Weekly Mail recruits were poverty stricken, persecuted and despised, writes Anton Harber, but those who stayed afloat are now shaping the news.
Phil Molefe arrived on our doorstep as a disillusioned school teacher. Now he’s head of SABC’s Channel Africa. Mzimkulu Malunga turned up as a miserable miner. Today he’s MD of BDFM, publisher of Business Day and Financial Mail. Ferial Haffajee was a wide-eyed Wits graduate when she arrived at The Weekly Mail. Just more than a decade later, she’s editor. Mondli Makhanya was a comrade from the killing fields of KwaZulu-Natal. He’s now head of the Sunday Times.
Perhaps the most valuable by-product of the heady early days of The Weekly Mail were the people who started out there, and who are now shaping the media world. To a disproportionate extent, many of the current generation of new journalists passed through the shabby downtown offices of this small newspaper during a critical period in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Recently, the head of a major magazine group took me out for breakfast to ask me how one locates and identifies young talent. She marvelled at how The Weekly Mail found Jeff Zerbst (a theology student who made a brilliant horse-racing columnist under the pseudonym Thomas Equinus) or the Madame & Eve cartoonists. It certainly wasn’t that we paid well (just paying on time would have been a start) or offered comfortable working conditions (unless you would choose to work in a converted hairdressing salon with the toilet in the middle of the subs room). ‘There has to be good new talent out there. What do I do to find these people?” she asked. It got me thinking about what drew some of the best young people to our newspaper in the 1980s.
I once received a job application from a young American student. I wrote back that journalists in our country were poverty-stricken, persecuted, despised, often in danger of their lives and constantly facing long-term imprisonment. If you know this and still want a job, I told him, you’re welcome. And, by the way, I added, you should probably also know that we have no money to pay you and the prospects of our paper being closed down in the coming months was high, if not certain.
He arrived a few weeks later and stayed for months.
So what was it that attracted them? What kept them? And what sent them on to further heights?
Firstly, it was that we wanted them. By and large, these were individuals who would not easily have found a place in the ‘mainstream” media of the time, which was conservative, grey and straight-laced. Their recruitment policies and attitudes would have precluded most of the people I am describing.
We, on the other hand, were desperate. We had few staff, little money and poor prospects. Virtually anyone who was keen and eager and who walked in the door got something to do. Ruth Bekker, who we knew vaguely as a student activist, came in and said she was ready to work. The phones were ringing, so we made her receptionist and subscriptions clerk. She wasn’t very good at it, but thankfully moved on to be an invaluable writer, subeditor, editor and is now a television producer.
But there was also a type of person we were attracting. There were many young people who were uncomfortable with the system they were living under, who wanted to do something to change it, but who did not necessarily see themselves as underground operators or guerrillas. The Weekly Mail was a place in which you could fight apartheid, expose its wrongs and still be doing quasi-legitimate and quite satisfying work.
That applied to many of the best of that generation — smart, clued-in young people were those looking for interesting and creative ways to survive on the fringes of apartheid society. And they were welcome at The Weekly Mail.
The paper could not be bigger or better than its mainstream rivals, so it had to be different. And this meant that we sought out people who wrote or drew exceptionally, who did things that the mainstream could not or would not do, and who were ready to share the risks with us.
Zerbst was writing his PhD in comparative religions when he stopped me in a pizza parlour late one night and said his secret passion was horse racing. We agreed jokingly to look at a draft column and it was clear from the first paragraph we read that he was a comic genius. It was only later that we realised he was also a good tipster (and he went on to win the annual newspaper tipsters competition), but that was not why we hired him. He went on to success as both a theology teacher and a leading pornographer (I kid you not).
The Madam & Eve trio were a disparate bunch of unemployed and barely employable guys, some of whom we knew from university. They wandered in clutching a set of rough drawings and the first one appeared in the paper that week.
The third reason that so many of these people came through our doors is that we actually trained people at a time when the major newspaper groups were pulling back from their cadet programmes. The Weekly Mail training project started as a way of raising money from those who could not give it to the paper itself, as a private company, but who wanted to ensure its survival under the difficult conditions of the 1980s.
There was mutual consent that this money was to support the paper in many ways, but one of them was to enable us to hire young cadets and a training officer. When we deliberately put in the paper a tiny, hidden advert for cadetships, we had hundreds of applications from all over the country. These included some of the names I have given above, and many more, such as Philippa Garson, Cassandra Moodley, Thandeka Gqubule and Musa Zondi.
We selected our candidates carefully. It was a long and painful process to whittle the hundreds of applicants down to about 30 to interview and then select eight or 10 of them. But we put a great deal of energy into it because we knew it was our best shot at getting good new talent and we clearly got it right at least some of the time. (But certainly not all the time. It is to our eternal embarrassment that among those who never made our shortlist were Justice Malala and William Mervyn Gumede, now two of the country’s leading journalists.)
We looked for kids who were bright and had attitude and street-smarts. Not the type that could easily get into the media at that time. We gave them a crash classroom course and threw them too quickly into the newsroom. We hired an experienced trainer and made that person effectively a deputy news editor, so that they could fight for a place on our pages for these youngsters. We did it fast because we were desperate for reporters, and it meant that sometimes we got into trouble by throwing a junior into big stories. But those who stayed afloat were soon swimming in the fast current.
It is worth remembering this when you hear the frequent complaints about ‘juniorisation” and lack of skills and experience in today’s newsrooms. Our average age was well below 30, and we had just one or two grey hairs with substantial experience. I think it was about attitude rather than age or skill.
Sitting at the university now, I draw on these lessons in shaping how we train young people to be journalists, trying for a similar balance of classroom and newsroom. But there is little to compare with the bubbling cauldron that was the The Weekly Mail newsroom during the 1980s.
Anton Harber is now Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University