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National Order awarded to nation-building alumnus

- Alumni Relations Office

President Cyril Ramaphosa gives highest honour to editor and journalist Aggrey Klaaste.

South African editor and journalist Aggrey Klaaste (BA 1962) has received The Order of Ikhamanga in Gold posthumously from President Cyril Ramaphosa during a ceremony held on 30 April 2024.

Klaaste was honoured “for his exceptional contribution to quality journalism and as a reporter exposing the cruelties of apartheid and encouraging unity among the people of different political persuasions to fight for liberation.”

The presidency said in a statement that Klaaste “was a nation builder with a vision for an equal and thriving society”.Aggrey Klaaste, photo from SUNdigital archive

National Orders are awarded to South Africans and foreign nationals annually and are the highest awards that South Africa, through the President, bestows on citizens. The awards also recognise the roles played by individuals who continue to contribute to the building of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa as envisaged in our Constitution.

Ramaphosa said: “Among those being honoured today are legendary journalists who were the voice, the words, the conscience of an oppressed people during the darkest periods in our history. The standard they set for media ethics and freedom are embodied in today’s generation of journalists and media workers.”

The other recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold posthumously is Nontando Helen Jabavu. This for her contribution in the field of journalism and scholarship on the liberation struggle. “Her affinity to history and storytelling through journalism informed and enlightened the nation.”  (Read the feature on Nontando Helen Jabavu in Wits Review

Klaaste’s remarkable life

One of eight children, Klaaste was born on 6 January 1940 Kimberley, in the Northern Cape, where both his parents were teachers. When he was three, the family moved to Johannesburg, where his father got a job as a mines clerk. They settled in Sophiatown, which was then enjoying a golden age, attracting black jazz musicians, writers and political leaders, among them Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

Klaaste matriculated at Madibane High School and came to Wits, graduating with a BA in 1962, majoring in psychology and politics. He was one of the last black students to qualify before blacks were prohibited from attending "white" universities under apartheid.

His first journalistic job was as a reporter on Drum magazine, then owned by Jim Bailey, and a hothouse of black writing talent. Klaaste had a close-up view of historical events as a journalist: the Sharpeville Massacre 21 March 1960; in 1964 he covered the sentencing of Nelson Mandela and his comrades at Palace of Justice in Pretoria and the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial; and the Soweto riots in June 1976. On 19 October 1977, Klaaste was among those arrested after the apartheid government banned more than a dozen black political organisations and some newspapers, notably the World and Weekend World. The day is referred to as Black Wednesday.

Klaaste was detained for over seven months in Benoni’s Modderbee Prison for his involvement in the Soweto Committee of Ten. The Committee of Ten sought to be the true representative council that ran Soweto instead of the apartheid-run Urban Bantu Council. Soon after his release from prison, Klaaste went to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a Nieman Fellowship in 1980. As a keen reader, he thrived.

In 1988 he became the editor of the Sowetan – and under his leadership, the paper became the largest-selling daily with a readership of 1.8 million. As editor he fostered peace and reconciliation. He also launched the “nation-building campaign” and saw the Sowetan into democratic South Africa. He retired as editor in 2002 and died from a lung infection in Johannesburg, aged 64 in 2004.

* In 2021, Prof Lesley Cowley (BA 1983, BA Hons 1984) outlined Klaaste’s legacy.

Sources: Aggrey Klaaste Trust, the Guardian, The Presidency