Former Tourism Minister Joe Micallef Stafrace has died at the age of 87, and everyone from Prime Minister Robert Abela and his predecessor Joseph Muscat to Opposition leader Bernard Grech and the Institute of Maltese Journalists have lined up to pay tribute to him.
A look back at Micallef Stafrace’s history brings to life the social and political repercussions that people used to face for holding particular beliefs in Malta, the after-effects of which are still being felt today.
Born in Valletta in 1933, Micallef Stafrace was only 22 when he was made editor of the Labour Party’s newspaper Is-Sebħ.
Four years later, he was jailed for four days and fined £35 for publishing a cartoon making fun of then resident British Governor of Malta Sir Robert Laycock.
Laycock had banned band marches but then granted an exception to the King’s Own Band Club to greet him with a march at the Palace courtyard.
Micallef Stafrace published a cartoon of Laycock drinking a bottle of gin atop the shoulders of a marching band as they sang his praises about what a jolly good chap he was.
Recounting his time in jail to TVM decades later, the editor recalled the discomfort of being stuck in a cell without a toilet or other facilities and having to empty his own toilet pail.
Unsurprisingly, he described this experience as the best example of the lack of press freedom in his youth.
When he was 28, Micallef Stafrace was set to marry his childhood sweetheart Yvonne but his plans hit a snag when he was interdicted by the Church.
This dark period in Maltese history saw the church declare that supporting the Labour Party was a mortal sin and banned interdicted people from receiving the sacraments.
Infamously, this meant that interdicted people who died were buried in unconsecrated ground, in a part of the cemetery popularly called by the pejorative term Il-Miżbla (the dump).
For Micallef Stafrace, it meant he couldn’t get married in church or even a chapel.
He pleaded with then Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi, but to no avail.
Micallef Stafrace said Gonzi had laid out all his Is-Sebħ writings on his desk and told him he would have officiated the wedding himself if he ‘converts’.
“When I said I felt I had done no wrong, he insisted I could only get married in the sacristy, even denying me the right to get married in a chapel. I later learnt that several priests had urged my wife-to-be to leave me. Can you imagine that?”
His wedding, he explained, was humiliating, with a group of Catholic youths chanting politically-loaded hymns outside the Church and passing snide remarks, questioning why such a beautiful bride was marrying a Labour executive member.
However, despite forming part of the Nationalist Party, former President Guido de Marco took an active part in ensuring Micallef Stafrace’s wedding was a success.
In 2011, Micallef Stafrace described the interdiction as a stain on Malta’s history which left scars that lived on for generations.
“Some people who were children in the 1960s still nurture bitterness till this day. I know people who were asked when they confessed as children whether they bought Labour newspapers for their parents – and if so, did not receive absolution.”
Micallef Stafrace was elected to Parliament in 1962, 1966 and 1971 and was made Minister for Industry, Agriculture and Tourism before resigning abruptly in 1971.
He would then become the first lecturer on press law at the University of Malta and had three children – Yana Micallef Stafrace (now a magistrate), Simon Micallef Stafrace and Kirill Micallef Stafrace.
Micallef Stafrace’s life serves as a reminder of an ugly period in Maltese history that remains raw and unhealed in the nation’s collective consciousness.
More than anything, it shows the very real dangers that political tribalism, disregard for the free press and satire, and religious intervention in state affairs can cause a nation. Micallef Stafrace has moved on, but the socio-political issues that wounded him remain as relevant as ever.
RIP Joe Micallef Stafrace