By Thapelo Matlala and Nwabisa Moyo
The Rhodes University School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) unveiled a mural celebrating and honouring industry legends on 21 July at the Afrika Media Matrix. The mural depicts the legendary former South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) isiXhosa newsreader Dr. Noxolo Grootboom, former Daily Dispatch Editor Donald Woods, Editor of South Africa’s first indigenous language newspaper John Tengo Jabavu, ground-breaking woman writer Phyllis Ntantala-Jordan and Ernest Cole, the photographer whose famous book, House of Bondage helped to topple apartheid.
Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, said: “The unveiling of the mural is part of the celebration in honouring the many journalists and media practitioners, near and far, who have served the profession with great distinction.” He encouraged people to pledge their unyielding commitment to and support for a free independent press as the cornerstone of our institutional democracy.
JMS Head, Dr. Jeanne du Toit, said journalism is more important than ever as South African storytellers are uniquely placed to invent traditions of journalism that respond well to contemporary challenges. “The commissioning of the mural was a project that was both rooted in the past and forward-looking. It was to celebrate storytellers, starting with the roles that they played throughout colonisation, democracy, and to look forward to the role that future graduates will play. The mural was made to show the rich media history of the Eastern Cape by commemorating the giants of the industry,” she said.
Dr Grootboom was the special guest at the unveiling. She spoke fittingly of the historical role played by radio in the preservation of indigenous languages, stating that “we find ourselves confronted with the demise of indigenous languages, and we need to create a climate and a space conducive enough to re-inject and keep the love, the passion, respect of indigenous languages burning in our youth.”
Du Toit said that the decision to feature Grootboom on the mural was unanimous. “She’s one of those people who represent these changing times well. She has been part of the South African history of the SABC for many years, but also stands for everything that we believe in, particularly her focus on language and on our heritage, how our heritage is important, and how that heritage should be part of what we carry into the future,” du Toit added.
Unveiling the mural, Grootboom spoke of the significant impact played by radio within the communities. She said: “The intimacy, the immediacy, and sociability of radio remain unmatched. According to UNESCO, language is inseparable from our way of being, our thoughts, our feelings, our joys, and so much more. It is through language that we show who we are”. She urged the students in attendance to learn from this history for the sake of the future.
The ceremony ended with the unveiling of the plaque, which tells the mural’s story. Dr Grootboom concluded with her final words of comfort, “Nanga ngobubusuku, ningalala nombethe ingubo yemvisiswano, uxolo, no thando. Ndinithanda nonke emakhaya.” (translated ‘May you all sleep tonight with a blanket of unity, peace and love. I love you all at home’).
The day before the mural was unveiled, Grootboom graced RU journalism students with such a profound, intense, and heartfelt pep talk that many were left teary-eyed.
She was welcomed with roaring applause, ululation, and whistles. “What did I do to deserve this?” asked Grootboom. Holding back tears, she said “I have never been to university. I always tell people that I pride myself in being a graduate of the university of life, which is the university of hard knocks.” Grootboom spoke of her humble beginnings in the SABC as a typist and how “by God’s grace” she was asked to stand in as newsreader for an ill colleague. Her career as a newsreader took off from there, and she covered the funeral of Chris Hani in 1993, the national elections with prominent journalist and RU lecturer Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki in 1994, and many other historic events before retiring after 37 years service.
Grootboom, who is now working as a senior mentor to young journalists at Newzroom Afrika, expressed her love for the younger generation and emphasised the importance of passing the baton to those at the start of their careers.
Embodying a tangible representation of a dream realized and serving as a beacon of hope to those students who seemed confidence-sapped, many were plunged into a pool of bliss and nostalgia by Grootboom’s talk, finding resonance both in her story and in the fact that she grew up in Eastern Cape. Student Anelisiwe Mgidlana was strangled by excitement when she saw “the queen of news” in the journalism department, and instantly called her mom to witness the energy of having the legend around.
The mural was painted by Juanito ‘Bagels’ Featherstone, Mook Lion, Arno Cornelissen, Sanelisiwe Singaphi and Phila Phaliso.
(Part of this article was first published by RU Communications).