Indivisible Freedom: The Transnational Experience of South African Nieman Fellows

Abstract: For 54 years, the Nieman Foundation of Harvard University included one or two top journalists from South Africa among its dozen or more fellows each year. To investigate the impact of this exchange as an experiment in transnational journalism, the researcher sent questionnaires to all 39 South African alumni who could be reached. Eleven returned the survey with their answers. Research into the impact of this program seems especially valuable given the dramatic transformations that occurred in South Africa over these years, and ironically, the fact that the “success” of those changes has now ended South Africa’s special status that underwrote the program sending a Nieman fellow to Harvard each year.

Presented at the inaugural conference on Transnational Journalism History at Augusta University, March 4-5, 2016. This is the only place it has been published.

“The fact that freedom is indivisible always came out strongly at the Nieman Foundation.”
Tony Heard, Cape Times editor; Nieman Fellow,1987-88

By the spring of 1986, the worldwide movement against apartheid in South Africa had spread to American university campuses. In Harvard Yard, students were occupying a cardboard and scrap-wood shanty town and demanding that investments in companies doing business in South Africa be purged from the university’s very large endowment. Richard Steyn routinely walked by that shanty town between classes. Steyn was more than 20 years older than most of the other students, having been a lawyer in South Africa, then editor for 12 years at the Natal Witness, South Africa’s oldest continuously published daily. He was a student at Harvard that year under the blessings of the Nieman Foundation, a renowned program that gives about a dozen carefully selected journalists a subsidized nine-month break to challenge their intellectual curiosities at Harvard and to bond with one another around the Walter Lippmann House.[1] In South Africa, Steyn was known as an independent editor whose paper was consistently critical of the ruling white government’s apartheid policies. Looking back on his year with other Nieman Fellows, he likes to think he helped the American journalists understand that not all white South Africans were unreconstructed bigots. He and his wife formed friendships then that remain today. Their three children spent a year in Cambridge public schools. Back in 1986, he might well have viewed Harvard-based perspectives about South Africa as naïve or ill-informed.  But today, he says the people he met helped change his mind. “I was able to interact with and gauge the opinions of a wide variety of informed and concerned people, some of whom strongly influenced my thinking on such issues as disinvestment and the cultural and academic boycott.”[2] 

Since the Fall of 1960, 60 South African journalists have been selected and funded to spend an academic year as a Nieman Fellow. (See the list in Appendix 1 at the end of this paper.) Most years saw one South African in the program, generally alternating between an Anglo-South African, an Afrikaner, and a black South African. Sometimes there were two at once, such as when banned editor Donald Woods joined John Seakalala Mojapelo at Harvard after smuggling a book manuscript out of South Africa in a dramatic nighttime escape in disguise from his police-guarded home in 1977. (Woods is played by Kevin Kline in the movie about his friendship with Black Consciousness leader Steven Biko, “Cry Freedom,” which dramatizes Woods’ escape from South Africa.)[3] In 1987-88 and 1988-89, the two years of intense police violence and township chaos before apartheid was negotiated out of existence, there were four South African Niemans, including Cape Times editor Anthony Heard and black labor reporter Joe Thloloe, who had been banned by the government under apartheid and today is ombudsman for the Press Council of South Africa. In 1987, Heard was facing prosecution under South Africa’s security laws for publishing an interview with banned exiled black leader Oliver Tambo. He received a call out of the blue from Nieman curator Howard Simons, who had managed to find an independent donor to bring Heard to Harvard for a year.[4]

The South African Nieman Fellows were originally sponsored by the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program, a private non-governmental foundation that created exchanges of various kinds of professionals for face-to-face discussions to improve lines of communication between the two countries.[5] In time, the selection and funding was transferred to the Nieman Society of Southern Africa, a registered non-profit organization that raises funds and meets yearly to elect a committee. The Nieman Society committee invited applications yearly, drew up a short list of six and then selected three candidates in order of preference. These were forwarded each spring to the Nieman Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Foundation’s selection committee generally named the Nieman Society of Southern Africa’s top choice. It cost the Nieman Society about $75,000 to support a South African Nieman Fellow, according to Tim du Plessis, a former Nieman Fellow, leader of the Society, and retired head of the Afrikaner newspapers under Media24. This year, the Nieman Society lost its permanent slot in the fellowship because, du Plessis says, South Africa’s problems were no longer seen as unique; so for the first time in 55 years, the current Nieman class has no South African.[6]

The Nieman Foundation has accepted international fellows from every corner of the globe, sponsored by various regional foundations, at least since 1955-56. It seems obvious that this program qualifies as a lively site of transnational journalism worth studying as such.[7] Kevin Grieves’ pioneering work on transnational journalism suggests that traditional nation-bound routines and perspectives of journalism are making adjustments to 21st century realities. Among these realities, in the post-Cold War era, are new media, globalization, faster and easier air travel, and the strengthening of trans-border jurisdictions like the European Union. Grieves argues that this is happening not only across and near literal borders, but also across symbolic borders of ideology and history. We are seeing in myriad ways the breakdown of “tensions between the familiar and the exotic” in the news media.[8]

In the case of “foreign” Niemans, many boundaries of history, culture, and professional norms have been crossed by a small but potent number of journalists. For nine months, the international Nieman Fellows are surrounded by top American journalists, American media, Ivy League American students, and Harvard professors, all of this at America’s oldest and wealthiest university.[9] The foreign journalists, to be selected for these prized and limited slots, are likely to have already distinguished themselves in some way by their courage, creativity, or impact. When they return to their news organizations, which had allowed them to go with the understanding that they will return, the re-energizing and cachet of having been a Nieman is likely to extend that American experience into their home media culture. Inversely, they are expected to influence American Niemans with their “foreign” perspectives on journalism. Typically, in the early years, the international journalists were less engaged in group discussions, recalled Louis Lyons, curator from 1939 to 1964.[10]

The South African Niemans, starting in the year of the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960, seemed to have had a special presence. They all spoke English, if sometimes as a second language, and they came from a country where racial injustice and suppression of press freedoms made for galvanizing conversations across the borderline of experience. Aggrey Klaaste, Nieman class of ’80, had been an anti-apartheid activist writer for the celebrated black magazine Drum and the black newspaper the World, and had spent nine months in jail for running afoul of the security laws. Zwelakhe Sisulu, Nieman class of ’85 and son of two legendary black leaders of Nelson Mandela’s generation, had led a year-long strike in 1980 for fair wages for black journalists. Most of these Niemans returned to positions of influence as editors, reporters, and TV journalists, before and after apartheid. As a group, they spanned the history of one of the most dramatic political transformations in modern times.[11]

My purpose in this paper is to begin to probe the nature of the South African Nieman Fellowship as an experiment in transnational journalism. Harvard is not alone is conducting such an experiment. Academic-year, mid-career fellowships for journalists have been offered at Stanford since 1966, University of Michigan since 1973, and Columbia, Yale, and other campuses since then. Stanford accepts international fellows and Michigan reserves six international slots a year.[12] I am focusing on the Nieman Fellowship and South African journalists because of the historical weight and clear focus of that program. South Africa, for decades a closed and increasingly isolated country, was selected by the U.S.-S.A. Leader Exchange Program on the theory that improved communication among professionals could help encourage progressive transformation for South Africa.[13] While the role of the press and scope of the nonviolent democratic transformation in South Africa during the last 55 years is nothing short of epic, it would be impossible to quantify the role that the Nieman Fellows played, much less the specific influence of their Harvard year. However, to publish a record of who these Fellows were and to begin hearing their perspective on the program’s transnational effects, I offer here a roll call and the testimonies of 11 out of the surviving 46.

Harvard, like most of the older private universities on the East Coast, had long looked down on journalism as “nothing but the gift of gab,” as the Business School dean told Louis Lyons when Lyons was interviewing him for The Boston Globe in the 1920s. But then in 1937 Harvard received an unsought gift of $1.35 million from the widow of the late founder and publisher of the Milwaukee Journal, Lucius W. Nieman. The donation had no strings attached except “to promote and elevate standards of journalism in the United States and educate people deemed especially qualified for journalism.” The money was accepted.[14] Harvard’s President James B. Conant called it a “dubious experiment,” and left it to Walter Lippmann and poet Archibald MacLeish to get the program off the ground in 1938. Would hard-bitten, fast-writing, cynical journalists find the rarified atmosphere of Harvard a joke? MacLeish, who served as the first curator in 1938-39 (Lyons was a Fellow in that first class), recalled later that the program instead transformed and enlarged the Fellows. “They haven’t just pulled in knowledge,” he wrote in 1978. “They are bigger than they were.”[15] Over the years, Nieman alumni left their mark on journalism, politics, and history. Anthony Lewis, already a Harvard graduate and former New York Times reporter when he became a Nieman Fellow in 1956, spent most of his Nieman year studying law to gather knowledge that would undergird his subsequent years as a twice-Pultizer-winning Times columnist, writer of books on Constitutional law, and in his final decades, one of the favorite professors of other Niemans who wandered into classes at the Law School.  The class of ’59 included Harold Hayes, who helped invent the New Journalism movement as editor of Esquire magazine in the 1960s; Howard Simons, who would later lead the coverage of Nixon’s Watergate scandal as managing editor of The Washington Post (and who led the Nieman Foundation as curator from 1984-89),[16] and John Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today who in 1961 was knocked unconscious in Montgomery as a Justice Department official monitoring the Freedom Riders.[17] The class of ’62, in which the white South African economics editor of Die Burger, Sebastian Kleu, would begin studies that eventually lead to a doctorate in economics from Harvard Business School, also included two Southerners known for their coverage of  the Civil Rights drama for national publications, Gene Roberts and Jack Nelson.[18] Today, nearly 1,500 Nieman Fellows have gone through the program, at least 35 percent of them international fellows.[19]

The impressions felt, and left, by the South African Fellows can be seen across decades of the written record. Allister Sparks, a fifth-generation South African and editor of The Rand Daily Mail when it helped bring down Prime Minister John Vorster in 1978, was a Nieman Fellow in 1962 when he read W.J. Cash’s soaring, bitter 1941 history The Mind of the South. Since then, he had wanted to write a book “that might give the same kind of insights into South Africa that it gave me [at Harvard] into the psyche of the American South.” He wrote this in the “Author’s Note” of his 1990 history The Mind of South Africa, which turned out to be the first of a trilogy of books that connected the country’s history to its non-violent revolution, Tomorrow is Another Country, and to its current state, Beyond the Miracle.[20] Other impressions streak like claw marks across the program’s history. The first year, when Aubrey Sussens, a white reporter of the Rand Daily Mail, was selected by the US-SALEP, a 23-year-old black writer for the magazine Drum, Lewis Nkosi, wrote the Nieman Foundation for information. Lyons helped him join Sussens by finding alternative funding from another U.S.-South Africa exchange, the Farfield Foundation.Having published scathing criticism of the ruling party’s police tactics, Nkosi waited four months for a passport that never came, then angrily accepted a one-way exit visa, leaving in November for an exile that would last four decades. Nkosi’s output as a writer in those years was ambitious, literary, and varied, including an award-winning novel in 1983. He died in 2010. The next black South African Nieman, Drum writer and literary magazine editor Nataniel Nakasa, applied in 1964 with support from prominent South African writer Nadine Gordimer. He also was sponsored by the Farfield Foundation, and was also forced to take an exit visa from the South African government instead of a passport. By the end of his year at Harvard, Nakasa had retreated into a melancholy isolation, which he told Gordimer he feared ran in his family. Despairing of his future, he visited the Manhattan apartment of the Farfield Foundation’s executive director, who had assured him of the foundation’s continued financing. Nakasa committed suicide on July 14 during that visit by leaping from the seven-story apartment building.[21] His remains were returned to South Africa in 2014, thanks to the effort of the South African National Editors Forum and the Nieman Society. In 1988, Hennie van Deventer, a Nieman fellow who chaired the country’s Newspaper Press Union, successfully proposed an annual award called the Nat Nakasa Award for Media Integrity.[22]

How It Changed Them

For the research presented here, I contacted the Nieman Foundation and former curator Bob Giles. They helped put me in touch with Tim du Plessis of the Nieman Foundation of Southern Africa, who in turn agreed to distribute a questionnaire to the 39 surviving South African Nieman alumni whose email addresses were known. (The other seven listed survivors had no known email or Twitter account.) The questionnaire I created consisted of five questions. (See Appendix 2 at the end of this paper.) Eleven questionnaires were returned within two weeks (a 28.2 % reply rate), with virtually every question answered in a full paragraph or more. The following sections cite and summarize those responses as qualitative findings organized by themes.

The practice of journalism in South Africa has always been deeply divided by the color line. Under apartheid, black reporters and the publications they wrote for identified with the struggle against the white minority’s police state. Having little faith in the ideal of objectivity and balance, these journalists from the 1950s through the 1980s experimented with literary nonfiction and reported from the perspective of liberation politics. For Percy Qoboza, spending 1975-76 as a Nieman Fellow stirred him deeply. “The thing that scared me most during my Cambridge year was the fact that I had accepted injustice and discrimination as ‘part and parcel of our traditional way of life.’ After my year, the things I had accepted made me angry.”[23] Mathatha Tsedu, who began reporting in 1978 for the black newspaper that became the Sowetan, said he had always been “an active participant in the struggle against apartheid colonialism.” For him, a new challenge emerged after the ANC (African National Party) came to power, and after he returned from his Nieman year in 1997. His former comrades in the trenches were now in positions of power, which changed them and changed his relationship to them. Tsedu did not speak of objectivity and balance, but of remaining true to the calling of journalism “irrespective of how close we were to those in power.” He had always had an international perspective, he said, but Harvard allowed him to understand transitions of power in more universal terms. When the old bosses are replaced by new bosses—whether in South America, Bosnia, Poland or South Africa—the freedom of journalists to expose greed and abuse of power “should be defended every day.”[24]

White South African Nieman fellows often found that their year at Harvard opened up new approaches to journalism, coverage that was more contextual and less restricted by “balance.” Tim du Plessis, an editor and senior political writer for the Afrikaans daily Beeld in 1992 when he left for Harvard, said his Nieman experience made him realize the need to move beyond so-called balanced reporting, “as noble as that idea is.” He was particularly moved by Bill Kovach, the Nieman curator at that time, saying public-interest journalism was as close as he would ever come to religion in his life. Du Plessis realized that “we neglect our duty as public-interest journalists if we accept the job is done once we’ve done enough ‘balanced reporting’.” Du Plessis continued: “We need to reveal what the real story is and what it means, firstly to our audiences but as important, to the broader community in whose interest we are supposed to function and to whom we are accountable.” The thinking of white South African Niemans became more critical and analytical, they said. “The influence on my mindset was enormous,” says J. Hennie van Deventer, now retired after decades as editor of several prominent Afrikaans newspaper. “For the first time I was seriously confronted by peers on the political dispensation taken for granted by me and others at home.” Van Deventer and another Nieman, Ton Vosloo, became “relatively enlightened” editors credited with leading conservative Afrikaner newspapers to begin opposing grand apartheid in the 1980s.[25] “My mindset gradually changed,” says van Deventer, “from uncomfortable acceptance to doubt to questioning.”[26]

The white Niemans tended to attribute their intellectual opening up to the diversity and insight of people they got to know at Harvard. Richard Steyn, the editor who came to appreciate the disinvestment movement and international boycotts of South Africa the year he encountered the makeshift shanty town on Harvard Yard, mentioned all the ways people broadened his perspective. He said he benefited from Nieman seminars, talks with curator Howard Simons, brown-bag lunches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and time spent with other Nieman fellows, foreign and domestic. “I had always had a particular interest in American politics and was able to observe the Reagan presidency up close,” Steyn wrote. He would later become editor-in-chief of South Africa’s largest daily, The Star. Tony Heard, editor of the daily Cape Times from 1971 until coming to Harvard in 1987, was able to get to know “newspaper greats” such as Anthony Lewis and John B. Oakes of New York Times fame, curator Simons, and Sen. Edward Kennedy. “We had access to the whole realm of learning and discussion that was Harvard,” Heard wrote. “This equipped me the more effectively to get a grip on U.S. and world events as they unfolded in my second career as freelance columnist and later (from 1994) special adviser . . . to ministers and presidency in democratic South Africa.”[27]

Two white female South African journalists appreciated the benefits of the international perspective they gained at Harvard in the period after the fall of white-minority rule in South Africa. Barbara Folscher, who produced current affairs programs for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) after her 1994-95 Nieman year, said that the fellowship enabled her to see her country, its culture, and its challenges, from the outside. “It affirmed my sense of what mattered, what were important stories,” Folscher wrote. “It gave me the courage to work purely as a journalist, to shed the cultural ‘cloak’ of being a white South African.” Kim Cloete, another SABC reporter who had her Nieman year in 2005-06, also said she gained a wider perspective by putting South Africa into its world context. When she arrived at the Lippmann House, the Nieman Foundation was in a process of change, adding smaller specialize programs to the traditional fellowship year. This included an annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, a narrative writing class for the fellows, and an online Nieman Storyboard narrative digest.  The idea of narrative was something Cloete absorbed intently, and took back to South Africa. “I studied several courses in film and documentary at Harvard, which made me determined to buy my own video camera and film a documentary,” she said. She continued working for SABC for nearly four years, managing an office with some 35 full-time and freelance workers. But unlike some of the other South African Nieman fellows who rose to top positions with their news organizations or in the government of the new South Africa, Cloete resigned from the government-run SABC to freelance as a documentarian and to run media training workshops. Harvard “made me realize that I wanted to think broader and be more independent rather than move up the corporate ladder.”[28]

While black South African journalists before 1994 had little choice but to question the status quo, the white Niemans, particularly the Afrikaners, noted that their year at Harvard gave them a fresh confidence to confront power and question authority. Steyn said it strengthened his resolve to oppose apartheid and continue to campaign for political change on his return. For more recent white South African Niemans, the confidence they gained came from new and more global tools of the craft. Carmel Rickard had been a one-person bureau for Reuters and BBC radio out of Natal Province, then worked for a daily in the area. Her Nieman year, she said, gave her confidence to specialize in legal reporting and take a post-graduate degree in law. She spent much of her Nieman year at Havard Law School. Janet Heard, who in 2009-10 was a Nieman Fellow like her father Anthony Heard had been,  said her year away helped her come to terms with the digital media trends around the world. It also “instilled renewed passion and vigor in the craft.”  Johanna Van Eeden-Spalding, the last Nieman from South Africa before the business model changed in 2014, said the year away equipped her with a broad spectrum of journalistic skills that enabled her to return to her job with confidence.[29]

When asked to consider the mechanisms by which a year at Harvard provided broader perspective or a new confidence, the South African journalists point to getting away from their country, as if snapping out of a daze. At least this was a refrain for white reporters and editors recalling working under apartheid. “The whole package of experiencing the American culture and society reshaped many of my views and values,” said Hennie van Deventer. For Harald Pakendorf, “being away from South Africa” was the ticket, along with Nieman classes, Nieman seminars, and friendship with one particular Nieman. He spent many hours talking with this friend, Joe Strickland, a black reporter from Detroit. “Looking back, I would say that that friendship helped me greatly in understanding what my country was doing wrong,” Pakendorf wrote. Of all the influences, the most powerful was “getting away from the restrictive world of apartheid to an environment where the First Amendment rules,” said Tony Heard. It was a transition “from the abnormal to the normal, from the depressing to the inspiring.”[30]

Shedding the weight of South Africa’s history for nine months was a liberating experience even for those who arrived in Cambridge after the freeing of Mandela and unbanning of the ANC. “What a relief it was to get out of South Africa for that time!” wrote Carmel Rickard, who came in 1991 with her then-husband, Gerald Patrick “Paddy” Kearney. (Kearney, director of Archbishop Denis Hurley’s Diakonia, was held under indefinite solitary detention and contracted TB in prison, and eventually was cleared of all charges in a landmark case against the apartheid government.)  Being a one-person news bureau was a pressure cooker, Rickard said, “and after covering bomb attacks and other mayhem for many years I needed time to think about whether this was really what I wanted to do as a journalist.” She decided it wasn’t, and with the inspiration of Harvard Law courses, eventually switched from covering violence to writing about the intersection of law and politics. Barbara Folscher, the former SABC producer, said that for her, “to be free from South Africa’s history, pressures and daily challenges was an unusual gift—the ‘free’ time allowed me to gain energy.” For Kim Cloete, class of 2006, to step off the work treadmill was liberating. “It gave me the chance to think more laterally, ponder issues and examine journalism anew.”[31] 

A Two-Way Transaction

The social and soulful transaction of the Nieman year was a two-way exchange. The American journalists gained a more nuanced perspective from having a fellow journalist from South Africa as a classmate and friend. Most of the Nieman fellows were well-read regarding South Africa, but time spent in Lippmann House seminars and social hours with a journalist from there gave them a deeper sense that the racial situation was long-standing and complex, Richard Steyn said. Steyn’s year, 1985-86, was full of international headlines of violence and protest around South African events. Hennie van Deventer, another white Afrikaner, arrived at Harvard in the wake of the 1976 uprising of black youth in the Soweto townships. Several classmates were surprised to meet “an Afrikaner Nationalist” in those times, van Deventer said, “and to find in him the qualities of a fellow human being with the same interests, tastes and distastes, humor, values . . . fears and doubts.” The fellows could talk across the distance of their experience with a perspective of personal trust and respect. “And how we did!” Du Plessis felt he offered the other Niemans an interesting perspective as an Afrikaans journalist opposed to apartheid while most of his readers were not.[32]

The American journalists learned first-hand what it was like to be in a land where journalism could be suppressed as treason and a writer could be isolated and tortured. “In South Africa,” said Tony Heard, “we had a built-in opportunity as journalists to challenge naked power with our pens when the climate was highly adverse for this.” Sharing this experience gave American journalists some inspiration to prepare for the same conditions “should intolerance one day—maybe because of terrorism or other dire events—raise its ugly head in the land of the free,” Heard wrote. Paddy Kearney, the husband who came with Nieman fellow Carmen Rickard, shared his experience serving indefinite detention in isolation. “He was able to give a first-hand view of that aspect of South African life, as well as of the work that led to his detention,” Rickard recalled. “I think the combination would have been important for the other fellows to hear.” In 1996-97, the Nieman fellows heard stories from black journalist Mathatha Tsedu harking back to the worst horrors of apartheid from more than a decade earlier. Tsedu introduced the fellows to African food in his cultural sharing called a “sounding,” with porridge from maize meal he had imported, including Mopani worms. This is when he told them about what had happened to him and his family with detentions, harassment, bannings, and torture. He showed them a documentary in which Jeffrey Benzien, a Cape Town policeman whose job was extracting confessions with torture, demonstrated to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission one of his techniques. It was the same torture that had been used on Tsedu. He said the other Niemans were shocked.[33]

Some South African Niemans created lasting friendships. Tsedu, now retired from Media24 and director of a national editors association, said he has kept up with friends he made of the U.S. and international fellows. Some classes didn’t stay in touch, as du Plessis said of his class of ‘93. But others, like Barbara Folscher, class of ’95, said they made friends for life. “They say their understanding of South Africa became more nuanced,” she said. “Over the years, some have contacted me to ask my opinion about events as they were reflected in the U.S.”[34]

The relationship, at best, worked toward a common understanding of the universality of their values as journalists and as human beings. “The fact that freedom is indivisible always came out strongly at the Nieman Foundation,” Tony Heard wrote. Nieman fellows from nearly two decades later also experienced this commonality. “The American journalists were interested in South Africa’s apartheid history and the way it had affected our work as journalists,” said Kim Cloete, class of 2006. “They were also interested in the issues we considered important.” South Africa has created its own sort of people, adaptable and able to solve problems, as Eeden-Spalding, class of 2014, put it. She hoped she contributed some of this adaptability to her fellows. But as journalists, she said, “we also have a lot in common with journalists from other countries and I think people are immediately in a better space when they get the feeling that they are not alone.”[35]

Conclusion: The Difference They Made

Overall, Nieman fellows returned to South Africa to hold or gain positions of influence in the nation’s news media, which is to say, they played a significant role in challenging apartheid with the pen and building a new democracy with a strong free-press Constitution. Some of their influence and status came from the mere fact that they were Niemans and were linked to Harvard. “Most have been significant in the newspaper business or TV and radio, where the fact that they have been Nieman fellows gives them extra cachet, clout, in their work,” said Carmen Rickard, class of ’92, who does not consider herself in this category. “It is always a scoop to have the Niemans back a campaign or make a statement of support for some issue.” Many of those who were not editors or producers had their impact as columnists, commentators, and consultants in journalism and in the broader media environment, said Kim Cloete, class of ’06. Janet Heard, the South African Nieman fellow in 2009-10 and daughter of Tony Heard, summed it up: “Many of the fellows have played a leading role, both during and after apartheid, in the struggle for press freedom and broader struggle for a just society.”[36]

Asked to name some of the most influential fellow Niemans, the positions they held, and their stories, the 11 Niemans who responded to the questionnaire cited dozens of fellows. In addition to the two near-legendary black Niemans from the 1960s, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa, who were not allowed to return and are both now deceased, here are some of the others they held up.

 Allister Sparks, class of ’63, “went on to edit the courageous Rand Daily Mail in the Laurence Gandar [editor-in-chief of RDM from 1957-69] tradition of vehement rejection of apartheid, and, more than any other single journalist or editor, was instrumental in bringing down Prime Minister (later briefly President) John Vorster.” (Tony Heard). Sparks became well known to American readers as South African correspondent for the Washington Post.

Tertius Myburgh, class of ’66, edited the Sunday Times, the largest-circulating newspapers in South Africa, until quitting in 1990, the year he died at age 53. His journalism also appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.

Ton Vosloo, class of ’71, became editor of Beeld and eventually CEO and later chair of Naspers, a giant Afrikaans media and internet chain formerly called Nasionale Pers. In 1981, Vosloo wrote a controversial but prescient column telling National Party leaders that they would someday have to talk to the banned African National Party.

Percy Qoboza, class of ’76, wrote a popular political column for the Soweto newspaper The World and spent six months in jail after the government shut the paper down in 1977. In 1984, became editor of another popular black newspaper, the City Press, laying groundwork for changes he would not live to see. A few weeks after a heart attack, he died on his 50th birthday in 1988.

Donald Woods, class of ’79, as editor of the East London Daily Dispatch, led the outcry against the government’s claim that police were not responsible for the death of Black Consciousness leader Steven Biko while in police custody. Woods claimed Biko was murdered by “Kruger’s men,” referring to J.T. “Jimmie” Kruger, the Minister of Justice. For this, Woods was banned from publishing or meeting with more than one person outside his family. After a daring escape, followed by his Nieman fellowship, he campaigned against apartheid from outside the country. He died in London in 2001 at age 67.

Zwelakhe  Sisulu, class of ’85, was editor of The New Nation while his father, ANC leader Walter Sisulu, was in prison with Nelson Mandela. He was himself imprisoned several times, including two years spent in detention without trial after his Nieman year. Under the new democratic regime after 1994, Sisulu became director-general of the South African Broadcast Corporation (SABC). He died in 2012 at age 61.

Richard Steyn, class of ’86, was editor-in-chief of the Johannesburg Star and served on several boards of U.S.-South Africa programs with connections to Harvard. Having left fulltime journalism some 20 years ago, Steyn said he didn’t feel qualified to talk about the post-apartheid news media in South Africa with any insight. But he said that, on balance, the print media under apartheid played a positive and influential role in the relatively peaceful transition from white to multi-racial rule and that Nieman fellows such as Sparks, Vosloo, and Qoboza “had a huge influence on the political debate in their times.”

Anthony Heard, class of ’88, was editor of the liberal English-language Cape Times from 1971 to 1987. In post-apartheid South Africa, he has served as a special advisor to various national ministries.

Moeletsi Mbeki and Joe Thloloe, both class of ’89, are today what Nieman Fellow Johanna Van Eeden-Spalding, ’15, calls “critical patriots” in a country where the government is increasingly demanding that journalists “tell the good story.” Mbeki, the younger brother of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, is a political economist based at Witwatersrand University who frequently publishes and appears on international TV criticizing the government. Thloloe, who has worked previously for Drum, the Sowetan, the Rand Daily News, and the World, was previously banned by the white government for his work as a labor reporter. In 1997, he was in charge of SABC TV news when it gave saturation live coverage for the early weeks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.[37] He has led several organizations of black South African journalists and today is the Press Ombudsman for South Africa.

Joseph Latakgomo, class of ’91, founding editor of the Sowetan, is one of the most respected journalists in South Africa. In 2011, he was named public editor of the media conglomerate then called Avusa, now the Times Media Group.

Tim du Plessis, class of ’93, was editor of three major Afrikaans newspapers before becoming head of the holding company over them, Media24, from which he retired in 2014. In 1997, he was one of 130 journalists with that newspaper group, then called Naspers, to offer a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledging the close ties between the Afrikaans newspapers and the National Party. The parent company denounced the journalists’ statement and refused to submit a statement of its own.[38]

Barney Mthombothi, class of ’94, is a respected columnist who previously worked for the BBC in London, was head of news at SABC, then edited the weekly Financial Mail until 2013.  

Mathatha Tsedu, class of ‘97, fought the apartheid government with his provocative column and other writings in the Sowetan. This, and his activism in trade unions, led to his being banned from publication for six years. He later became editor of the Sunday Times and City Press, and held senior positions at the national public broadcaster SABC, Sunday Independent and The Star.[39]

Henry Jeffreys, class of ’05, became an editor at Beeld and Die Burger and RobertRob” Rose, class of ’11, is an investigative reporter at the Sunday Times concentrating on financial corruption.

On the 50th anniversary of South African Nieman Fellows program, Bob Giles, then-curator of the Nieman Foundation, joined a festive celebration among alumni at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. In writing about his toast to the fellows gathered there, he noted that the program started because Louis Lyons recognized the need for South African journalists to be prepared for a long struggle against apartheid in their role as journalists. Lyons had made a similar, earlier calculation in bringing journalists from the American South to Harvard “to sharpen their knowledge and insight for their reporting and commentary on the American civil rights movement.” Giles observed that the community of journalists in South Africa is small and close-knit, and that the elder Nieman fellows are revered as true heroes in the freedom struggle. “It was an evening of reminiscences and an opportunity for me to offer a toast celebrating our common purpose in fostering journalistic excellence,” he wrote in 2011, “and anticipating another 50 years of South African Nieman Fellows.”[40]

That was then. Four years later, the program is in hiatus, if not dead. Other African nations, in their own need for journalism that liberates, are getting more of a chance at Nieman fellowships. Dialogue with the Nieman Foundation over a new rationale for South African Niemans may be in the works, according to du Plessis. The issue is not funding, but the need of various African counties, including South Africa, for the benefits of a Nieman fellowship to support a robust free press, said Ellen Tuttle, the Nieman Foundation’s communications officer.[41] Richard Steyn, a long-standing member of the board of the South Africa Nieman Trust, said he is concerned about the revocation of South Africa’s “special status,” no matter how much he understands the reasons for it. “This country is now a ‘normal’ member of the international community and should not expect special treatment,” Steyn said. “Nonetheless, the Nieman link has been a ‘special relationship’ that has brought inestimable benefits to both the U.S. and South African news media and it will be a pity if it’s to be brought to an end.”[42] 

Finally, the more recent South African Niemans say that the sense of continuity with history and with journalism’s elder statesmen is what makes a long-running international program like this so powerful. “I am humbled when I look at the list of South African Nieman Fellows,” wrote Johanna Van Eeden-Spalding, the latest in the line. “Most of the names on the list form the backbone of what can only be described as a fearless group of journalists that contributed to change in this country. Some of them suffered on a personal level in the line of duty. They are the voices of reason to generations of journalists.” [43]

Appendix 1 – South African Nieman Fellows

The following list of South African Nieman Fellows incorporates information provided by the Nieman Foundation and the Nieman Society of Southern Africa.

Italics font indicates no known email; (d) indicates deceased; underlined are those who responded to the Questionnaire.

‘61 – Aubrey Sussens (d), Lewis Nkosi (d)

‘62 – Sebastian Kleu (d)

’63 – Allister H. Sparks

’64 – Robert C. Steyn (d)

’65 – Nataniel (Nat) Nakasa (d)

’66 – Tertius Myburgh (d)

’67 – Louis Louw (d)

’68 – Michael Green

’69 – Harald Pakendorf

’70 – John Ryan

’71 – Theunissen (Ton) Vosloo

’72 – Stewart S. Carlyle

’73 – Alfred F. Ries (d)

’74 – Ted Doman

’75 – Andrew Drysdale

’76 – Percy Peter Tshidiso Qoboza (d)

’77 – J. Hennie van Deventer

’78 – Obed A. Kunene (d)

’79 – Donald Woods (d),

John Seakalala Mojapela

’80 – Aggrey Klaaste (d)

’81 – Fleur DeVilliers

’82 – Ameen Akhalwaya (d)

’83 – Salomon de Swardt

’84 – Ivor Wilkins

’85 – Zwelakhe Sisulu (d)

’86 – Richard Steyn

’87 – Andries Van Heerden

’88 – Anthony Hazlitt Heard, Dennis Pather

’89 – Moeletsi Mbeki, Joe Thloloe

’90 – Brian Pottinger

’91 – Joseph Latakgomo

’92 –Carmel Rickard

’93 – Tim du Plessis

’94 – Barney H. Mthombothi

’95 – Barbara Folscher

’96 – Kevin Davie

’97 – Mathatha Tsedu

’98 – Kathryn Strachan, Charlotte Bauer

’99 – Philippa “Pippa” Green

’00 – Dennis Cruywagen

’01 – Paula Fray

’02 – Jabulani Sikhakhane

’03 – Susan Valentine

’04 – Lizeka Noxolo Mda

’05 – Henry J. J. Jeffreys

’06 – Catherine Jean “Kim” Cloete

’07 – Gail Lorraine Smith

’08 – Melanie Joy Gosling

’09 – Thabo Jerry Leshilo

’10 – Janet Heard

’11 – Robert “Rob” Rose

’12 – Frederick “Fred” Khumalo

’13 – Beauregard Tromp

’14 – Greg Marinovich

’15 – Johanna Van Eeden-Spalding

Appendix 2 – The Questionnaire

The following questions and request were sent Sept. 9, 2015, as an e-mail attachment to 39 alumni of the program that had sent South African journalists to Harvard University for two semesters of study as Nieman Fellows.

1. Please describe the work you did as a journalist in Southern Africa before and following your time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Please give job titles and the time spent in each job.

2. In what ways did your experience at Harvard change your practices and mindset as a journalist?

3. If the experience did make a difference in how you worked and thought about journalism, to what do you most attribute that? (For example, was this mostly from your classes, from Nieman seminars, from getting to know American journalists, from getting away from South Africa for nine months, or from experiencing American culture and society?)

4. In what ways do you think your background and perspective as a South African journalist might have influenced your fellow American journalists during their Nieman year and afterward?

5. Finally, considering not only your own story, please share any ideas or specific examples of how any (or some, or all) of the 61 South African journalists who have been Nieman fellows since 1961 have played a role in South Africa’s history—during and since apartheid. (A list of all the South African Nieman Fellows since ’61 is attached.)

If you have written anything for publication that speaks to this, please consider sending me a copy, an online link or a citation that would lead me to it.

Thanks again for your help.


[1] The Lippmann House, the fifth and current home of the Nieman Foundation, was given by Harvard to the foundation, named for the influential journalist Lippmann, and dedicated in 1979.  “Present at Creation,” Nieman Reports: Special 75th Anniversary Issue,” Summer/Fall 2013, 18-19; “70 Years of Nieman Fellowships,” Nieman Foundation Annual Report 2008, p. 15.

[2] Richard Steyn, answers to Questionnaire. The Questionnaire was emailed to 39 of the surviving South African Nieman Fellows whose emails were known to the Nieman Society of South Africa. Eleven Questionnaires were returned to me with answers by Sept. 26, 2015. The questions are in Appendix 2.

[3] Donald Woods, Asking for Trouble (New York: Atheneum, 1981), pp. 13-15, 313-28.

[4] Bob Giles, Curator’s Corner, “The Value of the Nieman Fellows’ Experience,” Nieman Reports, Spring 2011, p. 3; Heard, answers to Questionnaire.

[5] John C. Osgood, “United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program, Inc.,” The Journal of Modern African Studies (3: 1) May 1965, pp. 118-19.

[6] Tim du Plessis, emails to the author, Sept. 9 and Nov. 4, 2015.

[7] International sponsorship seems to have started with two journalists selected and supported by the Asia Foundation in 1955, Hisashi Maeda of Japan and Sharada Prasad of India. “Six Decades in Asia,” The Asia Foundation, http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/6DecadesInAsia.pdf.

[8] Kevin Grieves, Journalism Across Boundaries: The Promises and Challenges of Transnational and Transborder Journalism (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), 634

[9] For about 25 years, international fellows numbered about two to six per year. Since the late 1980s, the number has been around 12 per year, matching the number of U.S. Nieman Fellows.

[10] Louis M. Lyons, “Harvard Meets the Press,” selection from a previously unpublished memoir in the 50th anniversary issue, Nieman Reports (Spring 1989), p. 26.

[11] See responses to Questionnaire, below.

[12] See websites of each program. http://jsk.stanford.edu/become-a-fellow/who-can-be-a-fellow/ and http://www.mjfellows.org/.

[13] Osgood, “USSALEP,” pp. 118-19.

[14] Louis Lyons, Nieman Reports, Spring 1989, p. 5.

[15] Julia Keller, “The Nieman Factor,” Nieman Reports, Special 75th Anniversary Issue(67, 2-3), Summer/Fall 2013, 34-35.

[16] Alex S. Jones, “Nieman Curator Leaving Program,” New York Times, May 26, 1989, p.

[17] John Schwartz, “John Seigenthaler, Editor and Aide to Politicians, dies at 86,” New York Times, July 11, 2014, p.

[18] “Sebastian Kleu, NF ’62, dies in South Africa,” Nieman Foundation News, Oct. 19, 2012.

[19] Keller, Nieman Reports¸75th Anniversary, p. 32; Jerome Aumente, “Looking Back: Journalists Consider the Impact of Two Harvard Semesters on Their Own Lives and Professional Careers,” Nieman Reprts, 50th Anniversary Issue  (43: 1), Spring 1989, p. 28-33; 47. Aumente, Nieman Fellow ’68, was studying midcareer and continuing education for journalists when he surveyed 571 former Niemans and got a 70 percent response rate. About half his respondents were from foreign Niemans, the largest group (10) being South African.  

[20] Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa (London: William Heinemann, 1990); Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change  (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995); Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

[21] “Services Are Held For African Writers,” New York Times, July 17, 1965, p. 11; “United States-South African Leader Exchange Program,” SourceWatch, http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/United_States-South_Africa_Leader_Exchange_Program.

[22] Van Deventer questionnaire; “Call for Nat Nakasa Award nominations,” The Media Online, April 19, 2011, http://themediaonline.co.za/2011/04/call-for-nat-nakasa-award-nominations/; Aurelie Kalenga, “Nat Nakasa to Return Home Tdoay,” EWN Eyewitness News, Aug. 19, 2014, http://ewn.co.za/2014/08/19/Sanef-pleased-for-Nat-Nakasas-return.

[23] Percy Qoboza, “Nieman Moments,” Nieman Reports (Summer-Fall, 2013), Special 75th Anniversary Edition, p. 69.

[24] Mathatha Tsedu, Questionnaire. Tsudu has been project director of South Africa’s Press Freedom Commission and is currently director of the South African National Editors Forum.

[25] George Claassen, “Breaking the Mold of Political Subservience: Vrye Weekblad and the Afrikaans Alternative Press,” South Africa’s Resistance Press: Alternative Voices in the Last Generation Under Apartheid, Les Switzer, Mohamed Adhikari, eds. (Athens, OH: Ohio University, 2000), p. 405, 448 fn.2. “Petty apartheid,” like the Jim Crow laws in the American South, had to do with segregation of public amenities, residential areas, and social relations across the color line. Grand apartheid was about political and economic domination by the white minority.

[26] Responses to Questionnaire from du Plessis and van Deventer.

[27] Responses to Questionnaire from Steyn and Tony Heard.

[28] Responses to Questionnaire from Barbara Folscher and Kim Cloete.

[29] Responses to Questionnaire from Steyn, Rickard, Janet Heard, and Eeden-Spalding.

[30] Responses to Questionnaire from Van Deventer and Tony Heard.

[31] Responses to Questionnaire from Rickard, Folscher, and Cloete.

[32] Questionnaires from Steyn, Van Deventer, and du Plessis.

[33] Questionnaire from Tony Heard, Rickard, and Tsedu.

[34] Questionnaire from Tsedu, du Plessis, and Folscher.

[35] Questionnaires from Heard, Cloete, and Eeden-Spalding.

[36] Questionnaire from Rickard, Cloete, and Janet Heard.

[37] Joe Thloloe, “Showing Faces, Hearing Voices, Tugging at Emotions,” Nieman Reports (Winter 1998), http://niemanreports.org/articles/showing-faces-hearing-voices-tugging-at-emotions/

[38] Tim du Plessis, “Newspaper Management Keeps Quiet About Its Role in Apartheid,” Nieman Reports (Winter 1998), http://niemanreports.org/articles/newspaper-management-keeps-quiet-about-its-role-in-apartheid/.

[39] Bob Giles, “The Value of the Nieman Fellows’ Experience,” Nieman Reports (Spring 2011), p. 3.

[40] Giles, op. cit., p. 3.

[41] Ellen Tuttle, in email to the author, Nov. 9, 2015.

[42] Questionnaires from du Plessis and Steyn.

[43] Questionnaire from Johanna van Eeden Spalding.

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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