Remembering Wara Fana, who spoke truth to power

Paying tribute to the activist and journalist who died of Covid-19 on 11 June, Louise Vale celebrates his commitment to community news, African languages and media transformation.

This is a lightly edited version of Louise Vale’s tribute given at a virtual memorial. 

Good day friends, compatriots, comrades.

Thank you for giving me the chance to celebrate and honour Wara Fana.

Wara was born on 12 March 1976, a tragic year in the history of South Africa when the youth had to take charge of the struggle for freedom and justice for the people. Perhaps this was a foretaste of the kind of life Wara would live – a life dedicated to the continuing battle for this freedom, a freedom that should be concentrated on our youth, the impoverished and the marginalised. And, as a community activist first and a journalist second, Wara worked for the freedom to hold power to account. 

Wara started his tertiary education at the University of Transkei where he enrolled for a BCom, proving that a sure way for a student to drop out is for a socialist to enrol for a BCom!

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He then went on to Nelson Mandela University to study journalism and media studies. There he and Heather met and, as we all know well, fell deeply in love. She is a warrior woman who has been his partner in all that he has done, was the love of his life and the mother of his beloved children, Lali and Khaya. 

Khaya and Lali also joined Wara and Heather in acting, for example, against gender-based violence and discrimination, and for the freedom of Palestine.  

Wara always had a sense of context and a sharp tongue and one of the last things he said to me from his bed in Livingstone was, “This is a terrible, terrible disease. The headaches are so bad, so bad. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy … But, I don’t think I have any enemies. No, I don’t think I have any enemies. Except perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu … But, no, I wouldn’t even wish it on him.” 

After completing their studies at Nelson Mandela University, Wara and Heather returned to Cofimvaba. As you know Wara loved good food and was also a good cook. He wanted to provide good and healthy food to the community, so he began a takeaway business. In the mornings, he would walk around and take orders from businesses and offices, cook and then at lunchtime do the deliveries. 

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One day, Heather had to leave Lali, then 11 months old, with Wara. Lali strapped to his back and with plates of food in both hands, Wara delivered his orders. Can you just see it, baby on back, food balanced in both hands, laughing and challenging all the way?

Obviously they did not make much money, so in 2007 Heather and Wara closed the takeaway and decided to use the skills they had gained at university. There was no newspaper in their area, so, with the little bit of money they had, they cofounded Skawara Publishers and began producing Skawara News, creating a voice for the community. It was an A4, black and white, photostat product of eight pages. One could say the rest is history, but what a history.

2006 and 2007 were years of unprecedented growth in the formation of Black-owned community newspapers. The Association of Independent Publishers (AIP) was in existence but in dire need of transformation, particularly in the light of this growth. Other organisations purporting to represent and support community media were formed, all controversial and all struggling to find their space. One of these was the Eastern Cape Communication Forum (ECCF) in East London.

In 2007, the ECCF organised a summit where many individuals and organisations in the community press sector came together for the first time: the Media Development and Diversity Agency, the AIP, Paarl Coldset as it was then called, owners of about 20 community newspapers in the Eastern Cape, government structures, universities and others.  

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Skawara News was struggling, and Wara and Heather were wondering why they had embarked on this crazy idea. Then they attended this summit and discovered what they called their “tribe”. 

Being Wara and Heather, they didn’t just want to provide the content of the newspaper but also wanted to own the means of production.

The opportunity to do this was provided by the ECCF in the form of the purchase of a Risograph. The newspaper was still black and white, and still A4, but it was faster and the two worked to their own deadlines and rhythms. Importantly, the paper was in isiXhosa, something Wara was passionate about. It also meant that they could service the community by producing flyers for businesses, designing adverts, printing funeral programmes and use the printed word to create knowledge and, yes, a new society.  

These were the beginnings of the strategy Wara used to determinedly, passionately and creatively pursue his intellectual and political vision. Chip, hammer, keep on going, even if you stumble.

This could be called slow but sure, but it was also because Wara could not help exploring everything or following every opportunity along the way – this meant his attention to time could be very flexible!

For example, if we just talk about the length and breadth of Wara’s work in the last two years (and I will have to leave some things out), he was working with students to shift the discussion and writing in online classrooms to isiXhosa, assisting with land claims and working with trade unions to develop media strategies. He was also writing a book on rugby in the Eastern Cape while translating the Press Code into isiXhosa and still publishing Skawara News as well as moving it online. He worked to morph Takasele into Ubuso Bethu, a news website covering the Eastern Cape and continued to publish poetry and biographies.  

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Wara was also president of the AIP, adjudicator for the Press Council, on the task team at the South African National Editors’ Forum and an enthusiastic participant in webinars on media transformation, food security and alternative economic structures. On top of all this, he was always available. Wara had his arms open out wide to the world.

Wara described himself on the AIP website as a random theorist and an unapologetic Ngugi’st. As a random theorist, he was a radical traditionalist, steeped deeply in African culture, but he disliked its patriarchy and anything that stepped on another’s dignity and right to be. In this way, he was a feminist. 

Wara was a proponent of media transformation, and worked for the complete overturning of the present hierarchies, counteracting the socioeconomic metanarrative that shapes the sector (and the country), insisting on high standards of reporting and fact checking.  

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As an unapologetic Ngugi’st, Wara was focused on overturning the use of colonial languages that dominate and distort ideas and information towards writing in and celebrating African languages. 

Wara was not the only Ngugi’st in the community press sector. Eighty seven newspapers out of approximately 200 are printed or online in indigenous languages – Tshivenda, SeSotho, isiZulu, Xitsonga, Sepedi, isiXhosa and others. In 2016 these community newspapers were producing seven million copies per month and reaching approximately 27 million readers.

So many words have poured forth in sorrow, pain and love. We all feel the loss of Wara and we are all in need of condolences and consolation. 

I too loved Wara.  

Wara and I have known and worked with each other for more than 10 years and, since I moved to Gqeberha two years ago, we had really become partners in crime. Wara and I, excitedly and sometimes with much hand waving, talked about everything and anything. We investigated places and ideas. I usually drove while he commented on everything along the road. We swapped books, developed and criticised strategies, wrote proposals, laughed, got angry and used each other as sounding boards. 

Wara died of Covid-19 with our people. There is much that Wara wanted and needed to do. As he said, “It’s too early, isn’t it?” Like many of you, I am not sure how it is going to be to go forward without him. Together, we need to continue working towards achieving Wara’s powerful vision and hold our minds and arms open wide to the world. 

Hamba kahle, beloved Wara.

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