Zubeida Jaffer on imprisonment, censorship and women claiming their stories

07 Aug 2019
Zubeida Jaffer on imprisonment, censorship and women claiming their stories

Throughout her illustrious career as a journalist, author and activist, Zubeida Jaffer has never shied away from standing up against systems that do not serve the greater good.

She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. She also holds a masters degree from Columbia University in New York where she won the best foreign student award in 1996.

Jaffer started her career at the Cape Times and also spent a short stint at the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg in the same year.

At the same time, she volunteered in developing the community newspaper Grassroots that helped bring together local community organizations.

These organizations grew and eventually combined to form the United Democratic Front that led the uprising against apartheid.

In 1981, while still at the Cape Times, her passport was withdrawn and she was not allowed to travel for nine years.

During the eighties, she was detained and tortured twice and continues to be hampered by the after-effects of these horrendous experiences that many journalists endured under apartheid.

Her work has earned her numerous local and international awards. These include the Muslim Views Achiever Award as well as the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri in the USA.

In 1994 she was selected as one of seven media professionals in the country to help oversee the relationship between political parties and the media during this country’s first democratic elections.

In her memoir titled Our Generation, Jaffer recounts her experiences in South Africa during the years of apartheid.

Jaffer further published Love in Time of Treason which was published at an international level with a different tile, On Trial With Mandela. Published in 2016 Beauty of the Heart provides a fresh perspective on the life of political activist and religious leader, Charlotte Maxeke.

In the lead-up to Women’s Day 2019, we reached out to Jaffer with a few questions about her imprisonment, how it shaped her writing and her thoughts about women’s stories in South Africa.

Please share a brief history of your writing career and the circumstance of your imprisonment?

I started my career as a journalist in 1980 after completing two undergraduate degrees, one at UCT and one at Rhodes University.

I was arrested six months into my working life after covering the shootings on the Cape Flats. I elaborate on this on my website, www.zubeidajaffer.co.za.

It was a horrific experience and my life was never the same again.

Did being detained for writing the truth influence how you view freedom of expression?

I grew up at a time when there was no freedom of expression. My detention made me passionate for everyone’s right to express themselves freely. I am not keen however that this crosses over into hatefulness.

Did this affect your writing voice/s in any way?

It definitely did before democracy. I had to find ways to oppose apartheid and convey a message without courting arrest. At all times, I was conscious that my writing could lead to arrest and death so facts had to be carefully arranged and re-arranged.

What are the most salient forms of censorship that exist post-apartheid, both familiar and new?

I am most concerned about the fact that news has become entertainment and a business. This severely hampers telling the truth. The journalist now has to consider what the business aims are of the medium he or she writes for. Media funding and advertising also play a restrictive role in some ways.

What form(s) of support would you recommend citizens provide to writers – especially women – who are imprisoned, censored or threatened by government/powerful institutions?

It’s important to reach out to those women who are under threat so that they know they have help. It is useful to consider how they are financially affected by the pressures upon them and organise assistance.

When I was in detention, I had little idea of all the support for me.

When my mom managed to whisper to me that there was considerable focus on my situation, it gave me the courage to resist the abuse.

“One element of building a fairer society requires that we tell our stories as true to bone as possible. There are many examples of women telling their stories with a greater sense of confidence.”

You wrote these words in a beautiful Heritage Day article last year. Can you maybe share a few thoughts about the power that lies in women owning, embracing and truthfully telling their stories?

Cowering is not something that helps in the building of a confident people. I am observing that women cower less and stand up to tell their stories.

This is growing steadily since 1994 and continues to grow despite the great difficulties that face us.

A womanhood confident in the expression of its genuine voice is a worthwhile movement to encourage.

Visit Zubeida Jaffer’s website for more of her writing.