A Tribute to GD Govender: A Brilliant Exponent of Decolonised Journalism and Legendary Campaigning Journalist and Author . . . . By Dr Cyriac Maprayil
For an unconscionably and intolerably long time the international media was the dictatorial, divisive and destructive voice of imperialism. It calculatingly used the press, the radio (TV was a late starter) and publishing houses not only to justify the oppression of millions of people of colour in its colonies, but also labelled them inferior races incapable of ruling themselves.
The major news agencies, particularly Reuters, the Associated Press and AFP (the French version of Reuters) were a mere propaganda extension of the colonial and imperial hegemony. The pretensions of the external and domestic services of the BBC as an objective broadcaster were curtly dismissed by the great anti-imperialist Indian freedom fighter, Subhash Chandra Bose, as the ‘Bluff and Bluster Corporation’.
Even in their own countries the oppressed peoples were denied the right to express their opposition to colonial rule. There were draconian penalties with heavy fines and imprisonment for those who dared challenge imperialism, particularly through the media. It is not surprising that one of the top priorities of the Bandung Conference in the early fifties was the issue of media decolonisation. Nehru, Soekarno and Marshal Tito, assisted by VK Krishna Menon, hammered out a strategy to counter the pernicious propaganda of the Western media. The three leaders urged the newly liberated countries to establish their own national press agencies to report, analyse and interpret developments – both national and international – from their own perspective.
Put simply, decolonisation meant the ending of the crude and offensive media monopoly of the imperial and colonial agencies. These propaganda outlets largely glorified imperialism and demonised the anti-colonial liberation movements. The Western media lied and distorted to manipulate people and incite religious, communal and tribal hatreds to back up divide and rule policies.
GD Govender, who has written under several pseudonyms, was among the distinguished pioneers of decolonised journalism. He was born in South Africa in August 1930 and began working as a journalist at the age of 18, shortly after leaving college. He joined the Leader, a weekly and the only Indian newspaper in the country. He was a versatile and stylish journalist. In South Africa he reported on crime, sports, politics and social matters with a skill that neither age nor global turbulence has diminished one whit. Aged 20, he left the Leader and joined the newly established Indian Mirror as its editor, making journalistic history as South Africa’s youngest editor.
He was invited by the famous DRUM magazine to join its staff. When Govender joined DRUM it had a mainly black readership. The staff was African and white, and he was the only Indian on the team. Govender single-handedly transformed DRUM into a multicultural medium with some sensational crime stories involving powerful Indian criminal gangs who specialised in big-time burglaries and extortion.
His fearless exposure of a gang catapulted DRUM overnight into one of the country’s best selling magazines, black or white, in South Africa. More stories followed with Govender’s hard-hitting exposure of the mistreatment of Indian sugarcane workers by their white and Indian bosses, bringing him threats of violence and libel writs.
Govender repeated his DRUM-style success for a left-wing newspaper as its sports columnist. The paper which, due to its fierce anti-apartheid policies, was repeatedly banned – reappearing under various titles including The Guardian and Advance was read mainly by whites and Africans. Govender’s sports column, the first to call for the international boycott of white-only sports teams, proved highly popular.
When Govender left for England, his many fans, unaware of his departure, complained of his absence. Many readers described him as the most brilliant sports and political writer in the country.
In the fifties, when Govender arrived in the UK in the hope of getting a job in journalism, he found the colour bar as offensive as some aspects of South African life. When he applied for a subeditor post with a well-known South London weekly, he was given an interview by the Editor who turned him down on the grounds that he was too highly qualified for the job!
He has never joined a trade union after his disillusionment with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) – they told him that they could not help him in his efforts to get a job on merit, this at a time when there was a demand for experienced journalists.
It was only with the emergence of the Black Press in this country that Govender found some modest opportunities. He was much in demand as one of the few black professionals with a well thought-out media decolonisation agenda forcefully expressed in papers like the Westindian World, the Caribbean Times and the Afro-Caribbean Post of which he was the founding editor. He also wrote a number of books, the best known of which is The Martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba, one of the first decolonised works on Africa. Critics, both African and Western, appreciated the book’s well documented revelations about the involvement of Western intelligence agencies, particularly of the CIA, in the cold-blooded murder of perhaps the only African leader who was determined to restore Congo’s vast mineral wealth to its own people.
Even after retirement GD Govender did not hang up his pen. He continued to inspire journalists young and old everywhere to focus on the wider struggle to achieve a New Moral Economic International Order, based not on greed and theft but on justice. Sadly he passed away without adequate notice at the Royal Free at the end of May 2016.
GD Govender (Robert) was one of my best friends. I met him in the early 1990s. I have not come across someone like Robert with such an encyclopaedic knowledge; to say he had a wonderful command of the English language would be an understatement. He had the ability to look at things from a perspective that others are either incapable or unwilling. I shared his passion for equality and human rights. He is irreplaceable and will be sadly missed by all who had the privilege to meet him.