Jail was veteran scribe’s second home

Joe Thloloe
Joe Thloloe
Image: Antonio Muchave

Prison cells hold both good and bad memories for Joe Thloloe’s lifelong career in journalism.

As a 17-year-old pupil at Orlando High School in Soweto, Thloloe was thrown into jail for taking part in protests against the pass laws on March 21 1960. He had already joined the PAC as an activist a year before that.In prison, Thloloe shared a cell with Matthew Nkwane – a journalist from Drum magazine he had known before.

Nkwane taught him how to write news stories on toilet paper using pencil stubs during their year-long incarceration.When he was released, Thloloe completed his matric and got his first job at The World newspaper as a journo.The idea of becoming a journalist was planted and born out of Thloloe’s desire to tell the story of black South Africans during the liberation Struggle.

Fast-forward to August 1976, Thloloe is locked up again at the Modderbee prison in Benoni, on the East Rand, for his political activities. He was now a journalist working for Drum. His then editor, Jim Bailey, had warned him to stay away from politics. So incensed was Bailey that Thloloe had not listened to him that he sent a dismissal letter to be delivered to him at police holding cells.

Thloloe was then the president of the Union of Black Journalists (UBJ) – a bunch of courageous journalists who played a leading role in reporting the events of the Soweto student uprisings. Thloloe’s crime along with some of the union members who were detained under the terrorism act, was to publish a Bulletin named “Asizuthula”.

The Bulletin had provocatively used a series of photographs taken by Sam Nzima documenting Hector Pieterson’s last moments before his death on its front page.

That issue also gave the first-person account of the events of June 16 1976 youth uprisings, written by several black journalists who were in Soweto and witnessed the mowing down of black pupils by police.

“It was a very powerful commentary on what happened on June 16th,” recalled Thloloe, leaning forward on a table in his study room at his home in Roodepoort.

“On the day we went to press with that publication, it was banned. It was an offence to be seen carrying a copy of that Bulletin.”

This wasn’t to be the last time Thloloe would run into trouble with the apartheid regime. In fact, arrests and detentions without trial shaped his career. In March 1977, Thloloe had been re-employed at The World for only a month when he was again detained and locked up for the next 18 months in Pietermaritzburg.

Percy Qoboza, the late editor of The World looking at copies of the newspaper.
Percy Qoboza, the late editor of The World Percy Qoboza, the late editor of The World looking at copies of the newspaper.
Image: Tiso Blackstar

He came out of detention to find out that The World – a newspaper whose editor Percy Qoboza gave him a second chance when he was summarily fired by Bailey at Drum – was no more.

It had been shut down by the government and more journalists had been detained, including Qoboza, on October 19 1977, a day commemorated as the Press Freedom Day in remembrance of how the newspaper that had become the voice of black Struggle was silenced.During his 18-month incarceration, Thloloe said, he had no way of knowing what was going on in the outside world.

“I had no newspapers, I had no visitors, I had no contact with anyone except my torturers. In 1978, one of my interrogators said to me that I should cooperate because when I leave prison I was going to find a completely new world outside, not the one I left behind. He said, ‘your Steve Biko is dead, your Union of Black Journalists doesn’t exist anymore, and The World doesn’t exist anymore’, he recalled.

“My immediate reaction was that he is lying. The next day he came back and he had a copy of a proclamation of October 19th and threw it in front of me and said, ‘you said I was lying, look at that’. I looked at the government gazette and the organisations that were banned … that’s when the shock really hit me.”

It was only in March 1978 that Thloloe got to grips with what had happened to The World newspaper. When he was released from detention and driven to his home in Pimville, Soweto, the reality sunk even deeper that he was no longer employed by The World – a newspaper that had served as voice of the Struggle.

The last edition of 'The World' on October 18 1977, before being banned by the apartheid government.
'The World' newspaer The last edition of 'The World' on October 18 1977, before being banned by the apartheid government.
Image: Tiso Blackstar

“I got to understand that day that in fact people like Aggrey Klaaste and Percy Qoboza had also been locked up. That was the power the government had over us and the nation that at the stroke of a pen they could just shut down a publication, shut down so many organisations,” Thloloe said.

“The World newspaper had been somewhat replaced by Post Transvaal, but it was still in the same place in Industria, the same personnel and it was just a change of name.

“After my release from detention in 1978, I just slotted in and joined the new publication, the Post Transvaal.”

At the Post, Thloloe said, journalists had to continue telling the stories of black South Africans but they had to find a way around the Draconian apartheid laws.

In 1981, the Post ceased to exist, much like The World, after it was threatened with a ban following a prolonged strike by journalists. And in their place rose the Sowetan to fill the void.

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