Hamburg meets Johannesburg – an evening with Joe Thloloe

blog post written during the International Insitut for Journalism’s Summer Academy 2007

„Journalism is for people who are committed to something bigger than themselves and the checkbook they get at the end of the month” says Joe Thloloe into the complete silence of the room, where 22 young journalists from 22 countries are holding their breath. “We have to adopt the perspective of the underdogs of our society and use our influence to give a voice to the voiceless. This is what makes a good journalist.”

Joe Thloloe is one of the least known lecturers of the Summer Academy: this decent modest gentleman of sixty-something who appeared at the dinner table one evening and silently assisted at all seminars since.

But he will be the last to be forgotten. Lecturers and course participants have talked about the “ethic and responsibility of the media” for weeks before he arrived, but nobody brought it across in such a heartfelt, personal and credible manner.

It’s the story of his life after all.

Joe Thloloe was 15 years old when he became a journalist without wanting to. It was deep into the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1950s and he still attended highschool. Young Joe was caught in the middle of a youth warfare in his township Lesotho; as a result of the dividing apartheid policies young men and women of his age fought each other. Without further ado, he wrote a feature story and sent it to Times Magazine. All South African magazines at that time were in the hand of whites and would never have printed it.

The piece caught the attention of a senior Times journalist. When he found out that all facts given by this unknown schoolboy were true, he made sure young Joe got published. Thloloe remembers being awarded “the incredible salary of ten dollars”. This motivated him enough to keep tampering with public affairs by writing letters to the editor while using a pseudonym. He didn’t come out until when his father asked him, whether by chance or by suspicion, if he knew this writer who was publishing all these comments. Thloloe smiles when he speaks of this: “It’s me, father” he admitted. Nothing more.

In 1959 Joe Thloloe was in his mid-twenties and among the “angry young men” filled with the desire for a better life, the passion for literature and the fury of the voiceless and oppressed. “We were always walking around with a book under one arm, we carried our idols of literature and journalism even to our meeting places” he remembers. “We also wanted to write of Mice and Men as John Steinbeck did, we felt as well related to Hemingway as to Chinua Achebe. We were hungry for education, sensing that it would prevent us from falling into depression and drunkenness as many of the great spirits of this time did.”

These Stormers and Stressers of the Fifties, among them Nelson Mandela and many others later known for their revolutionary achievements, didn’t feel sufficiently represented by the African National Congress any longer. The Buren-led apartheid government had introduced passports to divide all Native South Africans into arbitrary ethnic classes which was supposed to keep them in their townships. Thloloe and his friends refused to carry their passports from one day to another. “We wanted to point the way and make this passport system collapse, at any price.” The price they paid was high: Those of the 200 (?) young rebels who were imprisoned were the lucky ones. 67 (?) of them were shot during deportation.

During his 18 months in prison, between sessions of torture and solitary reclusion, young Thloloe was taught his future profession which already was his wholehearted passion: “There was a senior journalist in the same jail as me, whom I admired a lot. He taught me. As we had no paper, I wrote my first features on the toilet paper they provided to us, collecting pieces of information of the other rebels which they had written on their papers.”

The excitement in the seminar room is tangible, many of the 22 junior journalists come from developing or emerging countries and have learned their art under difficult circumstances. But who has ever heard of a journalist school in jail? “Have you never ever wanted to give up?” Ade wants to know and he can’t prevent his voice from trembling. The young Nigerian journalist just starts harvest the Grapes of Wrath in his own country which his parents’ generation has planted: He feels privileged and thankful to be able to confront government officials with awkward findings – persons which were still inaccessible for his mother.

Thloloe looks at the participants with cloudy but astute eyes. His exhaustion does not only come from his long flight but from a life full of suffering and commitment. And they know: He has not ceded. Neither when he was accused of activist journalism when he joined the “Union of Black Journalists” nor when he became a “living dead” as no one could refer to his ideas without both of them going to jail. “During the three decades of apartheid writing, my wife and me tried to joke around that we could write a survey on South African prisons, me from the inside and she from the outside perspective.”

Their fight was vindicated and his humour finally justified: At the beginning of the 1990s apartheid was abolished, the rule of law and democracy installed and the authorities had to confront a truth commission.

After a unique career in journalism which lasted for 46 years, Joe Thloloe has now put the pen apart. Instead he serves as an ombudsman at the newly founded Press Council of South Africa, a self-regulative institution comparable to the “Deutsche Presserat”. Thloloe believes that journalists have to stand in solidaity: “At all times and right around the world you find people who need your voice, in Germany as well as in Sudan and Afghanistan. Even after the end of the apartheid regime, I could imagine a lot of stories that I would go back into the streets for.”