Shining a light on South Africa
In 1963, The Kansas City Star experienced a watershed change. Roy Roberts, the paper’s longtime president and publisher, was succeeded by Richard B. Fowler, who had served as editor of the editorial page.
Two men of more different temperaments scarcely can be imagined.
Roberts’ principal concerns were with state and national politics, and he imagined himself a Republican kingmaker. A bit of a bully, he could command the obedience of his employees but rarely their admiration or their unqualified respect.
Fowler was cut from a much better fabric – more approachable, more attuned to the needs of the staff, and with a far broader range of national and international interests. It was under his leadership that The Star began giving serious, if belated, coverage to the civil rights movement, which in its earliest years had wrongly been seen as essentially a Southern story.
It was at his initiative that a young black journalist, Lacy Banks, joined the paper’s reporting staff – the forerunner of what would become a multiracial, multiethnic newsroom.
In 1964, a year after taking The Star’s helm, Fowler dispatched me to Africa – my first foreign assignment.
In less than a decade, what Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain had termed “the winds of change” had transformed more than a score of Europe’s African colonies into independent self-governing nations, born in inexperience, desperate need and vaulting hopes.
My assignment was to report back to our paper’s readers on the challenges and successes, the hopes and the disappointments, of the fledgling republics. Fowler’s instructions were concise and few.
“Go where you need to go,” he told me. “Stay as long as you feel you need to stay. Write what you think is sensible, and come back when you get sick.”
It was the kind of open-ended mission that, in the changed economics of print journalism, a young reporter would be unlikely to get today.
I would be gone for nearly seven months, and the preparations for such a journey were extensive: shots and medications for protection against a variety of tropical diseases, and visas to ensure entry into each of the countries I intended to visit, of which only one – South Africa – presented a problem.
The official at that country’s embassy in Washington opened a thick folder, briefly scanned its contents, looked with a frown across his desk and shook his head.
“Your newspaper has been unfriendly to my country,” he said. “The application is denied.”
My experience was exactly the same at Pretoria’s U.N. mission in New York. A journalist from a newspaper critical of South Africa’s apartheid racial policies was unwelcome in the country.
As it happened, my departure in March of 1964 was just one month before Nelson Mandela, a leading figure in the struggle to deliver the country’s black majority from oppression by the governing white regime, was tried and sentenced to begin what would be a 27-year ordeal of imprisonment.
Dismaying as the visa rejection was, I felt pride knowing that The Star had been on the right side of that burning issue – an editorial position for which the late Henry C. Haskell, senior writer on the editorial page staff and my predecessor as foreign editor, deserved much of the credit.
During the punishing marathon of travel, March to September, I was able – between bouts of dysentery, a kidney stone and other ailments – to send back reports from 14 sub-Saharan countries and five in the north of Africa. But South Africa remained a glaring blank place in the story.
Three months before the journey’s end, while recovering from malaria in Leopoldville, in the former Belgian Congo, I decided that I was unwilling to submit passively to the arbitrary denial of entry to a country of such importance.
So I booked a flight to Johannesburg.
“Your visa?” demanded the white agent at the immigration booth.
“I don’t have one,” I told him. “My application was rejected without reason. But I’m here, so what are you going to do with me?”
They knew exactly what to do. They lodged me overnight in what they called the “Undesirable Alien Quarters,” actually a shabby motel near the airport. They threatened to put me on a plane the next morning back to the Congo, but I managed to persuade them to make it a flight to Southern Rhodesia instead.
I wrote about that experience when I returned to the U.S. from Africa in late September.
I was proud then, and am proud still, of the stand The Star had taken on an issue of fundamental justice half a world away – a position that in fairness must be credited to a strong editor’s insightful leadership and Henry Haskell’s principled editorial commentary.
I count myself immensely fortunate to have worked for and with such men.
Both are gone now, but I know they would have been pleased to see the ultimate triumph of the principle that they, through this newspaper, supported.