Media, Politics, South Africa

City Press: 30 years later, still the people’s paper

City Press: 30 years later, still the people’s paper

Naspers’s Sunday paper has always been influential, but under the leadership of Ferial Haffajee this clout has grown considerably. MANDY DE WAAL looks back over 30 years of City Press and wonders whether the paper will be able to convert influence into audience in the tough weekend press sector.

Former City Press editor Percy Qoboza had an unrelenting, subversive style and would strike out against tyrants or proponents of injustice with words that cut to the bone. But in April 1986 the tone of his regular column, Percy’s Pitch, was as sombre as it was eloquent.

“If it is true that a nation’s future is its children, than we have no future and deserve none… [We] are a nation at war with its future… For we have turned our children into a generation of fighters,” Qoboza wrote in a year that started with the sight of hand grenades being thrown at policemen, patrols and politicians. Bombs regularly exploded at strategic installations or urban malls, while freedom fighters and the agents of apartheid took each other on in bloody gun battles.

Two months after he penned the piece that belligerent, finger-wagging executive state president who was called Die Groot Krokodil (The Big Crocodile) declared a state of emergency. Qoboza had been burned by the likes of a PW Botha before. The fearless editor had seen two of his papers closed, and was detained without being charged or brought to trial. But Qoboza would not be silenced.

“What we are witnessing is the growth of a generation which has the courage to reject the cowardice of its parents… to fight for what should be theirs, by right of birth,” wrote Qoboza in his much-talked-about and often-quoted column. “There is a dark, terrible beauty in that courage. It is a source of great pride – pride that we, who have lived under apartheid, can produce children who refuse to do so. But it is also a source of great shame… that [this] is our heritage to our children: The knowledge of how to die, and how to kill.”

Percy’s Pitch continued to give voice to the unspoken in a paper owned by the government-aligned Nasionale Pers – Qoboza had negotiated absolute editorial independence. The newsman’s words only stopped flowing when he was felled by a heart attack in late December 1987, slip into a coma and cruelly lose his life on 17 January 1988 – his 50th birthday. At the time of his death City Press had reached a peak circulation of over 200,000. It was the first time in apartheid South Africa that a black-edited publication had been so widely read.

“Percy Qoboza was a hero to those of us becoming journalists in the late 80s and early 90s because of his strong campaign abilities and because he saw journalism as a way to deal with injustice,” says City Press  editor-in-chief Ferial Haffajee, who’s been thinking about people like Qoboza, Todd Matshikiza, Can Themba and Jim Bailey a lot this year. The paper she now leads was created 30 years ago by Bailey, a man born into the British gentry but who pooh-poohed their snobbery and who (thankfully) preferred pioneering journalism in an apartheid state to living a more genteel life of luxury.

“I have never been of the view that journalism is just stenography, that it is mere reporting. I have always been an advocacy journalist and we learned from people like Percy Qoboza and Aggrey Klaaste (former Sowetan editor). Those were our heroes,” says Haffajee, speaking to iMaverick on a Saturday because her week has just been too packed for an interview. “I never only understand newspapers as business, although I understand how they work. I see them more – media generally – as a key agent of the shaping of societies, and pushing for justice.”

Bailey wrestled the African Drum away from a patronising position and saved it from certain mediocrity by recreating it as Drum in 1951. He then went on to create Golden City Press in 1982, forging a remarkable era in local journalism. 

“The Drum-era journalism was path-defining… It was fresh, it was different, it was brave… it was campaigning,” says Haffajee, who has had her experience on era-defining stories from the get-go.

As a producer for the SABC at 22, she was part of the team that interviewed Nelson Mandela following his release from Robben Island. The first female editor of City Press, Haffajee was also the first female editor of Mail & Guardian, the investigative weekly she left to take up the battle of the Sunday papers.

Drum magazine cusped the Defiance Campaign and Sharpeville to become the defiant voice of black political aspiration, whereas City Press was launched in the early 80s at the height of a protracted bloody struggle to end apartheid. Many of the journalists who started at Drum later moved on to work at City Press.

“Jim Bailey and the Drum generation are people I studied for all my life. I try, successfully at some times and unsuccessfully at other times, to learn from them. It was Bailey and the journalists of the time – Can Themba and Todd Matshikiza – that famous generation of journalists who launched my personal aspirations,” she says.

“I think that spirit of Drum journalism is still very much in City Press. The elements of this are a strong sense of social justice and campaigning for the underdog, you’ll always find that in here. But there’s also writing of great flourish. What those media were also famous for was that they were highly entertaining. They had a strong element of social justice and of freedom, but they were also a lot of fun to read,” Haffajee says.

The legacy of the likes of Qoboza and the soft-spoken Phillip Selwyn-Smith before him (ironically a white man who edited a paper with the slogan ‘It’s black, it’s beautiful, it’s ours.’) loom large, as do the paper’s other editors, and the barrage of brilliant journalists and photographers who’ve passed through City Press. These are people like Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Bloke Modisane, Peter Magubane, Arthur Maimane, E’skia Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza and Stan Motjuwadi.

Today, City Press’ editorial remains as hard-hitting as it ever was. Take, as a case in point, the editorial ‘Who will save the ANC from itself’ written in April this year that begs the question: “The ANC is deeply in need of redemption and resurrection. Who will save it from itself? And does the governing party even know how disorganised and fractured it looks from the outside?”

But it is service-delivery type reporting like the Tatane Project that more closely echoes the journalistic tradition of those early Drum days. Between the pages of City Press you’ll find stories like that of 27-year-old Zama Mbatha, who starts her mornings by climbing down the hills of her home village to get to the mud flats alongside the Black Umfolozi River.

“She carries a 20-litre bucket and a large jug. The unemployed matriculant digs a hole in the sand and scoops out the discoloured water that rises. She painstakingly fills the bucket and hauls it back up the hillside to the house she shares with Lasanda Mhlongo (13) and his little brother, Lindo (9), whom she looks after,” the story reads.

Named after slain community activist Andries Tatane, this project aims to hold different levels of government accountable to South African citizens. The narrative project focuses on service delivery in five different areas, namely the Johannesburg metro; Balfour – the Mpumalanga town that’s seen heightened service delivery protest over the past couple of years; an impoverished hamlet in Limpopo called Mawe; the Zululand District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal; and Ficksburg, where Tatane died.

The venture demands that City Press journalists spend a week in each area every four months so as to offer an in-depth account of peoples’ lived reality of democracy. Haffajee plans to keep this project going until the elections in 2014, if not beyond.

“I am from the Stefaans Brümmer ‘school’ of investigative reporting,” says Haffajee, referring to the Mail & Guardian journalist. “I think that investigative journalism is in-depth reporting that takes a little bit longer to do. I don’t think that it is a special science, and I don’t think it should be an elite function. All journalists should be able to do it given the time, and given the tools. That is how we approach our investigative work. Anybody who wants to do it can do it,” she says.

This is an approach that enables City Press to do work like the Tatane Project to support SA’s young democracy, by being a watchdog that consistently checks out whether service delivery is happening. Just as importantly, City Press breaks those big political stories that get everyone talking.

The paper has a strong political team in Carien du Plessis (formerly with Daily Maverick and Independent) and Mandy Rossouw (formerly with Mail & Guardian). Adriaan Basson left Mail & Guardian’s amaBhungane team to become Haffajee’s right-hand man as assistant editor and lead much of the investigative reporting, while more recently Natasha Joseph left the Cape Argus to become news editor. Then there’s the work done by the Media24 Investigations team headed by Andrew Trench, and staffed by veterans like Jacques Pauw, which gets published across most Naspers newspapers, including City Press.

Haffajee wrote in the paper’s 30th birthday editorial that Malema reads City Press. Of course he does, given that City Press exposed Malema’s secret slush funds, money men and network of deals and benefactors.

To say that this pissed Malema off would be an understatement. Malema first tried to gag the paper and asked the South Gauteng High Court to “prevent City Press from printing details of interviews with sources alleging that he uses the Ratanang Family Trust as a conduit for bribes.”

When that failed the now suspended ANC Youth League president went ad hominem with wingman Eric Minyeni, who tried to discredit Haffajee with a tirade that the City Press ed said was nothing but misogyny, inflammatory hate speech and a verbal fatwa. Minyeni would later reconsider his position and go on record to say that Haffajee was a woman “of integrity”.

Haffajee has been described as a “steel fist in a velvet glove” and is a woman from solid working-class stock: she grew up in Bosmont, where her parents were garment workers. Haffajee took over the helm of City Press from Khathu Mamaila, who was appointed to GM of the paper in 2009. From the get go Haffajee’s goal has been to make City Press the most talked about sunday paper, and to get the press to lead the South African social discourse. The fact that she’s in the firing line from the likes of a Miyeni can only mean she’s well on course – she’s making waves and the tide’s causing discomfort by those brought to the surface by the rising swell.

The problem that the likes of Malema have with City Press is that it has considerable influence, due in no small measure to the hard work Haffajee has put in to attract talent and to ensure the paper leads public opinion. The story that Basson did on Willem Heath last year is a good example of City Press’ growing influence. About 18 days after the interview with Heath was published the man who was appointed the head of the Special Investigating Unit stepped down. Justice department spokesperson Tlali Tlali cited the Basson interview as a direct cause for Heath’s departure.

“Every day we try and instil a sense of our responsibility to society because it does give us a lot of power… unelected power and influence,” says Haffajee speaking about the Heath incident. “And you have to use that influence for good and you have to use it in fair and balanced ways.”

But it is a testing challenge, given the power battles in the ANC in the run-up to Mangaung, and considering how the press is increasingly used by politicians to lobby for power or to try and dispose of enemies. “Before Polokwane I witnessed some pretty dirty tricks. People try to manipulate you all the time with false information. It has started happening already and it happens a lot from all sides of the political spectrum,” says Haffajee.

She adds: “All you have to do is to be aware and make sure that you are covering all sides equally and that you don’t take a position on anybody or any camp, and if you do anonymous sources make sure that you use multiple sources and that you are telling your readers about the motives of the sources that you use.”

“These are my philosophies in dealing with this kind of information, but when faced with each document that is really interesting or shows something that needs to be exposed you need to make a tough call and I sometimes have turned away from information like that,” Haffajee says.

As City Press moves beyond its 30th year it faces some of its toughest challenges yet. One of the biggest is growing market share in a sector where Sunday Times is still king of the hill. The last Audit Bureau of Circulations of SA figures showed a healthy 6.03% rise in single-copy sales for Sunday Times, whereas City Press figures for the same period showed a decline of -3.38%. But that was an improvement on the prior period, which weighed in heavily at -11%.

Influence is crucial to newspapers because it translates into credibility and clout. But influence is one thing, audience is another, and only time will tell whether Haffajee and City Press will be able to convert the one currency into the sustainable other. DM

[Editors note: Mandy de Waal has done occasional freelance work for City Press.]

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Photo: Ferial Haffajee and City Press at 30.


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