Laurence Gandar’s honor, William Finnegan’s book.

The Mail and Guardian reported earlier this week that the late former editor Laurence Gandar was declared a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute (IPI), and will be honoured at a ceremony in September.

Gandar is the second South African recipient of this honor; the first was the late longtime editor Percy Qoboza.

Qoboza is one of several memorable characters in New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan’s Dateline Soweto.

I admire Finnegan’s work, and will always be grateful to him for the time he took to read a chapter of the manuscript I wrote about participating in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat during the 1995-1996 school year.

For those who have not yet done so, I highly recommend that you spend time with Finnegan’s Cold New World, which has chilling portraits of youth growing up in various parts of the United States. His chapter about the white youth in California’s Antelope Valley is particularly effective.

Finnegan’s first book, Crossing the Line, was about teaching in South Africa during the early 1980s.

Dateline Soweto grew out of that time and that commitment to the country.  Finnegan takes you into the newsroom of some of the major news publications operating during an era and under a regime that worked assiduously to stifle free expression. 

In a way that anticipates David Simon’s treatment of differential cop treatment in The Wire-in one of the first season’s most memorable scenes, an anguished and weeping McNulty despairs over how black cops like Greggs or Sidnor are always on the frontlines in undercover situations-Finnegan writes how even ‘liberal’ newsrooms are not immune from race’s tentacles.  Black reporters both were exposed to more and had more access to, black communities than their white counterparts.

Qoboza’s bravery was one of many parts of the movement that helped peacefully topple the apartheid government.  Finnegan’s book helps us appreciate the valor for which he was honored a decade before Gandar was named by the same body.


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