By Ettioné Ferreira
During the apartheid years Rhodes University housed many anti-apartheid movements and activists. In the 1980s, Shepi Mati was one of the students involved in these movements and he continued the struggle long after his graduation in 1988. Now, 27 years later, he returns to his alma mater Rhodes JMS to share his expertise with the third-year radio students.
Mati, who was born in Port Elizabeth, also spent much of his childhood in Adelaide and Cape Town. “My family is descended from ancestors who had lived in an area called KwaMankazana. They were displaced from that area by the settlers and they eventually scattered across different Eastern Cape towns. Some settled in Cape Town and some in Port Elizabeth. I spent some years in schools in Cape Town and some in Port Elizabeth, while my early childhood was mostly in Adelaide,” Mati says.
After graduating in 1988 with a B.Journ from Rhodes he struggled to get into the job market, being an activist didn’t help because it placed a black mark against his name. Mati says, “It was challenging times. Nobody wanted to hire someone who was against the government. The SABC was the only provider of radio and they were run by the regime so it was impossible to get in with my background.”
In late 1988, Mati joined the Community Video Education Trust (CVET) which empowered communities by making documentary video clips of their struggles. “It was a very useful experience. At the same time these communities were grappling with their issues, we were grappling with new technologies and political issues,” he explains. CVET was based on North American projects which used video for social change. They frequently produced content for the anti-apartheid television station in New York called ‘South Africa Now’ during 1990 and 1991. Mati says, “SAnow inspired us to do community news.” The project later incorporated Talking Newsletters which became known as CASET. These were audio newsletters where news and information were recorded onto audio cassettes and distributed most successfully by taxi drivers who were sympathetic to the struggle.
The project was not welcomed by all, with signs frequently placed on their meeting room door to chase them out of the University of Cape Town (UCT), where they were stationed. Mati remembers a particular sign which stated “get out, you don’t belong here”. However, they did not let this get in the way of their work.
Bushradio came to existence in the early 1990s, after testing the waters by broadcasting illegally. The project was halted for a while as they were forced to stop by the government with some members even getting arrested. Eventually on 9 August 1995 they received a license to broadcast. “I remember it clearly because not only was it Women’s Day but it was also my son’s birthday and one of the first messages on air was to wish my son a happy birthday,” he says with a smile.
Mati also received an ADI Diploma from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom during the early 90s, to add to his knowledge base.
He worked for Cape Penninsula University of Technology (CPUT) after Bushradio, until 1999 when an incident with a student made him realise that he didn’t want to be a part of the university anymore. Mati said that the incident involved a bright student who he mentored. The student wrote an article about prostitution on campus and instead of the university dealing with the prostitution issue, they took it out on the student who wrote the article, eventually expelling him. “That was a low point in my career and I decided I couldn’t work there anymore and needed a change.”
Mati then moved to Pretoria where he worked at the African Institute. The institute was initially started by the apartheid government to cultivate relationships with African countries as a result of which it has a very large library of books on African studies including yearbooks on every African country. Mati worked as a communications officer but after a year decided to move on, “I realised I’d done all I could and wanted to go back to journalism.”
He moved back to Cape Town to fill a position in the Scandinavian-funded organisation, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) for 11 years, which he now recalls as the highlight of his career. Among all their activities IDASA also produced content for different community stations in different languages. In 2003 they started training stations to create their own content by bringing the news to the radio stations and getting the journalists there to find a different local angle to the stories. “We were working with people on a voluntary basis and it was just a marvellous experience. Sometimes they reached a point in growth where they were getting poached by larger stations and companies such as SABC, etc. It was great seeing them grow,” Mati says. Sadly not all the journalists could afford to stay in journalism and Mati recalls some of the most promising trainees going into other fields to help sustain their families, “that was the most challenging part when skills were lost”. In 2011 IDASA had problems with funding and eventually closed down.
After leaving IDASA in 2011, Mati worked with Bugwere FM in Uganda on several occasions as part of the media section of the Open Society Foundation’s Public Health Programme based in New York. The job entailed a lot of travelling through Africa and Mati spent most of his time in different African countries before joining Rhodes JMS this year.
It was a big change for Mati to come back to the university after such a long time. The last time he walked these halls were when the country was experiencing a dramatic change.
“When I first arrived here I was struck by the disparities between those who have and those who have not. There were moments I felt a bit depressed. Only leadership at all levels, including the council or municipality, and a vision of a reconstructed, inclusive, caring, fair and just Makana to which all subscribe, can take us out of this misery into a brighter future. We owe it to our children and their children,” Mati says.
However, Mati found it wonderful how students came together during the name change debate at Rhodes, “It was great seeing the dynamics and student leadership during the debate. It was really moving. Then I said to myself, this is a space I would like to be in and it was a real eye opener. I realised this is a space for growing. This is a real learning space.”