Eddie Koch: A life and work that reminds us of what journalism can be

Mail & Guardian Journalist Eddie Koch was doing a story on the Mozambican border in 1990 when he had a tip off that there were businessmen bringing people across the border and “selling” them – women into sexual slavery, and men into forced labour.
He had gone there to investigate the electric border fence which had cost at least 200 lives. The previous week he had filed a story on a helicopter that was regularly taking off from the area laden with weapons for the rebel Renamo movement.

Now he set off with junior reporter Phillip Molefe to track down these human traffickers. Molefe – who went on to become SABC head of news – spent a week drinking in a local shebeen to make contact with these human traders. He bought two of their “stock” for R200 each and was told they he should feed them and could beat them if they did not work hard.

Eddie and a contact

On 16 November 1990, the story was splashed on the M&G front page: “I bought two slaves on Wednesday: Jorge Mthembu (17) and Immanuel Khambule (18). They were sold to me on the sole condition that I paid hard cash for them. They are now at my mercy: if they refuse to work, demand pay or threaten to run away, I can call the police and have them arrested as illegals.”

This was Eddie’s intrepid, enterprising style of journalism. Soft-spoken Eddie always worked collaboratively, and he and Molefe had many such adventures in a style of undercover journalism we seldom see today.

The second half of the story tells us even more about Eddie. None of us had thought about what one does with “slaves”. If we let them go, they would be arrested or vulnerable to further exploitation. They certainly did not want to go home. They were clear that we owned them and were responsible for their welfare.

They lived in Eddie’s house with his family for a while, and then moved into the M&G offices. Eddie worked for months to find someone who would employ them, pay them and treat them decently. I only recently learnt that one of them worked for his mother-in-law for many years.

That was Eddie: he took full responsibility for the people he wrote about, and would not think of moving on until he had looked after them. There were no short-term, quick hit, parachute stories: he liked his front page headlines, but it was the people he wrote about that mattered.

When I asked people he had worked with over the years about him, three “c’s” came up repeatedly: curiosity, courage and caring. He was a decent guy, they all said, a “mensch”, level-headed and always calm.

He produced a remarkable body of work: at different times he was an historian, a political and labour writer, a music writer, an investigative journalist, a human rights activist, a pioneering environmental journalist and then an eco-tourism development worker. He also co-produced a number of books, including Going Green: People, Politics and the Environment, with academic Jacklyn Cock, and Rights, Resources and Rural Development, with Christo Fabricius and others.

At a time when the profession is floundering, his life and work are reminders of what journalism can be.

Born in Joburg in 1955, he went to Maryvale Primary and Sandringham High schools, where he was captain of rugby. At Wits, he studied history, and wrote a memorable MA. It was at Wits that his passion for journalistic adventure was probably seeded. He was distribution manager of the student newspaper, Wits student, when he stumbled across suspected student spy Derrick Brune meeting with rightwingers in the restaurant where he was working on weekends. An elaborate and dramatic plan to entrap Brune was set in place, complete with rented kombis and hidden cameras. But someone had tipped Brune off, and it failed. (Brune was later exposed as a police lieutenant.)

At a gathering of Nusas, the anti-apartheid student organisation, he met his future wife, Tina Sideris.

After university, he worked at alternative publications Learn & Teach and the Labour Bulletin and later the national press agency, Sapa. He joined the Weekly Mail (now M&G) not long after it started and became a core member of its small team of journalists.

Eddie was seldom in the office, always off with a group of colleagues and collaborators on a journalistic escapade.

Journalist Charles Leonard, then with Vrye Weekblad, tells of a trip a group of them did to the Eastern Cape in search of land stories. “It was kind of gonzo with a cause,” he said. Eddie insisted on borrowing a small rowboat and going out to sea to swim with the dolphins. When one oar broke, they were stranded and had to be rescued. It was a Saturday afternoon, and when they were towed back to harbour, the entire community, drinks in hand, came out to laugh at them.

But Crocodile Koch, as I came to call him, kept up a flow of diverse and important stories as weekly deadline approached.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rogue elements of the state were promoting violence, Eddie worked on a number of important exposés, including the Caprivi 200, Inkatha members who were secretly trained by military intelligence to promote the bloody KwaZulu-Natal conflict at the time, Inkathagate, which showed how security police were secretly funding Inkatha, and the revelations of Bongani Khumalo, an Inkatha youth leader who spilt the beans on the relationship between the state and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. There was also the Black Cats, a Wesselton gang which was sponsored by the security police to disrupt resistance activities. “Here is the Third Force,” the headline shouted above pictures of gang members who told who was paying them to do this work. These stories were crucial in exposing those who were trying to derail negotiations, and they demanded a good deal of courage.

Eddie had a knack for getting people to talk to him. He interviewed apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock and – as always – Eddie won his respect. When Eddie was going off to Macedonia to cover the troubles there, De Kock came to the airport to give him a flackjacket to keep him safe.

When democracy came, and we all had to rethink our journalism, Eddie became a pioneering environmental journalist, starting a special supplement in the paper, which evolved into the Greening the Future programme and awards.

“He was one of the first environmental journalists to go into deep investigative reporting. He was one of the few who saw you could not separate the social, economic and ecological,” said his eco-tourism business partner David Grossman.

But he had a temper when it came to matters of principle. When a photographer used a picture of Environmental Minister Valli Moosa skinny-dipping during a trip they took together, Eddie was so furious at the breach of trust that he kicked his colleague’s equipment.

In the late 1990s, while writing about land claims, Eddie became involved in setting up eco-tourism ventures for communities who were getting back their land. He set up a company called Mafisa and later the African Safari Lodges Foundation to do this work, largely through public-private ventures. Their greatest success was in the Makuleke community in the far north of the Kruger Park, where the ecotourism ventures are still successful. “He helped set the matrix for developments of that kind,” said Cliff Bestall, a filmmaker who worked with him.

Bestall did the Healing Through Nature Series with Eddie for SABC, as well as a number of other films.

In 2006, Eddie had a cardiac arrest while driving. He suffered brain damage and loss of memory and struggled with that for the rest of his life. With Bestall, he made one last film, The Unforgetting, in which they went back to the St Lucia community where they had made a previous film and tried to reconstruct his memory. “We were using his own theory of healing through nature. Standing on the beach during the filming, Eddie one day said the most poignant thing: ‘By the time I finish watching this 26-minute film, I will have forgotten the beginning’.”

Last week, on his way to the art classes which had become his passion, he had a stroke.

*A memorial service is to be held on Friday, March 16, 11am, Maryvale Catholic Church, Raedene /Orange Grove

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