/ 23 April 2015

You’re stirring your hornets into my words

Steve Biko.
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini, among others, has in recent weeks vented his anger at those of us who make a living by recording events as they unfold. We are accused of brandishing pens dripping with vitriol, our ultimate objective to attract more readers to our newspapers.

This column has not escaped similar sentiments, following the publication of one piece or another.

For my part I have tried, with some measure of success, to give the reader a rare window into the often extraordinary lives of, yes, ordinary people.

From time to time I am taken aback by the furious response from some readers who, for some reason or the other, choose to reinvent content by means of the strangest of perceptions. A recent column based on the working class of the Afrikaner town of Orania is a typical example.

The column was inspired by the journalist’s attempts to try to understand Orania’s all-white working class, men who sweat it out in the heat to make a living. For reasons unknown to me, this humble attempt triggered what can only be described as low-intensity racial warfare on social media.

Fortunately for me, I have worked with some of the finest journalists this side of Fleet Street, who have always reminded me that – reading between the lines – some people tend to find creepy-crawlies in a straightforward piece of journalism.

One of those journalists was Benardi Wessels, who took me under his wing and into the Pretoria bureau of the Rand Daily Mail, when I first stumbled into the fourth estate.

There were many visitors to the Mail‘s offices, among them colleagues from the Johannesburg headquarters, such as the late showbiz scribe Doc Bikitsha and political correspondent Zwelakhe Sisulu. Both offered valuable advice and guidance to yours truly. Zwelakhe is the son of ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu. May both father and son rest in peace.

Also of particular interest to me was a petite blonde young woman, who wore signature berets of different shades. What struck me about this white woman was that she was obsessed with what was then the militant black politics of the time.

On one of her many visits, I gathered courage and asked Wessels just who she was. Wessels winked and called me into his office, where the woman was sipping tea: “Oh colleagues, let me introduce you. Helen, meet Johnny Masilela …”

That was my first encounter with Helen Zille, a fine investigative journalist who broke the story of the torture and murder of Steve Biko, at the hands of the apartheid security forces, at great risk to her own life.

Lest, as Zille removes herself from the top Democratic Alliance position, we forget.

Johnny Masilela is a journalist and author