In South Africa in 1980, protests and riots abounded. Detention and arrests were commonplace. Pointless deaths were routine. Senselessness became a trademark of apartheid tyranny.
Zubeida Jaffer experienced this first-hand when she was jailed for uncovering and publishing a story about families who were shot and killed by the police. “I was supposed to be the terrorist, but I was being terrorised,” she says. She has since traversed the volatile terrain of apartheid, and emerged with a determination that has seen her free herself from oppression through her stories.
A consummate journalist, she understood the responsibility behind exposing truth early in her career. She covered important stories – stories about incidents that affected her community. At 22 years old, she was the youngest journalist in the Cape Times newsroom, and possibly the bravest.
True to her profession, Jaffer holds the truth in high esteem. “I didn’t choose journalism,” she says. “Journalism sort of chose me.” She’s an unassuming personality – soft-spoken. There is no trace of bitterness or resentment in her speech, even when she discusses the cruelty she endured at the hands of the apartheid state.
Born in Cape Town in 1958, the Group Areas Act forced Jaffer’s family to move to Wynberg soon after her birth, where she grew up in a large, close-knit Muslim family. As was typical for children of colour growing up in oppressed South African communities, politics infiltrated her childhood. The political became personal.
“My life was peppered with all the political happenings of the time. Verwoerd was stabbed to death when I was in primary school, so I was aware of how tense the situation was. We all were,” she says.
Her first taste of journalism came when she took a holiday job at the Cape Argus. It quickly became apparent that this was the path she wanted to follow. She pursued a degree in journalism at Rhodes University, demonstrating her independence and defiant inclination by moving away from her family. “Going to Grahamstown was a big thing because as a Muslim girl you’re not supposed to go away from home, you know?”
Her time there was the training-ground for her future political activism. Jaffer and a number of other black journalism students were staying in a residence with white students. A few months into her studies the university told them that they were no longer allowed to stay there.
“The government had informed them that what we were doing was illegal and that we would have to leave,’ Jaffer says. “We were outraged because we were the students there, we were living there, and the university didn’t take a stand on our behalf. And so of course we protested.”
The university administration asked her to be sub-warden of the new separate residence for students of colour. Jaffer refused. She felt it was an attempt to pacify students into meekly accepting a lower status. In an early demonstration of her leadership, she personally sought an apartment to share with the students, away from the authority of the university that she had grown to mistrust.
In 1980, while working as a reporter for the Cape Times, she was arrested for the first time. Protestors had been shot and killed by police on the Cape Flats. The newspaper was having trouble gaining information about the incident. Jaffer was tasked with identifying the victims and their families.
On foot she trekked from house to house, shack to shack, asking families for the names of the men and women who had been killed. “I eventually found 26 families – I think I had 42 names all together,” Jaffer says. A few days later it appeared in the paper as a full-page story.
“I was very pleased and proud of that story, you know. And it was very beautifully written. I often say that it is probably my best work.” However, the high of being a young journalist and having her reporting published on such a visible platform would be short-lived.
Over the next few months, she reported on similar incidents. Her work reached inmates at Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. A fund was started to assist the families of the shooting victims. The story was bigger than Jaffer. It attracted the attention of the apartheid police.
“I was detained in the middle of the night. And of course, then I really saw horror. I went into the belly of the beast. They said they would keep me for a week, but they wouldn’t tell my parents for what or why.” Jaffer was held for six weeks in solitary confinement under the terms of the terrorism act. “My life was never the same again,” she says. “Never ever the same again.”
After her release, Jaffer became active in the trade union movement. In 1986, after editing community and trade union papers, she was once again detained – this time while she was several months pregnant. She was released at the time of her baby’s birth, only to be re-arrested nine weeks later and jailed again with her infant daughter.
She was angry, and acknowledges the prejudice that the apartheid system instilled in her. Many who experienced the brutality of the government struggled with the notion of forgiveness. She wanted those who had destroyed lives and families to be held accountable for their deeds. At the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, she recounted the trauma of detention.
“I was carrying huge anxiety and post-traumatic stress,” she says. Drawing on the steel and resilience she displayed throughout her career, Jaffer confronted her demons the only way she knew how: by putting pen to paper.
In 2003, her memoir, Our Generation, was published. It traces her origins, from her work as a journalist and activist in the turbulent 1980s, to her arrests and the birth of her daughter, Ruschka. The book received huge acclaim, including praise from South African literary greats Nadine Gordimer and Antjie Krog.
Over the years, Jaffer has built an extensive and enviable résumé. She was a correspondent for South African and Canadian news agencies, and in 1994, became a member of the Independent Media Commission for South Africa’s first democratic elections. That same year she was awarded the Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award, and from 1996 – 97, was political editor of the Daily News. Earlier in 2014, she launched the website The Journalist, an independent, non-profit platform for writers.
Jaffer is one of countless South Africans who have borne the brunt of the apartheid government’s ire. But she has come out the other side stronger and fiecer. “I’ve experienced just about everything,” she says. “I feel very blessed. I feel that everything and anything that happens now in my life is just a bonus.”
She is a survivor. But she has done more than just survive; she has flourished. Zubeida Jaffer’s story is a testament to the value of the pursuit of truth. She has navigated tragedy and persecution, and the process has unearthed an uncommon wisdom. On learning to forgive, she says, “We are all South African; we are all part of a common humanity. One South Africa, one world, one universe.”