Working with veteran journalist William Sylvester Saidi, or Bill Saidi as he was widely known and revered within and without the borders of Zimbabwe, was no easy call. There could sometimes be some real frustrating moments, at least until one got to know and appreciate what the man stood for.
obituary BY NYASHA NYAKUNU
The frustrating moments easily melted into enriching professional engagements once he was done with you in his sometimes abrasive manner. Yeah. Bill could shoot from the hip and be nonchalant about it too.
Saidi, the doyen of Zimbabwean journalism, lived, breathed, slept and dreamt journalism. He was unapologetically proud to be a journalist and wished the same of the many journalists he mentored.
Bill proudly wore the badge: Proudly a journalist everywhere he went.
Upon presentation of a story idea, he would question you thoroughly on why that particular story would be of public interest. You had to summon all your knowledge of news values and elements and the context of the obtaining socio-economic and political environment on why the story was worthy of his consideration.
In my case, as then features editor, deputy news editor and subsequently, news editor of the Daily News, I would always press him to assist in developing a given story idea as opposed to dismissing it off-hand. “Well, well, let’s see how the story develops,” he would say at the end of a long lecture on what constitutes a good story.
Colleagues who worked with Saidi will testify this was the routine ritual with the old timer of Zimbabwean journalism upon presentation of a story idea to him. You had to be on terra firma with him lest your story idea would be dismissed as insipid. Such was his passion for the profession of journalism and the need for quality, thumping (his favourite word) stories, that would assist in shaping opinions and views.
Brevity, prose and syntax, were his mastery. With Saidi, if you snoozed you would lose. More-so if you quacked and buckled when he barked and boomed his favourite refrain: “No ways! Not until you get to my position. No ways!”
Many a journalist and line editors dreaded the prospect of a story idea development and debrief session with Saidi. None other than Barnabas Thondlana, will testify to that during his stint as news editor of the Daily News.
They nonetheless, respected him more upon his approval and passing of a given story. The “Bill Saidi-seal-of-approval”, inspired and motivated many a journalist who worked with him to excel in their work.
It was a hate and love relationship with the man who was proud to have grown up in National (Neshinari), Harare township (now Mbare).
He would, however, gift you with that infectious smile of contentment upon submission of the otherwise previously doubted, but extensively debated idea, upon its submission as a complete story and to his satisfaction. His face would beam and glow as he envisioned the story in the pages of the next day’s edition.
That as it may have been, we all have our own flaws as human beings. Others will perhaps note that his illustrious and inspiring career was not without blemish when viewed against his editorial-opinion pieces and views during the Gukurahundi era in the early years of independence.
However, years later in an article published on April 21 2014 on the website of Nehandaradio.com titled: What’s the real Zimbabwean story, Saidi wrote: “There has been a long argument on how to tell the real Zimbabwe story. According to people who style themselves as patriots, the story does not include the 20 000 people killed during the mindless carnage that was Gukurahundi.
He said then, the “real Zimbabwe story” is not a very pretty story. “The truth is that our real story is studded with untruths. The truth of the sinking of Zimbabwe into its current level of political and economic mediocrity must be told without frills. The price of falsifying it has been very high: we must know that.”
Back to the Daily News newsroom. Saidi could also be dogmatic and literally drive you up the wall. His dogma would at times result in heated exchanges with colleagues as he insisted on how a particular story should be angled. I recall restraining Saidi from a near-fisticuff with an equally exasperated and charged senior reporter over what should have been included in a certain story. Pressures of the newsroom!
A harsh exchange ensued as the reporter stood his ground when Saidi phoned the newsroom from his office. Shirt sleeves rolled, Saidi stormed the newsroom determined to teach the reporter a lesson or two on the folly of daring to defy him.
That was not to be. He was confronted by an equally determined reporter. Upon restraining the two, I then escorted Saidi back to his office. I jokingly reminded him that he was no longer as quick-fisted as he might have been in his youthful days growing up in Mbare.
He exclaimed: “What! He has you to thank for. Remember I am from Mbare and an accomplished street fighter.”
That was Saidi for you. For him, tomorrow would be a new day, yesterday’s events forgotten and forgiven.
Years later, when Misa-Zimbabwe assigned me to work with Saidi as he compiled his memoirs, A Sort of Life in Journalism, he would laugh uproariously, when I reminded him of that incident and other tidbits from that era.
A colleague at Misa, Tabani Moyo, says one of his hilarious moments with the veteran journalist was when we stopped for refreshments along the way while travelling together to Bulawayo. Saidi was billed to deliver one of his nationwide journalism lectures in the city under Misa-Zimbabwe’s Journalist-in-Residence project.
“These better be your last ones. Otherwise I will tip the police that you are probably drinking and driving when we get to the next police roadblock, which I am sure is only a few kilometres away.” That was Saidi for you. And who were we to dare defy him?
And as I reminisce on my own enriching experience with Saidi, I can only surmise that his passion for the profession went beyond the glory of the byline. It was driven more by his desire to make a difference. With him, tomorrow would always be a new day. New challenges. No grudges. No memos. Such was the man.
He was from the township. Was fluent in the lingua franca of the ghetto and the swagger to match.
Value-add that with his tenacious journalism and intellect. World-wise he was.
For he lived, breathed, slept and dreamt “thumping” journalism.
Bill Saidi: Proudly a Journalist.
Saidi is a former deputy editor of The Standard
Nyasha Nyakunu is a media trainer and programmes co-ordinator with Misa-Zimbabwe.