How to defy apartheid? For journalist Juby Mayet, with pen in hand.

Why We Wrote This

Journalists do more than record the world. Sometimes, they help make it turn. In apartheid South Africa, simply writing about black communities in all their vibrance was an act of protest.

Drum Staff/Baileys African History Archive/Africa Media Online/File
South African journalist Juby Mayet, who died Saturday, was one of a very small number of black female journalists working in South Africa in the 1960s and '70s.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

To Juby Mayet, a South African journalist, the news hardly needed sensationalizing. Apartheid was absurd enough, she reasoned. All you had to do was write it down.

Ms. Mayet, who died Saturday, wrote for some of South Africa’s most influential publications in the 1960s and ’70s, capturing black life under apartheid in bright color. It was a simple rebellion to the regime – giving texture, shape, and joy to the very worlds apartheid was trying to flatten. It was a flattening she knew too well.

Her family was uprooted from their house in central Johannesburg and sent 20 miles south, to a newly designated Indian suburb. But Ms. Mayet wasn’t actually Indian, but Malay, and she eventually had her race formally “reclassified” to avoid being separated from her children – the ultimate absurdity for a woman who lived her entire life resisting apartheid’s categories.

But as apartheid’s reach advanced, journalists who exposed the system’s strange rules were increasingly targeted. In 1978, Ms. Mayet was imprisoned for five months and then banned from publishing for five years. Yet her career stands as a reminder that it was possible to live a life bigger than your circumstances were supposed to allow.

The woman wasn’t talking.

At least, that’s what the other reporters told young journalist Juby Mayet when she arrived at a Johannesburg apartment door in the late 1950s, hoping for a scoop that would impress her editors.

The woman behind the door was white. Her husband was Indian. A few days earlier, they’d been charged with breaking apartheid’s Immorality Act, which forbade romantic relationships across South Africa’s color line.

Ms. Mayet was supposed to get their story. She walked past the knot of white journalists who’d told her not to bother and knocked.

“Who is it?” asked a voice inside.

“Sharon, from Golden City Post.” Ms. Mayet offered her pen name. The door swung open, and a hand yanked her inside. Then it snapped shut against the gaggle of stunned reporters.

The woman later told Ms. Mayet she’d given her the story because she had read her reporting and knew “you wouldn’t sensationalize our situation.”

That was the way Ms. Mayet saw journalism. Apartheid was absurd enough. All you had to do to show that was to write it down.

And she did. As a reporter for some of South Africa’s most influential publications in the 1960s and ’70s, Ms. Mayet, who died Saturday, wrote stories that captured black life under apartheid in bright color. This simple rebellion was also a dangerous one – giving texture, shape, and joy to the very worlds apartheid was trying to flatten.

Courtesy of Siphiwo Mahala
In her later years, South African journalist Juby Mayet became an icon and an example to subsequent generations of black women reporters, many of whom regard her as a personal hero.

On the staff of the Golden City Post, Drum, and other iconic black newspapers and magazines, Ms. Mayet wrote with equal respect about jazz concerts and soup recipes, about crime and the Immorality Act, about the forced removal of millions of black South Africans from their land and, as an advice columnist, the love stories, family dramas, and personal betrayals that coursed below the surface of those big-picture stories.

“She was right there with the likes of South Africa’s great journalists at a time when journalists were really freedom activists. And on top of it she was a woman,” says Mary Papayya, a board member of the South African Broadcast Corporation and the media freedom chair for the South African National Editors Forum.

Ms. Mayet lived a life to match, one where freedom was never a distant speck on the horizon, but something you seized each day – one story, one multiracial friendship, one dark joke about apartheid at a time.

“I was never a political person,” Ms. Mayet told me in a 2011 interview. “But … in this country the mere fact that you are not white politicizes your life. You are not white so you can’t travel in that train … your children can’t go to that school. So what else can you be but political?”

What else could you be but political, either, as a woman in a world custom-built for men, where important career wisdom was shared in smoky bars, and getting the girl often seemed as important as getting the story?

But Ms. Mayet’s brand of gender equality, those who knew her say, was never about soapboxes or philosophical arguments.

She let men know she was their equal by being their equal. (And in her hard-drinking circles, she told me, that meant showing “I could also drink most of them under the table.”)

“Juby looked after herself and she had a sharp tongue for anyone who tried to stand in her way, whether it was the police or thugs she met in the road or her own colleagues,” says her friend and colleague Joe Thloloe.

Living outside the box

Ms. Mayet was born in 1937 in Fietas, a multiracial working-class neighborhood of Johannesburg before apartheid cleared those pockets of diversity off the map.

In 1957, she shocked her parents by finishing teaching college and marching straight into the offices of a popular newspaper called the Golden City Post, where she’d been covertly writing articles for months.

Like many black journalists of her generation, Ms. Mayet flouted apartheid’s rules whenever she could.

“I must tell you, that during my years as a reporter I had great fun, because it was so nice to poke fun at the system, to dodge them, to quarrel [with them], to slam doors in their faces,” Ms. Mayet told a South African talk show in 2016.

In the mid-1960s, her family was uprooted from their house in central Johannesburg and sent to live 20 miles south of the city, in a newly designated Indian suburb called Lenasia.

But Ms. Mayet wasn’t actually Indian, but Malay. After her husband died in a car crash, she had her race formally “reclassified” to avoid being separated from her children – the ultimate absurdity for a woman who lived her entire life resisting apartheid’s categories.

As apartheid’s reach advanced across the 1960s and ’70s, journalists like Ms. Mayet who exposed the system’s strange rules were increasingly targeted.

“The whites in this country never really regarded black people as fully human. They thought we … didn’t have ideas. We didn’t feel wronged [by their system],” Ms. Mayet said in 2011. “But when they started to realize that [black] people were reading the newspapers … and thinking for themselves – that’s when they started to really get nervous.”

By the mid-1970s, many of her colleagues from Drum and Golden City Post were in exile or prison. Meanwhile, she became a founding member of the first union for black journalists in the country. She worked there until 1978, when she was jailed for charges related to her activism. Released five months later, she was banned from the union and prohibited from publishing for five years.

So Ms. Mayet did the pragmatic thing for a single mother with eight children. She quit journalism and became a cleaner and a secretary, waiting out apartheid’s final decade on the fringes of the world she’d spent her career fighting for a place in. Yet her career stands as a reminder that it was possible to live a life bigger than your circumstances were supposed to allow.

“She was feisty and she was not what anyone expected her to be – I think she laid the foundation for black women journalists in South Africa,” says Khadija Patel, the editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper. “She refused to be fitted into a box.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.