Fighting for justice

Benjamin Pogrund, 86, a prominent Jewish anti-apartheid activist and journalist, receives South Africa’s highest accolade.

August 15, 2019 09:05
3 minute read.
Fighting for justice

Benjamin Pogrund is awarded the Order of Ikhamqnga in Silver by President Cyril Ramaphosa. (photo credit: COURTESY/GCIS/GOVERNMENT OF SOUTH AFRICA)

Jewish South African journalist and author Benjamin Pogrund was recently awarded one of South Africa’s highest honors by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for his work in the fight against apartheid.

As a fiercely anti-apartheid activist, Pogrund was up front and center throughout the struggle, writing and recording the atrocities perpetuated against black South Africans by the white minority regime. Pogrund was known for his journalistic talents and editing skills at the Rand Daily Mail, which eventually led to it being shut down in 1985 for its anti-apartheid stance.

Some of his work included the reporting of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, and a series on the ill treatment and torture of the black inmates and the mass starvation of children in the rural areas of South Africa, due to apartheid policies. Pogrund’s work resulted in him often being put on trial, incarcerated, and his passport being revoked.

Special bonds were formed between Pogrund and the likes of former president Nelson Mandela and struggle stalwart Robert Sobukwe, about both of whom he later wrote books. He also worked clandestinely on collecting and microfilming anti-apartheid documents relating to banned organizations and people, and then sending them overseas. Under apartheid, having such documents in your possession was a criminal offense. Thanks to his efforts, thousands of documents were saved from destruction and have been an important resource for the historical study of apartheid.

After being forced to leave South Africa, Pogrund moved to Britain where he became the foreign editor at London’s Today, and later chief foreign sub-editor of The Independent. He was also the Southern African correspondent for the Sunday Times (London) and The Boston Globe, as well as writing for The Economist. In these positions, he helped keep the South African situation on the agenda of the international media, having broadcast frequently for BBC TV and radio, ITV and Sky TV during the last years of apartheid. In addition, Pogrund lectured on international news at the Graduate School of Journalism at City University.

Pogrund moved to Israel in 1997 to work at the Yakar Center of Social Concern on peace-building initiatives. With his South African background, Pogrund has been a unique voice in the Israeli-Palestinian debate, critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank yet frequently hitting out at those who try and delegitimize the state.

With his extensive involvement and understanding of the disturbing past of South Africa, he has bravely taken on the mammoth task of dispelling the vitriol being spread by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign. He even wrote a book on it called Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel. It is required reading for anyone who truly wants to understand this issue. Despite being 86 years old, Pogrund is not showing signs of slowing down with a new book about apartheid being published soon, and several new ideas in the works.

The National Orders that Pogrund received are the highest awards the South African presidency bestows on its citizens and eminent foreign nationals, equivalent to that of the UK’s OBE, given to those who have contributed toward the advancement of democracy, and who have made a significant impact on improving the lives of South Africans.

“You have shown that as South Africans, we can render service to the republic in many different ways,” Ramaphosa said at the ceremony. “I wish to congratulate you. You have done your duty. You have made your country proud,” and pointed out that Pogrund’s “informative writing shone a light on our country during some of the darkest days in our history. He defied those who deceived the world.”

Benjamin Pogrund is a true hero and wholeheartedly deserves such an accolade, along with the recognition that comes with it. This is truly a proud moment, not just for him but for South Africa, Israel and for Jews around the world.

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