A celebration of 20 exceptional years in journalism

On June 14 1985, just six weeks after the death of the Rand Daily Mail, the first edition of The Weekly Mail rolled off the presses. The brainchild of journalists Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim, formerly of the Rand Daily Mail and The Sunday Express, it was ‘rather thin, had no colour and pictures as sharp as murky ponds”. As the distribution company consisted of one man and his son, copies were scarce.

But its lead story, headlined ‘Detainees link SAP men to Renamo”, immediately signalled where the paper was coming from — the aim was to tell the real South African stories the mainstream media, now bereft of the RDM‘s left-liberal perspective, could be expected to skirt. For those who founded it, funded it and worked for it in those early days, the Mail was a political act and a labour of love.

It was also the start of a unique publishing adventure which, over the next two decades, would involve many of South Africa’s best journalists, train many fine newcomers, bring in a rich harvest of awards and international accolades, and break many stories that would shape the country.

Politically balanced
From the start, the Mail‘s main focus was political, and it developed into the most informed and daring chronicler of the dying years of apartheid — the ‘state of emergency” period, with its press clamps, mass detentions, raids on neighbouring states, assassinations and security force crackdowns on the black townships. For the outside world it became, and to some extent remains, South Africa’s premier source of news and perspective.

In its tone, it also struck a novel note in local journalism. Irreverent, polemical and self-opinionated, it was not afraid to beard the apartheid lion, and refused to make a religion of journalistic ‘balance” and ‘objectivity”.

Throughout the late 1980s, the Mail played a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Its approach was to ‘push the envelope”; to publish as much as it could get away with under the emergency regulations. To circumvent the press curbs — which by 1988 filled 18 pages of small print — the newspaper used some of South Africa’s most skilled media lawyers. Almost every word of every edition was screened by legal eagles for potential infractions. Even so, the Mail was raided, seized, repeatedly prosecuted and, ultimately, pulled off the streets for a month.

One of the paper’s counter-strategies was to mock the absurdity of the restrictions by pointedly complying with them. This was the source of some of its most famous front pages, including that of June 20 1986 ‘Our lawyers tell us we can say almost nothing critical —”.

Crisis of identity
The end of the emergency and moves towards a new constitutional order triggered an identity crisis at the Mail, aggravated by the failure of its sortie into the daily market.

But the paper’s flagging fortunes were revived by its most famous news break — Inkathagate. Based on leaked top-secret police documents, this showed that the IFP leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was in the pay of the security branch. In a context of the rumoured ‘third force” stoking conflict between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, and Buthelezi’s attempts to project himself as anti-apartheid leader, the revelations were dynamite.

Burial of apartheid
The evolution of the Mail has mirrored South Africa’s tumultuous emergence from bondage — the death throes of apartheid, the long and obstacle-strewn quest for a negotiated settlement and the emergence of a new democratic order, with all its promise and disappointments. The final burial of apartheid in May 1994 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president prompted one of Manoim’s most stirring covers, ‘Let Freedom Reign”.

The Nineties saw profound changes at the paper. The only survivor of numerous ‘alternative” publications which sprang up in the emergency years, the Mail constantly had to adjust to changing political and market conditions. Its 10-year relationship with The Guardian in London, prompting a title change to the Weekly Mail & Guardian in 1992 and later to the Mail & Guardian, proved crucial to its survival. Initially, this involved publishing the international Guardian Weekly as an insert in the Mail, giving the Fleet Street operation access to more than 20 000 South African readers in return for much-needed financial support.

Change of focus
In 1996, Harber and Manoim moved on to other fields, ushering in Phillip van Niekerk as Mail & Guardian editor. His tenure, which ended four years later when Howard Barrell moved into the hot seat, was marked by circulation gains — but mounting financial losses.

Van Niekerk repositioned the M&G as a more acerbic critic of the new government and the ANC, turning a spotlight on the growth of official corruption and abuses of power by South Africa’s new rulers. One of the paper’s most powerful exposés — in a sequence of 25 articles — concerned the appointment of Liberia’s notoriously corrupt former finance minister, Emmanuel Shaw, as adviser to South Africa’s state oil company. The M&G subsequently gained access to bank records showing that Shaw’s South African company was paying the bond on a R2,4-million house owned by Central Energy Fund boss Don Mkhwanazi. Mkhwanazi later stepped down, while the reporter, Mungo Soggot, landed the Foreign Correspondents Association’s coveted Journalist of the Year Award.

Shock waves
By now, the M&G was regarded as the country’s foremost investigative newspaper, and investigations were accorded high priority by its first black editor, former M&G trainee Mondli Makhanya, who rejoined the paper in 2002.

Under Van Niekerk, the M&G had led the media in starting to unearth skullduggery in the state’s multibillion-rand arms deal. But the biggest break would come towards the end of 2002, when seasoned investigator Sam Sole, monitoring the police inquiry into deputy president Jacob Zuma’s financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, happened on court papers indicating that Zuma was the focus of the investigation. Among them was a copy of the famous encrypted fax from a French arms company allegedly discussing a bribe for the deputy president.

The story sent shock waves through South Africa’s new political establishment that are still being felt. It earned Sole the prestigious Vodacom Journalist of the Year Award.

A new owner
Makhanya’s appointment as editor followed another landmark event at the M&GThe Guardian‘s sale of its majority shareholding to its first black proprietor, Zimbabwean newspaper owner Trevor Ncube, in 2002. Ncube had been an avid reader of The Weekly Mail while still a university student in Harare.

With The Guardian no longer in the wings as a benefactor, the new proprietor faced the prospect of clearing the M&G‘s large accumulated debt and moving it towards break-even.

The M&G recorded its first small operating profit at the end of the 2004 financial year. Central to this has been the sharp growth in advertising revenue, from about R15-million in 2002 to close to R40-million. The newspaper is on course to improve overall earnings this year.

Into the future
The M&G‘s investigative coups have continued under current editor Ferial Haffajee, another distinguished graduate of the paper’s training programme who succeeded Makhanya in early 2004 when the latter moved on to edit the Sunday Times.

This year, the M&G‘s head of investigations, Stefaans Brümmer, again shook the political tree with his ‘Oilgate” exposé, which indicated that state oil money had been channelled to the ANC before last year’s election via an ANC front company, Imvume Management. A second leg of the story provided strong evidence that Imvume was implicated in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal — an account corroborated by United Nations-appointed investigators, including South African jurist Richard Goldstone.

Though changed in many ways, the M&G is in essence the same newspaper that first saw the light on June 14 1985. Its mission is still to promote freedom, justice, equality and the unity of humankind. It aims to create space for debate and diversity, to fight restrictions on the free flow of information and to combat racial, political and religious prejudice. It is patriotic but not blindly so, taking as its lodestar the values of our new Constitution. It continues to take ‘the worm’s eye view”, regarding authority with deep suspicion and instinctively siding with the powerless and vulnerable. With its financial affairs at last on a sound and sustainable footing, it looks forward to another 20 years of striving for a freer, fairer and more compassionate South Africa.

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These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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