/ 24 August 2018

Weekly Mail drew a line on censorship

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

In the 1980s, as the apartheid state imposed successive states of emergency, including censorship of the media, The Weekly Mail began using unusual methods to highlight the state’s attempt to clamp down on the news


The tactic for which The Weekly Mail is most famous was the use of black lines as a form of subversive self-censorship. It consisted of publishing an article that contained material that violated the censorship restrictions and then placing black lines over the “illegal” words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs. This tactic was developed during a particularly stressful evening the night before the newspaper was to be distributed.

The minister of information declared that the first edition of The Weekly Mail to be published under the new emergency regulations contained subversive material and ordered police to confiscate all copies of the newspaper from newsstands across the country. It was a devastating blow to the paper and revealed the lengths to which the government would go.

The night before the publication of their next edition, the paper’s co-editors, Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim, faced a crisis. Manoim recalled: “Our usual lawyer, David Dison, was not available. One of his partners, who was infinitely more cautious, was available and he was sitting there, red-lining everything left, right and centre, and Anton was having a screaming match with him. ‘What kind of newspaper are we going to have under the circumstances?’ As someone who was in design, I suddenly realised here’s a visual metaphor. ‘Let him do it. Let him do it. We’re going to end up saying nothing anyway.’ So we just let him go ahead and wreck the paper and everything he put a line through with a ballpoint pen we got a guy to follow after him putting tape on the pages.”

The paper would appear with all “illegal” words and phrases blacked out.

It was now up to Manoim to invent a headline suitable for this edition, as he wrote in his book, You Have Been Warned. His first few attempts were squashed by the attorneys, which in turn led to his epiphany: “I was beginning to feel some sympathy for the still smarting Harber, to whom I complained: ‘The lawyers reckon we can say absolutely nothing critical of the emergency.’ Then I realised that this was a headline: ‘Our lawyers tell us we can say almost nothing critical about the emergency. But we’ll try’.”

The Weekly Mail proceeded to use black lines on this front page and in other articles in this particular edition and in several subsequent editions.

This approach accomplished several objectives. First, it was a way to reveal information that otherwise would not be revealed. Rather than killing an article or reframing it so that it essentially conveyed nothing, keeping the original copy with sections missing still gave readers information. In some instances, it was possible to determine what had been blacked out.

The short article headlines “Journalists [black line]” provides an example. It reads: “Three journalists and photographers who regularly contribute to The Weekly Mail are among those [black line] under Emergency regulations. They are [black line] a Port Elizabeth reporter, [black line] and [black line] both Afrapix photographers from Johannesburg. Also [black line] are two people who have been responsible for Weekly Mail distribution. They are [black line] of East London and [black line] of Oudtshoorn.”

This article appeared when the government was detaining literally thousands of individuals under the emergency laws. It is fairly obvious that the blacked-out word in the title and text is “detained”. Although it is impossible to determine the identities of the detainees, publishing the article in this manner conveyed the fact that individuals who contributed to the paper and assisted with its distribution had been seized by the police.

Publishing the names of detainees was a vexing issue at the beginning of the state of emergency. Before newspapers began to defy the government and publish lists of detained individuals on a regular basis, the The Weekly Mail used black lines. It published, for example, the story of a 17-year-old who had been detained and assaulted by police. His name is covered by a black line but every other aspect of his story is revealed: how his attorneys informed the court that the youth had been threatened by the police, how his mother had filed an application with the courts to prevent the police from assaulting her son, how subsequent medical examinations of the boy “showed that he could not move any of his limbs due to bruising and swelling”, and how “the district surgeon found swelling at the base of his tongue and soft palate and bleeding from the left ear drum”.

Rather than simply kill this article in its entirety because they could not publish the youth’s name, the editors used selective black lines, allowing the paper to convey an important story about police abuse.

The Weekly Mail used this tactic in a slightly different way when it provided a partial list of detainees under the headline: “Persons Known to Be in Detention since June 12”. The entire page is full of prison numbers with black lines next to each one. The following excerpt from the introduction explains the meaning of this page: “Below is a portion of the Detainee Parents’ Support Committee list of people detained under Emergency regulations. The list … was provided with names blacked out to comply with the law. The full list includes over 100 names.”

The effect created by so many black lines on a page provided, in Manoim’s words, a visual metaphor to convey the scope of the government’s actions, and it had a much more powerful effect than simply stating in a single sentence that “thousands have been detained.”

In the vast majority of articles, the exact word or words covered by black lines remains a mystery to the reader; sometimes entire sentence and, in some instances, entire paragraphs are covered. Sufficient information is provided, however, to determine the basic premise of the article.

One example is the story headlined “We’re Backing ANC, Say Greens”, by Hans Brandt, which describes how the Green Party of what was then West Germany “came out in full support of the ANC” after a delegation of Greens visited South Africa. In this article, two major sections are blacked out, including a statement by Annemarie Borgmann, the party’s spokesperson: “Borgmann expressed her [black lines]”.

The black lines cover six lines of text. But the exact words are not particularly significant. Given that her party was supporting the ANC, it is clear that the statement covered by the black lines is highly critical of the apartheid regime. It may have been an eloquent and forceful statement but it is doubtful that anyone outside South Africa was going to say anything readers of The Weekly Mail were not already painfully aware of. The essential facts of the article were conveyed, even with this portion blacked out. A small political party with parliamentary representation in a major industrial country had publicly decided to support the ANC.

The black lines provided a stark and graphic reminder that the press was severely constrained, a fact the apartheid government sought actively to conceal. As Christopher Merrett explained in his book A Culture of Censorship: “The overall plan [of the government] was to keep the public ignorant of the extent of censorship itself.”Even without black lines, The Weekly Mail constantly sought to remind readers about the restrictions, putting the equivalent of a “warning” label on many pages: “Restricted: Reports on these pages have been censored to comply with the Emergency regulations.”

The black lines had international political implications as well. The Weekly Mail’s first use of black lines provided concrete, tangible evidence to both opposition journalists and to the apartheid government that the international community was indeed watching. In what must certainly have exceeded Harber and Manoim’s wildest expectations, a picture of their front page featuring these black lines was carried by both The New York Times and The Times of London, extremely prominent newspapers in the two most powerful countries with active anti-apartheid movements.

Bryan Trabold is an associate professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston and a research associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Centre of the University of Johannesburg. This is an edited extract from his book Rhetorics of Resistance: Opposition Journalism in Apartheid South Africa (University of Pittsburgh Press)