Fat Middle Finger

The ’80s were dark days, not just for EP rugby, but for human rights, freedom of information and freedom of just about everything else. What I remember as a child of states of emergency, politically motivated violence and necklacings, I didn’t read in the papers. I saw it in the shape of military vehicles, blocked-off roads and helicopters circling over a burning Lingelihle, just outside my hometown of Cradock.

Newspapers couldn’t write what they wanted. The state was always there, whether quietly erasing text or simply putting journalists in prison. And many journalists and editors were aligned with the state anyway. Dissident voices were few and far between. Peet Kruger, current editor of Beeld, remembers: “In the ’80s information flowed in one direction – from PW Botha to the nation. From dominee to congregation. From the papers and TV to the public. And the nation was considered to be white, mostly male, wearing a suit and tie. South Africa was isolated from the outside world. Bombs exploded in Wimpy’s.”

It was in this same world that Max du Preez started Vrye Weekblad back in 1988, which for the next five years constantly showed (as he says in his new autobiography Pale Native, comparing the Voëlvry Tour to the Weekblad) “a fat middle finger to the institutions of Afrikaner power.” They did far more than that too. They openly attacked the government of the day and exposed some of the biggest stories, bringing us Vlakplaas, the BSB and countless confessions from Eugene de Kock et al. Eventually, Weekblad was sued once too often, and Du Preez, in court in his only suit and tie, conceded defeat in the face of financial ruin.

In the meantime, Mandela walked free, Codesa happened, Noot vir Noot started up, a democracy was born and Afrikaans newspapers started changing. But how far have they come? And how do they reflect Afrikaans culture in its multitude of forms, in times where politics of struggle have been usurped by the simple need to make ends meet and avoid contracting Aids?

It would be interesting to know what jumps to mind when you read those two words: “Afrikaans culture”. If rugby-Patricia Lewis-Bloemfontein-flipping-the-grill-without-letting-the-wors-fall-out is the axis of medieval you start from, you’re already in the dark.

Speaking to those in charge of the papers reveals a confidence in their abilities to provide their readers with everything they demand, whether it be bigger boobs on page 3 (Kaapse Son) or the latest about South Africans in Iraq.

“Our readers see themselves – and people like them – in the paper,” says Kruger confidently. Many also seem to read the paper very comprehensively, even though some obviously buy it only for rugby scores or to enter competitions. Jonathan Crowther, editor of Volksblad, finds these loyal readers to be the best barometers of whether they’re doing things right or not. “When writing in to complain, many readers talk about ‘my’ or ‘our’ paper. It warms the heart to hear that readers feel like that about Volksblad.” He goes on to say that the most complaints he has received during his tenure was when they published a Big Brother shower scene on the front page.

It’s recounted in a trivial manner, but the shower scene brings us to a serious debate. Johann Rossouw, writer and well-known commentator on all things Afrikaans, argues that Afrikaans newspapers are in sync with the “standardised, global tinsel-non-culture”, and suffer from the damage wrought by the video sphere, or culture of images. “Traditionally, as in any community which arises around the published word, newspapers were a central agent in the creation of an Afrikaans community. But as newspapers come under enormous pressure from the video sphere, they become instruments of communication rather than information. The traditional inclination towards parochial reportage is becoming more entrenched by the day.”

But the video sphere is no issue for Kaapse Son. They embrace it. As the newest Afrikaans paper – and the only tabloid – it’s in the unique position of having no baggage from the past. “Multimedia means you’re getting excess news, on your cell phone, TV, or freesheets,” says Son founding editor Ingo Capraro, “Everybody’s jostling for a piece of the pie. The whole concept of ‘news’ needs to be reconsidered – so too the notion of which target market you’re aiming for.”

Kruger, in talking about the lack of Afrikaans competition for Beeld, points out that this “jostling”, not only for a piece of Capraro’s pie, but just for a second of a reader’s time, is their main competition. “Nobody and everybody is the competition. Even work, gym, dining out and going on holiday. We compete with the clock to gain people’s attention and respect.”

Die Son’s target market wants different things from what Afrikaans media has had to offer in the past. Says Capraro: “They are tired of serious issues – especially politics and they’re particularly gatvol of politicians. Most people are also not interested in what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan or Southern-Uzbekistan. It’s a worldwide tendency: ‘serious’ newspapers are losing circulation.

“Times change, and if you don’t adapt, you go under. Censure has gone out the window. Goodbye to hypocrisy. Up yours, establishment. Fokkofpolisiekar. Bring on Die Son. Our main approach is: local, sensational, tongue-in-cheek, fun. A bit of voyeurism, a bit of malicious pleasure – thank God it wasn’t my penis that got cut off and braaied.”

While the older papers are obviously still more conservative than Kaapse Son, they too seem to have moved out of the shadows of their pasts. “Rapport always had room for both the white and coloured Afrikaans culture,” says deputy editor Anne-Marie Mischke, “but as the country changed, we also underwent important changes.” Just like the Sunday Times had an “Extra” for their black readership, Rapport had Rapport-Ekstra, then Rapport-Metro as a supplement for their coloured readers. “In actual fact, this was apartheid in newspapers. While many readers preferred this format, newsrooms started to get increasingly uncomfortable about it. In the mid ’90s, white and coloured news became integrated in one paper. Incidentally, it made no difference to our circulation.”

Max du Preez, who worked for both Beeld and Die Burger back in the late ’70s and ’80s, goes as far as to say that the Afrikaans papers underwent a bigger revolution than any of the English papers after 1994, as most English papers believed they were always against apartheid and didn’t have to change.

“A new generation of younger and more progressive editors, such as Arrie Rossouw at Die Burger, Peet Kruger at Beeld and Tim du Plessis at Rapport, were appointed,” explains du Preez. “They weren’t Broederbonders and didn’t have the culture of intimacy with The Party’s leaders that their predecessors had.”

Du Preez says that the accompanying rush to appoint coloured and black reporters and assistant editors subsequently had a positive effect on their news agendas. “This has resulted in progressive papers with strong anti-racist attitudes and a positive attitude towards the new democracy.” One area he thinks all Afrikaans papers can still improve on is investigative reporting.

“Seamlessly Afrikaans” is a phrase proffered by almost all the editors when asked to describe what they want their papers to be. But even Capraro acknowledges that there is always work to be done. “We are very aware of still existing racism, but also of lingering hurt among the victims of apartheid. Some whites still struggle to accept the new democracy. By letting people talk – and with humour – we try to contribute to the healing.”

ABC figures for the past 5 years show that the “serious” papers have suffered a general loss of sales. Beeld seems to have found a stable level (around 101,300 sales per day), and Volksblad‘s 2003 figure of 27,179 is almost identical to its 1993 figure, the only upward spike (in late 1999 and early 2000) being due to excitement around the introduction of a reader competition. Both Die Burger and Rapport have had more drastic drop-offs – and more random upward movements. As for advertising revenue, figures from Nielsen Media Research AIS/AdEx show that all the Afrikaans papers’ incomes have steadily grown over the past 5 years.

I confronted Die Burger‘s Willem Breytenbach (ex-news editor, now Manager: Marketing and Circulation Strategy) with this apparent anomaly: how does advertising revenue rise sharply while sales slowly drop off? He assures me that this title actually shows an increasing readership (at 577,000 per day, the 4th highest in the country), and that as readers have more things to spend money on (cell phones, Lotto etc), they buy fewer newspapers but still read a copy somewhere. Interestingly, he says that a small factor has been the relatively large number of emigrants (compared to Beeld‘s readership pool) from their region, which has contributed to the slight drop in sales.

Mischke acknowledges that changes at Rapport, most importantly a change of editorship in 1997, have had an affect. “From 1991 to 1997 Rapport was a politically conservative newspaper and rather negative about the new dispensation. But when the particular editor [Izak de Villiers] resigned, Rapport regained a lot of objectivity and quickly became part of a broader South Africa. Obviously the far-right readership that enjoyed those years complained, but on the other hand we regained many other readers. There are those who resist, then there’s a large percentage who are moving with us and a small percentage who feel we’re not moving fast enough.”

Die Son has no such problems. “We don’t have readers threatening they’re going to stop reading us because we are ‘renewing’, which is what Die Burger has managed to do very successfully under its new editor,” says Capraro, with the confidence of someone whose paper is selling more copies every week (around 200,000 at the moment).

Breytenbach says that’s not true, that Die Burger‘s sales dip over the past three years has had nothing to do with the appointment of Rossouw as editor. He points out that early 2004 sales have actually gone back up again, possibly as a result of intensified marketing strategies, more point of sale interaction and large scale restructuring within the department Breytenbach now heads.

Beeld’s changes occurred at the end of the ’80s already, says Kruger, “when the editor Willem Wepener clashed with PW Botha. Wepener wrote that Mandela should be freed. In the ’90s we stood solidly on the side of a speedy, negotiated settlement.”

But how about another Vrye Weekblad? “It’s problematic that all Afrikaans papers come out of one stable. A diversity of voices, owners and approaches is always better, but the chances of anyone outside of Media 24 breaking into the market is very slim. A re-established Vrye Weekblad could’ve played a strong and positive role, could’ve been more progressive and looser,” says Du Preez, from his new base in Napier where he now freelances while tending to his chickens, ducks, dogs and donkeys (Stoffel and Johnny).

Whether it be the “poes-en-patats” (Max’s words) of Die Son, the with-it slang in the Jip-youth supplements, or the back engine hard news reporting, it seems as if Afrikaans papers are doing their best to provide their readers with a representative product. It’s only EP rugby that’s still waiting for the light. One day, my guys.

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