Never mind reality -- just to it

In January 1985, I bought a book called How To Start Your Own Publishing Company. It was special at the CNA for R5 and thought it might come in handy one day. It did, two months later.

I brought it along, together with a six-pack of beers, to a Sunday morning meeting with a journalist called Anton Harber. I had spoken to him for the first time the night before, at a party where, neither of us sober, we had agreed to start a newspaper.

We had good reason for an interest in this topic: we had just learned that were about to be retrenched.

Harber was a political reporter on the Rand Daily Mail and vice president of the journalists’ union, where he earned a reputation as someone who could be relied on when hell raising was required.

I was assistant editor on the Sunday Express by day, and by night I was a kind of technical godfather to the semi-underground ‘alternative press”.

Harber read the first sentence of my book. “If you don’t have $500 000, don’t bother to read any further,” it said. He didn’t. If he’d read any further, we would probably never have embarked on the madcap scheme we initiated that morning.

It took just a few beers to make matters crystal clear. The Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express were about to be shut down, silencing the major liberal voices in Johannesburg at a stroke.

The owners claimed it was because the papers lost so much money, but we knew that there must be a darker political conspiracy. There would now be a yawning gap in the market for a progressive-minded newspaper with strong opinions.

Therefore, given that we had nothing much else to do, why should we not start a newspaper ourselves?

Ten years later, I know that one starts such projects slowly, with feasibility studies, market research, cash flows over three years and promises from large backers.

But Harber was then a mere 25 and I was 29, and we thought that if you wanted to do something, you just did it. So we did.

In three days we had assembled a core of like-minded people: David Dison, a civil rights lawyer with a passion for battling authority figures; Alan Velcich, an ex-Nusas leader turned accountant, and the only man on the political left who could add a row of figures; Stephen Goldbatt, a Rand Daily Mail photographer prone to bursts of reckless enthusiasm, who announced that he would start full-time work on the project the very next day, without pay.

We spent a week of late nights “brainstorming” ideas, becoming more excited by the prospects with each glass of wine. There was not a prudent voice among us, which is just as well, since a single note of realism may have jeopardized the entire project. Still, there was a serious reason to be considering a new newspaper.

In early 1985, South Africa was a frightened country, on the first part of a long slide onto recession, violence and repression. White South Africa had locked itself away behind high walls.

Outside, black South Africa was in rebellion, with a cross-country wave of strikes, boycotts and clashes with police that became bloodier each week. The newspapers reported on this, sporadically; they called it “unrest’, a term which implied mayhem, crime and irrationality.

We believed, instead, that this was the start of a full-scale insurrection, and it deserved more careful media attention. We would start a newspaper that told South Africans the unsweetened truth about the country they lived in, painful or otherwise. It was not expected to grow rich or famous; merely to be an honest spectator.

The first obstacle to any fantasy is generally of a single kind: finding money. Our scheme was to register a company and sell 100 shares of R1 000 each to prominent liberal figures.

Goldbatt, who knew everyone who was anyone, drew up copious lists of eminent persons: civil rights lawyers, famous writers and filmmakers, sociology professors and businessmen ... anyone who had ever shown flickers of conscience.

The names were parcelled out to anyone of us who could lay claim to either knowing the famous name, or to having dated his daughter, or to having met a friend of his daughter.

Over the next fortnight, scores of influential people were surprised by phone calls from young men whose faces they vaguely recalled, urging them to invest in what sounded to almost every recipient like a crack-pot scheme.

The phone calls were followed by a long letter, entitled A venture to keep alive vigorous, independent journalism, which explained that the regrettable gap left by the loss of the world-famous Rand Daily Mail could be partly filled by a tiny weekly run by two journalists.

Most recipients threw the letter into the bin. ‘What is surprising is that many did not, and sent back cheques, enough to raise R50 000 ... all we needed to start. That so many level-headed people invested in this venture is an indication of the despondency among liberals in 1985, when cosying up to PW Botha had become fashionable in English-speaking circles.

The Weekly Mail was launched in six weeks. We could have done it quicker, but we had to wait for the phones. The first issue appeared on Friday, June 13 1985.

Most would-be customers could not make it out: was it a white newspaper, or a black newspaper?

White newspapers did not write so much about blacks. They did not put pictures of blacks on the front page. Black newspapers did not have such long, serious articles and such small headlines. And where was the soccer? The pin-ups?

The lead story told how South African police were detaining Mozambican workers, then passing them on to Renamo as press-ganged recruits. With the hindsight of 10 years, one can see that this was the tip of a much bigger scandal, but in June 1985 it did not go down well.

The big story of the moment was: “Will the All Blacks tour be cancelled?” General opinion was most succinctly summed up in a letter that arrived from a café in Berea, who knew a thing or two about selling newspapers. “I give you three months,” he said.

Still, among liberals and the left wing, the reaction was sheer ecstasy. A newspaper they could call their own, just weeks after the closure of the Rand Daily Mail.

A vast crowd congregated at the tiny Weekly Mail office in to celebrate the launch. The letters poured in: “I can’t believe it. It’s like finding money in mothballs,” wrote Cara Jeppe of Yeoville.

We hired a business manager the week before we launched, a friend of Dison’s whom he lure back from a long holiday in Turkey by promising him an enormous salary and company car to head the paper that would replace the Rand Daily Mail.

Clive Cope turned out to be a surprising choice for a managing director. Not only did he not wear a suit, or a tie, he rarely wore shoes. Still, he had a masterful ability to slide around life’s obstacles and an optimism which never allowed harsh reality to intrude.

No-one is entirely clear how Cope steered a penniless paper away from bankruptcy for five years, particularly not Cope. He was, however, the only member of staff permitted to take off Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays, which he devoted to his first passion, golf.

Golf was classified as important work. We were assured that it was golf alone that kept the bank managers at bay.

For the first few years, there were two categories of job on The Weekly Mail: part-time and full-time. Part-timers were people who were allowed to go home at night. Full-timers worked round the clock.

There were no lunch breaks; supper was supplied by the restaurant downstairs and weekends were ruled out. Most people were paid the standard salary: R1 500. Others worked without pay.

The core staff was so tiny that the paper relied largely on contributions from outsiders, mainly former Rand Daily Mail journalists like Patrick Laurence and Steve Friedman, who contributed weekly, free of charge. Other retrenched Rand Daily Mail journalists who wrote regularly were Pat Sidley, Phillip van Niekerk and Gavin Evans.

The newsroom consisted of one person: ex-Rand Daily Mail reporter Sefako Nyaka, who, when he was not on the run from his political opponents or his editors, popped up in some useful places like the middle of an ANC shootout with police, or a brutal police raid on Cosatu House, thus supplying a steady stream of lead stories.

The arts editor was Charlotte Bauer, previously a columnist on the Sunday Express, whose main passions were gossiping and ‘jolling”... She translated both into useful assets, hiring a band of wayward non-journalists who introduced readers to an emerging South African culture unknown to the rest of the press: The Cherry Faced Lurchers, Mapantsula, Jennifer
Ferguson, Mango Groove, Jameson’s and Kippies…

Harber and I would come to work early on Wednesday morning, not to go home until Thursday night. Harber would spend the day wheedling articles from every imaginable source.

Then he would help edit each article, taking turns on a single computer with Barbara Ludman, former women s editor of the Rand Daily Mail. Ludman would edit most of the paper in between reminding him that she was almost old enough to be his mother and couldn’t for the life of her imagine what she was doing in such a dump.

Many of the contributions were from eager non-journalists, which meant that this copy often needed to be reconstructed to ensure a semblance of English grammar and an appreciation of the laws of defamation.

Harber kept failing asleep at the keyboard and needed constant watching. One night he dozed off, cigarette in hand, a fire blazing in the debris around him I rescued our laser printer first, then Harber.

Harber slept even through Ludman’s harangues, remarkably robust for a woman of her ostensible delicacy, which dealt mainly with the icy drafts that whistled through the ceiling, the mice that scurried over her feet, the incompetence of the reporters and the fact that the place would be much improved if Harber and I would go home once in a while and take a bath.

Frankly, I kept the place together; waking Harber, shushing Ludman, chasing the mice, discarding some of the worst copy ever written, and figuring out why the computer refused to co-operate. In between, I would lay out every page, write every caption and headline and set all the advertisements.

After five years of this junk food, instant coffee and no breaks—we were all a little drained and I found myself under a surgeon’s knife and on enforced convalescence for six months. But the really tough part was Friday morning.

The Weekly Mail was the only newspaper in the country which required its entire staff, editors included, to deliver the newspaper.

Cope did most of the driving, taking the Weekly Mail bakkie on a sub-sonic scramble across the Reef, from the printing works at Springs to Jan Smuts airport, out to Johannesburg’s working class southern suburbs (where we had one subscriber, a priest) and out again to distant Randburg and Sandton. He began at midnight, and drove, foot on the floor, indifferent to traffic lights, until dawn.

Everywhere he went, he dropped bundles of newspapers at “drop offs”—the favourites were service station toilets—where the rest of the staff, or their spouses or girlfriends, would pick them up. We were each allocated a suburban route, which began long before dawn and required negotiating past mad joggers and milk vans until the traffic began at 7.00 am.

Delivering the newspaper required the close concentration of one driver and one navigator.
Weekly Mail readers habitually lived in little lanes that did not appear on maps, in houses that sported no numbers, behind gates secured by large dogs.

The navigator kept a close eye on a computer print-out. The driver kept an eye open for the cars of prominent leaders of the left parked in compromising places in front of the wrong addresses ... Then we would retreat to the office to plan the next edition.

A British magazine journalist popped by once during one of these Friday sessions. ‘The office is a shambles”, she reported, “and the editors have sandblasted eyes.”

Brave subscribers to a non-paper
The bulk of the Weekly Mail‘s launch money came from “founder subscribers”.

These were people willing to subscribe on faith to a newspaper that did not exist, run by people they had never heard of, for the then princely sum of R180, which bought a subscription that ran more than three years.

A group of volunteers from the Rand Daily Mail, joined by Harber’s extended family, spent nights stuffing envelopes with pamphlets and mailing them out to hundreds of names, which Stephen Goldblatt had wheedled out of various liberal institutions.One thousand people subscribed in a fortnight.

Founder subscribers could elect candidates to an “editorial board”, an attempt at establishing grassroots links with the readership. The editorial board met weekly with Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim to discuss the next issue.

But the structure proved so unwieldy for on-the-fly decision-making, and board members with full-time jobs found the meetings so intrusive, that by the third month, this brief fling at participative democracy had been abandoned.

Stubborn ink
The Weekly Mail first appeared in 1985, no printer in Johannesburg dared handle it. It was printed instead at the Springs Advertiser, a one-hour drive outside Johannesburg.

The Springs Advertiser is run by the Dannhauser family, who are not particularly political, but
have a useful stubborn streak. During the years the Springs Advertiser handled The Weekly Mail, its staff calmly endured bomb threats, death threats and nocturnal visits from squads of policemen.

And with special thanks to — PW Botha
One man, more than any, needs to be thanked for the survival of The Weekly Mail: former State President PW Botha.

Six weeks after the paper was launched, he declared the first in what would become a
long-running series of States of Emergency. In so doing, he provided the fledgling newspaper with a purpose ... defiance.

Botha’s clampdown on political organisations was accompanied by curbs on the press. Steadily refined over the years, these erased from public view entire areas of South African life: strife in the schools security force raids on the townships, mass detentions, protests against military conscription strikes and illegal gatherings.

To this day, much of what happened in the daily lives of black South Africa during that terrible period has gone undocumented.

The Weekly Mail‘s tactic was the artful exploitation of loopholes in the Emergency regulations. The regulations were loosely worded, deliberately so, because an ambiguous
phrase can have as many meanings as the nervous mind chooses to read into them.

But they can also have as many meanings as the cooler mind can find, and we could think of many good reasons why a regulation could not possibly apply to us. Most journalists treat their lawyers as the enemy within, the people who prevent reporters from saying what they wish.

On The Weekly Mail, David Dison and his colleagues were valued visitors during the State of Emergency, suggesting ways to rephrase articles so that their meaning still slipped through the loopholes.

One tactic was to rephrase reports so that the sophisticated reader, schooled in the codes of “Emergency talk”, could understand the hidden meanings. Thus, ‘unidentified men wearing balaclavas” was code for “policemen”.

The other tactic was to flout prosecution by defying the regulations. We did this when reporting on extreme cases like shooting on unarmed crowds, or torture of detainees.

We calculated that a judge would not condone such ill-treatment ... and that the government would not want to risk the awkward publicity of a court case. For most newspapers with predominantly white readerships, the State of Emergency clamp down was merely a nuisance.

They soon lost interest in the turmoil beyond their doorsteps, to concentrate on topics closer to hand like the declining rand, sanctions and sports boycotts.

The Weekly Mail, by contrast, defined its role as reporting on the hidden face of South Africa. And report it did, with relentless single- mindedness for many years. Wherever battle was waged in troubled South Africa, whether in townships on the Reef or in far-flung rural areas, The Weekly Mail was there.

Reporters and photographers often faced enormous danger, relying on their street-instincts—and the growing reputation of the paper—to keep out of trouble.

Photographer Guy Adams, for example, found himself in the centre of an enraged Vaal mob intent on necklacing an “informer”. He stood his ground and kept taking pictures, witness to murder.

Columnist Phillip van Niekerk was attacked by an armed gang, one of whom pressed a gun to his head—and pulled the trigger. Van Niekerk was badly inured ... but he lived.

The paper’s unique style quickly won it a loyal readership among people who had to know what was happening in the country ... and who realised that the grim truth had better long-term value.

The Weekly Mail was read in Pollsmoor Prison by the Rivonia trialists; in Pretoria by state presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, by rightwingers Gaye and Clive Derby-Lewis; by the exiled Joe Slovo, by the senior executives of Anglo American, by the leaders of Cosatu.

It was the most widely-read South African newspaper abroad. The New York Times routinely referred to it as “the country’s most prominent anti- partheid newspaper”.

The Weekly Mail‘s political opinions in 1985 were only distantly related to those of the rest of the national press. It’s an indication of how much the country has shifted in 10 years that none of the contentious things The Weekly Mail was saying in 1985 would raise an eye-brow today.

Its writers favoured one person- one vote, the release of Nelson Mandela, peace talks with the African National Congress, and a programme of social reconstruction. Only “communists” said those things in 1985; these days, any National Party politician will nod agreement.

Ten years ago, our opponents considered The Weekly Mail way to the left. We considered ourselves way to the front. History would seem to favour our interpretation.

Set free by the lady at Home Affairs
In 1985, raising money was not the only obstacle to starting a newspaper. What worried us most was the Newspaper Registration and Imprint Act, which required publishers to “register” with the Department of Home Affairs.

In most cases this required no mom than filling in a form. But in the case of a newspaper likely to promulgate views the government did not approve of, the minister could either refuse registration or demand a “deposit” of up to R60 000.

For three decades, the government used these powers to abort the birth of one opposition publication after another.

David Dison applied for registration for The Weekly Mail, and sent along a pitiful letter about how the paper hoped to provide employment for retrenched journalists. But even Dison held out little hope of our being approved, and we began immediately to make contingency plans.

A loophole in the Act allowed for the private circulation of unregistered newspapers to members of an organisation. So we invented a society, called variously the Weekly Mail Society and the Weekend Mail Society (we seemed to have some difficulty remembering which name we’d chosen).

The first subscribers were asked to join this society, in return for which they would receive our Weekly newsletter at R3.00 an issue, the same price as the Financial Mail.

One week before publication, the astonishing news came through: registration had been approved, for a fee of only R10 000. We never did find out why, perhaps it was Dison’s pleading letter, perhaps it was Anton Harber’s winning ways with the lady at Home Affairs.

We changed tactics immediately, dropping the price to R1 and making hasty plans to sell the newspaper in public places. The new tactics made nonsense of accountant Alan Velcich’s careful arithmetic, but they ensured that the paper would have a public profile.

So what was the attraction?
The Mail & Guardian has not become rich. There are no graphs to demonstrate that from day one circulation rocketed skywards.

There are no trophies glittering in glass cases because we defied Adriaan Vlok, Magnus Malan, Stoffel Botha and their ilk.

Despite 10 years of publicity much of it offered free of charge by angry government spokesmen, you can ask around my dinner table and still find people who’ve never heard of the Mail & Guardian.

So what was it that made this newspaper… a little different?

  • It was the first national newspaper paper in decades to be launched by an independent company outside the huge corporations which dominate English-language newspapers ... and survive.

  • In a frightened era when newspapers routinely vilified the African National Congress and its leaders as ‘terrorists”, this was the first paper to put human faces to ANC leaders and to provide balanced accounts of their activities and policies. It was also the first to sympathetically discuss such “fringe” issues as environmentalism, gay liberation and gender.

  • This was the first paper whose news selection was colour-blind. All South African newspapers of the 1980s were aimed at racially- defined markets, either black (Sowetan) or white (Business Day). Those newspapers which did reach black and white audiences (like The Star, or the Rand Daily Mail) provided separate “white” and “township” editions.

  • This was the first newspaper to cover the emerging indigenous culture that arose in the early non- racial bars in central Johannesburg like Jameson’s, Kippies and the Black Sun; the fringe cabaret, and ‘cross-over” music.

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