I got my big break in journalism through John Mojapelo who was the defunct Rand Daily Mail’s Chief of the Pretoria Bureau. He was a Niemann Fellow from Harvard University and I used to be mesmerized by his sharp political views.
His wide knowledge of the political landscape at the time, dating back to prior the turbulent 1976 made him one of the most influential and respected voices across Black communities. Now you can imagine how I felt when I received a call from this media giant back in 1983.
I requested a day-off from Mrs Claudette Poonsamy, my then supervisor at the Hyperama Menlyn supermarket where I worked as a shelf packer in the Gardening department and permission was granted. I remember knocking at the Rand Daily Mail’s Pretoria office Bureau with trembling hands and coming face-to-face with Mojapelo. I experienced a mixture of emotions, fear, awe, pride but above all – excitement.
He asked me a few run of the mill questions about my educational background, the schools I attended and then the crunch! He had read a couple of my articles in Lesedi (a knock & drop community newspaper that was distributed freely around Pretoria townships) and was curious to know whether I had personally written the articles or someone had “ghosted” for me.
I assured him that I had been the author of everything he had read. “Where did you learn to write like that?” was the next question. “It comes natural and I read quite a lot and so, taught myself,” I replied, at which he wondered if I would be interested in freelancing for the Rand Daily Mail.
“You will naturally be required to cover sporting activities around the Pretoria area,” he said and I confess that at that stage, I began trembling and my head was spinning. For a full minute I thought he was pulling my leg, and then realized he was dead serious!
I think I broke into a cold sweat. I was supposed to be excited, but I guess fear enveloped me. For it was one thing writing for a community newspaper like Lesedi, but quite something else writing for a commercially successful national paper like the Rand Daily Mail, wasn’t it?
He noticed my discomfort. “Is something wrong?” he queried. “No….ehhh its just….it’s just…” “Okay then,” he cut me short. “I will notify Harold Pongolo (then Sport Editor of the Mail and may his soul rest in peace) in Johannesburg that he should expert your articles from time to time.”
I think if someone saw me when I stepped out of the Rand Daily Mail offices on that fateful day back in 1983 and remarked that I seemed to have been walking on air, they wouldn’t be far off the mark. To be quite frank, the words of the Pretoria News Sport Editor suddenly rang in my ears…the one who once infamously remarked that “this Shangaan” was not cut out to make it in journalism.
I submitted a couple of stories and they were published. At the end of the month, I received a little more than R1000 in payment. When I compared what I had earned part time for the Rand Daily Mail to the R340 I earned working full-time at the Hyperama, I quit my shelf-packing job and became a full time freelance writer!
Gabu Tugwana, one of the senior writers on the paper, tipped me off that Orlando Pirates FC had been registered as a private company and patiently guided me on how to investigate and gather additional information from the Registry of Companies in Pretoria.
I spent four hours pouring through the huge file, capturing almost every little morsel of information I gleaned from that file. And when I arrived at the office around lunchtime, Mojapelo was there. I approached him and briefed him about the story.
Now I had gathered from people who naturally talked behind his back that he was this pompous, “unapproachable”, strict disciplinarian who did not have the time of day for anyone but himself. But Mojapelo turned out to be the opposite of what he had been painted out to be.
He requested me to write the story and submit it to him. “It is after-all, your story,” he remarked. I was however afraid that I would mess it up because I sensed it had the makings of a really big story, and consequently requested him if he couldn’t write it for me and we could share the by-line.
Mojapelo flatly refused and stressed that he would have nothing to do with the story that was not his but was supposed to be broken by me. He insisted that I should proceed to write the story and after sweating some more, submitted the end product to him.
He did not twist my ears like an upset schoolteacher, but gently chided me for silly typographical and grammatical errors that I had committed. The next morning, the story was the back page lead in the Rand Daily Mail.
It became the biggest sport story of the year. I was proud as punch to have broken that story that I would later learn had been a scoop! I am not ashamed to admit that like Setjea George Mahlaela, Mojapelo also played a key role in my early development as a journalist and I remain eternally grateful to him as well.
Many other journalists guided me in my formative years. And some may think their roles were comparatively miniscule, but I treasure their guidance, no matter how small they may think their roles in my development had been.
Phil Nyamane, Arthur Molisiwa, Bafana Shezi, Rodney Hartman, Mark Gleeson, Gabu Tugwana, Jimmy Tloti, Harold Pongolo, Walter Pitso, Maurice Legwabe, Lucas Banda, Veli Mashumi, Patrick Hlahla, McKeed Kotlolo, Force Khashane, Sam Maseko, Edgar Dassie, Phil Mthimkhulu, Gordon Siwani, Maud Motanyane, Doc Bikitsha and I will ensure that their contribution to my development is passed onto my children and their children.
I recall approaching Mojapelo and asking him what I needed to do if I wanted to be a successful journalist. He answer was crisp: “Three things – Read, Read and Read some more!” In his own way, which I discovered in later years, Mojapelo never really wanted to spoon-feed me, but he practically taught me to rely on myself and to stand on my own feet.
He also encouraged me to question and ask, if I was not sure about my facts or how to approach a story. “Write the truth and nothing but the truth,” he used to drum it into my head. “And remember, there are always two sides to every story; get them both!” were his instructions and teachings.
Thanks Bra John, you were one of the few people that had time for an extremely shy and scared youngster determined to make a name for himself in the tough school of journalism and I sincerely hope and trust that I have lived up to expectations!