Keeping the dream alive

When past editor Mondli Makhanya left the Mail & Guardian, he left behind these thoughts.

There was that famous remark by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak upon his first visit to the Qatar premises of television network Al Jazeera: ‘So much noise from such a small place.”

That was pretty much the same feeling I had when, as a 19-year-old, I walked into the downtown Johannesburg office of The Weekly Mail many, many years ago. I was then a starry-eyed youngster from a coastal town who was in total awe of this newspaper that had become the bane of the apartheid government.

Having read the newspaper from its inception and internalised its values, I had formed a near hero-status view of the people behind the bylines and a perhaps unrealistic notion of the operation that generated such power.

Alas, upon walking into that newsroom, what I saw was a collection of untidy desks with not-so-hot computers and badly dressed individuals puffing away incessantly.
Were these really the people who had inspired me to become a journalist? Was this the newspaper that had become the Bible of right-thinking South Africans? Was this really the medium that was so feared by the Nats?

Well, the new band of Mail trainees soon accepted that ‘this was it” and some were soon dressing badly, inhaling unusual amounts of nicotine and spending an inordinate amount of time at the White Horse and Andersen Street Hotel bars.

Of course, the Mail & Guardian of today is a far cry from that scene. For one, the air is cleaner, with the minority of smokers having been banished to the balcony and a little room the size of a Mumbai jail cell. The staff dress slightly better and — with the exception of the arts department — keep their desks in good order and the technology up to date. The newspaper even makes money, something that would have riled some of the purists of the 1980s alternative press.

Yet there is a strand of the culture that has survived the years and still keeps the M&G ticking as one of the nation’s intellectual powerhouses and a pillar of our democracy.

At this point, I must admit, it may seem rather indulgent for an outgoing editor to pour effusive praise on his or her newspaper. But this is no ordinary newspaper and the emotional attachment felt by those who have battled its Thursday deadlines is a phenomenon deserving of a Harvard doctoral thesis.

This was a newspaper born of a dream of changing society and which is still sustained by that dream.

It is a telling sign of how far South Africa has come that the screaming, anti-establishment organ of the 1980s has become one of the leading voices of political debate and the shaping of the character of the republic we are building.

Through the dark years of apartheid, The Weekly Mail was the standard of independent journalism, inspiring free-thinking journalists around the sub-continent to make their voices heard.

It broke from the tame pack of those who regurgitated the language of the Nats. Not for this newspaper the tags of ‘terrorist” organisations and ‘black-on-black” violence and ‘unrest incident”. The National Party’s Bantustan puppets were treated as just that and not accorded the status of legitimate leaders, as was the case at many mainstream newspapers. The tetchy and cantankerous chief from Ulundi was not treated with kid gloves and allowed to get away with his tale that he was an anti-apartheid activist when he was living off the fat of the Nats.

When the rest were prepared to fall in line with PW Botha’s states of emergency, The Weekly Mail was among those brave voices that defied the edicts and forced Pretoria to crack down hard. It was this newspaper which, when many others were singing the ‘black-on-black violence” mantra, pointed out the evil hand of the third force behind the violence.

It is now common cause and accepted historical fact that the Bantustan leaders were stooges, that the uppity chief was a human rights violator, that the African National Congress was not a terrorist organisation, that the Nats ran assassination squads and that the security force machinery sowed the seeds and fanned the flames of internecine violence in black residential areas.

That is why one is today compelled to pay tribute to a newspaper that has always refused to be ordinary. A great institution that has walked with South Africans through resistance, chronicled its transition and is now playing its part in crafting its future.

But today we live in ordinary times, in a normal society that is governed by a legitimate order. Thus, this institution faces the same challenges as other newspapers of how to tell the story of a normal society and give the people of South Africa the type of journalism our extraordinary nation deserves. It is a challenge that most of us in the media have been complacent about.

That is why we, like our colleagues in the rest of the media, were jolted out of complacency by the intense focus on our profession during 2003 — the roughest year the media has experienced since democracy dawned in 1994. The focus on the media — sparked by allegations of plagiarism and a series of serious ethical breaches by practitioners — forced the journalistic profession into a bout of navel-gazing.

There had been opportunities for this kind of industry introspection before, but they had been sabotaged by head-in-the-sand responses by media players and a bull-in-a china-shop approach from the Human Rights Commission.

The 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into the role of the media during apartheid should have been used by this industry to examine its role — by commission or omission — in upholding apartheid and weakening the system’s opponents. Instead, the media industry went into denial and even those who had explicitly backed the National Party declared how they had been militant opponents of the apartheid government. By so doing, we missed what could have been a watershed moment in the building of a new ethos for our journalism. But the process was a useful one because the truth about the behaviour of some in our noble profession during the apartheid era came to light and we at least got to know what kind of media we did not want in a democratic South Africa.

The fewer words written about the Human Rights Commission’s probe into racism in the media the better and some tree somewhere will live another day.

But this experience gave us all a brutal jolt. In our newsroom, as in many others around the country, there were animated discussions about the tightening of mechanisms to ensure the nightmare of 2003 never visits us again. But, ultimately the mechanisms we put in place will only be as good as the people who implement and adhere to them.

What we will be striving for is the development of a better journalism whose practitioners do not need to be policed to check that each word is original, each allegation tested; a journalism which, in the words of that great intellectual Edward Said, ‘speaks [an unflinching] truth to power”.

So I say goodbye to a newspaper in the midst of this all-important conversation, with my fellow dreamers (led by a Buccaneer) plotting the way forward. I say goodbye to a band of believers who continue to carry the torch of those brave journalists who rejected mediocrity and the herd mentality that allowed the Nats to dictate the news agenda for us.

And I say goodbye to an institution that I know will always elicit the admiration of the greatest and wield power way beyond its weight. I cannot, sadly, say the same about its dress sense.

This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian on January 29 2004


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