True colours: Big media beast Tiso Blackstar slays brave journalist before altar of profits

EDINBURGH –  The Daily Dispatch newspaper rightly describes itself as being at the vanguard of exposing injustice in the East London region. A training ground for South African journalists, its alumni include anti-apartheid activist editor Donald Woods and investigative journalism superstar Andrew Trench, now digital editor at Tiso Blackstar (formerly Times Media). With roots as a penny paper in 1898, ownership of the newspaper has passed through various entities over the years. Today, the Daily Dispatch is owned by Tiso Blackstar. Can the Daily Dispatch retain its fighting spirit under the control of this media beast and act as a check against the powerful in order to further the interests of democracy? The recent retrenchment and poor treatment of journalist extraordinaire Dawn Barkhuizen, while media company bosses draw big perks, serve as a stark reminder that for Tiso Blackstar, it is a case of profits before people. This is devastating, not only for Barkhuizen and her colleagues who have been mistreated in a similar way. More than ever, South Africa needs a media industry that is fiercely independent and takes its rights and responsibilities as the Fourth Estate seriously by genuinely putting the public interest before the personal and commercial. It needs journalists who are as brave as Barkhuizen, who lifted the lid on Winnie Mandela’s criminal activities, to expose corruption and evil. Senior journalist Paul Trewhela asks, in a piece that first appeared on the Daily Maverick website: in what kind of a country does a journalist of such high quality get treated in this way? We also ask: in what kind of a media company does a journalist of such high quality get treated in this way? — Jackie Cameron

By Paul Trewhela
THE Daily Dispatch newspaper has a long and rich history dating back to 1872. It was the first penny daily newspaper published in the Eastern Cape in 1898. By 1906 the paper boasted a circulation larger and more widely distributed than any colonial paper published outside Cape Town. In its centenary it became the first newspaper in SA to offer full colour facilities to its advertisers and readers. Dispatch has also always been at the forefront of exposing injustice in its region and advocating fair treatment for all South Africans.
At this sordid time of downfall and deterioration, South Africa faces the shameful and needless loss of a brave, intrepid journalist.
Next year a book will be published with reference to this journalist in its first chapter, with the heading “A brave woman journalist and a frightened man”.

It relates the story of a “hard-working and courageous reporter dedicated to truth-telling no matter how painful the consequences” who “stumbled upon a huge and frightening story” while working in Johannesburg on the Sunday Times, which she followed through to publication. The year was 1992, and she was 25.

The article made history, but it changed her life.

She is Dawn Barkhuizen, the outstanding editor for many years – until a few days ago – of the Opinion page on the Daily Dispatch in East London.

The author of the book which begins with her story is Fred Bridgland, a senior British journalist and one of the most trustworthy foreign correspondents of the last half century. While working for Reuters news agency in Central Africa, it was Bridgland who first reported the invasion of Angola in 1975 by the South African Defence Force. While in South Africa covering the last years of apartheid for the Sunday Telegraph and the Scotsman in Britain, he published a book on the final years of the Cold War in Angola, The War for Africa (1992), cited subsequently in every reliable military history of that conflict, and now available in bookshops across the country in an expanded second edition as Cuito Cuanavale: 12 Months of War that Transformed a Continent.

Dawn Barkhuizen. (Pic: Google Plus)
Dawn Barkhuizen. (Pic: Google Plus)

His new book beginning with his tribute to Dawn will be titled Winnie Mandela: Lies and Alibis.

The article she wrote in 1992 was based on first-hand evidence from the senior driver for Winnie Mandela, John Umuthi Morgan – the “frightened man” in Bridgland’s chapter heading – about the killing of the boy Stompie Moekesti Seipei in Mrs Mandela’s home in Soweto in the last days of December 1988. Unprompted, John Morgan told Dawn that he had lied in court to protect Winnie Mandela. This was the basis of her article.

According to Bridgland, it was Dawn Barkhuizen’s report of Morgan’s first-hand, autobiographical account that was “the trigger of Nelson’s decision to admit publicly that he had separated from Winnie”.

As Dawn told Bridgland in an interview for his book: “I too became frightened because Morgan was just plain terrified.”

What changed her life, Bridgland writes, making her go into hiding and leave Johannesburg for East London, was when she arrived at work one day and found “all her notebooks in which she recorded her interviews with Morgan and others about Mrs Mandela and the Football Club had somehow been removed from her locked office”. She never recovered them. They had been disclosed by the apartheid security forces to Mrs Mandela.

As a former banned journalist in South Africa, I too hold Dawn Barkhuizen in the highest regard. She has made the Opinion page at the Dispatch one of the most reliable, most intellectually challenging and most informative sources of high-quality journalism in the country, opening its columns not only to experienced writers but to newcomers who have lived their lives at key points in South Africa’s history and have valuable insights to contribute.

Not only that. It is due to Dawn that the public in East London have been able to engage with a superb range of leading personnel and analysts at the Dispatch Dialogues, held in the Guild Theatre in collaboration with the East London section of Fort Hare University. Dawn has sought speakers, looked after all the arrangements and has personally introduced these events. Several of them are available online.

Consider the quality of these speakers in the Dispatch Dialogues. They include the axed former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Vusi Pikoli; the Independent Electoral Commission chairperson, Brigalia Bam; Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana, associate professor at the University of Johannesburg; the former deputy head of the SA Secret Service, Barry Gilder; DA leader Mmusi Maimane; Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor at Wits University; General Bantu Holomisa, leader of the UDM: Professor William Gumede; the former leader of the DA, Tony Leon; Herman Mashaba, entrepreneur and mayor of Johannesburg; the renowned East African author and thinker, Ngugi wa Thiong’o; the columnist Nompumelelo Runji; sacked deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas; author and businessman Moeletsi Mbeki; author and professor Xolela Mancu; former Cabinet minister Charles Nqakula; veteran journalist Benjamin Pogrund… and many others.

No other relatively small urban centre has had such a wide range of talent made so accessible to the public. The Dialogues have set an example to the country.

And yet ….

Incomprehensibly for any newspaper fortunate enough to have such a dedicated journalist in charge of its Opinion page, Dawn was retrenched last month and told she had to reapply for her old job – plus also the duties of someone else, all with no extra pay.

She is one of the most productive professionals. The effect on her has been devastating.

So this is my protest.

I conclude with a citation I wrote about Dawn several years ago, when she was considering further academic study.

Dawn Barkhuizen is one of the bravest and most original journalists in the history of journalism in South Africa over my lifetime, in my judgement.

As a former banned journalist in South Africa, I compare her contribution with that of Ruth First, Laurence Gandar and Benjamin Pogrund, all of whom and all whose work I knew at first hand when I was a journalist in South Africa 50 years ago, both legally and illegally. The difference is that the major issues for a journalist in South Africa today, under ANC government, are far more complex than they were under the National Party 50 years ago, and even 25 years ago.

Ms Barkhuizen is unchallenged among her peers in her ability and courage in confronting the entire range of these issues.

She has opened up the public space to new ideas and critical thinking in East London and the Eastern Cape, both in her published journalism and in the related Dialogue series of public discussions which she organises, a phenomenon I do not think exists anywhere else in South Africa.

She brings the spirit of a world-class investigative journalist as well as the integrity of a scholar to her proposed project.

I ask, in what kind of a country does a journalist of such high quality get treated in this way?