Black editor negotiates race and audience

It’s been a remarkable turn of the tables as Henry Jeffreys recently notched up one year as the first black editor of Die Burger. The paper historically was at the heart of Afrikaner nationalism.

His position at the publication is a measure of the immensity of change in South Africa.
So, how has it been working out?

“I don’t think my colleagues see me in racial terms,” says Jeffreys who grew up classified as coloured. “But when I arrived here, a colleague said he didn’t care about colour as long as I could do the job. I joked that he probably hadn’t made the same comment to my predecessors.”

Foremost amongst Die Burger’s previous editors was the late DF Malan who saw no distinction between his work for the National Party and his role on the paper. That particular ideologue went on to become prime minister in the early years of apartheid.

Founded in 1915 by grassroots donors to promote Afrikaner interests, the paper for decades boasted a board populated by politicians, including Cabinet ministers in the years after 1948.

The new editor is a far cry from this history, and not only in racial terms. For example, while the paper continues to promote Afrikaans as a language, he says it’s not a ‘taal-stryder’—a language-campaigner. This is just one of the wider adaptations that his readers have experienced.

In fact, “after 1994 there was no choice that the paper had to change”, says Jeffreys. “You’d been part of an inside political track, and suddenly the political clout you had disappeared.”

Such is the sense of Afrikaner ownership, that the new editor still encounters readers who tell how their grandparents bequested subscriptions to them. Part of the challenge is to stop this constituency from believing that, along with losing power, they have also now lost “their” paper.

Fortunately, the shifts began before he arrived, so current readers may not be too shocked with their new editor. Especially when he often points out that “if anyone is left behind by current opportunities, it is still the majority of black South Africans”.

Half his readers are white Afrikaners, and half are coloureds speaking Afrikaans. Jeffreys won’t tolerate any anachronism of giving prominence to stories of greatest interest to white readers. But, at the same time, he’s against racial news quotas.

That’s not easy when whites want to track black economic empowerment and debate gay rights, and coloureds are more concerned with whether their lives are improving in terms of schooling, housing, crime and social services.

Some Afrikaner readers have fears about the man, and some coloureds expect him to bat for their interests. But Jeffreys’ experience is that there’s been more curiosity than suspicion amongst Afrikaners.

Recently he may have disappointed some coloured readers when a white rugby player was killed in a contest with mainly coloured players, with the paper getting pressure to take sides on a racial basis. “We did not take colour into account. The death was unacceptable, and we said that those responsible should feel the full force of the law,” says Jeffreys.

His sense is that despite strong racialisation in the Western Cape, readers from the two communities are interested in each other. And, he stresses, Die Burger has many stories about interests they have in common—like a kidnapped child, sport and shopping and “die taal” (the language).

It’s an editorial balancing act that has to take cognisance when interests are separate as well as when they are shared.

Yet too much common interest, and the paper might be seen as promoting a common front between whites and coloureds against Africans. Jeffreys, however, observes that some readers accuse him of supporting the African-majority government—(ironically, that would be continuing a legacy of loyalty to the authorities of the day).

His position is to espouse independence. “We give praise where praise is due, and criticise where necessary, using as our criteria the values in the Constitution, which represents a contract among the diverse people of this country.”

DF Malan and others would be traumatised that a black South African now captains Afrikanerdom’s erstwhile flagship. But meanwhile the paper’s circulation is still above 90 000, and the new editor wants it to grow further as the publication continues to evolve.

The man has enjoyed his first year, and he buzzes with enthusiasm as he faces his second year in a one of South Africa’s most complex jobs in media.

* Jeffreys was elected deputy chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum over the weekend. In addition, he’s been a former Nieman scholar and deputy editor of Beeld newspaper.

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