Klaaste advocated for the rebuilding of community structures that had been devasted by the wave of unspeakable political violence that began in the mid-1980s. He wanted his community to rekindle the spirit of self-pride and to psychologically prepare for coming freedom. Using Sowetan newspaper as a platform to champion his views, he initiated many nation-building projects that sought to affirm the best and brightest in his community. These included community Builder of the Year, Youth Leader of the Year, Woman of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year.
About Aggrey Klaaste
He was a visionary.
He was a champion for less fortunate.
He was a wonderful writer.
He was a man of the people.
He was compassionate
When he died in 2004, everyone in the land recognised him for the great man he was. He was a doyenne of journalism, a community builder and a loving father and husband.
According to Klaaste family lore, the family traces its roots in the Eastern Cape before ending up in Kimberley. The Klaaste family clan name is Mtirharha, YemYem, Vela Bambensele, Sopityo, Madiba.
As an educator, Aggrey’s father was appointed to a post in a small town in Ventersdorp called Tsetse. After a brief stay in Tsetse, Klaaste’s family then moved to a mining town called Rand Leases in Florida, Roodepoort, where his father was a clerk. Thereafter they moved to vibrant and multi-cultural Sophiatown. When Sophiatown was demolished to make way for a new an Afrikaner suburb called Triomf, Klaaste’s family was one of the thousands that were forcibly moved to Meadowlands, Soweto.
After attending Madibane High School, headed by the legendary master Harry Percy “The Shark” Madibane, Klaasteenrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, the last intake of black students before the newly created Extension of University Education Act, which barred black students from attending the now white university, came into effect.
After receiving his BA degree (majoring in Psychology and Politics) in 1960, he became a journalist for the Golden City Post, World newspapers and Drum magazine.
Being a journalist gave Klaaste a close-up view of historical events. One of the events that profoundly shaped his life was the Sharpeville Massacre 21 March 1960 when police opened fire on peaceful pass laws protesters in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, killing 69. In a New York Times Magazine article (“Exiles in their Native Land) in 1984 – a good 24 years later – Klaaste still couldn’t come to terms with the general humiliation suffered by blacks due to pass laws. “The terrible truth is there is no need for such laws as the pass regulations – no need for every black man and woman to be routinely stopped by a policeman anywhere, any time, and be asked for a passbook on pain of imprisonment,” he wrote in the article.
In 1964, he covered the sentencing of Nelson Mandela and his comrades at Palace of Justice in Pretoria, the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial for Drum magazine. The hush that fell when the judge passed down the sentence was announced and the image of the freedom fighters being whisked away in a truck – on their way to Robben Island in Cape Town – was memorably portrayed in Klaaste’s story. Again, the young man had come close to history. Crucially, he had seen first-hand the injustice being carried out in a supposed court of law. From then on life was never to be the same. Mandela was to spend 27 years in prison before leading South Africa to democracy and he and Klaaste greatly respected each other.
Meanwhile, Klaaste’s journalism career continued in a country contending with repression and the curtailing of many personal and press freedoms. With the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress banned, Black Consciousness, led by the impossibly young and charismatic Steve Biko, ensured that resistance simmered under the lid of repression. In 1973, massive workers’ strikes erupted in Durban, a mass protest the country hadn’t seen in a while. Something was afoot. When Mozambique gained independence in 1974, political resistance in South Africa was galvanised, sending a shiver of terror to the regime in Pretoria. The so-called RooiGevaar was drawing near. The lid blew open in a spectacular way in June 1976 when students in Soweto staged an uprising to protest the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at school. Police shot and killed many protesters. It was one of the turning points in the struggle for freedom. Klaaste was there to witness it all. When the uprising started, he was attending a sub-editing course at The Star offices in downtown Joburg. He rushed to the township and took part in the protest, which had now involved more than students. As he later recounted in his many writings, the burning township reminded him of Dante’s Inferno.
The following year – on 19 October 1977 – Aggrey was once again embroiled in historical events when on that fateful day he 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 infamous day is referred to as Black Wednesday.
Klaaste was detained for over seven months in Benoni‘sModderbee prison. He believed his involvement in the Soweto Committee of Ten was part of the reason for his arrest. The Committee of Ten sought to be the true representative council that ran Soweto instead of the discredited apartheid-run Urban Bantu Council.
Soon after his release from prison, Klaaste went to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a Nieman Fellowship, which is offered to some of the sharpest journalists from around the world. He was a Nieman alumni in the Class of 1980. A keen reader, he thrived at Harvard. For the first time, he felt free. He didn’t have to carry a pass with him all the time. Like a child in a candy store, he got to devour books that were banned in his homeland. In general, he impressed everyone who crossed his path with his fine mind. He never missed a chance to tell anyone who cared to listen about the terrible situation back home and he had scars to prove it.
In 1988, Klaaste became the editor of Sowetan, launched his nation-building programme and generally worked hard as editor to champion the rebuilding of communities. Meanwhile, the paper continued to be a thorn at the back of the regime through its fearless coverage of the times, often risking censorship and harassment.
When Mandela came out of prison he took a leaf from Klaaste’s thinking about social cohesion and, on top of everything else, the two shared the Madiba clan name, which drew them even closer together.
Klaaste is remembered for his unwavering engagement in his community. He interacted with people from all walks of life. When crime engulfed a section of Dobsonville, Klaaste – the whole world-respected editor! – joined men in the neighbourhood on night patrols to ensure the safety of fellow residents. He saw it as his duty to play in a role to rescue his community. He walked the talk.
During his lifetime, Klaaste was honoured. Among other accolades, he received honourary doctorates from the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University) as well as from Rhodes University and the University of Durban Westville.
In 1991 he received the Indicator Human Rights Award from the South African Human Rights Commission and in 1993 he was awarded an Institute of Marketing Management Fellowship for Sowetan’s encouragement of small black business development. In 1994, Technikon Northern Gauteng (former Transvaal) honoured him with a special award in recognition of Sowetan’s contribution to building the black community. In 1999, former President Nelson Mandela honoured Klaaste with the Order of Meritorious Service (Class 1).
Klaaste complained of chest pains after attending an event at Orlando stadium on 6 June 2004 and his wife Caroline took him to see the family doctor soon after. His doctor immediately advised that he be admitted to TshepoThemba Private Hospital in Dobsonville, Soweto. When his condition worsened after a week in a hospital, he was transferred to Garden City Private Clinic in Mayfair West, Johannesburg, where he spent another week in the Intensive Care Unit.
Klaaste died on 19 June 2004 of pneumonia. He was 64. The country mourned a great loss. He was laid to rest at the Avalon cemetery in Soweto, where he had wanted to be buried among his people. The world had lost one of its brightest stars, a fearless editor who spoke the truth to power regardless of the consequences.
He is survived by his widow Teliso Caroline Letsela-Klaaste and his sons Peter, Jerome, Moeketsi, Ntatho, Moeketsi, Langa and Mzoli.
After this death, tributes poured in from those who knew him well.
“Klaaste will not be easily forgotten because he loved this country. He was an inspiring man and extremely gifted.” – Former President Nelson Mandela.
“Aggrey Klaaste will always be remembered for his contributions to spirited journalism and nation-building. His brave stand against the tyranny of apartheid in the days of repression of blacks inspired particularly the youth of South Africa. He represented the established reality of black intellectual achievement, many years before the arrival of the democracy for which he struggled.” – Former President Thabo Mbeki.
“Aggrey Klaaste did not have a big body, but he was a huge humanitarian giant, whose profile towered over the landscape of our beautiful country. Klaaste went out of his way to build everyone, big and small. He recognized and nurtured every positive step anyone in our society took. His nation-building initiative is the embodiment of Aggrey Klaaste.” – MosibudiMangena, Former Azapo President and Minister of Science and Technology.
“He was at the forefront of the struggle for media freedom when it was under severe attack from the apartheid regime. He was even prepared to face persecution for his hatred of oppression of the majority.” – David Makhura, Gauteng Premier.
“I have watched him working with people from all walks of life, on projects as varied starting a community newspaper to cleaning up squalid slums euphemistically called informal settlements. I have seen him talking to drunks. There was always this gentle side that said, I care. His caring beat down the anger and cynicism that I felt and sometimes still feel.” – Joe Thloloe.
“One of the toughest challenges that Aggrey ‘Madiba’ Klaaste faced was his launching of the nation-building initiative. The gentle, caring and intellectual Madiba resolutely braved opposition from all sides to triumph in the end.”– Thami Mazwai.
“He was plain Aggrey. He was simply Bra Aggrey, to all who knew him, young and old. The surname did not seem to matter. One only had to say Aggrey and people immediately knew who you were referring to. That said a lot about him. He was simple without being a simpleton; a simple man who did extraordinary things. For such a bookish a man he was extremely uncomplicated. – Barney Mthombothi.
“He had enormous compassion for the deaf. He was one of the few people who realised how marginalised they are.” – Claude Goddard.
“Klaaste had been instrumental in initiating the peace accord of the 1990s He was one of the doyens of the profession.”– Moegsien Williams.“I find it remarkable that a well-respected editor of a newspaper should be subjected to this form of harassment.” President of Newspaper Press Union; Jolyon Nuttal’s quote on how Klaaste was harassed by the apartheid security police. Source: Sowetan lawyers seek the reason for grilling Editor – Sowetan 1988 Nov 7th.