It’s difficult. I am at a loss for words and a piece of me is still hoping that it’s not true. My former SABC Radio News Assignment editor and Veteran Journalist Zola “The General” Ntutu has passed away. Found dead, in bed, alone in his flat on Sunday the 20th August 2017. I was talking to him just the other day, about work. I wondered if what I was proposing was worth his time he said no, he doesn’t think it would be worth his time. I agreed with him and wished him well. Just a few days ago. How could he now be no more? Yes, my Facebook timeline was often filled with regular updates regarding his health. He was frequently in and out of the hospital, I would comment on his thread at times; “Strength to you Zola” or “Get well soon General” (a name he got for his struggle days in Port Elizabeth). But lately he had been posting cheerful stuff, jokes about women, men and soccer fans being sore losers. So I assumed all was well. After our conversation, I had no reason to believe that those would be the last and final words I would say to him. Stay well. You see I had a vested, selfish interest in his survival, in his life because I was hoping to eventually give him a copy of my book one day, a book inspired in part by him and journalists of his generation. I had hoped that he would open the book and read about himself, through my eyes. Read about how he was such a strong and ever-present dependable influence and character in my tenure as a radio journalist at the SABC. It was my way of thanking him for teaching me how to write, how to tell a story, a great radio story – more importantly he taught me how to think, how to defend, clarify, argue my positions when we debated stories in diary meetings or when he’d call me to sit by him while he edited my stories. Think Jedi…. What do you mean by this…. Nooo man Jedi but this does not make sense, what are you trying to say? I can still hear his voice loudly in my head as I write this. What am I trying to say? Gosh it was meant to be a surprise.
To be honest there was something stinging about his last words to me. When he replied that it wasn’t worth his time. I mean I knew it wasn’t worth his time, I was surprised by his interest. But I still felt a tinge of sadness, I wanted to know what he was busy with instead. I didn’t want to pry into his private life yet I knew I could trust him to be honest, to always tell me the truth even if I didn’t want to hear it. Like when I returned from my first international assignment. He didn’t mince his words, “You f***d up” and he was right. Or when I refused to get married “you must light other people’s candles, don’t be selfish” or when I was job hopping “You’re all over the place, you need to settle down”
Why didn’t I think to say thank you then while I still had his attention, why hadn’t I told him then that I thought he was one of the best editors/journalists I knew?
Why hadn’t I told him that despite everything, I respected him?
Because I thought I had time. I thought I would walk into the Johannesburg SABC radio news office, my second home for close to ten years and still find him sitting there, at the corner wearing his black leather jacket or an African print shirt, a black beret, or rolled up woollen hat on his head, editing radio scripts or asking yet another radio journalist what they meant by this sentence – place the book next to him on his desk and say thank you. Enkosi. Check.
Ours was a largely professional relationship. I met him when I was 20 while still an intern, lost and confused at the World Racism Conference in Durban, 2001. He was loud, boisterous, argumentative, playful, witty, dark, broody, moody, his laugh was lyrical, loud, and foreboding all at once. I didn’t know what to make of him. He put the fear of God in me and I was a born-again Christian. It took a very long time for me to warm to him and relax. Because I didn’t know how to deal with I treated him like a distant father figure, an elder, a strict, wayward but favourite uncle.
And yet Zola Ntutu was no respecter of titles, positions, hierarchy, social class, power structures he was, for the most part, the most irreverent person I knew. I was curious about him and found him simultaneously open and closed off to me. I stalked him in other ways, by listening to his archived radio stories, in particular, those he produced around the TRC, and I caught glimpses of him in Antjie Krog’s book of the on the TRC hearings, Country of my Skull. He reported extensively on the pre-election violence in the early 1990’s in various townships, particularly on Johannesburg’s East Rand. But for a large part he remained a mystery to me, a Pandora’s box I was afraid to open. I didn’t know about his background in photojournalism, though he liked my photojournalism after I had left. He seldom spoke of himself. And so for years, he remained to me an elder and boss but never a peer.
Until he showed up one day after a group of us (women) journalists while off-duty had been robbed at gunpoint at Johannesburg’s’ Zoolake, he drove out to the scene to make sure that we were all still breathing. I saw how unbelievably tender his heart was. I got a glimpse of what was hiding behind his loud, witty and brooding often hung-over face. He was a softie. Tender and kind. A man who cared deeply about life, he was perhaps a closet idealist. I found a new fondness for him and in my heart, he became more than a comrade, more than an editor and more than my boss. He was a Kindred. He made a fuss. He cared. He was passionate, compassionate, loving. Even when he barely grunted a hello on Monday or weekend mornings walking past my desk, or when shouted where’s your script or bellowed my name at the top of his voice from his office, even though at times I dreaded it when he was the editor on duty because he would (not) let things slide; he would interrogate you, send you to stories you didn’t want to cover or make you write about subjects you didn’t think were newsworthy because he had won the argument about why that story was important. He was intellectually rigorous. Could debate you on any subject. He was tough, stubborn, relentless and often difficult, he challenged me and sometimes this made him seem impossible. But despite all of that I knew that he was my comrade.
He was with us in the trenches. He defended us at Line talk. He was a journalists’ ally.
Before I finally left the SABC for the second time, post-Marikana we had a difficult conversation. About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst journalists an underlying theme of the book, I’ve been working on. He said it was a huge problem in South African newsrooms. One which both editors and journalists neither dealt with or were prepared for. I was trying not to lose my temper and argue with him. Because he was not well.
It’s hard to describe a journalists’ relationship with an editor. It’s personal, intimate, often vacillates from love to hate in a matter of milliseconds. Sometimes frustratingly hostile, bitter, competitive, tearful and at other times joyful, funny, sarcastic other times endearing, full of tension, admiration and mutual respect. It is also at the same time distant, detached. Alien, foreign, clinical. More than that though the editor knows things about you. They know all the unedited parts of you. They see you every day, raw and unpolished and like a parent, they clean you up, show you how to do it, and hope you can one-day do it yourself and surprise them, in a good way.
It’s hard for me to describe my relationship with him and for all these reasons I couldn’t for the life of me ask him. I couldn’t get the question out of my mouth. What I wanted to know the most during our interview.
There was so much that was left unsaid.
What I know for sure though, is that Zola Ntutu always had time for me. He had time for me and my fellow (former) Johannesburg Radio News Journalists. He fought with and for us, he forced us to grow. He pushed us even when he himself was weak and, barely breathing. He made the time for each and everyone of us. My words, our words mattered to him, not because he was paid to look at them, but because we shared the same belief about the reason many of us had become journalists.
“Our job is to tell the truth if we don’t who will?”
And for that, I will be forever grateful. I never thought I’d see these words so soon.
Zola Ntutu,51, has died. Checked.
Out and I am heartbroken.