Opinion & Analysis

Hamba kahle, Jeanette Minnie

Jeanette Minnie
Jeanette Minnie

On October 22, 2016 I opened my mail and came across this terse message from Pierre Minnie, which was addressed to friends and colleagues:

“It is with great regret that I am letting you know that my wife, Jeanette Minnie, is very ill and has been diagnosed with cancer. The oncologist has confirmed that she is terminal.”

It was devastating news, more so that I had not seen or heard from Minnie in over four years. On November 2 she passed on.

 I had last met her here in Gaborone in early 2012 in the company of South African veteran journalist and media advocate, Raymond Louw. They had come to meet with Government officials on the Freedom of Information Act. Minnie by then was on the Board of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) representing Sub-Saharan Africa.

I had first known her as the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) in Johannesburg. She would later join the MISA chapter in SA and became one of our leading lights in the movement.

In early 1997 the regional leadership had met at a resort east of Windhoek to strategise on the future of the organisation. We had invited Professor Andre du Pisani from the University of Namibia to give us a keynote address on the role of civil society in promoting democracy.

In the animated discussions that followed over the three days, Minnie caught my attention. She always spoke with passion and conviction. She had a presence of mind. I was due to leave the organisation at the end of that year, but the MISA leadership had not found a replacement.

Towards the end of the seminar, I had taken Minnie aside and asked her if she could be interested in taking over when I left in a few months’ time. She had just finished her contract as head of FXI. The chain smoker she was, she flicked her cigarette and looked at me in the eye as if in disbelief: “Ag mann ... but I am not qualified for this job Leepile!”

I asked her why, and she replied, “I am Boer, Leepile. MISA is an African organisation. Do you think people will accept a white woman leading a Black organisation?”

The response did not quite surprise me coming from a liberal white Afrikaner woman. My response was quite simple, MISA did not view people in black and white. Our founding chairperson, Gwen Lister, was a white woman. At the regional head office my staff was like  chocolate and milk.

It did not take much to convince the then chairperson, the late Clara Olsen, to talk to Minnie into taking over from me a couple months later. The transition went on very smoothly. I finally handed over the reins in August of that year.

I recall that she swore to me to leave her smoking habit. She actually did, for a few years. In 1999, I had been invited to Swakopmund to a conference whose theme was ‘MISA in the eye of the storm’. There were huge debates about the ownership and direction of the organisation. Minnie belonged to the school  of thought that wanted power centralised at the centre, in part because most of the chapters lacked capacity to run their own affairs. The young Turks from the grassroots would have nothing of it. They believed the centre was detached and sought to wrestle power from the Trust Funds Board, a triad of wise men the founding fathers had handed ownership of the organisation to in anticipation of the emergence of this type of politics over time.

These were no nonsense fellows:  the late Justice John Manyarara from Zimbabwe, the Zambian academic Dr Gilbert Mudenda and our own Professor Bojosi Otlhogile. They often said very little during these meetings, only interjecting every now and then to keep things into focus.

I recall the moment Minnie picked up her handbag, asked for a ‘puff’ from a colleague and went outside to smoke. I followed her and found her seated on the beach. She appeared rattled and uncertain. “I thought you had abandoned this bad habit, Jenny?”

“Ag mann Leepile. These MISA people can get into your nerves. They can be so vicious it can get you off balance. Sometimes I wonder if I really deserve this!” I quietly walked away, leaving her on her perch, lost in a reverie, puffing away her smoke. In Jeanette Minnie, the media fraternity has lost a true friend, a leader and an activist. She was selfless in her work. She left MISA a year after Swakopmund, focusing on consultancy and advocacy work, serving on the structures of important regional and international organisations such as the GFMD and the African Media Development Initiative (AMDI). As I was about to write this piece, I called a few of her friends and colleagues if they could  remember her.

David ‘Shirumbu’ Lush, MISA’s first Information Officer and now Head of Organisational Learning of the Danish-based IMS, which provides  and supports free and professional media during armed conflicts and political instability throughout  the world, had this to say:

“Try as I might, I could never pigeon-hole Jeanette. She was the antithesis of the Afrikaner stereotype, although I suspect she owed her steely determination and down-to-earth personality to her upbringing. Nor was she your archetypal white liberal. Jeanette did much to shape the radical changes to South Africa’s media landscape during the post-apartheid era, but she was not your textbook revolutionary either. What set Jeanette apart was her rock-solid belief in human rights, which she came to personify in my eyes. She is a great loss to the struggle for these rights throughout southern Africa and beyond.”

Dr Gilbert Mudenda, who now teaches Economics at the Open University in Lusaka observed that, “Comrade Jeannette Minnie was very committed to media freedom and expression in Southern African. She was highly respected by journalists in the region and was a great inspiration to many young journalists in our region [and some of us] who had the privilege to work with her.”

And in his valedictory addressed to the MISA family on the organisation’s website, the man who succeeded Minnie as Regional Director and current Chairperson of the MISA Trust Funds Board, Luckson Chipare noted:

“Jeanette will be remembered with great fondness and respect by all who met her and interacted with her.  In her work, she was respected for her incisive and deep insight, and at play she was loved for her enthusiasm and zest for life. She had the knack of putting people at ease despite her standing as an internationally renowned expert in her field.”  At the time of her death, Minnie was being considered for the MISA Press Freedom Award, of which she is likely to be awarded posthumously. Farewell thee Jeanette. Farewell, my sister. Hamba kahle!