Cape Times editor Aneez Salie, centre, oversees production of another front page for the paper which has seen growing circulation. Picture: Phando Jikelo

Cape Town - Aneez Salie’s appointment at the Cape Times 18 months ago was derided by a minority as a calamitous decision and a political appointment. His editorship has, however, defied the odds and his title, uniquely in this trading environment, has returned positive sales figures, despite all expectations to the contrary. Salie has a fascinating history - one of which very little is known.

Today, in the first of a two-part series, the man who gave him his first chance as deputy editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder, takes a look at a remarkable career in the service not just to journalism but of the liberation of the country.

There’s an anecdote about incumbent Cape Times editor Aneez Salie I never shared with him. It came about shortly after his appointment as deputy editor in 2013.

As then editor, I introduced Aneez to a new colleague and, as we walked away from Aneez’s office, the colleague turned to me to say: “Why isn’t that guy an editor? He has more gravitas than anyone I’ve met in our business.”

It struck a chord because I always felt it was Aneez that should be editor and not me.

Aneez’s turn came last year – 11 years too late. But when the moment arrived there was no one more qualified to take the helm of Cape Town’s most important newspaper.

His appointment as editor in 2015 was a triumph after decades of injustice. A year later the Cape Times would buck the trend and record the best circulation performance of a daily newspaper in the country.

It’s hardly surprising because Aneez has introduced a number of bold editorial and business initiatives.

But it is his remarkable personal journey and struggles that laid the foundation for his future success.

His story starts in Claremont where, as a 13-year-old, his family was forcibly removed. He would later become a newspaper delivery man, clothing worker,photojournalist, union leader, Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier in the underground.

But even after our liberation, Aneez would suffer the humiliation and indignity of two decades of oppression at the very newspaper where he is now editor.

“I was still in school in the early 1970s and my brother Mogamat had for many years been involved in the distribution of newspapers and magazines across the country.

“It came from the slave era, of which I am a descendant, where people would come with certain skills, laying bricks, putting on roofs, carpentry, plumbing and so on. Each one helped the other to advance.

“So it was only natural that if I had spare time, I would help my brother in his business. I progressed from being a van guard to a driver and that would have been in 1974 when I was 18 and got my licence.

“Then I had my first round, which was Constantia, Hout Bay, Noordhoek, Kommetjie and then back home again. It was a beautiful route, coming over Chapman’s Peak as dawn was breaking.

“I delivered The Sunday Times, The Cape Times, The Argus… not only on that beautiful route but to the Boland for instance, where it was so cold in winter, with snow on the mountains. We had to shove newspapers up our pants to keep the cold out.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the media but I had photography too. My friend taught me to develop film and to print too and that was in Standard 8 (Grade 10). When I matriculated in 1975 I continued with that even though I had taken a job at a clothing factory in 1976.”

Aneez’s family owned businesses and property in Claremont. It was impossible to escape the brutality of apartheid that consumed every part of daily life. In fact, Aneez was in Grade 1 when he had his first lesson in politics thanks to his older sister Tourhiera.

“I was born in Claremont. My family was kicked out when I was 13 and we moved to the Crawford side of Athlone. It’s an important point to make too – I was in a community that was actively involved in the Struggle against the apartheid regime.

“I was in Sub A (today’s Grade 1) when I noticed some commotion and I asked my sister in Standard 5 (Grade 7) what it was about. She said: ‘Don’t worry, you just have to remember two things: don’t stand and don’t sing at assembly’. No one stood and no one sang.

“The regime had been imposing itself. They demanded that at all the schools we raise the flag and we sing Die Stem. So that was a profound thing for a little boy of 7.

“When I was 13, our community leader, Imam Abdullah Haron, was brutally killed in detention. He was our teacher too at mosque. And there I was marching at the front of the funeral procession of 40 000 people, in September 1969.

“I recall standing at his graveside and I made an undertaking that we would avenge his death one day. And of course that is a very heavy responsibility for a boy of 13 to put on himself. But it governs me to this day, and I was very fortunate.

“Our son Haroon, who we named in honour of him, has had several art exhibitions in honour of the imam. Not that I encouraged him to, in fact I wanted him to become a lawyer.

“With those influences in Claremont, it was only natural that in my photography, in my work after school, we continued that. I took a lot of pictures of the Struggle going on at the time, at the hostels in Langa, at Crossroads.

“I submitted them to the Muslim News newspaper. Its editor was James Matthews, the poet and playwright. I could not have wanted for a better editor than James. It was James that first taught me you must always give the other side. “It doesn’t weaken your story,” he said, “it strengthens it.”

“Eventually it was cheaper for the paper to hire me full time than as a freelancer. So I got my first job – at the princely sum of R20 a week and petrol. That would have been 1977.”

Aneez said it was a bit of a joke as each edition of the paper was banned because it was overtly political. Muslim News could no longer employ Aneez because the constant harassment and intimidation by the security police left them broke.

He applied for a job at the Cape Herald in 1979. It was the beginning of a relationship spanning over 35 years with the then Argus group, which would later become Independent Media.

Very soon Aneez’s skills as a union leader came to the fore.

“I started here officially on October 19, 1979. But the company didn’t allow for photojournalism… you had to decide between photography or writing, and they didn’t take photographers seriously then. They were paid significantly less than reporters.

“I started writing full time and dropped my photography. That continued until 1985, when we were very heavily in the Struggle. You had to be. You couldn’t call yourself a proper journalist and not get involved in what was going on around you.

“I had been with the company for less than a year when, in August 1980, I led the first strike in the newspaper industry against the Cape Herald, because it was a newspaper in the coloured community, staffed by coloureds, and they really treated us not as second-, but as third-class citizens. So all the junk, battered cars, that The Argus had finished using, all the battered typewriters, came to us.

“Of course, we earned half of what our white colleagues earned. There were a few of them that stood with us, a very small number, and we were very grateful for them. Most of the white journalists, in fact, perpetrated a lot of these atrocities against us. They went far beyond what management even required.”

By 1985, the Struggle had intensified. Aneez had by then become involved with Umkhonto we Sizwe activities and guerillas.

“They were looking for me, so I went into the underground about August 1985. By November they flashed my and fellow activist Johnny Issel’s pictures on national TV, on the main news, and they put up roadblocks throughout the country.

“My picture was up in every police station. It obviously became too hard for me to stay here so I went out to Botswana, Zambia, and then Angola for military training.

“The ANC gave you a choice of course. Nobody was forced to do anything. In fact they wanted me on the non-military side because of my writing and reporting skills. But I had a network back home that we had built up underground that was invaluable to the military struggle, so I couldn’t turn my back on that.”

In Angola, Aneez made lifelong friends like Ashley Forbes, Ashley Kriel and Anton Fransch. The murder of Kriel, in particular, at the hands of the apartheid forces at a very young age, had a profound effect on Aneez.

Kriel left Botswana for home, after training in Angola, ahead of Aneez. He would only hear of Kriel’s murder later.

“When they dropped me off at the border to South Africa, they told me Ashley had been killed two days before that, but they kept it from me because they knew it would devastate me.

“They gave me a choice: do you want to carry on or do you want to come back? I said I must carry on.

“It was, as you can imagine, a very emotional moment because Ashley and I had spent every minute of every day together, we were in a room together, two single beds, and we would talk all night – before we realised it the sun was rising already.

“We were very close and I became so angry. I was reckless in the sense that I said to myself, ‘F*** you, Boere. Take me now if you want to. I don’t mean the Afrikaners, but the security police or the regime.”

Back home, Aneez stayed in the underground and commanded the Ashley Kriel detachment of MK. The unit was always a step ahead of the apartheid forces.

“We came along and we strengthened the struggle with our operations. We humiliated the Boere. We adopted the approach that we would have many small operations, often at the same time.

“There would be a bomb blast, say in the centre of town, and the Boere would rush there like mad – bomb squads – saturating the place. Five minutes later there would be an explosion in the Strand or somewhere else. We humiliated them and we inspired our people.”

Aneez resurfaced in 1991 – six years after going underground – in a very different South Africa. Nelson Mandela was released the year before and the ANC was at the negotiating table. It was time to discuss his role in a liberated South Africa.

“I met with Chris Hani in Joburg, which in itself was one of the highlights of my life, being able to meet with Chris Hani in his office, in Joburg, in a liberated South Africa.

“Chris and the leadership had all sorts of jobs for me. They wanted me to go into the military or into business or politics. I felt I could make my biggest contribution in journalism. It was completely untransformed, racially divided and divided in class.

“Remember, we had organised in the media industry and I was involved until about 1985. Of course this company took advantage of the fact that I was on the run and they sacked me.

“They had closed down The Cape Herald a couple of months after that too, because it was fiercely anti-apartheid.”

* The second part of this profile will appear int he Cape Argus on Wednesday.

Cape Argus