Benjamin Pogrund: SA failing on promise of decades long freedom struggle

Veteran journalist Benjamin Pogrund began his career in 1958. He tells Tim Modise about his friendship with South Africa’s ‘most feared’ struggle hero Robert Sobukwe. He laments the fact that Sobukwe has been airbrushed out of history in the New South Africa. Pogrund also reflects on press freedom and says the current government is failing to deliver on the promise of the decades long freedom struggle. – Tim Modise

Veteran journalist and commentator/historian Benjamin Pogrund is once again visiting South Africa. It’s a pleasure to catch up with you, Benjy.

It’s very good to see you again.

The 26 years you spent in senior positions in South African newspapers, documenting the history of the country, particularly the struggle… Every time I catch up with you and we talk about this, I find it very fascinating. If you can, give me a broad sweep of the most influential figures of the struggle during those days. Who comes to mind?

Well, I was privileged because right from the start of my journalism when I joined the Rand Daily Mail, my focus was on black politics, which was totally unknown in the white press at that stage. We pioneered the reporting and it broadened to include all the black existence [inaudible 00:58], sewerage, etcetera. It was a turbulent period in South African history. I’m talking about the beginning of this really, big push for freedom – the end of the 1950’s. At an early stage, I knew Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu. In Cape Town, people whose names are not all that well known today but who were great heroes of the struggle are Tommy Ngwenya who was the ANC chairman. I knew Helen Suzman. I knew Alan Paton. I knew Ernie Wentzel. I knew all these people. Some of them became very close personal friends of mine.

Others I knew over the years and I reported them. I admired them then and I admire them even more now, especially in the context of coming to South Africa now and seeing some of the ‘not happy’ things happening here. I look back at those leaders that I knew; at their integrity, their honesty, and their purpose and I wish that they were still around today.

Over the decades that you’ve covered South Africa, including looking at it from a distance; one could say it’s gone through different eras of struggle and you’ve seen these changes. How different was it in the 50’s compared to the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and up until now?

Well, that period there was a great deal of despair – from 1948 onwards. I started being interested in politics when I was a teenager, when the Nationalists came in, in 1948 with the Apartheid policy. For the next 30 or so years, it was really despair. They seemed set forever. It didn’t seem that you could budge them.

Every election, despite all the attempts to warn white people of what was happening in the country and telling them what was going on, the majority of the Afrikaner Nationalist Government simply increased. That was a matter of a lot of despair and anxiety. Then of course, 1990 came, 1994 came and obviously, we were all filled with total hope. I came out in 1994, to cover the elections. I was then working for the Independent in London. I’d been Chief Foreign Sub-editor of the Independent and I was sent out to help cover the elections. Of course, I took part in that sense of exultation and joy. I’ve watched South Africa ever since. I now live in Israel.

At the beginning, I certainly looked to South Africa paying a significant role in bridging the gap in Israel between Jews and Arabs because of South Africa’s past and the affinity with the struggle for freedom. I thought that this country could do a great deal. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen either. I’ve maintained this hope but I must say that increasingly, my feelings have subsided and when I come here now, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger when I see the unfulfilled hopes and dreams of so many people in this country (and of their children). I just regret it, terribly.

On the other hand, I remain overjoyed… I still remember what Apartheid was. I reported it so intensely and I’m overjoyed when I come here. People are walking tall. There’s freedom here and there’s a basic democracy, and I just find that absolutely wonderful. I’m still filled with the joy of it every time I step into this country.

You also express disappointment and I was just about to ask you ‘why the disappointment’, given that people are walking tall and they are free now? Compared to the despair of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when the black majority saw the Government then increase its majority in the white community?

Take it from the media’s point of view. I was with the Rand Daily Mail for 26 years, so I was finally Deputy Editor for some years. Increasingly, over those years the noose tightened around the press in this country. The Government enacted one law after the other. There were times when I used to feel that perhaps we should hang a red light outside our building (at that time) in Main Street because there were days I used to feel a total despair that there were things, which we couldn’t publish. On the other hand, I sit and think about it and I recognise that as limited as our reporting had become, we were still saying enough so that no one in this country could ever say ‘I didn’t know what was being done’.

The Rand Daily Mail did that right up until the end. It was the pace-setting newspaper in this country and we pushed the law to its limits. As much as we could do anything, it appeared. No one could ever say, “I didn’t know”. Now, 1994 came and with it came total freedom for the media. I’ve watched, over the years, as that has been diminishing. Just take one law. I remember the Key Points Act, which the Nationalists put through. It was meant to prohibit us from publishing any information about strategic installations. We went to the Government and we said, “How do we know what a key point is if we can’t publish anything about it?” The answer was, “You will know what a key point is if you publish any information about it, because you’ll be prosecuted”, so we were scared all the time. We had to be very careful. I’m astonished to discover that the present Government has retained the Key Points Act. It’s still on the Statute Book and I see it being referred to now and again.

I watch the progress of the Secrecy Legislation in this country, the threats to the media, and even more so, I’ve watched with terrible dismay, the diminution of the value of the media – of its ability to function – by getting rid of senior people (dumbing down). It’s happening worldwide, but in this country, there seems to be a political edge to it. You’re getting people put into senior positions who don’t really seem to know how to run newspapers. Of course, SABC has been in a mess all the time. It never seemed to come right. I see this as a journalist – and to me, this reflects the nature of the country – with great anxiety because the press is crucial to a democracy. Even the Public Protector, just this week…the assaults on her integrity, which I find very worrying because she’s a crucial part of the wonderful democracy created in this country.

Well, you are currently in the country to relaunch your book ‘Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better’ and actually, it has not been told to the extent that it should be, but at least you have kept some of that record of history in place. You’re updating it all the time and we appreciate that. Tell me a little bit about Robert Sobukwe. He seems to have been a towering figure in the past as the Founder of the PAC – feared by the Government. What was going on around him? He’s not celebrated to the extent that he should be today.

Yes. Well of course, he’s been airbrushed out of history – very clearly. The African National Congress (and I think this is one of the problems in South Africa today)… I see a growing intolerance in the Government, of dissent, and the people who don’t stay in line and Bob Sobukwe suffered that fate. South Africa has not been kind to this man who in fact, is one of the great heroes of the struggle. He and I met way back in about 1958. It was an instant friendship. We just liked each other. We talked and we agreed on a lot, on African Nationalism, and on Black Consciousness. We disagreed. We argued. We remained close friends. The great thing about him was… The Africanist slogan at the time (at the end of the ‘50’s) was ‘Service. Sacrifice. Suffering’ and he fulfilled that, totally. He gave himself to his people and it was a total commitment. When I met him, he was a language assistant at Wits University.

He didn’t have the rank (of lecturer) but he was teaching students Zulu. Early in 1960, Rhodes University offered him a fulltime lectureship and that would have been the first time (that I know of) that a black person was given a fulltime lectureship at white university in this country. It was an enormous status position for him. He agonised over it. We talked and talked about it. He decided to turn it down and he turned it down because he was about to call on people to leave their hated passes at home, go to the nearest police station, and offer themselves up for arrest. He said, “I will not ask you to do anything that I won’t do, myself”, and he went first. That was brave. Of course, it was also politically unwise because the PAC was less than two years old. He had no layers of leadership and it simply fell apart when most of the leadership went to prison.

Apart from that, his integrity, his honesty, and his shining purpose was so strong. He was a charismatic person. He was soft-spoken, but drew people to him, naturally. He went ahead with that and he was a challenge to the ANC at the time. The Sharpeville Massacre happened because of his call for passes. Today, when I read about March 21st 1960, which is now Human Rights Day in this country, it seems to be almost an ANC event. It’s been taken over and this is wrongful…one’s understanding of our country’s history and being very down on Sobukwe – on his role in this country’s history.

He seems to have been feared by the Government then, and now he’s been (to use your words) airbrushed out of history.


What kind of personality does this to someone who’s feared by the enemies and those who are supposed to celebrate him – just airbrush him out of history? How do you explain that?

Well, that’s exactly why he’s being airbrushed. He was such an important figure and a rival to the ANC and the ANC has come to the state where they don’t like to have any rivals in their history. When he undertook the pass campaign, he was sentenced to three years for so-called incitement. As the sentence was ending, the Government rushed through a law in Parliament, which became known as ‘a Sobukwe clause’. They feared him so much that they put through a special clause to enable them to keep him in prison indefinitely, year-by-year. They were frightened of him. They let me see him on Robben Island a few months after he’d been put there. He was kept in solitary confinement. We were close enough by then already; to know we had no illusions as to who we were allowed to see each other. They put us in a small room. We were certain the microphone was in the ceiling above our heads.

They wanted to know what he was thinking. That’s what they wanted. We spent days talking. He made it clear that the moment he was released; he would go back to doing what he had been doing – to fight Apartheid. He doomed himself to indefinite detention without trial because of that and he knew it. After six years, they released him (so-called release). They banished him to Kimberley and he was there for nine years before he died of cancer. He never wavered one inch during that time and this is a man whom you seldom here, of. My book was published 25 years ago. It’s been printed ever since, so there has been an audience for it. It’s had repeated printings over the years. We’ve now done a Third Edition where I’ve put in another 20 photographs, so there are 40 photographs altogether and I’ve extended the epilogue.

That’s an important point to make – because in the epilogue, what I’ve put forward is what I think I’ve discovered – is there’s a resurgence of interest in Sobukwe at the moment. It’s developing. The ideas that he stood for of Pan-Africanism, the belief in Africa, of non-racism, of tolerance of people, of integrity, and of honesty… I think people are looking to him as an example of where this country should be going.

For many young South Africans who may not even know that there was a towering figure like Robert Sobukwe as one of the leaders of the struggle – and he was your friend – what would you like to share with them? Obviously, there’s more detail in the book. In summary, what lessons would they have learned from such a person if they knew who he was?

I’ll tell you one lesson from the Sobukwe family, which appeals greatly to me. They lived in Graaff-Reinet. I quote in the book when I came across a court case, a security policeman at the time. He said that in Graaff-Reinet, even the dogs bark in Afrikaans so that gives you an idea of what the town was like. His parents were humble people. His father was a woodcutter and cleaned the furrows in the town for the water to run. His mother was a domestic servant. She was illiterate. His father could barely sign his name. He could read a little bit, but they had a passion for reading. The mother would take books from the library (the discarded books from the white library) and bring them home. Whenever she worked for a white person, she would ask for the books they didn’t want and take them back home.

They made the children read and out of this came Robert Sobukwe; never mind the politics, but one of the great intellectuals of his country and his brother Ernest, who was an Anglican bishop – one of the first black people to become a bishop at that time. This is an example, just in itself, without any politics, that I push all the time. Books. Books. Books. Read. Read. Read. I’m especially passionate about it when I look at the schools in this country. I saw a report about two years ago, which said that 90 percent of schools were dysfunctional. I saw a report in a newspaper yesterday that about 30 percent of pupils are in the R-grades and about 70 percent of the teachers teaching those R-grades do not have the proper diplomas to teach them. They’re unqualified. This is devastating. The country can never go forward, can never break out of poverty if the education is being held back that badly.

It’s not for shortage of money. South Africa probably spends more money per head than just about any other country in the world does, but something is seriously wrong inside the educational system. The whole ethos is wrong.

Now, if Robert Sobukwe were alive today and he observed how far we have come from 1994 with freedom, etcetera, what do you think he would have thought of South Africa today and the way we are running things?

Well, of course, it’s always difficult to say ‘what if’, but I knew him well enough to know that he would be totally dismayed at the lack of social justice, at the hundreds of angry protests by the ‘have-not’s’ who go into the streets and wreak violence. This would have been totally intolerable to him because it’s wrong. After 20 years of freedom, it shouldn’t be like this. Great strides have been made with housing or water, etcetera but the fact that so much has not been done, should be cause for great self-examination.

Benjy Pogrund, thank you very much for talking to us.

Thank you.

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