Campaigning journalist was a  ‘mensch’

Intrepid and enterprising: Eddie Koch (left) produced a remarkable body of work during his career, reporting on politics, labour, human rights, music and the environment. (Clifford Bestall)

Intrepid and enterprising: Eddie Koch (left) produced a remarkable body of work during his career, reporting on politics, labour, human rights, music and the environment. (Clifford Bestall)

OBITUARY: EDDIE KOCH (1955-2017)

The life of and work of Eddie Koch, who died last week aged 63, is a reminder of what journalism can be.

Eddie was doing a story on the Mozambican border in 1990 when he had a tip-off that there were businessmen bringing people across the border and “selling” them — women into sexual slavery and men into forced labour.

Reporter Phillip Molefe, who went on to be SABC head of news, spent a week drinking in a local shebeen to make contact with these human traders. He bought two of their “stock” for R200 each and was told that he should feed them and could beat them if they did not work hard.

On November 16 1990, the story was splashed on the front page of the Mail & Guardian: “I bought two slaves on Wednesday: Jorge Mthembu (17) and Immanuel Khambule (18). They were sold to me on the sole condition that I paid hard cash for them.”

This was Eddie’s intrepid, enterprising style of journalism.
At the time, he was doing a story on the electric border fence which had taken 200 lives. The week before he had filed a story on a helicopter flying arms from South Africa into Mozambique for the Renamo rebels. Now, with a tip-off from his many contacts in obscure places, he showed a relentless determination to get to the bottom of a human story.

Eddie always worked collaboratively, and he and Molefe had many such adventures in a style of undercover journalism we seldom see today.

The second half of the story tells us even more about Eddie. None of us had thought about what one does with “slaves”. If we let them go, they would be arrested or vulnerable to further exploitation. They certainly did not want to go home. They were clear that we owned them and were responsible for their welfare.

They lived in Eddie’s house with his family for a while, and then moved into the M&G offices. Eddie worked for months to find someone who would employ them, pay them and treat them decently.

That was Eddie: he took full responsibility for the people he wrote about, and would not think of moving on until he had looked after them. There were no short-term, quick hit, parachute stories: he liked his front-page headlines but it was the people he wrote about that mattered.

When I asked people he had worked with over the years about him, three “c’s” came up repeatedly: curiosity, courage and caring. He was a decent guy, they all said, a “mensch”.

He produced a remarkable body of work: at different times he was a historian, a political and labour writer, a music writer, an investigative journalist, a human rights activist, a pioneering environmental journalist and then an eco-tourism worker. He also co-produced a number of books, including Going Green: People, Politics and the Environment, with academic Jacklyn Cock, and Rights, Resources and Rural Development, with Christo Fabricius and others.

At a time when journalism is floundering, his life and work are an example of how to change this.

Born in Jo’burg in 1955, he went to Maryvale Primary and Sandringham High schools, where he was captain of rugby. At the University of the Witwatersrand, he studied history and wrote a memorable MA, Doornfontein and its African Working Class, 1914-1935: A Study of Popular Culture in Johannesburg.

It was at a gathering of the National Union of South African Students that he met his future wife, Tina Sideris.

After university, he worked at alternative publications Learn & Teach and the Labour Bulletin and later the South African Press Association. He joined The Weekly Mail (now the M&G) not long after it started and became a core member of its small team of journalists. Eddie was seldom in the office, always off with colleagues on a journalistic escapade. But Crocodile Koch, as I came to call him, kept up a flow of diverse and important stories.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rogue elements of the state were promoting violence, Eddie worked on a number of exposés, including the Caprivi 200, Inkatha members who were secretly trained by military intelligence to promote the bloody KwaZulu-Natal conflict at the time; Inkathagate, which showed how security police were secretly funding Inkatha, and the revelations of Bongani Khumalo, an Inkatha youth leader who spilt the beans on the relationship between the state and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

There was also the Black Cats, a Wesselton gang that was sponsored by the security police to disrupt resistance activities. “Here is the Third Force,” the headline shouted above pictures of gang members who told who was paying them to do this work. These stories were crucial in exposing those who were trying to derail negotiations, and they demanded a good deal of courage.

When democracy came, and we had to rethink our journalism, Eddie became a pioneering environmental journalist, starting a supplement that became the Greening the Future programme and awards.

“He was one of the first environmental journalists to go into deep investigative reporting. He was one of the few who saw you could not separate the social, economic and ecological,” said his eco-tourism business partner David Grossman.

But he had a temper when it came to matters of principle. When a photo-
grapher used a picture of environmental minister Valli Moosa skinny-dipping, Eddie was so furious at the breach of trust that he kicked his colleague’s equipment.

In the late 1990s, while writing about land claims, Eddie became involved in setting up eco-tourism ventures for communities who were getting back their land. He set up a company called Mafisa and later the African Safari Lodges Foundation to do this work, largely through public-private ventures. Their greatest success was in the Makuleke community in the far north of the Kruger National Park.

“He helped set the matrix for developments of that kind,” said Cliff Bestall, a filmmaker who worked with him. Bestall did the Healing Through Nature series with Eddie for the SABC, as well as a number of other films.

In 2006, Eddie had a cardiac arrest while driving. He suffered brain damage and loss of memory. With Bestall, he made one last film, The Unforgetting, in which they went back to the St Lucia community where they had made a previous film and tried to reconstruct his memory.

“We were using his own theory of healing through nature. Standing on the beach during the filming, Eddie one day said the most poignant thing. ‘By the time I finish watching this 26-minute film, I will have forgotten the beginning’,” Bestall said.

Last week, on his way to the art classes that had become his passion, he had a stroke. He leaves his wife, Tina, and their children Tasha (33) and Michael (25). — Anton Harber

A service will be held on Friday February 16, 11am, Maryvale Catholic Church, Raedene/Orange Grove

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