Obituary: Jeanette Minnie, champion of freedom in broadcasting

27 November 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron


Jeanette Minnie, who has died in George at the age of 61, was a champion of media freedom who played a central role in the development of post-apartheid broadcasting. She was the co-ordinator of the Campaign for Open Media and a driving force behind the Campaign for Independent Broadcasting in the early 1990s when the battle for an independent public broadcaster was fought and won.It was a short-lived victory. Within 10 years the SABC had begun reverting to state control. Minnie, the first executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, rolled up her sleeves again as a founder member of SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition.Her role in the transition to democratic broadcasting was not widely known. She was not one of those who sought the limelight.She was a backroom specialist who worked behind the scenes to forge a coalition of ideologically disparate organisations in an atmosphere of deep distrust.Many of them were by no means sure they wanted to be involved in any kind of negotiated settlement. Freedom of the airwaves meant different things to different groups and, anyway, was not necessarily top of their agenda.That they eventually agreed to a common vision for the transition of broadcasting from apartheid to democracy owed a huge amount to her. She was on the phone incessantly, haggling, persuading, arguing, finding ways around problems until consensus was reached. If this didn't work, she would go and see those involved personally.She provided much of the necessary technical support to the key negotiators, making sure meetings happened between the variety of forces within the liberation movement, hammering out consensus around the mechanics of the transition, ensuring that mandates were sought and that the necessary technical drafts were available for the development of the Independent Broadcasting Authority Bill and establishment of the Independent Media Commission.She worked night and day to help pioneer a process of nominations for the SABC board by the public. When the process was almost derailed by suspicions that the FW de Klerk team was negotiating in bad faith, she kept it on track. She played a central role in breaking the deadlock when nominations for the first democratic SABC board were rejected by the De Klerk government.She was a key player in the huge amount of often-frantic, behind-the-scenes negotiating that made these initiatives and last-minute rescue operations possible.To say that Minnie believed in talking is an understatement. Whether socially or professionally, she never stopped. This could be irritating, but it was effective.Her attention to detail was also indefatigable and could also be irritating. But it gave her work a lot of integrity because it couldn't be faulted.She kept eccentric hours, but once she got going, usually at around 11am, her energy knew no bounds and she'd keep going until midnight and beyond if necessary at a furious and unflagging pace.Minnie, née Crous, was born on July 16 1955 in Springs, where her father was a surveyor on the mines. She was non-conformist by nature. She attended the art, music and ballet school in Pretoria where she matriculated.She played the piano, but didn't pursue it.She went to the Potchefstroom University where she did a BA journalism degree in English and ethics while working as a cub reporter on the local newspaper. She smoked a pipe and wore long jackets that trailed on the ground. After varsity she dumped the pipe but remained a heavy smoker of cigarettes for most of her life.The university asked her to leave when it was discovered she was living with her boyfriend (who in 1977 became her husband). He was not asked to leave. After her professor interceded, she was allowed back. After Potch she completed an honours degree in philosophy through Unisa.She worked for two years as a radio news reporter for SABC, but found the politics untenable and joined the Rand Daily Mail in 1982.She played a leading role in the South African Union of Journalists and became national organiser in 1987.She launched herself as an international consultant in media law, policy and freedom of expression.She built the Media Institute of Southern Africa into a regional force for media freedom and worked actively to promote media independence in Zimbabwe. She ensured there was practical support for journalists needing to be bailed out of jail and arranged legal representation.Minnie was known by the name of her consultancy service Zambezi FoX, "Zambezi" being the river linking countries of Southern Africa, and "FoX" her acronym for "freedom of expression".Minnie, who died of cancer, is survived by her husband, Pierre, with whom she lived on a farm in the foothills of the Outeniqua mountains between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn. They chose not to have children.1955-2016

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