|Former editor of the Sowetan, Aggrey Klaaste, is acknowledged across the country for the Nation Building initiative he introduced when he took over leadership of the newspaper in 1988. The programme still goes strong, as does the Sowetan.|
GOING to Wits University in 1958 was a shock for former Sowetan editor Aggrey Klaaste - he was unused to white people, and it was just "a sea of white people".
"It was a helluva disconcerting experience," he says. He experienced extreme racism - "a group of white guys in engineering wanted to attack us" - but one of the highlights of the experience was that he heard Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) president Robert Sobukwe talk at the university.
"Man, it was quite something, the whole law department attended the talk. I don't remember what he said but it was just wonderful," he recounts.
Aggrey Klaaste died on 19 June 2004 at the age of 64
Klaaste, 63, is a tall, slim man, elegantly dressed in beige trousers and black shirt with leopard-patterned trim around the neck and short sleeves. He is obviously relaxed with himself and others - he slowly undoes his shoelace, takes off his shoe, and massages his foot gently while being interviewed. His face is unwrinkled and his eyes clear and kindly.
He was editor of the Sowetan from 1988 until 2002, taking the newspaper into democracy in 1994, but more significantly, in 1988 he introduced the concept of "Nation Building".
He went against the feeling at the time, particularly from the ANC break-away PAC and the Black Consciousness (BC) movements, groups who were strictly Africanist and felt that rebuilding communities with the help of whites was not acceptable. Klaaste felt differently: "I was not averse to getting white people to help."
Years of apartheid had taken their toll. "Black society was in tatters, the moral structure was destroyed. I looked at other African countries, all were in a mess, people were not skilled to run these countries," he says.
The overall aim was to try to repair the damage apartheid had wrought on the structures within black communities across the country. This was done by means of identifying people who, despite severe hardships imposed by the government's wantonly discriminatory policies, had risen above their circumstances and set a remarkable example by their actions. These achievements were to be recognised by giving awards.
Examples of these extraordinary people are everywhere: a woman who, with her own 10 children, set up a school and crèche; an elderly man who, having lost a hand on the mines, was building homes . . .
One of the first awards was the Community Builder of the Year. "We wanted to recognise them, to put the spotlight on them and present them as role models," says Klaaste.
The programme goes across the board: education, parenting, young communicators, "demystifying technology", massed choral performance . . . Big business came to the party - the Telkom Teacher of the Year, the Transnet Massed Choir Festival, the Pick 'n Pay Parenting Project, SABC/Old Mutual Community Builder project and others.
"It showed me the potential of black people across South Africa," he says.
It took a lot of courage to resist the forces from both sides who didn't support the Nation Building initiative. He "took a lot of flak from the BC movement", and the government "almost arrested me". But that helped his support from the liberation movements, and the programme continued, and continues today.
Positive feedback was received from some unusual places: political prisoners wrote to him from Robben Island, saying he was doing the right thing.
He estimates that thousands of people have been acknowledged through the programme, and that they in turn have reached thousands more. "We've reached a heck of a lot of people."
Student and journalist
Klaaste was among the last group of blacks to have completed his degree at Wits before it was closed by apartheid statute to blacks. In 1960 the Extension of University Education Act was passed, forcing the country's best universities to exclude blacks for the next three decades. Klaaste graduated in 1960.
On finishing his BA degree, Klaaste moved easily into journalism. Why journalism? "Because of booze," he laughs. "I started drinking at Wits and starting hanging out with the wrong crowd - the boozers." And the boozers were often journalists.
He got a job with Drum magazine, and from there moved to The World (which was banned in 1977), and later The Post, which became the Sowetan in 1981. In 1977 he was arrested along with The World's editor at the time, Percy Qoboza. Klaaste spent nine months in jail.
He admits that this was his lowest point. "I was never very brave, and was never as frightened as when I got arrested by these Boer guys."
When Klaaste took over the paper in 1988 it was "a kitchen newspaper", and he wanted to "instil something more serious", hence the Nation Building programme. The programme "got the paper nearer to the community - the loyalty was amazing". And that loyalty remains to this day.
With circulation of over 176 000 (61% in Gauteng) and a readership (mostly male) of 1,8 million, it's South Africa's biggest selling daily.
It survived the brutal 1980s without being banned or Klaaste thrown into jail. Klaaste concedes it was probably because the newspaper took a middle-of-the-road stance.
Democracy in 1994 saw the Sowetan not necessarily supportive of the ANC, which meant that they did "suffer the attention of the security police". He says: "It was difficult to handle the new democracy and the very complex changes it brought."
In its 21st year last year, the paper hopes to reposition itself as a more serious read, wanting to capture the sceptical black middle class, while retaining its lower-income readers. It changed its slogan of 'Building the Nation' to 'Power your Future' to reflect its change in focus.
Klaaste, one of eight children, was born in Kimberley, but has spent most of his life in Johannesburg, a city he describes as "the passion of my life". His parents moved the family to Johannesburg when he was three, and his father became a clerk on the mines. They lived in Sophiatown, which Klaaste remembers fondly. "That was where I learnt about jazz - just amazing - and the exploration of wonderful, colourful stuff." Amongst that "wonderful stuff" was jazz singer Dolly Rathebe: "I was desperately in love with her." Singer Miriam Makeba was another one of those wonderful people.
In 1955, when Sophiatown was cruelly and roughly dismantled, he moved with his family to Meadowlands, Soweto. He still stays in the township.
Klaaste counts as the highlight of his life the time when Nelson Mandela came to visit him at his house in Diepkloof, shortly after he was released from jail in 1990. "It was an unbelievable thing, everybody came to my house. It was just tremendous."
Although over 60, Klaaste is far from ready to retire. He's busy with his autobiography, and he is now an executive with black empowerment company New Africa Investment Ltd, where he is in charge of their social responsibility project and their media interests. But he is still very involved in community work, particularly working with deaf children and elderly people, who he feels are severely abused. He exclaims: "I hate people being abused".
In fact, he feels so strongly about this, that when asked how he would want to be remembered, he replies: "I want to be remembered as having done something for abused people."
He'll be remembered for much more than that.