By Annisa Essack
Her childhood was in a mixed community, labelled Coloured under Apartheid. Her entry into journalism was due to the urgings of a father who possibly recognised her talent before she did and her entrance into the University of Cape Town required special permission from the Coloured Affairs Department to attend a white university.
Although she encountered a few bumps in the road, at the end of 1979, at 21 years of age, she completed two degrees – one at UCT and one at Rhodes. By the time she was 22 years old, she began her professional life at the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg and then went on to Cape Town to join the Cape Times.
In 1980, she was detained by South African authorities for two months after exposing police killings. During her incarceration, she was held in solitary confinement, tortured, and beaten. In 1986, she was again detained, whilst pregnant, after editing community and trade union papers. She was released close to her baby’s birth, only to be re-arrested nine-weeks later and jailed with her infant.
That, in a nutshell, was the start of the journey for Zubeida Jaffer, journalist, author, and activist. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. She also holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University in New York where she won the best foreign student award in 1996.
Zubeida has forged her career during a restless and sometimes dark time against the Apartheid government enduring the pressure whilst struggling against the upheavals that were commonplace then as Black students were for the first time being admitted into White universities. A time when black consciousness organisations and newspapers were banned, activists and journalists arrested.
Over the years she earned many accolades, while she continued to teach, research and write – including a second book Love in the Time of Treason, and a third, Beauty of the Heart, the Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke. She co-edited Decolonising Journalism in South Africa: Critical Perspectives with three other academics due for release next year.
To be honoured with the Allan Kirkland Soga Lifetime Achievement Award, one will have to demonstrate impeccable ethics and craft excellence. The award citation also says that it recognises a sustained and extraordinary contribution to journalism. The winners work will have enriched South African public life, their accomplishment achieved in the face of obstacles.
In accepting the award, Zubeida humbly acknowledged her fellow journalists and their work saying that they had “done what they had to do when they had to do it” and encouraged today’s journalists to “soldier on”.
“The challenge is to keep our minds in balance so that we can be strong enough to root out corruption and gender-based violence while at the same time fully understand our blessings,” she said.
She said she had been privileged to witness the good and the bad in her time but had faith that South Africans had the strength to “pull through the darkness towards the light of a just and fair country”.
And as we marked Press Freedom Day in South Africa yesterday, an important and relevant question Zubeida raised was: “How will we strengthen the rich tradition of community-based journalism in all languages that will move us away from the echo chambers of the elite and enable the unheard voices of all to be heard?”