Every five years I get a call from the Mail & Guardian: “It’s our anniversary. Write something about the fun old days, how it all began. For the benefit of young people.” Well, sure. It all started in 1985 when the Rand Daily Mail closed down.
Was that a newspaper?
Actually quite famous in its day. The leading liberal publication in the country. But they closed it very suddenly one day and retrenched the staff.
It was killed by the internet?
No, politics. The political correspondent was a woman by the name of Helen Zille. The advertisers hated her and everyone else on the paper. They were considered unpatriotic.
So you didn’t have a job. What did you do?
The obvious thing. Start our own newspaper. A fellow journalist called Anton Harber and I met over a six-pack or two or three of beers and, as the evening wore on, greater and greater clarity emerged, and we realised that we had been chosen to start a new newspaper to replace the Rand Daily Mail.
It would be a great newspaper, a strong, independent voice standing up against racism, oppression and the cowardice of all the other newspapers. As far as we could figure out, there was only one snag.
No, we hadn’t yet got round to thinking about vulgar issues like money. The snag was something called registration. All newspapers had to be registered with the government. But not one independent newspaper had been allowed to register in 25 years. There seemed vanishingly little chance that we would be the first. But we tried. And astonishingly, they said yes.
I have spent 30 years trying to figure out why. Maybe the government spooks had realised that, without the Rand Daily Mail, they had no idea what was going on out there.
At that moment of triumph, we gathered a small group of enthusiasts, had more meetings and more beers. And then we finally got around to thinking about money. We raised some from people we knew, some from people who were sympathetic, and quite a lot from people who didn’t know us and were not sympathetic but paid up to be rid of us.
How realistic were your plans?
Realism can be the death of any good idea. We had no experience, no capital, no business plan, no clue. We talked to the leading media experts. None of them laughed. At least not until we had left the room.
We hired a two-room office in Braamfontein on a three-month lease. The landlord didn’t think we would last much longer. The office had been a hairdressing salon and the walls were painted pink. He thought that would be an appropriate colour for us.
How much money did you raise?
We scraped together R50 000. Enough to buy a modest house in those days, but not enough to run a newspaper. So we had to improvise. Home-made furniture.
Two desktop computers, three little portables, a laser printer and an email account. That was all we had to produce a newspaper.
Well, of course. How else would you do it?
In those days, it was revolutionary. Computers were quite recent, laser printers even more recent. Hardly anyone had heard of email. Nobody anywhere had produced a commercial newspaper that way.
We got the paper up and running in six weeks flat. We had no money to pay a distribution company, so we distributed the paper ourselves. We worked non-stop from Wednesday morning through to Thursday evening, right through the night, and then, before dawn on Friday, we would get in our cars and drive the streets of Johannesburg distributing the paper.
What was the first edition like?
Ugly. All black and white, no colour. You could barely figure out what was happening in the smudgy pictures.
The first lead story was about the kidnapping of Mozambican refugees.
Victims of xenophobic violence?
Police kidnapped them. The men were forced to become recruits in a secret war against Frelimo. The other papers ignored the story. The only person who didn’t was Major Craig Williamson of the Security Police, who came lumbering up the stairs to interrogate the reporter. That’s because he knew it was true.
Things were so different then.
Exactly. There was massive unemployment. The economy was collapsing. There were constant outbreaks of unrest in the townships.
Police moved in there, teargas, sjamboks, people were shot.
Huge late-night raids, innocent people rounded up, arrested, disappearing.
All this was giving the government a bad name abroad. There was only one thing to do: blame the media. So the president declared a State of Emergency, which made reporting on police action illegal.
So I guess that was the end of you?
No, that was the beginning of us. We now had a reason to exist: defiance. On the first night after the State of Emergency, police raided the presses to seize the newspaper. After that we got clever. We learned to write around the regulations, using coded language, saying things without saying them, and taking calculated risks to publish certain big stories.
Sometimes the only way to make a point was by blacking out sentences with black stripes, or by leaving blank spaces. Then they banned black stripes and blank spaces.
That kept you out of trouble?
Not quite. They closed us down. But there was an international outcry at the banning of “South Africa’s leading newspaper” and we were back on the streets after six weeks.
People at The Star were particularly miffed by that. They thought they were South Africa’s leading newspaper.
There were lots of prosecutions. Some failed, some succeeded. We had the best lawyers in town. A few reporters ended up in detention cells. A couple had to go into hiding. One reporter encountered a police hitman in the basement. Luckily, his gun jammed.
It must have been frightening!
Not half as frightening as today. We never had to worry about being put out of work by social media.
Irwin Manoim is a former editor of the Weekly Mail and the digital M&G. He is now the creative director of Big Media, a digital communications agency