Reflecting on Karima Brown the student activist, later ANC political operative that had unfettered access and lived that access in the media spaces

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By: Clyde Ramalaine

Part 001. The Cape to Joburg, personal encounters in student activism and later in professional spaces

In this season of reflecting on her person and roles, I think we at least warrant being honest, and that honesty cannot escape one’s true experiential reflection on the late Karima Brown no different to what  I would expect of myself should death befall me. That attempt at being honest has to engage one’s true experience, interpretation and reading through observation of the one you either seek to celebrate or engage.

In this sense I herewith framed my reflections in a form of a trilogy, with  Part 1, The Personal encounters Cape to Joburg. Part 2 Karima Brown and Nombonisa Gasa’s colossal public fall out  (a piece I published on 19 December in AfricaNews-24-7).  The final instalment of this trilogy details her as an undeniable political operative who had unfettered access to ANC/ SACP leadership  and factional groups on which she flip-flopped as it suited her mixing the personal with the political, the organisational with the national, the ideological with the frivolous, with the media as her venerated  space for living out that complex reality.  What runs through the entire reflection in golden thread sense is the centrality of ANC politics as defining  both the nucleus and periphery of the late Karima’s life.

What is it that we understand at death that we don’t or can’t comprehend in life?  As we learned of the COVID- related demise of Karima Brown no different to a few weeks ago that of  Minister Jackson Mthembu or the a few days ago the former PRIMEDIA CEO Peter Matlare.  One of the things that my mind involuntarily strays to as I hear the celebration of Karima’s life by even those who denigrated her is how to make sense of this. Deep within me, I want to believe in the good of common humanity, I don’t just want to believe it but I daily advocate for it. It’s a personal life motto.

Notwithstanding this preoccupation and mind, I can’t deny the inward wrestle to make sense of the behaviour of humans.  I remain fascinated by their acts in particular at times of death. One is still searching to find the words to describe and frame this kind of act as a phenomenon.  One wrestles to frame it as honest, authentic and sincere? Or maybe one should ask is it sincere, is it authentic is it even honest? If it is none of the aforementioned who are we deceiving or are we comfortable to live in this form of human generational deception?

How is it possible that everyone at the hearing of the news suddenly awake as if meticulously programmed to now see only the good almost in an uncontested natural sense? You will hear others retort from a claimed cultural tomato box when they say it is African tradition to respect death and the dead, my involuntary response;  if we can respect death and the dead why can’t we be African and respect life and living? Is this a human phenomenon or is it a rehearsed pietism that borders on the divine to attempt to remember the good and forget the bad? Do we forget the bad? What then to make of the notion that forgetting is not possible?

If the reaction and behaviour measurable in this phenomenon to remember the good is a human trait, does it apply to all or is it reserved for a selected few? If we do revere death and is respectful towards the dead can this alter our appreciation to seek revenge? How can such awareness shape and redefine our living spaces? Can we rethink the death penalties or is it possible that we may even at death forgive the greatest murderer and rapist? If not how authentic is our forgetting the wrongs of some?

Why do we at times like this find our apparent true north to have a calibrated mind that speaks almost in rehearsed fashion the beauty and not remembering the evil? I ask again, what is it that we understand at death that we don’t or can’t comprehend in life? I wonder if this is how we all may hope to be eulogised – is this the deception we can live with and therefore die in? I still hold if half the people across all walks of life that tonight now sings the praises of Karima Brown, the journalist, friend, colleague etc could only have told her this when she was alive, could it not have inspired her to do better?

This past week South Africa was shocked to learn of the death of one of its more recent Machiavellian journalists,  somebody who in the last 10 years gained much more a public presence proverbially walking broad for the many positions and designations she held in media spaces. Karima Brown the student activist,  who later plied her trade as a journalist, even served for a while as editor of Independent News Limited (INL) among others, PRIMEDIA- talk show co-host and in the end the Anchor of the Fix an eNCA show left these shores.  What is indisputable is that she lived full and did so to the end.

In the aftermath of her death and the  eNCA 403 Channel Celebration [which I did not yet watch] of her life as her friends and former employer reflected, I thought it appropriate to share how I experienced Karima Semaar later Brown. It’s not the first time I would pen an opinion piece on the very interesting and colourful Karima Brown. Besides regular comment, the last time I  dedicated a full article to her was when she and her long lost friend Nomboniso  Gasa had that bad public split. I was drawn to opine because of the metanarratives that define the ANC. I attempted to contextualise their split which was nasty as symptomatic of what was wrong or unfolding in the ANC. This, therefore, is no calumny of her character but a lens through which two individuals vibrate bigger than them positions, stances, shifts of what we can call the ANC balance of forces.

My earliest interactions with Karima Brown dates back to the less publicised Cape 80’s student struggle. By the way, the fault of this must be laid squarely on all of our then Cape based students of the ’80s who despite our professional lives hitherto have failed our children to write our own story. It is our fault that Ashley Kriel is still not memorialised such as Soweto have done of Hector Peterson. Since 1976 marked the Soweto Student uprise, the ’80s cannot be challenged as having been Cape students led that proverbially saw the breaking of the back of apartheid marking the last decade of apartheid as an official system of governance.

Both of us hail from Mitchell’s Plain as our student years stomping grounds and were children of our time and contemporaries who joined the liberation struggle. I think I am just a year older than her. The Karima I got to know was like most of us sold out to what we knew as the Liberation Cause in which students over an elongated period details  a unique and distinct role. She understood and was part of those of us no different to many who had a persuasion to stand against injustice. These were the days of organisations like  CAYCO and MIPSCO among others. It was also a season when the apartheid system would ban organisations almost weekly,  meaning as soon as these are established they were banned repeating a cycle of new names.

Nevertheless, Karima Semaar the student activist for me resembled the fearlessness of what I call a true activist and may I say the young face of the identity of the Cape Town women of the struggle of the Cape Flats where I grew up since I was born in Woodstock. I raise that because I have always been fascinated by the commitment and strength of the Cape women and mothers that seldom are honoured for their unique roles in defiance and for hiding many of  us in their homes when the apartheid dogs were chasing us. Mitchells Plain remained a religious mosaic of blended community where we lived together, struggled together and like the Bo- Kaap there was no intolerance of the other’s faith. From those earlier interactions, it was easy to see and hear a Karima speak her mind. I recall  Karima and a fellow student Fatima [whom I had a crush on lol] were always together they both had an energy about them that resonated in a commitment to the cause, that I was a fellow student and leader also admired. Was I ever a friend no, hence I am not writing as a close friend, but of someone, I interacted with in different epochs of time dating back to the 80s’.

The Karima I later re-met in Johannesburg our new stomping grounds as adults with different professions would see us regularly butting heads particularly with ANC politics at the centre since we vehemently disagreed on issues, personalities, agendas, and also now justice and injustice, yet I remember a time during her tenure at Independent News Limited when her son was ill and I prayed for her son. I have long been publishing opinion pieces on my blog [Ramalainetalkpoliticalanalysis], before my first media article appeared on June 19, 2010, in the Pretoria News. The late Leon Swartz called me after he read the piece ‘Interesting times for Chikane Files’   an analysis of Frank Chikane, to share his appreciation for my views. I to this day have the framed copy which Swartz sent to me by courier with his signature on it.

Before Karima arrived in the position of editor in 2013, Dr Iqbal Surve came across one of my articles on Facebook and expressed a desire for me to interact to publish my opinion pieces on his platforms. That interaction was arranged through the interaction of Facebook since he at the time was attending the annual rendezvous in icy-cold  Davos, as he directed through his personal assistant for us to meet. The agreed meeting by-default coincided with the appointment of Karima Brown. I know that Dr Surve discussed with Karima since he told me when he raised our meeting she undertook to handle it.  The intention was to realise a freelance writing contract to write for the INL footprint. Unfortunately, because of the inaction  of Karima that never transpired. I would much later be contracted when Steve Motale became editor of the INL group. Despite respectfully contacting Karima, and her subsequent giving commitments she ended up making several excuses such as not having a personal assistant who can organise her diary. My reading was she was simply non- chalant and stood indifferent since she  never placed any of the articles  I personally forwarded to her. From our shared comradeship I raised it with Tyrone Parks and he undertook to engage her as to why she was not willing to publish other voices. Even when I asked her to place an article of another cadre and fellow theologian also dating back from  our collective Cape 80’s epoch,  Vincent Van Breda,  originally from Portlands Mitchell’s Plain, Karima simply ignored and refused to publish.

The sense I got was that Karima was not tolerant or appreciative of opposing views or the different angle from where I was writing, since by then many of my opinion pieces had already appeared in some of the media platforms such as the City Press among others. From the start of my writing I was innately persuaded to present the alternate to what mainstream media was feeding us daily in political commentary and analysis. Perhaps I should have understood that Karima the student activist who in the 80s was open for disagreement, yet with due respect,  was now increasingly taking on the form of the ambivalent ANC political operative who strangely detailed a callous flip-flopping from ANC leaders for example Zuma whom she defended with her life to be the chief antagonist in media spaces. She would live that antagonism in public spaces which was her right. Because so many in the media spaces did not have the proximity and access that some of us  share in intimate contact with the ANC / SACP leadership, Karima would become for some an expert on the ANC inner-workings often real yet many times not so real. Her fame in television presence sky-rocketed into stardom as the natural go-to for ANC scoops often framed in analysis. Karima the journalist would begin to use the title of the analyst. It honestly never mattered to me that Karima finished or not finished her journalistic studies, what cannot be denied is she lived full, leaves an undeniable vacuum in the world of journalism and what the latter has become particularly in South Africa over the last 15 years.

Our prayers and hearts as already extended are towards her immediate family, loved ones and friends.

Clyde N. S. Ramalaine
A Lifelong Social Justice Activist Political Commentator & Writer is a SARChi D. Litt.et. Phil candidate in Political Science with the University of Johannesburg. Chairperson of TMoSA Foundation – The Thinking Masses of SA