Tim Knight – In Memoriam

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Sylvia Vollenhoven

[University of Johannesburg  Communication & Media Professor of Practice and former SABC News TV Current Affairs Executive Producer / Presenter]

Tim Knight, my dear friend of three decades died today [6 September 2023]. The force of the sobs that come from somewhere deep inside take me by surprise. When the crying leaves, I do a ritual and bid him farewell with a few things he has loved. The African earth, tobacco, his favourite herb and a sprinkling of local ‘libation’. But most of all, a huge thank you Kaise Gangans for his rich contribution to my life, professionally and personally.

There’s an unassuming lodge in the Southern foothills of the Magaliesberg where my life takes a dramatic turn exactly 30 years ago. South Africa’s Alpha Conference Centre is chosen for a clandestine training operation in 1993 because it is remote and unremarkable. It’s where I first ‘meet’ author and Television trainer Tim Knight.

I am part of a band of renegade journalists who are being prepared for work at the SABC by leading lights from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, during a difficult time in the transition from apartheid to democracy. We jokingly rename the place the APLA Training Centre.  The CBC’s Norm Bolen, Bob Culbert, Cynthia Reyes and Marie Wilson like the offbeat reference to the PAC military wing.

They contextualise their training methods with a glowing introduction of their mentor in absentia, Tim Knight. My rebelliousness dictates that I distrust the almost messianic nature of their descriptions. I quietly decide that I will probably not like this white man at all.

The only other time I have heard of Broederstroom is in 1989 when a group of anti-apartheid freedom fighters are caught with an arms cache on a farm there. We joke about the irony of planning the overthrow of the apartheid supporting SABC in the very same place.

A few months later when I am in Toronto continuing the training at the CBC and once more planning the downfall of all that is wrong in the world, Tim Knight and I bond for life. With the aid of excellent whisky, we hatch grand plans and map out bold pathways for the future of the SABC. He is unlike most of the white men I have met until now. The CBC trainers who are later joined by the fiery Mohawk Dan David and radio journalist Dale Ratcliffe all help me understand why.

It is the start of several rounds of CBC-led training tours at the SABC. The aim is to ease the transition from state to public broadcaster. For most of us involved in this crazy venture it is the most difficult thing we have ever attempted. But at the same time the exhilaration of meeting and beating the former enemy in daily newsroom battles makes us walk around like very focused adrenalin junkies. Tim Knight leads the charge. His zest gives us that extra courage we need to lock horns with people who have brothers in military intelligence. Some of them possibly even work for apartheid’s intelligence network directly.

One night before the 1994 elections Tim and I drive to a farm just outside the city. The former apartheid apparatchiks, now our new BFFs, have invited us to the SABC farm for a party. ‘The SABC has a game farm?’ We are astounded at the nature of things in this inner circle. Tim and I do our best to make polite game farm conversation with the people who are still running the Corporation. We all know it’s not for long.

In the reception area is a large wooden table decorated with a collection of hunting rifles. The array of long weapons, stacked side by side, adds to my discomfort. When the drinks have been flowing for a while the conversation takes a turn for the worse. One of the guests, an apartheid government public relations person, tries to impress Tim and I with his good intentions and patriotism. Somewhere inside me, something bubbles over and I spit out a long list of names of dead comrades. People killed by the state for opposing apartheid. I have never been this close to these people before. I feel I am dining with the killers of my friends. The emotions are overwhelming. In a muddle of swearing and close to tears of anger I tell the smug PRO faces what they can do with their good intentions.

Tim steers me away from the tall Afrikaners towering over me, near to the table laden with guns. He takes me out to the car and says quietly that we should probably leave. And then I break down and cry. Sobs that come from a place of profound anger. When I am done and ready to drive on, I see that Tim is crying too. It is a long dark drive back to the city and we weep almost all the way there. Once I stop because driving becomes too difficult. It is the most comforting gesture I have ever experienced in distress. No consoling arm on the shoulder or platitudes about it going to be alright. Just a long bout of empathetic tears.

In true Tim style we don’t ever talk much about that night.

When he decides to retire in South Africa I am elated. It is like being given a rare and extremely valuable gift. I can hardly believe our luck. All this expertise and skill and human warmth on tap for those of us who need it. And this is when my flagrant abuse of Tim begins. The phone calls and e-mails asking for help are many and diverse.

“We are starting an online journalism resource called The Journalist. We have no money and we need you to write for free.”

“Basil (Appollis) and I are writing a play. We need a Script Editor who can come with us for a weekend of brainstorming.”

“I am teaching at the University of Johannesburg and need to use your book as a training resource.”

“We don’t have enough money for one extra actor in our new play and need an angel investor.”

He never says ‘no’, never objects to the ‘abuse’.

The Journalist is replete with excellent articles. We never paid him even when he did a stint as a foreign correspondent during the 2014 coup in Lesotho.

He is the Script Editor for several of the plays Theatre Director Basil Appollis and I have written together. When the weekend ‘brainstorm’ becomes tense he throws in some couples counselling, also for free.

A few years ago, he generously donates the rights of his ground-breaking book Storytelling and the Anima Factor to the University of Johannesburg so that we can make it freely available to African scholars.

I still have a flimsy contract we drew up to acknowledge his support of an additional actor for our play The Keeper of the Kumm. The agreement grants him a rights percentage, but he never cashes in those chips.

After he moves to the St James Retirement Hotel recently, I am in Cape Town for half a year. We meet for lunch at the Hotel and later he comes to the farm cottage where I am staying, for a weekend visit. Basil is there. We talk and talk and it is just like old times. I haven’t seen him much since relocating to Johannesburg. He is genuinely curious about our lives, SA’s chaotic political shenanigans and the book I am writing. He spends leisurely smoke breaks out on the deck with Basil revelling in the beauty of the farmlands and indulging in ‘man talk’.

We gloss over the lapses in memory because it’s almost unnoticeable. But I cannot ignore the feelings of intense sadness as I see him struggle to get in and out of the car or attempt to stand up after sitting for too long. After one night on the farm, he makes an excuse of having to get back to the Hotel for an appointment. Basil and I know instinctively that there is no appointment. We sense the effort required of him to hide the discomfort of age.

When he is in Lesotho covering the attempted coup for The Journalist, there is a problem with his papers. He mails me personal documents so that I can assist with sorting it out. Somewhere in one of the papers is a casual mention that he is a prostate cancer survivor. I also realise that  his 70th birthday has come and gone and that I have missed it. But I know better than to challenge him on these things. This is Tim’s style of privacy. Our lives are intimately intertwined but some things are off limits and we don’t question it… ever. During lunch that day at the Hotel he shares how he has tried to commit suicide recently. He has no trouble talking with me about his failed attempt but won’t share his birthday in case we make a fuss. I have learned over the years not to expect too much logic.

And so, I don’t challenge him when some years ago the rebel in him causes unrest in a very small production team. I am the producer and Tim is a script advisor. There are only three other people working on the project, a TV series for a local broadcaster. Tim has a meeting with two of them, a fellow producer and researcher. Out of left field I have unrest in the ranks. The third person in the team is my son Ryan Lee Seddon who does not join the ‘rebels’. Tim is their leader and he informs me about the unhappiness. The list of grievances is so puzzling that I can only imagine that he is suffering battle withdrawal and has concocted this whole situation to get his adrenalin flowing again. I play along with the game and in no time at all it blows over.

When I wave goodbye to him on the farm a few months ago, my heart hurts. He is weak and vulnerable, making a special effort to be his old self. I call him to make a film festival date before I leave Cape Town but his heart’s not in it and he says: “Call me closer to the time because I will probably forget.” We never go to the festival, but he is constantly in my thoughts. Even at this great distance I can feel him slowly, gently leaving this place. And then comes the time when he stops taking my calls and the news of him being in hospital.

When Basil visits him in hospital the other day he is sleeping. When he awakes, he says: “I seem to sleep for a thousand years and wake up only for the bad parts.”

Not so Tim. Guided by your passion for the truth, I have to correct you. The good parts have been plenty and will comfort me always.

Hamba kahle go well!

For more on Tim Knight in his own words, see http://www.timknight.org/about/