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Memories of Reporting in 1960s Africa

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 3rd, 2011 · On Second Thought
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CAPE TOWN — I’m back in Southern Africa for the first time since colonial 1965, when I was here as a journalist.

In the 1960s, black rule was rare, an aspiration of increasingly restive black majorities. Most publications were aimed at white minorities. Broadcast was government owned or controlled.

The papers I joined set out to be different; we supported black majority rule and aimed our papers at a multiracial audience.

I started in 1963 as a reporter and photojournalist at the weekly Zambia News, freelancing as well for UPI on the strategic Northern Rhodesian copperbelt. The paper came out shortly before I arrived, printing on a press that had to be imported into the heart of Africa. I wish I’d been there to see it, the Linotypes and other essentials of newspaper publishing arrive.

Much of 1964 also was spent on readying the daily Zambia Times for publication before the former British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia became independent Zambia that October. We pulled together our international, multiracial news staff and culled those few whose words and deeds inexplicably were hostile to black majority rule.

Our printers also were journeymen, drawn as well by high pay and a whiff of adventure. Their backgrounds ranged from Zambians to a Brit who said he was a former Palestine police officer and the son of a Black and Tan who served in pre-independence Ireland.

By the time we printed our first daily edition, my title was news-editor-in-charge. I succeeded the expatriate editor who died in a road accident shortly after he arrived. I was to be his news editor; after his death, I took charge of the news operation.

That meant I also wrote the daily “leader,” as many British-heritage papers call their editorials. Ours appeared on the left hand column of Page 1. Many were anodyne; I had nothing to say and space to fill. Others pointedly addressed the daily news: roaming partisan youth groups that needed restraint, family life and problems in black townships around the copper mines, the toxic presence of U.N. forces and mercenaries in neighboring Congo, and stubborn white colonial rule in neighboring Rhodesia, Southwest Africa, Angola and Mozambique.

My editorials also tried to explain the Goldwater-LBJ presidential race and American armed intervention in the Congo and Southeast Asia. I have no idea if anyone believed what I wrote, but I predicted an LBJ victory, nothing but a bloody nose in the Congo and that Vietnamese nationalists would be willing to lose longer than Americans would be willing to win.

Our papers supported President Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party, but we weren’t lap dogs. Kaunda made it plain to us that he needed loyal but not uncritical support. Raised in the American tradition of an adversarial press, I sometimes stumbled. There were moments when a Zambian colleague would wander over with a galley proof and quietly say, “I don’t think Ken would like that.”

He wasn’t pulling rank. He and the president were on first-name terms. Rather, he had local street smarts I lacked. We’d talk and more than once, I agreed and changed the leader. It was a price of newspapering in their country and cultures.

Occasionally, a page proof would come to me with something circled in red by a copy editor and “Americanism!” scrawled across my leader or story. That was a linguistic caution, not a political statement. American English could be alien. Some times, copy editors — called “subs” for sub-editors — would let my clangers stand because they could blame “The Yank.” More than once, I used phrases otherwise not seen or heard in polite company and added spice to collections is printed mishaps. Example: “on the job” refers to the male on top in the heterosexual “missionary” position. It is not used for work-related performance.

After almost 11 months of self-rule and an open, fair national election, Zambia became independent on Oct. 24, 1964. It was our biggest story. The national celebration was in Lusaka, the distant capital. There was a brief nighttime ceremony in our copper mining town, Kitwe: the red, white and blue Union Jack was lowered and the red, black, orange and green Zambian flag raised.

The dignity and joy still are hard to describe. There, the oft-reviled “winds of change” blowing across colonial Africa were a welcome, gentle breeze.

The 1960s were a lively time for journalists, politicians, mining companies, investors, arms merchants, spies, mercenaries and anyone else who saw an opportunity. It also was a time of optimism in the slowly growing number of independent, black-ruled countries.

At the tip of the continent, South Africa had a variety of papers in Afrikaans, the primary language of the ruling Afrikaner community, or English, reflecting the relatively liberal anti-apartheid politics of their readers.

Magazines like English-language Drum were aimed at the urban black African market and they offered some of the most telling photography and reporting in a repressive press system. The region’s best paper was the Rand Daily Mail from Johannesburg. Its reporters and photographers were courageous, its editors critical of racist apartheid.

Moving north, Rhodesia had dailies in Salisbury, the capital, and Bulawayo, the colony’s second city. They tended to support continued white rule or, at best, gradual moves toward majority rule, when and if black Africans should ever be ready.

In Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, we had a curious press situation. Both dailies with more or less general circulation were published on the prosperous copperbelt, far from the dreary distant capital, Lusaka.

The dominant, older Northern News in Ndola was owned by the South African Argus Group. It accepted black rule when that became inevitable. Our papers, the weekly Zambia News and daily Zambia Times based up the road from Ndola in the mining town of Kitwe, courted a multi-racial audience.

Not surprisingly, this led to more than one hostile white calling me a “kaffir boetie,” Afrikaans for “nigger lover.”

Our German immigrant owner, Max Heinrich, had a national monopoly for brewing traditional maize beer commercially; he industrialized home brew. Chibuku, the alcoholic version, was sold in black African township beer halls. (It’s still made there but marketed more widely in stores as well.) Mining companies served a nonalcoholic version to men at work for its nutrients and hydration virtues.

The Zambia News and Times were the only papers I’ve worked for edited and printed at a brewery and delivered by beer trucks.

Max promised to create the papers for the emerging black majority if the new government if it would keep its hands off his brewery. Smart. “African Socialism” was trendy and another name for nationalizing private industry in newly independent countries.

Both sides initially kept their word.

We journalists had a ball. Not many people get to start a daily paper. With the pains and joy, it’s as close as the men among us would ever get to birthing a child. Most of us were white British, Rhodesian or South African journeymen in our 20s and 30s. I was the lone Yank.

With rare exception, black colleagues were talented if less experienced, having trained on other local publications or, in one case, in East Germany. Rhodesians, South Africans or Zambians, our black journalists and printers were conscious of being on the front lines of emerging majority rule.

Everyone hoped to avoid the disaster of the (former Belgian) Congo on our northern border. There, bloody civil strife, murderous, corrupt incompetence and impotent international intervention continue six decades later.

Life in Zambia was peaceful. It became independent with little civil strife. There was no war of independence, no civil war later. Violence between the two main pro-independence parties, the local African National Congress and United National Independence Party, was rare. Businessmen by then had abandoned any vestiges of racist treatment of customers.

White copper miners were more interested in pay and bonuses than politics. They weren’t settlers. Most were expats — whether Scots, Brits, Australians or South Africans — and they expected to “go home” when they’d made enough money or retired.

Unlike Rhodesia and South Africa, the relatively few white commercial farmers in Zambia were urged to stay.

Zambia’s chief export, copper, was in great demand largely for power lines and munitions.

Smelted copper flowed out. Money flowed in. Multinational mining companies kept everyone working. An individual white miner’s annual copper bonus might be enough to buy a new Jaguar. Experience on the mines and in the townships was turning a tribal, rural population into one that was increasingly urban, literate and politically active.

Whites didn’t flee. Municipal government and courts were effective. Many dedicated colonial officials — judges, police, military and district officers and provincial commissioners — stayed as long as asked. Infrastructure was sound: Urban water and sewers, rails, roads, and communications. Public health was good; epidemics would be bad for copper production. AIDS was unknown. Urban slums and poverty largely were in the future.

So our daily and weekly papers covered local news in small towns, from one copper mining camp to another. We covered government news; fires, burglaries and traffic accidents; pre- and post-independence politicking and personalities; schools, community issues and business development; the London Metal Exchange where copper prices were set; black and white union activity, and sports. Lots of sports.

For Indians and Brits, we covered cricket everywhere, including local teams. For South Africans, New Zealanders and others, we covered the Religion of Rugby. Football/soccer was another sport to which we paid attention.

We relied on UPI radio signals from London for most news beyond our borders. One of my least favorite moments was staying up one night as the visiting UPI radio engineer tuned our equipment to reduce reception problems. We should have turned down mugs of our publisher’s beer. Think of watery alcoholic corn mush with a nasty kick: that’s Chibuku. “Disabled” barely describes its impact on the uninitiated.

A favorite moment was visiting UPI in London where I’d worked for the agency and studied African anthropology before going out to Africa. Now I was a “client editor” who could renew or cancel a UPI news service contract. If I expected deference, I was disabused in a hurry. Deference always was in short supply among journalists working in London and nonexistent for an upstart young American editor.

That said, Zambia wasn’t all lawn fetes and bowling, beer and skittles, Desai v. Patel cricket matches and mounted skill at arms — plucking oversize tent pegs from soft soil with a lance or saber at full gallup — at the Copperbelt fair.

The Congo’s violent, secessionist province, Katanga, was on our northern border; we could drive to Elisabethville, its colonial capital, for a fine Continental meal and Belgian beer. With careful timing, we had the dubious protection of convoys and U.N. troops. It was just us and bandits if we missed a convoy.

Former Katanga soldiers turned bandit sometimes crossed into Zambia. The Northern Rhodesia Regiment was ill-prepared to respond quickly. That was left to the police, another colonial-era force with black African constables and white officers.

During the response to one incursion, our photographer shot a fine photo of the local police superintendent leading the way through tall, blinding elephant grass with his ready submachinegun. White off-duty officers responded so quickly that many had time only to grab weapons and uniform hats. The “super” was wearing, I recall, his usual off-duty uniform: flip-flops, shorts, an aloha shirt . . . plus his officer’s hat.

We played the photo large on Page 1; Police had sent up a parachute flare, lighting was bright and our quirky engraving machine gave us a perfect plate.

The next morning, after the paper came out, I was pulled over twice by constables in a 1-mile drive down the main road. It was pure harassment. I asked the second man what was up. “Ask the superintendent.” I found a big, hard man with an angry red face.

He accused me of running the photo to make him look foolish. I thought he meant his clothes. No. He had grabbed the Sten or Sterling sub-machine gun without noticing the white band around the muzzle. That meant it was disarmed for training use; it couldn’t fire.

Luckily, he encountered no bandits but officers and constables enjoyed a laugh at his expense the next morning. I said, truthfully, we ran the photo because it was a good news shot. None of us noticed the marking and, if we had, we had no clue to its significance. He cooled off, harassment ended and I was readmitted to the officer’s club.

Meanwhile, in the Bierstuble and other local bars, white mercenaries, mercenary wannabes and recruiters drank brandy and Coke and talked about being paid to shoot black African rebels in the Congo . . . by the black African government in the distant Congo capital of Leopoldville.

That story was hard to report; men who talked to journalists weren’t mercenaries or recruiters, whatever their bravado. The genuine articles weren’t talkative and neither were intelligence officers watching them.

We had no shortage of indigenous black African churches whose fascinating mix of beliefs and practices were lifted from Christian missionary efforts and messianic movements.

One, the Lumpa church, didn’t support the United National Independence Party that won the pre-independence election. Some withdrew into walled compounds. That was provocative. Led by the charismatic prophet Alice Lenshina, her sprawling, rural religious community came to a violent end when confronted by authorities. She went to prison.

That was a rare news story that found a way into the international press; it fit stereotypes of crazy savages inspired in large part by Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising and the Congo civil war. I had less luck selling stories about economic development or foreign aid and famine relief going awry.

Missionaries were an odd lot. Some were white American segregationists at home. Others carried no such burden. One of my favorite stories focused on white Plymouth Brethren missionaries from Pennsylvania. They were happily replacing themselves by raising up leaders from among thousands of black Zambian converts. Continuing white leadership — local or foreign — was more typical of foreign missions.

When I visited the Brethren, one American family served me and a colleague what they thought was a typical American lunch: Cream of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and chopped raw cabbage covered by “monkey nut butter.” I recognized peanut butter but it was my only meal with that salad combination.

My companion teased me for days about “typical” American food.

Another story focused on a similarly atypical American missionary, Methodist Bishop Ralph Dodge. Expelled from white-ruled Southern Rhodesia, he settled near us in Zambia and continued his constructive efforts on social transformation among black African communities. I don’t know if Dodge ever acknowledged that Rhodesians were right; he was subversive of their racist assumptions and rule.

When Korsten basketmakers, an itinerant black African religious group camped outside our town, they were welcomed for their crafts and skills as tinkerers.

Again, it was a good story with lively photos. However, someone quickly spotted active smallpox. As I recall, government health officials, backed by police arms, surrounded them and made clear the violent alternative to treatment and vaccination; basketmakers would not be allowed to leave and spread smallpox.

A local white missionary, respected by black Zambians, mediated. Church leaders — whose eclectic beliefs reflected Christian Science emphasis on healing prayer rather than conventional medicine — found divine guidance and accepted the inevitable for themselves and their followers. Treated and vaccinated, they moved on when they’d fixed every damaged pot and sold their baskets.

Given its natural resources and proximity between the Congo and Rhodesia, Zambia was a low-intensity battleground for political influence in central/southern Africa. That, in turn, produced endless stories, some noting how well-intended foreign projects stumbled on traditional Zambian cultural values.

Israelis and Egyptians sought influence with the new black-majority government. China offered to build the TanZam road and rail line to carry copper to black-ruled Tanzania’s Indian ocean ports and to bypass white-ruled Rhodesia, Mozambique and especially Angola. Then there was a fellow identified by intelligence officers as the resident KGB agent. He always addressed me as if I were CIA. How else to explain a young, white American newcomer to Africa in charge of the country’s black nationalist daily? We had some interesting conversations over lunch at the old colonial Nkana hotel.

Emerging national pride would surface in odd ways. The new Zambian government wanted to eliminate the pricey “Imperial” grade of beef. I forget whether it was the name or because it was unseemly in a country where so few Africans could afford it. That was a major independence-era story. I don’t recall how it ended.

I had my own beef with “Imperial.” An entire, costly tenderloin that I seared on the grill for guests was impervious to slicing. When the butcher ignored my complaint the next day, my cook brought in the dogs I was caring for during their owner’s annual overseas leave. I tossed the tenderloin into the air and watched an English mastiff and her bull mastiff pup try unsuccessfully to tear it apart. Customers roared with laughter.

The butcher shouted that I could have my money back but just get those fucking dogs out of his shop. The dogs kept the tenderloin as a toy. The butcher held a grudge.

South Africa today is an independent, black-ruled country with significant racial/ethnic minorities. In 1965, it was an authoritarian, racist white-ruled republic after decades as the British imperial dominion called the Union of South Africa. Its apartheid policy of racial separation made it a pariah, as did its banning, silencing or jailing critics and treating fleeing anti-apartheid refugees as fugitives regardless of whether they were accused of crimes.

White-ruled Southern Rhodesia wasn’t much better after decades as a British colony in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Northern and Southern Rhodesia were named for Cecil Rhodes, one of the great British imperialists of the late 19th Century.

As a step toward imminent independence for Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Britain dissolved the Federation on New Year”s Day, 1964. I spent that historic day covering the events on both sides of Victoria Falls; the Zambezi River divided Southern and Northern Rhodesia. (African lesson: when a baboon grabs your bottle of beer from the table, just order another beer.)

Following breakup of the federation, Nyasaland quickly and peacefully became independent, black-ruled Malawi, followed by Northern Rhodesia/Zambia. Southern Rhodesia declared its independence from Britain after I left in 1965, and descended into a long civil war that created black-ruled Zimbabwe.

As a peaceful, prosperous British protectorate, Northern Rhodesia where I lived and worked rarely made international news. An exception was U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold’s death in a plane crash not far from where our papers would publish. He hoped to intervene in war-torn Congo where the anti-Communist West supported secessionists against the new black government.

Conspiracies-as-explanations for the crash still raged two years later when I arrived.

Mozambique and Angola on the Indian and Atlantic Oceans were white-ruled Portuguese overseas provinces. After bloody wars, they are black-ruled independent nations under the same names. (Formerly German) Southwest Africa was ruled by South Africa under a League of Nations mandate; today, after armed rebellion, it’s black-ruled, independent Namibia. Botswana, another British protectorate, in the center of the subcontinent soon would be black-ruled and independent without bloodshed.

As the only black-ruled country in the region then, Zambia was home to refugee and fugitive South African anti-apartheid leaders and followers, especially those involved in increasingly violent opposition to white Afrikaner rule.

More than one of my colleagues feared he might be snatched by South African police Special Branch on a nighttime helicopter raid. One reporter, a white Communist, really was a fugitive.

Rhodesia’s black political parties — ZAPU and ZANU — largely shunned armed violence against the white government and settlers during that same period. ZAPU and ZANU leaders lived openly in the colony.

En route from London to Northern Rhodesia, UPI had me cover the African leg of the trip home of the Philippine president who’d attended JFK’s funeral. I joined his flight in Liberia and reported his stops as well in Kenya and Tanganyika. From Dar es Salaam, I flew to Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia, and went to Harare township to interview ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo. At the time, he was the Big Man in the independence movement there.

I found him in a thinning cloud of tear gas left by police who’d put down some sort of demonstration. It was a perfect introduction to reporting in Africa.

Other than sports and our neighboring Congo, “foreign” news was dominated by the Rivonia trial in South Africa. It ended with conspiracy convictions of Nelson Mandela and a handful of fellow anti-apartheid leaders. Some were Communists, welcomed by ANC as anti-colonial supporters of majority rule; the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Acting to further communism was one of the charges on which the men were convicted.

Suppression of communism — think of Cold War racism — was a foundation of South African laws to smear, intimidate, persecute and prosecute anti-apartheid activists. Today, the South African Communist Party is an open participant in electoral politics in partnership with the ruling ANC.

I left the Zambia Times after Lonrho — an multinational investment company willing to do business with anyone in Africa — bought and combined it with the older, larger Northern News. I could have stayed as a senior reporter. After the excitement and satisfaction of starting a daily paper, that proposition fell flat. I helped the transition, took a “golden handshake” and spent some time touring Rhodesia before returning to the ‘States.

In 1965, my efforts to visit South Africa failed, first at the border and then in Rhodesia where I tried to find out why I was refused entry. Then and now, I suspect my roles at the Zambia NewsZambia Times were decisive in the eyes of South African security. Their hostility trumped my written invitation from the tourism minister. and

Today, my old paper is renamed the Times of Zambia and it’s a government publication. There are more papers now than in my time. Some are independent, some are openly partisan. In black Africa, Zambia has a press relatively free of official coercion.

Not so in the former (Southern) Rhodesia, now black-ruled Zimbabwe after a long. bloody war of independence.

It’s a violent, nasty one-party black-ruled racist dictatorship that unflinchingly and unapologetically tells journalists what they cannot do. It sometimes bans foreign reporters. It’s a crime to work as a journalist without an increasingly costly government license that can be denied, regardless of price.

No one wants to spend any time in Zimbabwean custody or jail. The best reporting from Zimbabwe now often comes from heroic covert journalists whose identities are hidden by overseas employers or Zimbabwean journalists who can be harassed but not deported or denied entry.

South African journalism has evolved with majority rule. ANC officials, however, are sensitive to criticism and investigative reporting can reflect badly on its activities, leaders and officials as the governing political party. I don’t know how this plays out. I hope to learn during our stay.

In the same way, I’ll be fascinated to see how the news media cope with 11 official languages and an unofficial, growing national preference for English in myriad activities. I’ll tell you what I learn.

I’ll arrive with one regret: News/Check, the liberal South African biweekly for whom I became U.S. correspondent, no longer exists. I’ve stayed in touch with my old editor but he moved to London. I would have liked to meet old colleagues who saw the end of apartheid and emergence of majority rule but didn’t have a magazine to report it.

I’ll ask around.

 
 
 
 

 

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