Opening the doors of change with Zubeida Jaffer

Bright eyes and a wide grin are a refreshing and uplifting sight in the warm and humid room. As students shuffle into a semi-circle around Zubeida Jaffer, the only sound is the low whirring emitted by the computer monitors. She surveys the room, awards us with another open and honest smile, and then begins her story.

It is difficult to comprehend the fact that this serene woman spent two months of 1980 in solitary confinement, subject to police brutality. Zubeida first encountered the senseless tyranny of the apartheid when she was jailed for covering a story about families in and around her community who were being killed by the police. They locked her away and tortured her, terrorising the acclaimed terrorist. Fuelled by anger and determination, Zubeida became the Cape Times youngest, and one of their most determined, reporters at the age of twenty two. Though many would have been discouraged and intimidated by the aftermath of such reporting, Zubeida’s passion for journalism was ignited after she was exposed to the harsh reality of the apartheid. Unable to sit back and live with the atrocities, she began forcing open the doors of change.

 

When reflecting on the events leading up to this tumulus and active career, she wistfully remarks that she never chose journalism, rather, journalism chose her.  No one, herself included, would have fathomed that her first job in a newsroom would involve actual reporting. So two hours into the job when her editor put her on the line with a man teaching underprivileged white children, she had to admit to him that she had never done anything like this before. He jovially reassured her that neither had he and Zubeida’s journey into the journalistic world began.

Soft spoken and gracefully poised, Zubeida express no resentment or bitterness as she calmly discusses the traumatic events of her early career. In 1958, Zubeida and her family were forced to leave their home in Cape Town to take up residence in Wynberg soon after she was born. Despite the fact that her grandfather was in fact Indian, the Jaffer family weas placed into the coloured category. This label haunted their daily lives, dictating what seats they could use on the bus, where they should live, even which bathrooms they could use.

Throwing caution to the wind, Zubeida left her family to move to Grahamstown where she could further her studies (though at this stage she was not sure in what, having acknowledged that law was far too boring for her). Already she was showing the depths of her bravery, as it is not custom for Muslim women to leave their homes. However, the chains that held her to a narrowly paved pathway were no less restrictive at university. Zubeida was never permitted to enter the movie house, based on the colour of her skin, and a few months into the semester, Zubeida was informed that she would need to evacuate the residence, as it was unacceptable that the whites were mixed with the blacks. Outraged by this blatant display of racism, Zubeida denied the offer to move into a “black” residence as a sub-warden, rightfully acknowledging that this was a meagre attempt by the university to pacify the outraged students. She assembled a group of friends, and lived off campus where she was slightly more independent of the university she was beginning to mistrust.

Though her skin tone restricted Zubeida from entering a variety of places, it also gave her access to areas that were deemed too dangerous and hostile for white journalists. This is why she found herself covering protests in which participants had been shot and killed by the police in the Cape Flats. Marching on foot door to door enabled Zubeida to locate 26 families, a total of 42 names, identifying the victims. She complied what she describes as her best work, and this was published on a full page of the Cape Times newspaper. Though this would have been a massive achievement for any journalist, the celebrations were short lived, as Zubeida was detained for her efforts soon after publication. Her life has not been the same since.

Preceding her time in prison, Zubeida suffered from bouts of post-traumatic stress. Nevertheless, she continued on her quest to uncover the severity of what was taking place in South Africa. In 1986, Zubeida was detained once again, despite the fact that she was pregnant with her first child. A subsequent release and re-arrest concurred, and the struggle continued.

The trials and challenges that were thrown Zubeida’s way shaped her into the remarkable journalist that she is, with an extensive and impressive resume. Her memoir, Our Generation, was published in 2003, and guides the reader through life as journalist and activist during one of the most turbulent historical eras. She has been a correspondent for South African and Canadian news agencies, as well as a member of the Independent Media Commission for South Africa’s first democratic elections. In 1994 she was the deserving winner of the Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award, and was subsequently a political editor of the Daily News from 1196 to 1997. In 2014, her website The Journalist was created as an independent, non-profit platform for all aspiring writers that the JMS3 and 4 class have been inspired to join.

This brave and inspiring journalist was bred within the belly of the beast, struggling tirelessly and thanklessly for a more fair and just South Africa. Her experiences are invaluable, and her story is admirable. There are not many people who can comfortably say that they have experienced just about everything, and all from this point on is just a bonus.

She returned to the Rhodes University campus, where she was previously ostracised and discriminated against, to talk openly with the students and engage with the Vice Chancellor. With a cheeky grin she recalls the previous evening for us. Following a dinner with the Vice Chancellor, she declined dessert and opted instead for a plain dairy milk Cadbury chocolate. She sat patiently in the car while the VC rushed to collect her treat, revelling in a world where she can just relax and not have to do everything for everyone anymore. She has opened the doors for so many aspiring and hopeful journalists, and is well deserving of all the Cadbury chocolates Pick n Pay have to offer.

 

 

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