My front row seat to history...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Around the time of my 19th birthday in September 1980, I found myself recently kicked out of the University of Durban-Westville in the aftermath of student protests and trying to work out what to do with the rest of the year. My mother had let slip at one point that the news editor at Post was a former pupil of hers. I asked her to take me along to meet him.

The offices on the 5th floor of the Daily News Building at 85 Field Street were filled with desks and typewriters. (Computers had not yet been introduced.) A haze of cigarette smoke hung over the office. And sitting in the corner, at that stage still mostly clean-shaven, was a burly guy with a piercing glare who quickly stubbed out his cigarette and pushed his ashtray away at the sight of my mother. "Ma'am," he said with a bit of a bow and flourish as he stood up to greet her. He then looked at me suspiciously. "What are you looking at?" he said.

"You remind me of Peter Ustinov," I replied.

Clearly disarmed and chuffed at the same time, he gave a broad smile and indicated that I was now worthy of sitting down.

It was my introduction to Farook Khan; to this day, one of the most engaging and entertaining figures the world of journalism has produced. Farook had taken it upon himself to take a group of youngsters under his wing to teach them the basics of journalism. They were Ismail Suder, Jameela Hoosen, and Rashida Dhooma. I was now going to become the fourth.

The period that followed between 1980 and my departure from the country (and Post) during the State of Emergency in 1986 was, in hindsight, a front row seat to history in the making. Here are some of my personal highlights.

  • In early 1981, South African mercenaries attempted a coup in the Seychelles. Unsuccessful in their attempt, they hijacked an Air India Boeing 707 and used it as a getaway vehicle. Puri Devjee (who later became chief photographer at Post) and I were first on the scene but were quickly diverted away by police. The story made headlines around the world.1
  • In 1982, I helped pluck a would-be suicide jumper, Nithia Pillay, from the rooftop of Victoria Heights in Victoria Street. 2 Not long after, Nithia took a young woman hostage at the gun counter of Game in West Street. I tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with him for the release of the woman. Shortly afterward, the SAP reaction unit shot him dead. 3
  • In 1983, I visited Zimbabwe for the first time and interviewed three prominent Indian South Africans in exile: Dr Kesavaloo Goonam, Justice Manival Moodley, and Govan Reddy.
  • In 1984, I compiled a tabloid supplement on the 90th anniversary of the Natal Indian Congress. On the day that the supplement was to be distributed, the Botha government declared a provincial State of Emergency. Post's lawyers said the content of the supplement fell foul of the emergency regulations, so all copies of the supplement were removed from the paper before the trucks started rolling and were locked away. It finally got distributed months later when the SOE was briefly lifted. 4

I have had a truly remarkable career since my days at Post; none of which would have been possible without the lessons I learnt from Farook Khan; for which I am forever grateful.

  • 1. (Picture: "Journalists at Durban's Louis Botha airport. In the background is the Air India 707. From the right: Marimuthu "Subry" Govender, Puri Devjee, and myself.")
  • 2. (Picture: Jump)
  • 3. (Picture: Gunman)
  • 4. (Picture: NIC)