Black Wednesday: Percy Qoboza and the struggle against apartheid oppression and censorship

Posted on October 19, 2022

To commemorate the fight for freedom of the press against apartheid censorship, South Africa celebrates Black Wednesday on 19 October. The day also memorialises one of the champions of freedom of the press, Percy Qoboza.


In a crackdown on press freedom, several South African newspapers were banned on 19 October 1977. Percy Qoboza, as editor of The World newspaper, was also detained and held without charges on this day. His arrest and the banning of newspapers came in the wake of the detention and eventual death of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko. Qoboza was detained for over five months at Modder Bee prison for the The World’s continued reporting on the Biko affair. Along with forty-six other black leaders, he was detained under the Internal Security Act and labelled as a threat to the stability of South African society.


Qoboza began his journalistic career as a cadet reported for the The World in 1963, a time when black writers were severely marginalised in society and in mainstream media. He was promoted to editor in 1974 and from the get-go he advocated for black participation in the South African political system, and for a peaceful resolution to the divisions between black and white South Africans. With this in mind, Qoboza began to transform the culture and reportage of The World, turning it from a sensational paper that focused on crime, sex and sport, into a fully-fledged vehicle for credible political commentary. His editorials and avidly-read column Percy’s Pitch soon became an active mouthpiece for black South Africans who spoke out against apartheid. The government soon realised this and took decisive action against him.


Qoboza was arrested twice during his career. First in 1976, shortly after the Soweto riots, and secondly on 19 October 1977, the day commemorated as Black Wednesday. This day exemplified the war between the South African press and the apartheid government in its attempt to silence those who opposed its unyielding pursuit of the maintenance of white minority rule. In an editorial in Post Transvaal, published 7 April 1978, Qoboza reaffirmed his commitment to press freedom, stating: “We intend, in this paper, to carry out our task with vigour and determination. Telling is as it is at all times. For to us this Press remains our last bastion against the erosion of civil liberties in our country. And what is more, we will not apologise to anybody for carrying out our tasks responsibly, truthfully and with integrity.”


On 19 October 1978, noting the continued detention of people like Henry Nxumalo, Qoboza’s editorial in Post Transvaal commemorated the one-year anniversary of Black Wednesday. He specifically mentioned Nxumalo’s courageous commitment to truth, stating that: “We have seen how seasoned writers and investigative experts of the calibre of Henry Nxumalo were found dying in a pool of blood – the last and defiant bloody act by persons who hated his exceptional talents for truth.” His knack for interpreting the political climate, especially in relation to the press, was again showcased in the same editorial. He noted that there were “powerful voices” in the government who were calling for stricter legislative measures for the control of both black and white newspaper editors, their publications and their journalists. He argued that: “If it happened to The World  and it continues to happen to black journalists then white newspapers and white newspapermen cannot afford to be comfortable. It’s us today. It will be them tomorrow. South Africa – black and white – will be the ultimate sufferer as the despicable erosion of human liberties continues unabated.”


Despite his incarceration, Percy Qoboza did not waver from his commitment to press freedom as is evident from his subsequent editorials in The Post and City Press. He continued being a thorn in the side of the apartheid government even during his stint as a guest editor of the Washington Star. Sadly, he would not live long enough to witness the prospect of a free and democratic South Africa come to fruition. On 25 December 1987, he suffered a stroke and passed away in January the following year.


The story of Percy Qoboza’s life remains an example of fearless reporting in the face of persecution, of ‘speaking truth to power’ – a key element of press freedom. He stood by the principle that he and his journalists would be committed to telling the story as it was without fear or favour. In the context of apartheid society, Qoboza as a black person, occupied a relatively powerful position as the editor of a newspaper with high circulation numbers. His reluctance to acquiesce to government repression meant that he faced an abundance of harassment throughout his life, yet he remained a stalwart in his contribution to press freedom and the greater South African population. He believed that the purpose of a newspaper editor was to show, out of necessity, that their newspaper was a mirror of their community.


Forty-five years after Qoboza’s arrest, the University of South Africa will host the 12th annual Percy Qoboza Memorial Lecture. Qoboza is remembered for his consistent pursuit of the promotion of these freedoms during a period in South African history that is characterised by political oppression and the severe curtailing of freedom of speech of individuals as well as the press in general. Black Wednesday epitomises the significance on freedom of the press and the impact it has had on the history of South Africa.


Duncan Lotter is a Master’s student in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria.  His MA dissertation is an intellectual biography of Percy Qoboza.


- Author By Duncan Lotter

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