8 December 2023

Acclaimed South African writer, Zubeida Jaffer has been honoured with a lifetime achievement award for journalism.

She accepted The Allan Kirkland Soga Lifetime Achievement Award which recognises a sustained and extraordinary contribution to journalism. The criteria for the award is for someone who has “demonstrated impeccable ethics and craft excellence” whose work helped enrich South African public life – an accomplishment achieved in the face of obstacles.

A former colleague Valerie Boje wrote: “I met Zubeida when we were journalism students at Rhodes University at the end of the 1970s.

“One must bear in mind that this was a time when black students were, for the first time, being admitted to previously-white-only universities, but also a time of massive upheaval in the country beyond Grahamstown (now Makhanda).

“It was post 1976 Soweto, the time of the death in detention of Steve Biko, and Black Wednesday – the day on which black consciousness organisations and newspapers were banned, activists and journalists arrested.

There was growing restlessness and pressure against the apartheid government both from within and outside the country. As a reporter at the Cape Times, Zubeida was arrested in 1980.

Later, when pregnant, she was arrested again following her expose of police killings, and this time she was tortured the experience of which is movingly documented in her first book Our Generation.

“After the birth of her daughter Ruschka, she spent time at the University of the Western Cape, later working as a correspondent for Africa Information Afrique, an African-Canadian news agency.

After the first democratic elections in 1994, Zubeida left for the US, where she obtained a “master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

Her return to South Africa marked our reconnection as she became political editor for one of our group titles in Durban, and later founded the Independent Newspapers Parliamentary Bureau.

Over the years she earned many accolades, while she continued to teach, research and write – including a second book Love in the Time of Treason, and a third, Beauty of the Heart, the Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. She co-edited Decolonising Journalism in South Africa: Critical Perspectives with three other academics due for release next year.

In her acceptance of the Allan Kirkland Soga – an award named after the son of journalist and minister Tiyo Soga – Zubeida displayed her typical humbleness, saying that her generation of journalists had “done what they had to do when they had to do it”.

She paid tribute to the new cohort of journalists, many of whom came from humble beginnings, encouraging them to “soldier on”.

“The challenge is to keep our minds in balance so that we can be strong enough to root out corruption and gender-based violence while at the same time fully understand our blessings,” she said.

She said she had been privileged to witness the good and the bad in her time, but had faith that South Africans had the strength to “pull through the darkness towards the light of a just and fair country”.

While journalism was in crisis, with many losing their jobs during the current pandemic, there were opportunities to recraft the industry to better serve the public. “How will we strengthen the rich tradition of community-based journalism in all languages that will move us away from the echo chambers of the elite and enable the unheard voices of all to be heard,” she asked.

It is a relevant question as we mark Press Freedom Day in South Africa. – Montage-Africa

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