Govin Reddy fought for the freedom of people and the media

Govin Reddy, anti-apartheid activist and former SABC deputy chief executive who pioneered transformation at the public broadcaster, died on October 13. He was 74.

The youngest of 11 siblings, our father grew up on a small farm in Pinetown, Natal. The farmhouse was full of family, neighbours and friends, but it was simple and devoid of luxuries. For Govin, the centrepiece of the house was a radio powered by a car battery, which offered him rare glimpses of the wider world.

Radio would play a defining role in his later career. In 1995, as head of SABC radio, he founded the broadcaster’s flagship station, SAfm. This was part of a much wider effort that he helped spearhead, later as deputy chief executive, to dismantle the dour, conservative state-broadcaster that propped up apartheid, and to rebuild it as an inclusive, modern, public-service oriented institution, truly independent and confident of its role in a new democracy.

Transforming such a powerful beacon of the old regime was never going to be frictionless, and the break-up of traditional stations such as Radio SA drew anguish, obstruction, smears and even death threats from conservatives.

Although SAfm was the jewel in the crown of the new radio landscape, equally important to our father was the support and empowerment of smaller African-language and community stations that were crucial to the vision of a representative media.

Eventually, however, Govin himself fell afoul of an increasingly hollow and opportunistic notion of transformation that started to take hold, when he was overlooked for the top job at the SABC in favour of an underqualified candidate. His public criticism of that decision led to his departure.

He went on to become chief executive of the Mail & Guardian between 1999 and 2002 when the paper continued to firm up its reputation as a source of honest journalism and a fierce critic of the abuse of power.

These were among the high points in a diverse career in media that stretched from the start of his decade in exile in the 1980s and included positions at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the Inter Press Service, Africa South (a magazine he founded and edited), the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (which Allister Sparks invited him to help set up), the Media Development and Diversity Agency and many others.

He didn’t begin his career in media, however. It was a course alighted upon after a long period of study and political engagement.

Early on, his love of cricket played a formative role in his political life. As a boy he would sit for hours listening to cricket commentary on the car battery-powered radio. But his excellence in the game ran up against the barrier of racial segregation.

The contrast he noted between the pristine grounds of white teams, dressed in their equally pristine whites, and the meagre pitch on which he played, was an early trigger of political awareness.

A deep passion for sport ran the course of his life, interweaving with his activism when he later became involved in the boycott and sanctions movement.

By the time he began a BA at the University College for Indians on Salisbury Island, later the University of Durban-Westville (UDW), in the late 1960s, supported by his older siblings, Govin was already attuned to the iniquities of South African society.

An early act of resistance took place after Hendrik Verwoerd’s death in 1966, when he refused to attend a commemoration ceremony, costing him his job as a teacher. It was not the last time his outspokenness would cost him a job.

After completing a master’s in African Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago, he took up a research position at the Institute of Race Relations in 1974. Those years, which saw the emergence of vibrant forms of resistance in South Africa, were also to be the most fervent and edifying of Govin’s political life.

He worked closely with the renascent leadership of the Natal Indian Congress, but was also drawn into the orbit of the Black Consciousness movement, whose strong invocation of common cause among non-whites he found appealing.

Of the many prominent figures encountered in a long life of political involvement, Steve Biko and Rick Turner, whom he befriended in that period, left indelible marks.

Govin maintained an enduring pride in his Indian identity and the histories of struggle in the South African Indian community, but never one that descended into chauvinism. In pursuit of a nonracial, democratic South Africa he denounced all forms of collaboration with apartheid and believed that the Indian struggle needed to be embedded within the mantle of black liberation.

At a speech to UDW students in 1976, Govin veered off script and enjoined his audience to emulate the heroism of the Soweto youth uprising and the revolutions in Mozambique and Angola. At 4am the next morning he was detained and held for five months in Modderbee prison under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act.

Under a banning order following his release in 1977, Govin’s job options were severely curtailed. He opened a small bookstore in Boardwalk Arcade in Durban, using creative methods to import and sell books the regime deemed subversive.

In recent days, many have paid tribute to the skill and intensity with which Govin fought for a free country and an unfettered press. As important was the respect with which he treated others involved in the same endeavour, marrying an old-world dignity with a deep progressivism and aversion to the traditionalism of caste and class.

Like many stalwarts of his generation, he grew disillusioned by the frequency with which dedicated former activists abandoned the principles of the struggle once they were ensconced in power.

Closest to home, of course, was the decline of the SABC — now groaning under the weight of mismanagement, corruption and political interference, and unable to deliver on its ambitious public mandate. Govin and six other ex-board members condemned the situation as a “betrayal” of the South African public in an open letter penned last year.

But at the same time he was buoyed by the efforts of a younger generation of journalists and activists — some of whom he influenced as a visiting professor at the universities of Rhodes and Stellenbosch — to reclaim public broadcasting and fiercely defend every inch of media freedom.

Govin leaves behind his wife Tessa, children Sudeshan, Priya, Micah and Niall, and granddaughter Eila. — Niall and Micah Reddy

A public memorial will be held at the SABC Studio M1, Auckland Park, on Sunday, October 22, at 2pm

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Micah Reddy
Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Reddy was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University

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