John Thomson (1931-2022): New Zealand journalist who never stopped loving Tanzania
John Thomson, a dedicated journalist who loved Tanzania and who did his utmost to explain Julius Nyerere’s socialist socialist policies to the outside world (Picture courtesy of Meera Webster, John Thomson’s daughter)
In March, 1969 John Thomson was a widely-respected journalist when his life in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania crumbled and fell to pieces. His treatment at the hands of some of his colleagues at The Standard newspaper in Dar es Salaam was, to say the least, disgraceful. What happened to this brave and dignified man could happen again and again in Africa and other parts of the world as long as cowardly editors and newspaper owners shirk their responsibilities and kowtow to politicians who are doing their damnedest to end press freedom of expression. TREVOR GRUNDY looks back to turbulent days in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania.
Born in Dunedin, New Zealand in May 1931, John Thomson was a second-generation wordsmith.
He said journalism was a craft and not a profession, and the job of a reporter was to follow the truth to see where it led her or him.
After a short career in Australia and then Fleet Street in London, John made a new life for himself in East Africa not long after Tanganyika received its Independence from Britain on December 9, 1961.
It was a time for dreams and hope.
The words of William Wordsworth were never far from the lips of those who lived and worked there.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven.
In Dar es Salaam (Haven of Peace in Swahili) he met, fell in love with and married Bhadrabala (Bala) Barot, the daughter of a prominent Hindu family.
Soon afterwards, he was appointed Tanzania correspondent for Newsweek magazine and shared the Associated Press ‘string’ with a fellow journalist from England, David Martin, who joined The Standard in January 1964 a few days before an uprising which ended centuries of Arab rule in Zanzibar.
Overnight, the small, pretty, hot and humid Dar es Salaam was occupied by reporters from around the world.
The concern in London and Washington was there would be a Muslim/Communist take-over on that famous spice island, turning it into an African equivalent of Castro’s Cuba opposite a peaceful mainly Christian mainland run by Julius Nyerere.
Julius Nyerere in relaxed mood. Joan Wicken is seen behind him. (Picture: Courtesy of Adarsh Nayar)
At that time and up until late 1969, the English-language newspapers, The Standard and its sister publication Sunday News, were run by white expatriates.
The editor of The Standard was a Yorkshireman, Brendan Grimshaw. John Thomson was his assistant. The group managing editor was Kenneth Ridley. The Devonian David Martin was news editor. The holding company’s chairman was Andy Chande, a former owner of the country’s main food producing mills and outlets who survived and did well under socialism because he was married to a scion of the fabulously-rich Madhvani family in Uganda.
All sub-editors were from Britain. In 1969, there were a handful of black Tanzanians in the newsroom. The chief photographer was the personable Adarsh Nayar, a Tanzanian Indian. Hadji Konde, the most conservative of Muslims, was being groomed by Grimshaw and Ridley to take over when the axe fell and the government nationalised foreign-owned newspapers.
Grimshaw said Konde was a man with ‘a safe pair of hands’…in other words ‘one of us.’
As stated, it was a time of hope: but also, one of frustration and anger.
In February 1967 Julius Nyerere announced a home-grown socialist manifesto, the Arusha Declaration, without fore-warning his closest colleagues.
By 1969, almost everything of value was nationalised.
Rising discontent caused by a shortage of consumer goods and basic foodstuffs (corn or mealie meal as it’s called) was monitored by the police who had loads of paid informers. God help anyone who openly (or even privately) criticised Nyerere, the nation’s redeemer, healer and teacher (mwalimu).
University students were the first to feel Nyerere’s wrath after the army mutinies in 1964 came close to overthrowing the leaders of three newly independent East African states – Kenya (Jomo Kenyatta), Uganda (Milton Obote) and Tanzania (Julius Nyerere).
To his lasting embarrassment, Nyerere was saved by soldiers from the erstwhile colonial power – Great Britain.
Students at the University of Dar es Salaam were ordered back to their homes in rural areas after waves of criticism about Nyerere’s policies.
Students had shouted – ‘We want International socialism, not Nyerere’s version of African socialism.’
White expatriate Marxist lecturers were given the heave-ho after being told by TANU officials and on-side academics to spread word about the need for revolution in their own countries, not in Tanzania.
Soon after I arrived in Dar es Salaam in August 1968 after two years working for newspapers in Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia, I was confronted by one of the founders of TANU, Ally Sykes, who asked me – ‘What gives you people the right to come to Africa and tell Africans what to do and how to behave? You tell us to implement a brand of socialism you’d not tolerate for one moment in your own countries. What are we, some sort of laboratory for you people to carry out your idiotic experiments?’
On Saturday March 1, 1969 John Thomson was chief sub-editor of the Sunday News.
Working under his supervision that day was a young Englishman, Colin Macaulay. David Martin was the editor and responsible for what went into the paper.
The court system rarely worked on Saturdays but the High Court did that day in order to hear a case involving a member of the Nyerere family, the president’s brother, Joseph, who had once been a cabinet minister and well-known as the man who led a nation campaign to ban the mini-skirt.
Joseph Nyerere was being sued by the builder of his beach-side home, the builder seeking the balance of the cost as set out in a signed contract.
The influential but highly erratic MP was refusing to pay on the ground he was counter-claiming breach of contract by the builder.
In his privately published book Words of Passage (2012), John Thomson takes up the story:
‘The reporter covering the court that day wrote his account of the proceedings and left for the day. I read his copy after returning to work after lunch and gave t to Mac (Colin Macaulay) to process. It was placed in an insignificant position at the bottom of page one. Mac wrote the headline. This read ‘Nyerere sued for 70,183/75’ the sum being expressed in Tanzanian shillings. The edition was produced and printed and we were free to enjoy more peasant activities.’
Nothing happened on the Sunday but on the Monday, John’s day off, he received a telephone call from the paper’s managing director, Ken Ridley, telling him never again to appear in the office, his contract had been cancelled (meaning he no longer had a work permit) and he was to get out of the country that day.
John wrote in his book, ‘In tones that appeared to invite panic, he (Ridley) told me to flee immediately to Nairobi that very day, leaving my wife and three children in the care of the newspaper company, which would arrange for them to join me in Kenya.’
And the cause for all this turmoil?
The headline involving what TANU militants called ‘the sacred name’ Nyerere.
Later, John Thomson found out that on the day the Sunday News appeared (March 2) several of the most vocal TANU opponents of an independent English-language newspaper in Tanzania had met and demanded an immediate take-over of The Standard and the Sunday News and the sacking of all expatriate journalists.
John said, ‘They convinced themselves there was a political motive behind the company attacking the reputation and standing of President Julius Nyerere and holding him up to ridicule. The company’s management was ordered to explain and (under threat and badly rattled) they promised that heads would roll – at least one, mine. The fact that David Martin was the editor of the Sunday News and in well-established tradition the man responsible for the edition was easily brushed aside.’
On Monday March 3, John Thomson had his head on the block, as did David Martin, Nyerere’s favourite reporter who was also a friend of Joan Wicken, the English Fabian ‘gate-keeper’ at State House and one of the most influential foreigners in Tanzania.
David Martin (second on the left) with Frene Ginwala, managing editor of the The Standard/Sunday News papers after their nationalisation at the end of 1969. Trevor Grundy is in sunglasses standing behind Martin and Colin Macaulay, also in sunglasses, behind Ginwala.
However, whoever was chosen as the fall guy had to be paid out. Thomson’s contract was due up that August, so the pay-out would be small. David Martin had just signed a four- year contract and so his pay out would have been substantial.
Besides, David Martin was one of the few white journalist who bothered to engage with African nationalist leaders trying to liberate their various countries, Frelimo in Mozambique, the MPLA in Angola, Zanu and Zapu in Rhodesia (Zimbabw ) and Swapo in South West Africa (Namibia).
Days went by and John and Bala made a point of appearing at the Gymkhana Club every afternoon, drinking tea, easting samosas and greeting old friends to show they had nothing to hide.
John Thomson wrote about what happened next:
‘It seemed almost amusing., But, of course, it was anything but that and within a few days, I was contacted by Charles Sawaya, director of the CID and I was invited to visit him at Police Headquarters.
‘When we met, I fond him a pleasant man with mature appearance who explained that President Nyerere himself had ordered him to question me about the whole incident and to report back to him.
‘It was not totally unexpected and I was not really concerned for my safety even though TANU extremists were still trying to whip up a frenzy over the government allowing The Standard to continue printing. That was becoming so regular that when the junior wing of the party organised a march to the newspaper office with banners and signs, the turnout was less than impressive. The Standard helpfully features its report front page, with picture.’
He went on: ‘I traced for him the procedure within The Standard for devolving responsibility, with the editor – whether the contracted one or one promoted for the day – by any journalistic principle being the person responsible for the content of any edition. This was well-established for newspapers around the world, in civilised countries. In the case at hand, I was not responsible for the content, my task being to assess a story’s news value, where it would be placed, what size heading would be appropriate etc.’
But what if a chief-sub needed guidance that day?
‘Then I would consult the editor on duty, and on March 1 that was David Martin, but he was not available or indeed contactable. I knew this, though I did not speak much about it. Martin was actually away from the city drinking and fishing for the day and well into the night, which was his normal weekend routine. In any case, I viewed the particular court report involving Joseph Nyerere as a simple report of facts and to have been correctly written by the reporter as a newsworthy item.’
However, the appearance of the name ‘Nyerere’ in a news story at that time was dynamite.
Thomson explained in a chapter headed The Final Year: ‘Any regular reader of the newspaper would know that the President was seldom referred to just as ‘Nyerere’, but other members of his family, and Joseph as an MP and a former minister in particular – had many times been so featured in the past.’
Then came questions from the CID boss.
Charles Sawaya (CS): ‘Do you agree that you were chief sub-editor in charge of the Sunday News?’
John Thomson (JT): ‘I do not agree. I was chief sub-editor of the Sunday News but I am not in charge of the newspaper. The editor was in charge.
CS: Do you not agree that you were in charge of the Sunday News?
JT: I do not agree.
CS: What would you say if I said two members of the staff of your newspaper have said you were in charge of the Sunday News?
JT: I would say they were wrong.
CS: What would you say if I said David Martin has told me that he gave to you that day the responsibility for the Sunday News?
JT: That would be impossible. It was not within his capacity to give away his responsibility, and it is not within mine to accept it from him.
The farce came to an end with Sawaya telling John President Nyerere wanted to know how long he needed to wrap up his affairs.
‘Being asked such a question was a great surprise, ‘wrote John Thomson. ’Perhaps this kindly attitude reflected that the President was well aware of who I was and acknowledged that he knew I was a genuine friend of Tanzania.
‘We didn’t require much time, the outcome having been anticipated, but I told Sawaya that we would like three weeks, and while I thought it a little cheeky, that was immediately accepted. But it was an acute embarrassment for my former newspaper and the people who had urged me to flee like a thief in the night, all for the saving (they thought) of their own smelly skins.’
The immediate future was grim and John Thomson was left with the problem of being out of work, responsible for a wife and three young children for whom Tanzania was home.
Soon they would be homeless and thousands of miles from their obvious refuge, New Zealand.
Bala Thomson who, with John and their children, courageously started life again in New Zealand after her husband’s curt, cowardly and un-necessary dismissal from a newspaper he loved and served so well ( Picture from ‘Words of Passage’)
John Thomson was a man of value because he was not permanently scarred by bitterness and anger.
He started again, working first for the Otago Times in Dunedin where he was born, then on to Wellington. In 1972 he was appointed chief sub editor of New Zealand Truth.
He jokingly said although the scandal magazine was often vilified as a gutter rag, few could deny its insatiable popularity. When Truth relocated to Auckland in the 1980s, John decided to stay in Wellington and became a duty editor at the now defunct national news agency.
In his moving book, that anyone studying the history of the media in Africa since de-colonisation should read and digest, he said –
‘Nothing that occurred to me, in particular, during those disturbing weeks turned me against Tanzania and Julius Nyerere. When Bala and I returned there in 1994 to celebrate her 60th birthday, friends who never left told us we went at a good time, meaning that some bad years descended over the country through the decade of the 70s in particular.’
John’s great achievement was to move forward without bitterness. He became a respected author, an adventurous explorer in the Antarctic and other parts of the world, and always a devoted father and loving husband.
Looking back over the decades, the story of that small headline that caused such anguish in a multi-cultural family in a country preaching socialism and multi-racialism seems like a dream – but it wasn’t.
It was a nightmare.
It happened alright and while the Thomson’s stopped, planned and re-built their lives in another part of the world, several of John’s erstwhile colleagues stayed where they were and did OK.
- Kenneth Ridley returned to England with a full pension just before The Standard was nationalised in late1969.
- Brendan Grimshaw retired, was for a while made a PR executive for a local parastatal and then bought an island in the Seychelles where he lived with his male partner for years.
- Andy Chande went on to become one of the world’s best-known Rotarians and one of its leading Freemasons.
- David Martin became a well-known authority on various African liberation movements.
He earned the respect and gratitude of many African leaders; thanks to the way he handled their stories in the British and American press. When he died on August 18, 2007 one of Africa’s most revolting and ruthless men, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, paid David a rare compliment saying, ‘He broke past the perfunctory bond that links a journalist to a source.’
However, there was a tragic coda to all of this.
Colin Macaulay, the man who wrote the controversial Sunday News March 2 headline was a keen fisherman.
Friends tell me that after John Thomson’s departure, Colin tried to shrug the whole thing off and get on with his life.
Soon his contract would end and he would leave Africa and go back to England with his wife, Jean, buy a house and start a family.
But a few days before the couple planned to leave Dar es Salaam, the man known as ‘Mac’ went fishing one more time and the boat he used so often exploded.
He died almost instantly.
(John Thomson was born at Dunedin, New Zealand on May 9, 1931. He died at Windsor, New South Wales, Australia on June 12, 2022 and is survived by his wife Bala, four children and six grand-children).