Africa

BOOK EXTRACT

Comrade Editor: A job meant for a man — my first encounter with the notorious ‘Mal Smittie’

Comrade Editor is the candid story of Gwen Lister, the activist journalist who achieved global renown for opposing South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. Lister cut her journalistic teeth under the tutelage of Hannes ‘Mal Smittie’ Smith at the Windhoek Advertiser. Together they started the Windhoek Observer. She founded The Namibian in 1985, which soon became a global byword for gutsy, principled journalism.

I flew up for the interview. There would be two discussions — the first was with Jürgen Meinert, owner of John Meinert Printing, which owned the Windhoek Advertiser as well as the only large printing works in Windhoek. A tall, distinguished person, he quickly indicated he was in favour of my employment.

The second interview was a lot harder, and unlike anything I’d experienced before. This time, my interlocutor — actually, my inquisitor — was the notorious Johannes Marthinus “Hannes” Smith, also known as “Smittie”, then editor of the Advertiser. He was thickset, with a wolfish smile, and thinning hair pasted to his head. There weren’t many women in journalism at that time, and it soon became evident that he was a chauvinist of note. Already drunk at mid-morning, Smittie immediately went on the offensive. “Women belong barefoot in the kitchen or naked in bed,” he yelled. I protested rather feebly. I’d never come across anyone like him before.

I insisted that I had what it took to be a journalist. But uncertainty crept in. Did I actually have what it would take? I’d never know unless I tried. Sensing that I was being tested, I decided to stand my ground. But Smittie was unimpressed. “Women get married, their husbands don’t like them working, and they leave,” he barked, implying it wasn’t worth the effort for him to take on, let alone train, a female journalist. I wouldn’t allow a relationship or marriage to deter me from my chosen career, I retorted. And it never did, despite various partners complaining bitterly that they were not the centre of my attention.

Dismissing my university degree, and waving away my slim curriculum vitae, Smittie asked what area of journalism I was interested in. When I said “politics”, this incensed him even further. Pacing up and down in his small office, gesticulating wildly, his voice rose a few octaves as he proceeded to tell me that political reporting was a man’s prevail. Again, I insisted I would prove him wrong.

Abruptly, Smittie waved towards the door, saying, “let’s take a walk”. We went down Stuebel Street, affectionately dubbed the “Fleet Street” of Windhoek, ironically also the town’s red-light district. We were headed for the old Kaiser Krone Hotel, known as “KK” to clients and customers, with Smittie already unsteady on his feet at mid-morning. It was a very hot day, and a blustery wind was blowing. The sun burned into my scalp, and I felt the dull beginnings of a headache. I sensed it would be a long afternoon.

The “KK” pub, which was demolished years later to make way for a shopping mall, was the local journalists’ hangout. I later learned it was a gold mine of information for the eccentric editor of the Advertiser. My first stories would be about police “busts” of prostitutes and their mostly German clients. Right-wing white men also went there to beat up those who consorted with sex workers of colour.

People kept on stopping Smittie to talk to him, and I met a fair number of Windhoek’s white population, including Gisela Rogl. Elegant, attractive and clearly wealthy, she had a soft spot for “Mal Smit” — among other things, I would learn later, she brought the most delectable breakfasts to his office at ungodly hours in the morning. Now, though, she proceeded to rebuke him for ruining my first impressions of Windhoek, and suggested he go home and sober up. She might as well have tried to stop a bulldozer.

Although Smittie was totally opposed to the idea of women being journalists, he was obsessed with females. So he was in his element strutting down Stuebel Street with a young blonde by his side, regaling me with stories about just about everyone we met along the way. I was fascinated and repelled in turn. His chest puffed out like a pouter pigeon, he laughed lewdly, saying: “People probably think I’m sleeping with you.” I cringed at the thought.

“Angel” Engelbrecht, a good friend of Smittie’s, editor of Die Suidwes Afrikaner, mouthpiece of the United Party, and his verbal sparring partner, soon joined us in the beer garden to inspect the potential new recruit. “Angel” was nothing like his name suggested. A large man with a grey crewcut, he and Smittie tried simultaneously to intimidate and impress me. Smittie told him I wanted to be a political journalist (with derisive emphasis on the word “political”), but didn’t think I stood a chance. Having grown up in a mostly English-speaking environment, I had never before heard the word “fuck” pronounced “fok”, and while I wasn’t prudish, I had seldom been party to a conversation so heavily punctuated with profanities. By then, my headache was turning into a migraine.

If I was ever going to be scared off working with Smittie, it would have been at that moment. I came close to giving him a taste of his own medicine, but I let it be. Instead, I took the opportunity, as they argued good-naturedly but vociferously between themselves, to take stock of my surroundings.

To say I was already fascinated in spite of this ogre-like editor would be an understatement. Cape Town’s polite society was nothing like this. The handful of patrons in the beer garden consisted mostly of German-speaking males and a few light-skinned women of colour. “Women of the night,” Smittie bellowed when I asked who they were, as he greeted most of them by name. And then he added in a more subdued tone: “Basters”. I was horrified. Why on earth would he call these women bastards? And why did they all greet him with such affection? He later explained to me that the Basters were a specific group of people who lived in Rehoboth, a town south of Windhoek, and insisted on being called that.

We were soon joined by a tanned and good-looking man who was the opposite of Smittie and Angel in just about every way. Among others, he was impeccably dressed. As he sat down, both Smittie and Angel became more muted and almost deferential, even calling him “Mr”. This was Kurt Dahlmann, the enigmatic editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung, a sister paper of the Advertiser, and the oldest newspaper in the country. There was one more Windhoek editor I would meet later, but would have little to do with in the ensuing years. Des Erasmus was editor of Die Suidwester, the mouthpiece of the white National Party, and we never saw eye to eye. After the Suidwester folded, he joined Dirk Mudge’s Die Republikein, where he made use of any and every opportunity to discredit me in the nastiest ways possible.

Meanwhile, Dahlmann clicked his heels as he bent over my outstretched hand. I was immediately impressed by this cultured and polite man. A highly decorated former Luftwaffe pilot, he was more “liberal” than either Smittie or Angel. I was curious. Surely he’d been a Nazi? Smittie later explained this by saying that Dahlmann loved flying, and had merely done what he saw as his duty. At the end of World War Two, he was taken prisoner, studied journalism in Germany after his release, and became a reporter there before settling in SWA.

Dahlmann served as editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung until 1978, when he was fired at the same time as Smittie and I left the Advertiser. Both newspapers were bought out by Dieter Lauenstein, who was fronting for Dirk Mudge and his Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a “moderate” political grouping promoted by the South African authorities in an attempt to thwart Swapo. He then became the editor of a new German newspaper called Namibia Nachrichten. Started in 1984 by the progressive Interessengemeinschaft group, it was much more forward-looking than the Allgemeine Zeitung after Dahlmann’s departure. We lost touch over the years, and I never knew quite what happened to him after he left the Nachrichten. Smittie told me once that he had developed cancer and had returned to Germany, where he eventually died.

Dahlmann was an iconic editor and a consistent critic of apartheid, who received far less credit than was his due — probably because the paper was in German and therefore not widely read among black Namibians. As I sat in the Kaiser Krone beer garden with Smittie, “Angel” and Dahlmann, I was already becoming hooked on the prospect of working with these larger-than-life characters, who were intimidating but fascinating at the same time.

My “interview” with Smittie had taken several hours, compared to the polite half-hour spent with Jürgen Meinert. I’d been subjected to more than an hour of abuse about women, frog-marched through the streets, and spent another two-and-a-half hours with him and “Angel” as they drank one beer after another. Most of their conversation consisted of them saying “fok jou” to one another as they disagreed about politics. My head was hurting. How on earth would my desire to confront apartheid fit in with all of this?

Smittie eventually reached the “dronkverdriet” (maudlin) stage of inebriation and did not want to let me out of his sight. At this stage, we were back in his office, and he was slumped over his desk. Fortunately, Gisela Rogl arrived to take Smittie home. It took both of us to help him out of the car and up to his front door. We left him in the hands of his irate wife, Esther, who ignored us, simply saying “Smittie, jy’s dronk” (Smittie, you’re drunk), and took him to his bedroom, with him protesting all the way.

Back at the hotel, I collapsed on the bed, half-laughing, half-crying with relief at having escaped the madness I’d just experienced. Smittie always liked an audience, and if it was female, all the better. It was clear, though, that he didn’t think he would see me again. From what I’d seen and heard in a matter of hours, I doubted I’d see him again either.

I returned to Cape Town the next day, thinking I would have to keep on searching for a job. But a few days later I received a call from Meinert himself, saying the reporting job at the Advertiser was mine if I wanted it. It made sense to take it. Change seemed likely to come more rapidly in SWA than in South Africa itself, and I was eager to do my part. My Namibian journey was about to begin. DM

Gwen Lister has won a number of international awards and continues to be active in promoting journalistic excellence as well as press freedom. She lives in Namibia. Comrade Editor is published by Tafelberg.

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  • I so enjoyed this introduction. Having grown up in Windhoek in that era, I’m feeling homesick remembering al the characters.
    “Mal Smit” was known to, and feared by, all, especially those with skeletons in their cupboards. He famously started a “back page” on the Observer featuring photos of nude girls, ostensibly as a campaign against censorship. As Gwen indicates, it probably had more to do with his chauvinist ways. Also in the Observer, he had his regular column, “The people hear… (Note: They do not say..)”, where he would list every rumour; mostly scandalous ones. The disclaimer was to protect him against all the libel suits.

    The Kaiser Krone (The Kings Crown) hotel and its famous stoep and beer garden will always be remembered fondly by all “Windhoekers”. It was a sad day, and still is, when a building and area of such character had to make way for the “progress” of yet another mall.

    Gwen made quite a name for herself in Windhoek, albeit not a very popular one with the conservative crowd.

    Thank you for these memories.

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