad Ali around the world and watched him work from the most horrendous slums from Karachi to Soweto to learn the secrets of leadership.”
He told me: “Service to others is the rent we pay for the room we have on this Earth.”
Farook went on to write: “In 1993 Ali arrived on the very morning that Chris Hani was murdered. If it were anyone else, they would have got on the next plane out. Ali insisted that I take him to the house of the bereaved family.”
“Who would forget the day that Ali drove into what is now Soccer City and stopped at Hani’s coffin and made a dua – for a communist.”
“That is the kind of Islam Power he carried and he was not scared of anyone in this world.”
Muhammad Ali is now in the hereafter, I will never forget that morning when I got up and received this message: “Muhammad Ali has returned to Allah.”
In the heyday of his career, he worked for Drum Magazine and the Golden City Post, churning out powerful stories that gripped the nation. Then he moved across other news platforms such as the Golden City Post, Post Natal and the Daily News. Long after retiring from the Daily News, and right up until his passing, Farook continued to work as a freelance journalist, including having a weekly slot at Radio Al Ansaar where he had a vibrant talk show.
Realising there was no formal training for black journalists in Natal in the 80’s, Farook – with permission from management – started the Farook Khan School of Journalism in a large lecture hall adjacent to the Post Natal newsroom. As a meek 20-year, I joined the class of 10 students who were eager to become star reporters with photo bylines. But the road to journalism stardom was paved with blood, sweat and tears – and sometimes laughter.
Some of the graduates who survived the training was Rashida Dhooma who went onto to become a successful editor of the Toronto Sun in Canada, and Khantan Pillay who went on to work as computer systems administrator in Princeton’s Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics. He returned to South Africa to become editor of the Cape Times and thereafter to be the boss of E-Tv. Then there was Jameela Hoosen who went to Germany and got married I think, and then it’s yours truly who quit the Daily News 15 years ago to dabble in real estate and to work as a news editor/reporter at Al Qalam up to this day.
Farook was a tough teacher. He was loud and gregarious, and his bombastic style of teaching was – well let’s just say – very different from any other training programme I had ever attended.
To graduate from the Farouk Khan School of Journalism was akin to making it as a soldier in the Marine.
I recall a time in the 80’s when I refused to attend classes because of the immense pressure he put on me to excel. I sent a message that I was not returning anymore. Farook called me up, and his characteristic booming voice, threatened that he would come and personally fetch me from my North Coast home, even if I had to kick and scream. The next day, when I nervously turned up, Farook’s demeanor had changed: he was warm and friendly and he gave me a pep talk to persevere in the career I had chosen – and NEVER togive up. And despite the hundreds of cup teas and coffees I was ordered to fetch for him during my days as a young cub reporter, it was all worth it.
After years with Post, Farook moved to the Daily News, a newspaper that was white dominated in terms of Apartheid Laws of the mid 80’s. His foray into halls of ‘whites only’ domain was a big deal in those days. He opened doors for dozens of non-white reporters, including myself who joined the same newspaper a year later. When formal training eventually opened up for “non-white” reporters, I was selected to join the Argus School of Journalism that was run at the Star newspaper in Johannesburg. But what I had learnt at the formal academy was little compared to what Farook had thought me. Over 25 years later, I continue to make a living as a purveyor of words, and I humbly thank Farook for it.
At The Daily News, I sat a few metres from Farook’s desk, and I had become used to his booming voice when he interacted with his visitors in the newsroom, or when he conducted interviews over the phone. I was always in awe of his warm and gregarious personality and his brimming confidence. His wide network of contacts from politicians, businessmen, informers, and even a few underworld figures was the envy of the newsroom. He churned out front page headlines nearly every day. This, at a time when there was no internet. The paper had a readership of over 300 000 readers per day, and Farook had a huge following.
And in between news gathering, Farook dedicated much of his time to helping the poor and the downtrodden. He wrote about poverty and hardships – and the injustices of apartheid that was causing so much suffering.
I would hear him calling up his business contacts to contribute food parcels or money for a poor family who might have lost his tin shack in a rain storm or someone who might have had his house burnt to the ground, leaving them homeless. So great was his influence that people poured out their wealth to help out within hours of a request from Farook.
Farook had a heart of gold. His desk area was always a buzz of activity with people coming and going. He often switched roles from newsman to social worker. If it wasn’t material help he was providing, he was helping to mediate disputes or advising people on the best ways to resolve personal or legal issues.
He had touched the lives of thousands and when he passed away last week of 4th stage colon cancer, they remembered him fondly.
In my heart Farook Khan was a champion amongst men. He has returned to Allah now. May he be favoured with the best of Allah’s bounties! Ameen!