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David Niddrie: The everywhere progressive media activist

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Picture: Twitter/SACP – David Niddrie ‘was just so very professional. A perfectionist. He demanded a lot of himself – but he expected the same from others’. Described as one of South Africa’s ‘leading media shapeshifters’, Niddrie was selfless, caring and humane. ‘He still had many of the values of the struggle era, when this has mostly long faded in our movement,’ the writer says.

By Yunus Carrim

David Niddrie is well known to the older generation of journalists and others in the media world. But little known is his quiet, very significant role in the SACP and ANC. That’s the way David wanted it.

In any case, as an underground activist during the struggle era, he had to be quiet – contrary to his overt role as an activist relentlessly seeking to transform the media space.

David was involved in a remarkably wide range of media activities, including as a reporter, sub-editor and media trainer in the Benoni City Times, Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Tribune, Sunday Post, Sunday Express, City Press and other mainstream newspapers. He contributed to a range of international newspapers. And he also formed or joined several alternative news outlets.

He became the editor of the progressive journal Work in Progress, which was much-read by activists and also Southern Africa Report. He was involved too in the Association of Democratic Journalists.

In the early 1990s he played key roles in the Campaign for Open Media and the Campaign for Open Broadcasting to transform the SABC. And he was head of strategic planning at the SABC from 1994 to 1996 and later served on the Board. He also helped to establish YFM and assisted e.tv.

Journalist Chris Vick, his long-time friend and comrade, whom David recruited into the underground in 1984, said that David “contributed to some of the most fundamental changes in the structure of the South African media” and “was, without question, one of our country’s leading media shapeshifters”.

David joined the ANC and SACP in London in 1976, and returned to South Africa a year later. He engaged in underground activities, mainly distributing banned literature and providing political reports to Ronnie Kasrils. He also did reconnaissance for Operation Green Vegetables, led by Mac Maharaj, which was meant to target a train carrying army conscripts. The operation was called off by Oliver Tambo as it had too many political and other risks.

In 1989 Mac made contact with David and he became peripherally involved in the underground Operation Vula. In 1990, after the unbanning of the ANC, the police uncovered the operation and when Mac and others got arrested, Ronnie disappeared into the “underground” again – and David and his family provided him a safe house and arranged other safe houses for him.

From the early 1990s David assisted the SACP and ANC on media issues but then went into other activities.

I knew of David, but had no contact with him, until a few months after I was appointed as Editor of Umsebenzi and The African Communist in about 2002. I was asked by then General Secretary, Blade Nzimande, to contact David to assist with the sub-editing and lay-out of these publications. David immediately agreed – and so began our over 20 years relationship working on these publications.

He worked closely with Tony Sutton, a South African now living in Canada, who edits the left wing, The ColdType, and is a design specialist and, later, Mark Waller, the Finnish activist and journalist, now living in South Africa, who assisted with the sub-editing.

David was cantankerous and idiosyncratic with a huge propensity for the “F” word. Not immune to the “F” word either (I mean, is there a word in English that can adequately replace the passion, emotion, strength of feeling of the “F” word in certain contexts??), I used it far more frequently after meeting him. We would sometimes have robust exchanges – imagine the number of expletives that littered these conversations. In all this time, we have never had a fall-out. He’d blow his top, and 10 minutes later he’d ring and we’d merrily talk as if the previous exchange never took place. I used to tell him that one day I’ll write a book: “David, the F-word, the SACP, the working class and I”.

Mostly, our exchanges were about his insistence on the use of only the most high-quality photographs. But our photographers at Head Office are amateurs, I’d say. No, I can’t go ahead with this issue – find me the right photos, he’d say. He could be exasperating.

He had a very libertarian streak, and would go for photographs, headings and captions in the publications that could be quite out of kilter with the majority views in the SACP or not attuned to the political and personal sensibilities of key SACP leaders. And he would make these choices on technical grounds, they looked good to the eye – and readability is crucial in the graphic design, he would say. Yes, but as a Marxist you know that form cannot trump substance, I’d cry. But how do you convey the substance if not through technically good design? And so our roundabout arguments would go many times.

As I got to know his way and temperament better, I began to respect and like him immensely. He was just so very professional. A perfectionist. He demanded a lot of himself – but he expected the same from others. And this seemed to shape his temperament. He could be very impatient and direct. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. He had a deadpan acerbic wit and he could be very funny. I would chortle with laughter at what he’d say; he would rarely even titter.

While he would have his say in small media meetings and workshops, he was not a person for political meetings and endless talk. He came across as almost shy, uncomfortable in bigger meetings and would not say anything. He just wanted to get the media work done.

He was no traditional Marxist and maybe that’s also why we chimed.

For about 20 years, David was the main sub-editor of Umsebenzi and The African Communist. For much of that period he wasn’t given a cent and he would just shrug it off when we kept apologising, even when his other contracts were drying up and his income was very limited. And when he did get some money from work elsewhere, he often assisted Tony and Mark. That was David. A big heart. Selfless, caring, humane. He still had many of the values of the struggle era, when this has mostly long faded in our movement.

In 2013 I was appointed as Minister of Communications. As a media specialist with considerable experience, he was an obvious choice as an advisor. No, no, he said, not me, Joe Mjwara. Joe is also being approached, I explained. When he had to sign the contract, there was another hiccup. “This is too much money!” he exclaimed. And it was no false act. Has any advisor ever said that before? Yet he was not earning much elsewhere. I had to nudge him again. “Yes, you’re right, but, well, you can give some of that away to those in need…”

When Nzimande, as Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology hired him as an advisor about three years ago, he got much the same reaction about the salary.

In 2017, in recognition of David’s contribution he was co-opted to the SACP Central Committee as a veteran and he was also given the Moses Kotane Award. Typically, he said he didn’t feel he deserved it and if we wanted to change our mind, he’d be fine with that.

Very sadly, he died on Tuesday, May 9, aged 69. We spoke every day between the Friday and Monday, as we were finalising the (overdue) April issue of Umsebenzi and beginning with the May issue. And almost as if he had a premonition, he said on the Monday: ‘We need younger guys to do this now. I don’t want to die doing Umsebenzi. I phoned Buti Manamela, the deputy editor immediately, and raised the need to ease David out of the responsibility to co-ordinate the lay-out in the next few months, and he immediately agreed. This was on our agenda anyway.

The next day David sent a message at 15:44: ‘Hi, I’m indisposed. Ijj be in touch tomorrow pse tell Mark’. One of the rare occasions he sent a message with a misspelling, cell phone auto-corrects notwithstanding. Odd. And odd too that he didn’t send the message directly to Mark. Just over an hour later he died.

His idiosyncrasies just grew on one and made you even more fond of him. He was quite unique and original in our ranks. He will be sorely missed by those of us who knew him well and even though they won’t know it, by those who didn’t know him at all.

His character certainly triumphed over his personality quirks. There I was, constantly reminding him that substance is ultimately more important than form. Well, in his own life he showed that glaringly. Just by being who he was.

Hamba Kahle, Comrade David Niddrie!

Yunus Carrim is an SACP Politburo member and Editor of ‘Umsebenzi’ and ‘The African Communist’. A former Minister of Communications, he chairs the NCOP Select Committee on Finance