KELVIN KACHINGWE, Lusaka
ON November 5, 1975, Bill Saidi was in his office in Ndola as deputy editor-in-chief of Times Newspapers when an emissary arrived to hand him a letter.
“I have been following very closely your work as a journalist. I have been particularly concerned about your misconceptions regarding our approach to nation-building in this country,â€ the letter which was signed by President Kenneth Kaunda read.
â€œAs you yourself know, I have given you every opportunity to reform. Regrettably, I have found no improvements in your performance: on the contrary, evidence clearly demonstrates deterioration.
â€œConsequently, your performance continues to be inconsistent with the philosophy and spirit of the paper which must be the mouthpiece of the party and of which you are a leader. I am, therefore, left with no option but to fire you with immediate effect. I wish you luck in your future endeavours in any field of your choice.â€
The emissary who handed the letter to him personally had been flown from Lusaka for this specific purpose.
In his memoirs, Bill reflected on this episode.
â€œI was stunned, if not flabbergasted. The President of the Republic of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, had featured nowhere in my employment by Times Newspapers Limited. This company was owned by Lonrho Zambia Limited. As far as I was aware, the chairman of Lonrho in the country was Tom Mtine. He and I had a sound working relationship,â€ he wrote.
â€œShortly after my appointment as deputy editor-in-chief, he had handed out some advice to me: Donâ€™t fraternise with your juniors. Now that you are at the top, you must keep a distance from them, socially. The specific reference was to Chao Daka, then chief reporter of the newspaper in Kitwe and a personal friend. We had worked together from our days at The Central African Mail.â€
The episode convinced Bill that the African journalist was truly an endangered species as Frank Barton said in his book. Years later, after his return to Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe asked him at a meeting with other editors: â€œWhat did you do to Kaunda?â€
â€œMy reply was long and detailed. I have no idea of its effect on the president â€“ to this day,â€ Bill said.
Bill, a Malawian-Zimbabwean who later acquired Zambian citizenship, died recently in Kitwe at the age of 79. He worked for the Central African Mail (forerunner to the Zambia Daily Mail) and also for the Times of Zambia before leaving for Zimbabwe in 1980 after that countryâ€™s independence. He went to head Zimpapers and was also a columnist for The Sowetan in South Africa where he used to write the column The State We Are In.
At the Central African Mail, he used to write the column Lusaka After Dark.
In his memoirs, Bill said he indirectly owed his career as a columnist to Tim Nyahunzvi, who he worked with at African Newspapers in Salisbury (now Harare) before re-uniting in 1963 at the Central African Mail where another Zimbabwean Vincent Mijoni was working.
Bill was production editor of the then weekly newspaper.
â€œAfter a brief period of laying out the Lusaka paper, with the active guidance of the editor and his deputy, Richard Hall and Kelvin Mlenga, I was beginning to get â€˜into the grooveâ€™ when Tim suggested something â€“ out of the blue: why didnâ€™t I consider writing a regular for the paper? He reminded me of Bits and Pieces of Harare, a column I had written for The African Parade,â€ he wrote in his memoirs.
â€œFortunately for me, I was always obsessed with writing and reading, even when I was in Standard One in 1947 at the Methodist Church school near the cemetery in Magaba in what is now Mbare.
â€œSo, with the encouragement of Tim and the others, I started writing Lusaka After Dark. Only later did I realise I didnâ€™t know the city of Lusaka as much as I knew my turf of Harare township or even Salisbury itself. But with guys like Tim, Kelvin and Richard Hall standing by me, I persevered. Soon, I was beginning to enjoy writing the column.
â€œWhat I might call my â€˜crowning gloryâ€™ was to be invited to write a weekly column for The Sowetan of Johannesburg. By any standards, this was an honour I felt humbled to accept. I owed it all to Len Kalane, a former editor of that countryâ€™s City Press, a Sunday paper with a reputation for treading where angels fear to tread. â€“ journalistically speaking.â€
For Bill, the honour was that there were people even outside Zimbabwe, who found his writing intriguing and worth giving space to.
â€œThere is no honour bigger than that for a columnist â€“ any columnist. I wasnâ€™t a syndicated columnist, but having my byline in a foreign newspaper gave me a feeling that I had at last ARRIVED as a columnist,â€ he said.
â€œIâ€™ve had a lot of fun writing columns for different newspapers in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I have always suspected that in journalism, in general, you are a zero if what you write or publish doesnâ€™t make waves, doesnâ€™t get people to sit up and notice, or provokes no more reaction than â€˜So what?â€™â€
At first, the â€œSaidiâ€ with which he signed off Lusaka After Dark in The Central African Mail was assumed to be a nom de plume. But it soon became clear that there was a real person behind the name, a man who, though with a name that was distinctly Malawian or even Zambian, was in reality, a Rhodesian.
As a journalist, Bill had done it all, but he also knew that the job can kill you.
â€œMost journalists are acutely aware of the perils endemic in a story that walks into the newsroom, screaming its head off about being The Big Story of the day. A story for which the reporter does not have to sweat has all the danger signals of being either a non-story, or a story likely to explode into the reporterâ€™s or the editorâ€™s face â€“ sooner or later,â€ he reflected.
â€œMost reporters learn, through being in the trenches for long, that a good story must, first of all, wear the badge of â€˜public interestâ€™ on its lapel. If it doesnâ€™t, then it needs to be probed thoroughly before a reporter is assigned to it.
â€œOnce it passes that rigorous test, the next thing is to assess its source. This has to be a fairly reliable source. The source may not want to be identified no further than being â€˜reliableâ€™.
A reporter must ascertain that the reason for this anonymity is genuine and justified. If it cannot be proved to the satisfaction of both the reporter and the editor, then it should be announced that â€˜all bets are offâ€™.â€
Bill believed that a source must be identified or there will be no story. He said this is necessary, in the first place, for the paperâ€™s credibility, and then, defamation.
â€œThe editor could always take the decision on the probability that the source would have no legitimate reason to â€˜tell a long storyâ€™ to the paper,â€ he wrote.
â€œBut there should be no hesitation either way: the cost to the newspaper could be enormous. Quite often, it could involve the loss of a life or lives. This might be far-fetched on the face of it. But a good editor knows enough about the job to realise there is this adage: If in doubt, donâ€™t.
â€œThe mention of death, though brief, has to be taken seriously. Of course, journalists have been killed for more grievous errors of omission or commission than relying too much on an unreliable â€˜reliable sourceâ€™.â€
Bill wrote that the faint-hearted cadet reporter, entering journalism from the idealistic standpoint of trying to â€œmake a differenceâ€, might find the real-life conditions of the job so frightening, they might decide there and then to quit â€“ join the priesthood or become a teacher or go farming.
â€œTo stick it out â€“as some of us have â€“ takes a commitment to what has been called a thankless job for society. The genuine journalists are driven by the adventure of making a difference,â€ he wrote.
â€œEach story is graded on its potency for making a difference to peopleâ€™s lives â€“ however insignificant. If people conclude that the news they read or watch or listen to makes a difference to their lives, they develop an attachment to the purveyors of such news.â€
KELVIN KACHINGWE, Lusaka