I became a journalist quite by accident. I initially worked as an Order Clerk and doubled-up as a shelf packer in the Gardening Department of the Menlyn Hyperama during 1980. I earned in the region of R340 a month. It might seem like a pittance by today’s standard of living but believe me it was quite a substantial amount in them days.
I confess to have performed my dreary job diligently. To this day I wonder whether I would still be packing shelves at the same store and perhaps preparing myself for the dole queue, had George Mahlaela not approached me and set in motion events that would change my life and career path forever.
Mahlaela – a former schoolteacher at the Dr WF Nkomo Secondary School – had been appointed editor of a monthly knock and drop newspaper called Lesedi. The publication was distributed in the Pretoria townships of Atteridgeville, Saulsville, Mamelodi, Ga-Rankuwa, Brits, Mabopane and Soshanguve.
I have always loved reading and writing. I would scribble a lot of stuff on a notebook I kept hidden in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I noted down everything and even words that were beyond my comprehension, I would scribble them down and later search for their meaning from a dictionary!
But it is also fair to mention here that Mahlaela’s younger brother – Malome – was my personal friend. I discovered in later years that he was the one who recommended me to his elder brother who was at the time searching for freelance writers to contribute articles to Lesedi newspaper.
Setjea George Mahlaela made it clear to me from day one that he welcomed my contributions, but his budget did not allow him to pay me. I did not care much about payment at all. I was simply excited at seeing my name in print. But I was also apprehensive about whether my writings would make sense to the readers. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot.
I remember my first contribution was about the widening generation gap in our society, and it was published and un-cut nogaal! Seeing my byline gave me a huge kick. It also inspired me to write even more articles and Mahlaela encouraged me to continue writing and to not be afraid to express myself.
Yes, I was inexperienced all right. But Mahlaela was a guiding light. He painstakingly showed me the ropes and cultivated a deep love in me for the written word. He practically took me under his wing and when I look back, he sincerely honed my talents into becoming a words craftsman.
I was not paid for my articles, not even in kind. But I threw all my energies, heart and soul into the job. I found myself spending more time attending dance sessions, art exhibitions, boxing and tennis tournaments, football and basketball matches, athletic and netball events, community meetings, researching, reading, scribbling, scratching out and reading some more!
I would be exhausted the next day and would perform my shelf packing duties at Hyperama like a zombie. But I was living my dream as I had become a “writer” even though it was with Lesedi newspaper. With each passing edition, I became better and paid close attention to everything Mahlaela said.
He encouraged me to be versatile and to take pride and interest in listening to the radio; watching television news; reading newspapers, magazines and novels – I practically stopped socializing and lived for nothing but to produce stories for Lesedinewspaper.
Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Irvin Wallace, Casey Motsisi, Andre Brink, E’skia Mphahlele, Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Agatha Christie, Louis l’Amour, James Hardley Chase, Alan Paton, Wilbur Smith, Zakes Mda, Can Themba, Lawrence Vambe, Mongane Wally Serote, Mbulelo Mzamane, Todd Matshikiza, I literally gobbled up every book I could lay my hands on.
Two years after I had started writing for Lesedi, Mahlaela drove me in his car to the Madiba Street (Vermeulen Street) offices of The Pretoria News and introduced me to the Sport Editor of the capital city’s paper who shall remain nameless, unless if you know who it was at that time.
I shamelessly confess that I eavesdropped on Mahlaela’s conversation with the Sport Editor while at the same time pretending to be interested in some great black and white action pictures mounted on the second floor walls of the newspaper and graphically captured by veteran photographers Morris Legwabe, Peter Morey and Walter Pitso.
I remember clearly hearing Mahlaela imploring the Sport Editor in his office to take me on board as he could no longer afford to hold me back because he felt I deserved a bigger platform to express myself and to blossom, but the man took one, condescending look at me and remarked:
“He comes from Selbourne Side (Saulsville), ko-Makwapeng! You can see by merely looking at this Shangaan boy that he is not cut out to be a journalist. He will never make it in this cut throat business and I’ll be damned if I am going to waste my time on a Shangaan like him!”
Naturally I was shocked and deeply hurt by the tribalistic venom spewed by a man I held in high esteem. But above all, the downright rejection was what hurt the most. I guess I was also confused and wondered what being a Shangaan had to do with trying to be a journalist.
My late parents hailed from Limpopo. My father is from Ga-Mapela in Mokopane and my mother from Mookgopong. I am a Mo-Pedi but generally did not care much about the backgrounds of my mates whose parents hailed from the Free State, Pondoland, Transkei, Mahikeng, Zululand etc.
When I cast my mind back to that particular day, I think it hardened my resolve to one day prove to him that people are not judged by their looks, their cultural backgrounds or their appearances for that matter.
In 1988, exactly five years after he had rejected me and practically claimed I will never make it in journalism, he jostled everybody at the Wanderers Club in Illovo, almost suffocating me with a bear hug and congratulating me after I had won the SAB Black Sports Writer of the Year award, the first of the 24 individual awards I was to win over a period of 28 years of sport writing.
The hypocrite was telling everybody willing to listen that I was his protégé; that he was proud of me and it pleased him no end to see youngsters he had painstakingly groomed, excelling like I did!