Thandeka Gqubule sets the record straight

Journalist Thandeka Gqubule recently found herself part of the story when she was among a group who opposed censorship at the SABC and then when she was maligned as an apartheid agent by the EFF. But she is at heart a reporter of the news

20 May 2018 - 00:00 By CARLOS AMATO

Thandeka Gqubule is still annoyed. But her famous poise remains; her voice is witheringly calm, for instance, when she talks about EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.
"I was a bit of a vexed mama," says Gqubule. "When Ndlozi said he's going to release the Stratcom 40 list, I thought, why don't you just stop it? You don't have the list. And then I tried to restrain myself, during the period of mourning; waiting for them to release whatever they believe the list to be. I was waiting for him to do a No1, or a No2, or get off the potty. But I'm still waiting." She underlines her point with a beat of deadpan silence. On most topics, she has a ready laugh.After Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's death in April, Ndlozi issued an EFF statement implying that Gqubule had been an agent of the apartheid regime's Stratcom disinformation campaign in the early 1990s. With all the toxic relish of a medieval inquisitor (or, indeed, a special branch interrogator), Ndlozi threatened to start revealing names if confessions were not forthcoming.
The evidence he cited was a video clip that was filmed in 2017 and briefly published in April by HuffPost South Africa, in which Madikizela-Mandela falsely accused Gqubule and two other former Weekly Mail journalists - Anton Harber and Nomavenda Mathiane - of "doing the work" of Stratcom.
Madikizela-Mandela was not an impartial observer. Gqubule had found the body of Stompie Seipei, and reported on his abduction and murder at the hands of the Mandela Football Club. The episode stained Madikizela-Mandela's legacy.
Gqubule believes history should be constantly re-examined. "New questions must be asked about old matters. But what in this particular case alarmed me, is the desire to revise self-evident facts and replace them with fiction."
She quotes WEB Du Bois: "One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. ... History loses its value, as an incentive and an example; it paints perfect men and noble nations but it does not tell the truth."
Gqubule helped expose Stratcom's operations. In 1997, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza told Madikizela-Mandela on the record that he had seen the Stratcom 40 list, and that Gqubule and Mathiane were not on it, as she had claimed.
Gqubule is taking legal action against Ndlozi and HuffPost. But emotionally, she is moving on. "One of the things I was taught as a trainee reporter was never to yield to resentment due to the experience of persecution. Because persecution is part of the job. If you are doing the job properly, it's par for the course."
We're at Vovotelo restaurant in Milpark, down the road from the SABC, where Gqubule is economics editor. She was one of the celebrated "SABC 8" - the central figures in the fight against the broadcaster's near-destruction under Hlaudi Motsoeneng's regime.
Former CEO Motsoeneng may be gone, but the battle for media freedom is far from won, she says. The threat is not merely intimidation or censorship, but the corrosion of journalistic ethics in the acid bath of social media culture: gaslighting, clickbait, performative outrage, the weaponisation of grief. The likes of Ndlozi are at home in this world."Looming in our future is big friction between the traditional press and populism, which will increasingly use social media to amplify its messages. But I believe that rigour will always win out. Truth will always win.
"Populists are the natural enemies of journalism," says Gqubule, "because they want to seize the agenda-setting role of the media - using catchy phrases, dramatic behaviour, the politics of spectacle. The result is the drowning out of ethical journalism, which is much more time-consuming and reflective."
She does not include Pascal Lamche's documentaryWinnie in that category and has no desire to meet the French filmmaker.
"Lamche said: 'I am doing this for you, South Africans. You must dig deep, you must know about your history.'"
Gqubule bristles. "How condescending and disrespectful! Dig deep? We were there! And we are not going to unknow what we know, or unsee what we saw. Imagine me going to France and saying: 'Listen, I'm doing this for you.'"
Her voice drips with mock pity. "'You must dig deep into the history of Napoleon. I'm telling you, the French, who have thought about Napoleon for generations, what to think finally of Napoleon.' And then ... twist the facts."
During the 1986 state ofemergency, Gqubule spent a month in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square, and another seven months at "Sun City" (Johannesburg Prison). She was 20 and pregnant. So you can understand her reservations about the glib judgments of revisionist born-frees and sanctimonious latecomers like Lamche.
"I've got no beef with the woke generation," she says. "I just wish they wouldn't cede their souls to populists. It's exciting to participate, and social media gives you the impression you are participating in an important national dialogue. But when I saw those legions of totalitarian bots coming out of the net, like so many little soldiers, I revised that opinion. First of all, it's an echo chamber, or a collection of echo chambers, and it's also an unregulated, almost a mindless space. Lobotomised. It has no regard for history, for facts."
Gqubule is the daughter of the theologian and United Democratic Front leader Simon Gqubule and the clinical psychologist Miriam Gqubule. Her parents were "moral absolutists", she says - and the apple fell straight down. "It is both my strength and my weakness. They wouldn't give up under even the most severe pressure. They would not yield on issues of ethics or belief. They believed in the beatitudes; blessed are the persecuted, blessed are the meek."
Simon was a renowned scholar of Greek and the New Testament. While he spent his whole career in the Methodist Church, he was drawn to the liberation theology of South American Catholicism and became close to Steve Biko. After he was pushed out of Fort Hare University in the 1970s, the family settled in Pietermaritzburg's Imbali township, where Miriam established the Ekukhanyeni centre for children with learning disabilities, which still exists.
"Our education was not conventional," says Gqubule. "At home we would speak Xhosa or Zulu to my mother, and English to my father. So when people ask 'What's your home language?' I get confused. My father would also line us up and make us recite the Greek alphabet!
"When my father became president of the Methodist Church, its Council took the decision to open up the Methodist schools to all races. So in 1979 I became the first black girl at Epworth School."
She suffered culture shock, and the feeling was mutual. "The white girls thought I was odd. They had these Victorian manners in the dining room. And they thought I read funny books. I would read I Write What I Like under my desk, because it was banned. They were reading Mills & Boon, so I would chastise them for their unseriousness. They also had boyfriends, while I had no one.
"But I was very happy," she says. "Initially I was isolated, but Epworth had this ethos that to be loving and courageous was as important as academic excellence."
She matriculated in 1983 and enrolled to study Gujarati, comparative religion and law at the University of Durban-Westville. "You had to do some courses that weren't offered at your ethnic group's university; I was supposed to go to Fort Hare because I was Xhosa. Nativism is foolish.
"I failed Gujarati, but in the process I fell in love with Hindi cinema, and to this day I am an expert, from the classics to Bollywood." She's a literary Indophile too, revering the economist Amartya Sen and the novelist Arundhati Roy.Then Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand beckoned. It was 1985, and the air was thick with the spirit of resistance. Gqubule studied law, but she soon got into activism and, inevitably, jail. It was her second time inside; she had been briefly detained as a schoolgirl for couriering messages to ANC contacts in Maseru. ("It wasn't hectically subversive. We were little nuisances who wanted to be useful.")
This time it was the real deal. "The solitary was challenging. I spent a month alone. Claire Wright was in the next cell - she was the SRC president. We would see each other in the passage, and I would try to get somebody who served me food to slip her a little note. I remember one note I sent her, saying: 'Hi dear, I'm pregnant.'
"I was already rolling around like a Teletubby when they released me from Sun City. They just brought my box of things and put me in the car ... so I thought, oh Lord, it's back to John Vorster Square. But then I saw we were heading for Wits west campus gate, the one next to the Planetarium. And they just dropped me and my box, and said: 'Go!' No trial, no charges, nothing. They didn't even tell me why I was ever there."
Her daughter Baba-Tamana Gqubule, now a leading economist in Johannesburg, was born in January 1987 at Edendale Hospital.
Gqubule's parents took care of the child while she returned to university. "But when I got back to Wits, I didn't do well in my supps, and the results of the exams I had written in detention had to stand."
In any event, she was dreaming of newsrooms, not courtrooms.
"I was a big admirer of the work of Sefako Nyaka and Zwelakhe Sisulu on the New Nation, the Weekly Mail. For me they were like rock stars. Anton [Harber] can tell you how many people applied for the Weekly Mail job - something like 600. And they only chose three of us."
All veteran journalists remember their first newsrooms with nostalgia - but this wasn't any old first newsroom. It was the inky frontline of a brewing revolution. "We earned R600 a month," says Gqubule. "But we were pig-in-s**t happy."
A huge briyani was served every Friday in the Anderson Street newsroom. Everyone helped cook it, under the stern supervision of Thami Mkhwanazi.
Sub-editor Barbara Ludman would burnish Gqubule's copy. "She was the writing teacher. When we hadn't done the journalism right, she would say, in her Miami drawl: 'I worry about you, honey!' And when we had done it right, she would say: 'Come here! Listen, remember me in your memoirs!'"Gqubule lived in a commune in Berea, but she crashed with colleagues in Yeoville when she got wind of threats to her life.
She had to work without a car. "For a while we would walk to our stories. But I had a friend called Rich Mkhondo who had a beat-up red Golf. So I would phone him when I had no transport, which was every day. And we would argue about stories as we drove."
A strong team did the legwork on the Stompie story: Gqubule, Mkhondo, Audrey Brown, David Beresford, Shaun Johnson.
Gqubule and Mkhondo found the body. "We went to every place where you could possibly find a dead person in Soweto. And then we ended up at the mortuary next to Baragwanath. We were about to turn around, but then one guy said we should come in and see this drawer. They opened the drawer, and there was Stompie."
Back at the newsroom, that same day, the police came calling. "They were asking if we had found anything of interest. While Anton spoke to them, I think Barbara told me to go into the toilet. So I sat there and waited till they had left. Anton said he managed to get rid of the cops.
"Anton's very tough. But biased judge that I am, I think that his genius was in growing young journalists."
Stompie's death was pivotal for Madikizela-Mandela, and it mars our collective memory as an emblem of the moral dangers of any liberation struggle. But it was only one of the thousands of killings that Gqubule's generation of reporters reported on. And the memory of all those corpses makes her recoil at the casual invocation of violence in our contemporary debate.
"Relatives would ask us to come and look for their missing loved ones at mortuaries, because sometimes the mortuary workers would allow us to come and examine the bodies. 'He was wearing a blue jersey. Can you look for him?'
"There is something about violence that shuts down your human potential. It's a race to the bottom, where there are no winners. Nobody who has been there can glorify war. For me, just the fact of the uniforms and military titles leaves me cold. I think of fascism, and totalitarian mindsets.
"And when people talk about generational bequests, and they say Mandela sold us out, it worries me. Because they don't understand the sheer enormity of the gift given.
"If a democracy is delivered to you by a generation, how did they sell you out? Democracy is never perfect. It's your job to take it further, to make the most of the bequest."..

There’s never been a more important time to support independent media.

From World War 1 to present-day cosmopolitan South Africa and beyond, the Sunday Times has been a pillar in covering the stories that matter to you.

For just R80 you can become a premium member (digital access) and support a publication that has played an important political and social role in South Africa for over a century of Sundays. You can cancel anytime.

Already subscribed? Sign in below.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.