Journalist and outspoken critic of the apartheid regime
Qoboza was born on 17 January 1938. He grew up in Sophiatown, which was a hybrid township of cinemas, shebeens, jazz dens, political meetings and “tsotsi” gangsters. He initially went to Lesotho and studied in the field of theology, but became involved in journalism after joining the staff of The World and Weekend World in 1963.
In 1968 he became news editor and by 1974 he had become the editor, and ensured that the World was the most circulated Black newspaper in the country. Prior to his appointment as editor, The Worldwas considered more of an entertainment focused publication, the editorial policy was sport, crime stories and pinup beauties.
When Qoboza took over this changed and he began challenging government, and gave space to voices within the Black consciousness movement.
After studying in the United States for a year, Qoboza returned to South Africa with even greater determination to challenge the apartheid system. Re-assuming his role as editor of the World he tried to help pupils and students overcome the inequities of ‘Bantu Education’ and started running articles of a purely educational nature.
Qoboza took this further by initiating contacts between Black and White leaders. In June 1977, he made his offices available for a meeting that led to the establishment of the Committee of Ten, a civic group under the chairmanship of Dr Nthato Motlana that set as its first project the restructuring of Soweto into an autonomous municipality.
By then, The World was a newspaper with an international reputation. When the Soweto uprisings had occurred the previous June it was the journalists from The World who supplied the reports that went onto the front pages of most major local and international newspapers. This was because at the time the big Johannesburg dailies such as The Star and the Rand Daily Mail had few black journalists. Black journalism was suddenly in the limelight and Qoboza in the forefront as its spokesman and commentator.
Inevitably both he and his newspaper became more than the government could tolerate. On what was named Black Monday (19 October 1977), when tons of people throughout the country were placed under house arrest or detained, The World and Weekend World were closed down and Qoboza incarcerated in Modder Bee prison. He was held for five and a half months and international pressure led to his release. He was never charged. When asked by a reporter what lessons he'd learnt in prison, Qoboza replied: "How to diet."
"I could easily chuckle, like that easygoing columnist Cassandra, who finding himself in circumstances wholly unlike mine, could have taken refuge behind a proclamation that reads, As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted nearly six months ago ...' Or I could, in typical fashion, have made a light observation that when I was tossed into jail nearly six months ago, I was registered there as a Bantu, but I emerged from prison as a Plural [a reference to the government's change in racial nomenclature]. These things I could do, but it just so happens that I have undergone a traumatic experience. One that has left me wondering ..."
After his release from detention Qoboza was appointed editor of the newly established Post and Sunday Post (effectively the banned paper renamed). His editorials and columns played a key role in politicising Blacks and he was in great demand as a speaker and dinner guest in business and diplomatic circles.
In 1980, however, the newspaper was forced to close down. Attempts to have it re-established were thwarted by the government. Qoboza then left for the United States, stating on 22 January 1981 that it would ‘be difficult to create and sustain a credible newspaper for Black readers in South Africa, given the constant black media persecution under the apartheid regime’.
Qoboza served as a guest editor of the Washington Post for two years, thereafter returning to South Africa to work at the as associate editor of the City Press. At the time the newspaper was owned by the publisher of Drum magazine, Jim Bailey. Within months, City Press was sold to the Afrikaans publishing giant, National Media.
In 1986, he was appointed editor of City Press. His columns that had once so outraged Kruger were now incurring the wrath of P.W. Botha. Qoboza was frequently summoned to Cape Town by an angry state president. The meetings were highly charged and Qoboza always stood his ground. After his last quarrel with Botha in November 1987 he confided to his colleague, ZB Molefe: "[Botha] just does not have a clue about what we want. But I hope one day he will wake up to reality, before it's too late."
Six weeks later, on Christmas Day, Qoboza was rushed to hospital with cardio-respiratory failure.
He died later in hospital on 17 January 1988, his birthday. Qoboza’s funeral was held at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, and some two thousand people gathered at the memorial service, among them ambassadors, consular officials, church leaders, politicians, academics, journalists, writers and businessmen from the Afrikaans company National Media Limited.
During his career as a journalist Qoboza received a number of international awards including two honorary doctorates from US universities, a Nieman Fellowship, and the Pringle Award of the South African Society of Journalists.
He has been heralded as one of the most influential newspaper editors in South Africa and has received numerous awards, including the Golden Pen of Freedom.
"I do not believe that I will be serving the interests of my country and all her peoples by suppressing the truth simply because such a truth is unpalatable to certain sections of the population. We will, accordingly, give credit where credit is merited and we will dish out condemnation where an injustice is being done to anybody, irrespective of who he or she may be."
• Kalley, J.A.; Schoeman, E. & Andor, L.E. (eds) (1999). Southern African Political History: a chronology of key political events from independence to mid-1997, Westport: Greenwood.
• Percy Qoboza from Encyclopedia Britannica [online] Available at: britannica.com [Accessed 12 January 2010]
• Percy Qoboza [online] Available at: freemedia.at [Accessed 12 January 2010]