Is Waldimar Pelser Afrikaans media’s last roll of the dice?

Most coloured South Africans speak Afrikaans. Soon the majority of Afrikaans-speakers won't be white. It is against this background that Afrikaans newspaper Rapport – South Africa's second largest Sunday newspaper after the Sunday Times – has appointed a new editor, the young and prodigious Waldimar Pelser. 

Charles Leonard

In 1979, a year after Waldimar Pelser (35) was born, new-wave singer Joe Jackson released a quirky song called Sunday Papers: "If you want to know about the bishop and the actress/ If you want to know how to be a star/ If you want to know about the stains on the mattress/ You can read it in the Sunday papers."

Replace the "bishop and the actress" with "Joost and Amor" and you probably have Rapport down pat.

As the doyen of Afrikaans newspapers, the late Schalk Pienaar – who in his day edited Rapport and Beeld – famously explained (in the un-PC 1970s) how to run a Sunday successfully: "Jy moet die voël of die hare laat regop staan! [You have to make the penis or the hair stand up]".

But Pelser, who takes over in June from Bokkie Gerber, an old-school journo who joined Rapport the year Pelser was born, is his own man. We meet for a coffee in the trendy Warm & Glad coffee shop in Johannesburg. Slim, casually well-dressed Pelser is several centimetres of beard short of being a hipster, though.

With two master's degrees, one in journalism from Stellenbosch and the other cum laude in development studies from Oxford, Pelser's potential was quickly noticed at Naspers, and he swiftly worked his way up. He joined Die Burger in Cape Town in 2002, moved to Beeld in Jo'burg, became Africa correspondent for the Media24 group in Lagos, edited the magazine NewsNow (its demise didn't count against him) and in July last year the grooming started for the top job when he became senior deputy editor at Rapport.

Like his big boss, Naspers chief executive Koos Bekker, Pelser cut his journalistic teeth as editor of Stellenbosch's student newspaper, Die Matie. So does it help to have been an editor of Die Matie to make it in Naspers? "I really don't think so," Pelser says.

Propagandistic National Party cloth
During apartheid, Naspers's editors were cut from the same propagandistic National Party cloth, often graduates from the boere Oxbridge, Stellenbosch. Pelser and his progressive ilk come from a completely different generation.

He is a strong proponent of diversity – of race, class, gender, generation and background – in the newsroom because otherwise "you get sterile copy".

Rapport's daily sister, Beeld, was recently manned by two distinctly different editors, the high-profile and outspoken Tim du Plessis and then the soft-spoken backroom man Peet Kruger.

So which editor are you going to be, Tim or Peet? "I'm absolutely unwilling to answer your question," he says firmly. "What I will say is the kind of editor I want to be is one who is involved with the craft that I expect the people who write for the newspaper to be good at. I will write."

The recent Oscar Pistorius story (when the Blade Runner shot his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp) was a learning experience.

"We cannot be better at speed, so we should not compete on speed," Pelser says. "We can be better on depth and guts and focus on things other people might not want to touch from time to time.

"Breaking news and speed aren't the same things – much news, news of a lower value, will break on social media and we know that. Beeld broke the Oscar Pistorius story on Twitter. It would not have lasted until the next day – it happened at seven that morning.

New technologies
"What happened is that the consumption of social media [over] the next eight days until his bail application shot through the roof. People all around the world followed every single development on Twitter. Yet, perhaps not so strangely, the sale of paid news – newspapers, dailies, Sundays, magazines – also shot through the roof.

"We often misunderstand new technologies; we see them as a substitute for what we do. Very often they are the complement to what we do. Twitter does something else, the dailies do another thing and the Sunday papers something else. Of course I believe we can all coexist.

"You want people on a Sunday to feel, 'I want this experience again'. A tweet is not an experience; it is just feeding you little bits of information.

"I am convinced there will always be a place for a high-quality product that does something different and also allows you to unplug from this maddening online world."

But Rapport is not only "high quality". "There is an element at Rapport, of course, which is skandaal … A good story in a Sunday paper is one where if you meet someone at church, for lunch or for a cappuccino, that you say, 'before you tell me how your week was, did you see what happened …!?'

Girl in the bikini
"You can't go for the easy option. The girl in the bikini is very easy – I'm not saying the girl in the bikini is easy – I'm saying that a story is what you need. Be different on a Sunday; entertain with abandon, but also engage.

"Your analysis must be very good. Engage the head, but also engage the heart … those human stories that make you want to cry."

These days there's less crime and hysterical right-wing politics in a better-written Rapport, which is keeping its eye on readers – potential and old ones. "We are serving the readers we currently have. Don't piss them off, serve them – challenge them, yes, but respect them."

New readers? "Inevitably it would have to be readers who are younger than the average, otherwise it is a very short-termist approach."

There are certain people Pelser reckons Rapport would say "nee dankie" to, some "who post comments on newspapers' websites. They are at the extreme; you don't want them as readers. You want reasonable people who are happy to be in South Africa, but who are concerned about where we are going and who would love this to work. That is quite a big group of people."

Recent research shows that 76% of coloured South Africans have Afrikaans as their home language, compared with 61% of white South Africans. Projections indicate that the number of Afrikaans-speakers will also grow; that soon the majority won't be white. The obvious question is: How do you grow Rapport in the black or coloured Afrikaans market?

"By building diverse voices into every part of our production process, so that the paper never speaks to only one 'demographic' or reflects the obsessions and preferences of only one 'group'," says Pelser.

"In the issues we cover, the views we carry and the people we speak to we must pursue meaningful diversity in racial and other terms.

"Coloured Afrikaans-speakers represent the majority of Afrikaans- speakers across South Africa and we are pursuing better ways to be relevant and interesting to that key market."

It's make or break time

Analysts believe that although  Rapport's new editor, Waldimar Pelser, is young, he will do well. But they are uncertain about the future of Afrikaans media.

"When you're good enough," says Lizette Rabe, journalism professor at his alma mater, Stellenbosch, "you're old enough."

Pelser is a former student of Herman Wasserman, who now teaches journalism at Rhodes. "He is intelligent and thoughtful, and I hope that his appointment is a vote of confidence in a younger generation that will have to steer a new course."

Politics lecturer at the University of Johannesburg Piet Croucamp concurs: "Waldimar is the right person at the right time. They have been battling to get someone with his instincts, intellect and profile for some time. He has the experience; they groomed him well."

Rabe says the old partisan days of Afrikaner journalists being "Boer fighters with a pen" are gone forever. "Afrikaans is not a white language for white readers only," she says. "Afrikaans should be used as a tool of empowerment."

She warns that, because newspapers will "die down", Afrikaans journalists should look beyond print, especially now that they're liberated from the "party line".

Croucamp believes Afrikaans media "may well reflect the interests of an economically very powerful constituency". But, unfortunately, they "still tend to reflect on village news and interests, focusing on crime, societal fears and political gossip as opposed to analysis".

Wasserman says that Afrikaans media "has a unique selling point" in the language. "If used wisely and in forward-looking ways, [it]can pay off in years to come. The challenge would be to find ways to entice a young generation – black and white – to engage with media and to allow them to take [the media] where they want to go even if it means taking risks and venturing into the unknown."

But will Afrikaans newspapers be able to pay the bills?

"Afrikaans radio and even TV have a reasonable prospect to survive the next decade or two; the print media will battle and eventually become insignificant," says Croucamp. "Waldimar might well be the last throw of the dice for Afrikaans Sunday papers as we know it. Over the next three years they will have to come up with a new concept, medium and source of information.

"Waldimar is in for a rough ride.He is young; Rapport can make or break his career, and if he is successful it will be because he eventually succeeded in replacing an old format with something very different. It can't be business as usual."

The view from the top

Leading business magazine Forbes called Naspers chief executive Koos Bekker the Rupert Murdoch of South Africa. Naspers, the company he has run since 1997, has its hands in internet, pay TV, magazines, newspapers, books and private education, and has investments in China, India, Russia and 126 other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. It has a market capitalisation of $25-billion. In South Africa Naspers owns a number of newspapers, including Rapport. Charles Leonard spoke to Bekker.

How healthy is the future of Afrikaans newspapers?
As healthy as newspapers globally. Over the longer term, all [print newspapers] are threatened by the internet.

Why are you still investing in newspapers, here and abroad?
Because they sustain public debate; they help a society to think out loud.

Isn't it brave to appoint such a young editor at Rapport (Waldimar Pelser turned 35 on Monday)?
Yes. Young people often turn out either great successes or clear failures.

Is Rapport safe, will it survive?
In print? For some years still. On the web, hopefully indefinitely.

When do you intervene with your company's newspapers?
Esmaré [Weideman, chief ­executive of Media24] and Fergus [Sampson, chief executive of Media24 Newspapers] intervene; I'm just fond of reading good newspapers every morning.

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