I can still hear his husky baritone voice ringing in my ears as he broke into a laconic laugh and looked away.That was vintage Rampholo. Folksy, funny and witty. Self-effacing, intense and detached. Impersonal, frank and forthright. His remark about Mogale was said in jest, not to disparage.
Like Rampholo, Charles Mogale was a former editor of the Botswana Guardian. He died last year. Rampholo had wanted to write an obituary about this fallen scribe but could not because he was immersed in writing a manuscript about his own life. His health was also beginning to fail him but he was determined to complete the manuscript.
Rampholo was a complex character. A complete enigma. Needless to say, he was a confluence of many gifts and talents. Rampholo was an intersection of the urbane engaging intellectual, the rebel who disowned his middle class upbringing, and the freedom fighter sans borders who fought for the wretched of the earth wherever they are.
In Rampholo you had both the blessing and curse of a journalist rolled in one. He was a prolific writer and a story-teller to boot. Perhaps the best local journalist of all times in the news-writing genre! Like elsewhere in the world alcohol abuse is journalism's worst curse in Botswana. Rampholo belonged to the 1970s cohort of journalists who were inspired by the venerated 1960s generation of South African black journalists which included the staffers of Drum magazine like Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Nat Nakasa, Arthur Maimane, Lewis Nkosi, etc. The "Drum Boys", as they were called, lived by the dictum "live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse."
While this period marked the golden age of South African journalism in terms of the talent and creativity that prevailed, the celebrity status that journalists assumed engendered the vices that come with such fame, such as alcohol abuse and partying.
When I joined Mmegi as a rookie sub editor in 1989 Rampholo was freelancing for the paper. Although he was part-time he was the main lead writer. We relied on him for the front-page story. Come deadline Rampholo would be nowhere to be found. The deputy editor, Douglas Tsiako or cartoonist, Billy Chiepe would volunteer to track him wherever he was and bring him to the office so that he could write the story.
By the time he arrived in the newsroom, usually in the dead of night, Rampholo would have the story in his pocket, as he used to say. In a matter of minutes he would bang out the story on his typewriter, and in no time Billy would lay out the front-page, finalize the paste-up and we all celebrated as we took the paper to bed. It would be a great story too!
In recent years Rampholo was deeply concerned about what he perceived as declining standards of journalism in Botswana. In an article published in Mmegi last May he wrote, "The primary problem of the press for the past 10 - 15 years has been the declining standard of journalism."
In particular Rampholo was concerned about the lack of rigour that characterises the profession presently. To him telling the truth was central to the craft of journalism. I didn't always agree with him on that score because I would argue that the truth, unlike fact, is subjective. To Rampholo the dichotomy between fact and truth was false. In his view the difference between the two is the same!
Rampholo spoke truth to power. He held the feet of the powerful to the fire. And he was fearless and unapologetic about it. He did that throughout his entire career as a journalist. His award winning column, Tantjie, which appeared in the Botswana Guardian for over ten years, uninterrupted, making it the longest running column in the history of journalism in Botswana, was probing and provoking.
Tantjie rattled the powerful from their comfort zone. He exposed the pimples and blemishes of our democracy.He revealed the hypocrisy of the ruling elite. And he was unrelenting in going after the corrupt. Tantjie asked the difficult questions but also articulated Rampholo's own vision of an egalitarian society Rampholo was a paradox. In his quest for freedom as an artist and political-cultural activist he opted for a bohemian lifestyle. He broke with convention and challenged the establishment.
He could not justify the system that provided him with the comfort that he enjoyed until he became a young adult. His father was an ambassador and continued as a senior government official upon his return from foreign service.For Rampholo it was not just a matter of conscience that he "committed class suicide". It was a consciousness that was underpinned by ideology.
Rampholo read Marxist literature from a young age. He dabbled in the radical Black Panther movement while living in the United States in the early 70s and admired such civil rights activists as Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael. He read W.E.B. du Bois, Frederick Douglas and other black civil rights intellectuals in the diaspora. Du Bois believed that capitalism was a primary cause of racism, and he was generally sympathetic to socialist causes throughout his life.
Rampholo also sampled works by the school of thought known as Negritude - a literary and ideological movement developed by francophone black intellectuals, writers, and politicians during the 1930s. The Negritude writers
fought against French political and intellectual hegemony and domination. The work of Algerian revolutionary and writer, Frantz Fanon, was also a major influence on Rampholo. Fanon's classic, The Wretched of the Earth was a reference for nationalists fighting colonialism in Africa and Latin America.
Fanon, who was influenced by a variety of thinkers and intellectual movements including Negritude and Marxism, himself influenced the work of such revolutionaries as Malcom X and Steve Biko. It is a combination of all these experiences that informed Rampholo's outlook towards life. His take on social issues was not impulsive but a well thought-out intervention made on the basis of a clear understanding of what he perceived to be the root cause of the problems of our society.
Rampholo's work as a writer was in service to his country which he loved dearly. Of course he was critical of government. But this was not out of malice. He sincerely believed Batswana deserved better. Perhaps Rampholo's position on issues of development and governance was clearly articulated in his column, Fisolofa which used to appear in the Midweek Sun in the 1990s.
Fisolofa was a revolutionary polemic about post independence Botswana. In that column Rampholo used Marxist theory as a tool of analysis to explain social-economic relations in our country. While some may argue that Fisolofa betrayed Rampholo's idealism and fantasy about an egalitarian society it was the flair, sleekness and panache with which he handled the subject matter in Fisolofa that was irresistible.
Fisolofa epitomised Rampholo the highbrowed intellectual. It was a testament to the rigour that Rampholo Molefhe throughout his career infused into local journalism. He was engaging. He could be intense. And above all, Rampholo was a thinker.
As a writer Rampholo was inimitable. He adapted the street idiom to his writing style and this is what made his prose so delectable. One just had to read any of his Talking Musika articles to appreciate how versatile Rampholo was but also enjoy the depth of his discernment and analysis regarding the intricacies of show business in Botswana.
During the same conversation that I referred to earlier, which was my last with him, he said, "T, ke simolola Talking Musika gape. Batho ba ba bo ba simolotse go senya".Talking Musika with Chumza, a column which appeared in The Monitor, projected the ebullient side of Rampholo Molefhe. The writing style had rhythm with a cadence that made the arts to come alive in a way that only Rampholo Molefhe could do it.
In Talking Musika Rampholo celebrated the talent of budding artists and encouraged them. I remember in one article he strongly admonished young artists to learn how to read music and encouraged them to learn how to play at least one music instrument as this would enhance their talent.
Most importantly Chumza used Talking Musika to critique public policy regarding the arts as well as exposing the injustices in show biz such as exploitation of artists by producers and promoters. He did not spare his peers in the entertainment industry for their lack of professionalism arguing that if they did not take themselves seriously no one would.
Rampholo was a student of music. He used to say, "I practice journalism. Music is my first love". He was used as an adjudicator in school music competitions, a role that he enjoyed because it gave him the opportunity to speak to young people about music.
Rampholo loved all categories of music. But I was always amazed at the depth of his appreciation of jazz and classical music in particular. It used to make me wonder what he thought of the confusion that prevails around jazz as a genre in Botswana.
While Rampholo acknowledged that jazz was diverse and comprised different styles depending on time and place, he was uneasy with the tendency by many radio jazz presenters to attach the label jazz to any melody. To demonstrate how intense and passionate he could be about this subject, several years ago Rampholo had a heated argument on air with the late Rogoff Modise who used to host the Sunday jazz programme on Radio Botswana.
The debate was over which artist(s) transformed jazz into the art form that it is today. Rogoff and others were of the view that John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others, who ushered in the avant-garde "Free jazz" movement in the early 1960s changed the course of jazz forever. Rogoff argued that avant-garde raised jazz to the level of abstraction and the surreal.
Rampholo, on the other hand, argued that the real innovators of jazz were the pioneers of the bebop idiom of the 1940s which included such greats as Dizzy Gillepsie, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Marx Roach etc.According to Rampholo that period marked a turning point for jazz and the reverberations of that movement can still be felt to date. Some of the elements that define jazz as we know it today, e.g improvisation, solos, etc started with bebop.
The avant-garde movement only took those elements to a higher level, Rampholo argued. As it was characteristic of Rampholo, he had the last word on the subject. Suffice it to say that the jury on that matter is still out. We may never get to know what the verdict is, because, unfortunately, both protagonists in the debate are no more.