By Stuart Dickinson
Faint laughter drifts down the corridors, past names of eminent South African journalists immortalised on the walls of University Corner’s 11th floor, home to the Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ).
“Makane, was this you?” Professor Franz Krüger was hunting for the rogues who had strewn colourful ribbons and string across the floor and ceiling; who had given him a new assortment of star-studded sticker stationery; who had entwined yellow flowers in his chair, phone, printer and tissue box.
More laughter erupts from the neighbouring office. Well, that didn’t last long – the game was up.
For the WCJ elves involved in this playful act of office vandalism, the moment carried with it a sombre undertone in realising that Franz, colleague and friend, teacher and mentor, the visionary who had helped build the Wits journalism department from the ground up, would no longer occupy this space as of December 2022.
After a monumental 22 years at the WCJ, Krüger steps down from his role as adjunct professor, leaving behind an important legacy as the driving force behind the department’s transition to a Centre, and pioneer of a thriving Wits Radio Academy.
As a colourful story told by colleague Lesley Cowling, WCJ associate professor, one could argue that the Wits Centre for Journalism had its destiny set in motion during her time at the Mail & Guardian newspaper, then known as the Weekly Mail during the 1980s in apartheid South Africa.
“We had a close working relationship with the East Cape News Agencies (ECNA – a network of independent news agencies subjected to considerable repression at the hands of the apartheid government, where Krüger was founding group editor). Soon the name Franz Krüger started to emerge. He became this mythical, activist figure who sent missives to our newsroom on a regular basis,” said Cowling.
“During this time, I travelled to Grahamstown with a group of journalism trainees, and we had planned to combine with the ECNA newsroom for a project we were running. I wanted to meet this Franz Krüger person but there was no sign of him. ‘Oh well’, I thought.
“Time passed and the political landscape of South Africa finally changed. It was no longer an apartheid state; we were in a honeymoon period and hope was in the air. The SABC became the megaphone of a new era, a new generation of anti-racism. Again, the name Franz Krüger cropped up for us, this time as its head of radio.”
Cowling recalled being met with chaos when she first stepped into the SABC for a meeting on how the media sector should set up unit standards – rooms filled with people shouting over each other, arguing about everything.
“Finally, we saw Franz for the first time. He entered the meeting and brought an overwhelming sense of calm and stability with him. And to this day, I feel like that first impression of him was certainly the correct one. He showed us that there was a way forward, that there was value in listening.”
As national editor of radio news and current affairs at the SABC from 1994 to 1999, Krüger formed part of the first post-apartheid editorial management team at the corporation and helped achieve a significant turnaround in the credibility and quality of its radio journalism. During his time there, he managed major projects including the coverage of several elections, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the introduction of sound to bulletins and the overhaul of news and current affairs programming on SAfm.
Cowling was later approached to design a practical journalism course at Wits University by Hugh Lewin, director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism at the time. Prof Anton Harber joined a year later and became the head of the new entity and source of many of the projects and approaches the Centre has become known for.
“We needed a third person on the team, and I could only think of the name I had spent so many years wondering after – Franz Krüger.”
The trio, together with Jo-Anne Richards, shaped the university’s journalism programme through rapid growth over the next decade. Later, Krüger developed the framework of what would become the Wits Radio Academy. He later took over as head of the growing entity from Harber, and realised that the status of a university department was no longer fit for purpose. He developed the proposal to become a Centre in the university system, managing to convince the rest of the team of its merits and then working tirelessly to navigate the resulting administrative maze.
Asked to reflect on some of his highlights at the helm of the WCJ, Prof Krüger immediately points to the adventure of setting up the Wits Radio Academy and Voice of Wits (VoW FM). Today the academy and VoW FM are institutionally separate but work closely together: the station speaks to the campus and the surrounding community it caters for in the greater Johannesburg region, while the academy works with, through and alongside the station to offer training and other services to the broader industry.
“That was an incredible experience. We moved into University Corner in 2000, and one of the unique things about the station is that we transmit our own signal from the roof of the building in Braamfontein. I don’t think many people know this, but the first mast was a broomstick with metal wrapped around it. We brought in the engineering department, thinking, ‘it’s a university, let’s all get together and get this thing done ourselves’. It didn’t work too well… we had to buy a proper one,” said Krüger, chuckling at the memory.
“We had created something completely unique – a broadcasting outfit, a campus radio station that spoke to students and the community, and the academic entity next to it. We invented the advanced radio certificate and did so many important things together.
“Another major highlight were the opportunities to take people who have practical but not academic experience and give them a degree. For me, that’s just brilliant. One of my students, who was in his 50s at the time and had endless experience working in radio, came to do our radio course. He stayed on to do the honours programme, and finally completed his master’s here which I supervised. Stories like that will always be more than a highlight for me.”
Prof Krüger is now setting sights on his continued work with the African Journalism Educators’ Network, as deputy press ombud at the Press Council, a developing role as board member at the SABC, as well as contributing continued “chunky” research into how the industry can better assist African community media operating on the periphery.
Head of the School of Literature, Language and Media at Wits University, Associate Professor Dan Ojwang, praised Krüger as an integral part of consolidating the new areas of the faculty as it expanded.
“With his passion and commitment to the profession, Franz makes me think of journalism as not just another academic discipline. And it was his discipline that went into making the Centre what it is today.”
Added Cowling: “It’s hard to imagine this place without Franz; I don’t think any of my colleagues can. I think that’s testament to everything he’s brought and contributed to the school here. His legacy will live on in the work we continue to do.”
From all of us at the Centre, we thank you, Franz, and wish you nothing but the best in your new adventures that lie ahead.