/ 28 May 2024

TRIBUTE: Steven Goldblatt, a Mail & Guardian founder, was courageous, bold and pesterer-in-chief

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Steven Goldblatt. Photo supplied

When a small group of journalists retrenched from the Rand Daily Mail and Sunday Express started The Weekly Mail in 1985, we had nothing but faith, hope and friendship. We had no money and little idea how to start a newspaper. All we had was some friends.

Steven Goldblatt, a law student who did occasional work as a Rand Daily Mail photographer, arrived one day and announced that he was working for us. 

Being the extraordinary character he was, always prepared to leap into a high-risk challenge, he said he was available to do whatever was required. He then proceeded to tell us what was required, who should do it, and how it should be done. He quickly became an invaluable part of our small team, taking on some of the most difficult tasks.

Goldblatt died recently at the age of 67 after an accident while holidaying in Spain. What emerged at his memorial last weekend was that he had — in his quiet way and with little recognition — made significant contributions in many different spheres. 

We learnt that in the 1980s he had been an underground ANC operative, scouting for targets for uMkhonto weSizwe, said his then “controller”, Patrick Fitzgerald, speaking about it for the first time.

As an adviser in the 1990s to then minister of agriculture and land affairs Derek Hanekom, he played a role in negotiating and setting up the R370 million KWV trust for wine industry workers. Hanekom said: “Less well known amongst his list of achievements was the impact he had on reforms to the agriculture sector during the first term of our democracy. Some dramatic changes were affected in a short space of time. His behind-the-scenes role was massive.”

Attorney Richard Spoor spoke about his key role in drafting the papers for some major precedent-setting class action court victories. The asbestos litigation was the largest mass tort case undertaken at the time, and it led to a R450 million settlement, the biggest ever at that time. This was overtaken by the silicosis litigation, which led to a R5 billion trust set up for mineworker victims. “To recall Steven,” Spoor said at the memorial, “is to remind myself of the enormous potential for good that lies within us and how far short most of us fall.”

Friend and colleague Judge David Unterhalter described him as “courageous and bold … he had moral courage about the things that matter in the world. And personal courage in the adversities he was to face.”

In the early days of The Weekly Mail, he took on the most impossible tasks. The first was raising some money. Our goal was to sell 100 shares of R1 000 each.  Goldblatt drew up lists of Joburgers who were likely to be sympathetic and we split the list up according to who knew anyone who knew these people. His triumph was to procure the mailings list of the Black Sash and the Market Theatre.

He did it by bartering with advertising for the Market Theatre, and offering our labour to the Black Sash in the evenings, when we had to go round to someone’s house and help them put pamphlets in envelopes. We worked through the lists of names, pestering them and then following up with letters.  

Goldblatt was pesterer-in-chief. In his book about the paper, Irwin Manoim writes that Goldblatt used the technique known to every street beggar: “If you make enough of a nuisance of yourself, people will pay you just to leave them alone.”

Goldblatt was good at that, pulling in a range of people from Nadine Gordimer to Harry Oppenheimer and the man who owned the print shop across the road, where Goldblatt bartered the cost of printing our leaflets for the price of one share.  That man — our very first shareholder — still owns one share, probably worth less than he paid for it 40 years ago. But we got our stuff printed.

Goldblatt also took on the task of finding us the cheapest office in Joburg. We knew Braamfontein as the heart of student life, but Goldblatt managed to find a pink-painted, former hairdressing salon up a dark and narrow staircase with a toilet in the middle of the main room. It was the worst office in the city — but we berated Goldblatt for splashing out on such a luxurious space on a year’s lease. Nobody expected us to survive more than a few weeks. 

It also turned out to be in the heart of a  rightwing corner of Braamfontein. Our landlord was the Transvaal secretary of the Conservative Party — he was pleased to have us on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Below us was a German restaurant which turned out to be a rightwing hangout with a picture of Magnus Malan on the wall; across the road was the white Mineworkers Union. Goldblatt bought the chairs on special at Dions for R19 each. Again we chided him for wanton over-spending.

Goldblatt was tasked with recruiting a manager — a tough task because no one with business sense would have much to do with us. He owned a bakkie, so in the early days he would drive out to our printer in Springs, load up the paper and bring it to us in the office to wrap and parcel for home delivery, which we all did the next morning. Delivering the papers in the early morning to Joburg’s lefties was a fascinating experience; one picked up a huge amount of gossip based on whose car was parked outside whose house.

In the early days, Goldlbatt also took on the daunting task of trying to sell advertising. Since we had no readers and no subscribers, and we were not a newspaper that was particularly friendly to advertisers, this was the kind of impossible task that only Goldblatt would even attempt. He used much the same techniques he had used to raise money: nagging, bartering, making unfulfillable promises and using every one of his vast set of connections.

Even he was relieved when Marilyn Kirkwood arrived to take over this task.

Goldblatt served on the board of the paper for some years after that, which meant that we gathered monthly to bemoan the state of our finances, try to work out how we would possibly hold off our creditors for another month and what we were going to do with the latest pile of charge sheets and warrants. After a short discussion, Goldblatt would suggest we repair to a steakhouse for what usually felt like our last meal. He was the person who remained endlessly optimistic, who pushed us on, who didn’t let us give up.

I hope you get a sense from this of what a remarkable person Goldblatt was. A big character, a big presence, with a quirky sense of humour, filled with compassion, commitment, a passion for doing what was good and right — but above all a wonderful and treasured friend and comrade.

Anton Harber was a founding editor of the Mail & Guardian.