Jonathan Qwelane (1952 – 2020) had the soul of a sensitive artist. He was alive to his environment, was consciously partial to the needs of social justice, observed the subtle contradictions of people in authoritative positions, and just loved to tell a story.
The story about him is that on his return from national duty as South African high commissioner in Kampala, Uganda, in 2015, he attended the funeral service of his brother in Montshioa, Mahikeng, with trepidations such that he collapsed at the gate to the house and was admitted to the nearest hospital. He could not attend his brother’s funeral.
His body shock triggered underlying conditions of high blood sugar levels, hypertension and a sickened lung from his smoking habits.
He never fully recovered after that. My friends and I paid him regular visits to check on his progress and well being. And to encourage him to complete a manuscript of his memoirs.
We still have to come across the prejudiced fools who doubt his immense talent as a natural born journalist. Newspaper editors like Harvey Tyson of the Argus group, in the dark days of petty apartheid, could no longer justify their actions to restrain such professional inputs.
The weekend papers had a township supplement to draw readers in a largely white dominated newsfeed. It was a do-it-yourself apartheid practiced by the liberal white establishment.
Qwelane came from the sticks in Mahikeng armed with a pen and paper to do freelance duties for the Rand Daily Mail, the Star and other rags in Johannesburg.
His cousin, Nat Serache, was a reporter too, and they both learned the ropes in the early seventies when job reservations laws contained and frustrated gifted, black aspirations.
But Jon stood out instantly. He had a flair for the English language and jazzed up his writings with township flavour to draw his readers up for more.
Black journalists of his ilk such as Khulu Sibiya, Nat Diseko, Phillip Mthimkhulu, Juby Mayet, Montshiwa Moroke, Ameen Akhalwaya, and others expressed their common frustrations through the Union of Black Journalists – led by Joe Thloloe – which was banned on 19 October 1977.
A fresh new wave rose up as Zwelakhe Sisulu took up the cudgels and, with JQ and others, launched the Writers Association of South Africa. It broaden up into the Media Workers Association of SA, including broadcasting, print and all workers in the media industry.
They led tools down newspaper strike in 1981 fighting for wage increases and better working conditions.
JQ was critical of the enthusiasm of his own comrades in the strike leadership who exaggerated the value of the quick wins and wanted to elongate the strike without proper consultation with the workers. He dressed down an iconic figure in journalism for these political mistakes.
In November 1982, JQ stopped drinking the waters of immortality. He was saved by Thloloe from drowning in brandy and following on the fatal steps of the Drum golden generation whose inebriated ways were a lifestyle.
JQ wrote excellent opinion pieces and had a tribe of regular followers. He told it like it is. He went on to expose the excesses of the United Democratic Front, especially its harrowing ‘necklace’ methods used to kill its critics and turncoats without verified facts.
JQ also wrote against fellow journalists who embellished their stories with propaganda slants. We all admitted, he was the quintessential news person.
JQ was a disciple of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. He would convincingly argue that Sobukwe’s ‘absolute honesty’ in handling the internal differences in our communities vis-a-vis the life and death contradictions with oppressors, did not mean to highlight the savagery in the struggle for liberation. He always pointed out skulduggery within the ranks of the liberation movement.
Yet he devotedly worked in an underground unit of the PAC and the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) with Belede Mazwai, a fellow journalist, doing backroom services. It was dangerous intelligence work. They used their family fortunes to carry out their tasks.
In the post-apartheid dispensation, Qwelane excoriated the Thabo Mbeki administration in its treatment of the Jacob Zuma debacle. He saw it as unfair and unjustified personal injury to one of the comrades, which could have been handled better.
He riled up the African Renaissance devotees.
He told me and healthcare professional, Thandiwe Mapalakanye, when we found him writhing in pain at his Dawn Park home, that he did not wish his worst enemy the experience he was going through. He lived on oxygen to get by. This was long before the coronavirus and comorbidities.
His son, Sobukwe, performed a near perfect attention to his father’s health care. Like all of us his comrades, we will sorely miss him.
I have been going through his written messages to me in undiluted Setswana and could not help but silently say: ‘Robala ka kagiso, morwa rre. O dirile go tletse seatla.’
By Jaki Seroke