Harber drops the chalk – but far from done

By Enock Sithole

If there was a personification of the combination of academic and professional knowledge in journalism, it would be Professor Anton Harber.

Harber worked extensively in professional media before joining academia in 2001 to pioneer the establishment of the Wits Journalism Department, now the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ). He retires from Wits at the end of this year but plans to continue working in diverse media and freedom of expression projects.

Irwin Manoim and Anton Harber in the early days of the Mail & Guardian.

After starting his journalism career as a reporter at the Springs Advertiser in Springs, east of Johannesburg, he worked at the Sunday Post, the Sowetan and Rand Daily Mail newspapers. He was a political reporter at the Rand Daily Mail and was retrenched when it was closed in 1985. This would launch him to greater heights in his media career. Together with Irwin Manoim, who was also retrenched by the Rand Daily Mail, they used their retrenchment payouts to start the Weekly Mail, later known as the Mail & Guardian. Here, he demonstrated his journalism activism against apartheid, pioneering alternative journalism along other publications such as the New Nation, Vrye Weekblad, The Indicator, South and Work in Progress, among others.

When the Weekly Mail was acquired by London-based Guardian Media Group, he went on to become chief executive officer of Kagiso Broadcasting and executive director of Kagiso Media. He later left to form internet company, BIG Media.

It was in 2001 when then Wits University vice-chancellor, Professor Colin Bundy, reached out to Harber to discuss plans to introduce journalism teaching at Wits and asked him if he would like to apply for the position of head of the prospective journalism department.

“At first I was hesitant because I wasn’t thinking of an academic career,” said Harber. “But I do have a special affinity for Wits. I am a Wits graduate, and I think it’s a great place to [study]. So, after a while, I thought it might actually be a really nice thing to do. I also felt that Wits needed a journalism programme.”

When he walked into Wits, Harber was clear that the journalism programme should start at postgraduate level. He believed that journalism students needed to first learn other subjects such as history, economics and language, then learn journalism to apply the knowledge gained from other disciplines. “I was adamantly in favour of the graduate model because I think that for journalism, you need a base of knowledge first… And it can be in anything. It can be in law. It can be in science. It should definitely have some economics and some history. Because then you’ve got something to say.”

When he got to Wits there were some (BA) honours courses in journalism, and with other colleagues, they set about crafting an honours degree curriculum fully focused on journalism.

He said they quickly realised there was demand for journalism education at two levels. One was for a career-entry, accommodating students with a graduate degree in any discipline but with no journalism experience. The other was a mid-career level for experienced journalists who had had no opportunity to acquire university education as a result of apartheid, poverty and other factors. They would be admitted to the honours programme through the Recognition of Prior Learning approach.

“Because of our history, there are many journalists who never had the opportunity to go to university, so we realised there was a real hunger to close that gap. So, we developed a mid-career track, first at honours level, and then at masters. And, let me tell you, I think that’s one of the most valuable things we did and one of the things I am most proud of – giving journalists that opportunity.” he said.

He said there were many journalists who enrolled for the mid-career programme and got degrees which gave them a “boost not so much in their careers, but in themselves. They filled the gap they felt they had. We are addressing a historical anomaly.”

Harber also introduced a number of projects to what was then known as Wits Journalism, some of which were not exactly about journalism. He had a particular vision, which he said had ensured that journalism training was not about simply learning to produce the news, but taking an interest in what was happening in society.

“You’ve got to teach journalism by doing it,” he asserts. “For example, you can give a young student a lesson in [journalism] ethics, but the moment they really learn about ethics is when they face an ethical problem while practicing as a journalist,” he said. He said this was among the reasons why the student newspaper Wits Vuvuzela was started.

Other projects under the Wits Centre for Journalism today include the Wits Justice Project, Jamlab Africa, the Wits Radio Academy, Citizen Justice Network, the Africa-China Reporting Project and the African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC), among others.

“Part of making it a place where journalism was happening was to create these projects, which would do not just journalism, but a particular kind of journalism that would fill some gaps we were seeing in the industry at the time – public interest, human rights and multimedia journalism.”

Harber is particularly proud of the AIJC, which held its 19th annual edition from 20 to 22 November in 2023.

“This is my particular personal passion. We started the AIJC as a small local conference, and the first edition had maybe 30 or 40 people attend. Now, it’s the biggest annual gathering of working journalists on the continent. This year, we had about 400 people join us. Last year, we had 34 African countries [represented], and came close to matching that this year,” he said.

Harber said the technological advancements forced journalism education to constantly review the curriculum. “There is a need to move faster with regards to teaching digital journalism and social media,” he said.

While working in academia, Harber continued to see the need to practice journalism. He authored books such as Diepsloot, which he said was a piece of literary journalism giving voices to the people of the township north of Johannesburg. He also authored So, for the record, discussing how the Sunday Times, one of South Africa’s leading newspapers, “was duped into doing the dirty work of corrupt politicians”.

“The media did a great job to expose state capture, but here was this newspaper being used to aid state capture,” he said.

Professor Harber had a stint at the TV news channel eNCA, where he worked for 18 months as editor-in-chief in 2016/17.

Although he steps down from his role at Wits University, he is far from stopping his tireless work in the industry. He will continue in his role as executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and as director of the Henry Nxumalo Foundation.

We wish Prof Harber all the best in his adventures ahead!

This article was first published in the Ajenda newsletter.