Michael Hartnack

Journalist in southern Africa

Alex Duval Smith
Friday 25 August 2006 00:00 BST

Michael Hartnack, journalist: born Mongu, Barotseland 17 October 1945; married (two sons, one daughter); died Harare 2 August 2006.

Michael Hartnack believed that journalism is a vocation that can serve as a force for good. Before ending his career as a columnist for South African newspapers, he played an active role in the generation of reporters who laid foundations for free expression that will outlive the despotism of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Born in what is now Zambia, Hartnack came from a family of journalists - both his grandfather and great- grandfather on his mother's side had been in the profession. "Hat Rack" or "Heart Attack", as colleagues called him, said journalism to him was "not so much a profession as an inherited genetic disorder".

He spent his early years in Mongu, Barotseland, where his father was a civil servant in the Colonial Service. At the age of 10 he was taken to England and educated at Hastings Grammar School, East Sussex. He joined his first newspaper, the Cambridge Evening News, straight from school as a trainee.

But the story was better in Rhodesia where Ian Smith had just unilaterally declared independence from Britain to set up his white minority rule government. In 1966, Hartnack joined the Rhodesia Herald - a newspaper best known for the blank spaces that signalled the passage of the government censor. In 1968, Hartnack moved to the Inter-African News Agency (Iana, later Ziana), where he stayed for 13 years and rose to chief parliamentary reporter.

During his time at Iana, Hartnack was an active member of the Rhodesian Guild of Journalists, and its president from 1976 to 1980. Against the background of the guerrilla war against white rule, Hartnack resisted the white regime's censorship, news management and its attempts to intimidate journalists. He fought unsuccessfully for black colleagues to be paid the same as whites.

He saw the flaws in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement, which paved the way for majority rule but left Zimbabwe with a dated, colonial rulebook - including censorship - which invited abuses by the incoming government of Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. Disappointed by Britain's failure to set an example for openness, Hartnack said: "All the British government would do then was pontificate, as in South Africa post-1910."

The pontificators changed skin colour and, in 1981, when the Zimbabwean government took over Iana, Hartnack was made redundant. After a short spell in South Africa, he returned to Zimbabwe and became a foreign correspondent, filing columns for papers including the Daily Despatch and the Natal Witness. He was the correspondent of the South African Business Day until he fell victim to a brutal black-empowerment scythe that cut through the paper in the mid-1990s. From then on, needing to put his three children through university, he filed for The Times, for the American Associated Press (AP) news agency, Sky News television and Deutsche Welle radio.

Towards the end of a career that had done nothing to lower his blood pressure, Hartnack at least received peer recognition when Rhodes University - the prestigious home of southern African journalism - awarded him an honorary doctorate of literature in 2003. The Grahamstown professors who sponsored him said:

The qualities which place him in a special class are those which he has displayed under the fire reserved by repressive regimes of every political hue for those who seek to challenge or expose the official view of events.

According to AP's Harare bureau chief, Angus Shaw, Hartnack was never a cynic. "Mike and I used to argue about the nobility of the profession," he said:

We had the conversation many times - when a colleague was killed in Somalia and again, last year, when someone outside Zimbabwe had suggested that Mugabe was one of the great men of Africa. I would wonder what was the point of what we do. I would have my doubts. Mike always believed that journalists can make a difference.

The Daily Telegraph correspondent Peta Thornycroft said:

I always found him the most generous of journalists. He had more local information than any other I met so if I wanted to know some obscure date for some obscure legislation and its history, he knew. And his information was so balanced.

The last published column written by Hartnack before a stroke killed him on 2 August was about a black colleague, Andrew Kanyowa, whose funeral he had just attended. Epithetically, the piece paid tribute to Kanyowa whom Hartnack had got to know 40 years earlier on the Rhodesia Herald. "Through Andy," he wrote, "I became aware that it was not possible for any African to live in Rhodesia without being daily, hourly, reminded he belonged to a conquered people." Hartnack contrasted Rhodesia with present-day Zimbabwe and

the new élite that holds its country in a new kind of servile relationship. Teenage girls work for wealthy urban families under conditions close to slavery. New farm owners pay their labourers far less than the statutory minimum wage. This is not the sort of society for which black or white people like Andrew Kanyowa hoped and worked.

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