Madiba, we will continue to do our job
The Cape Argus will strive towards Nelson Mandela's ideals, writes Jermaine Craig
Cape Town - The date of the edition was Wednesday, August 3, 1994. Our cover price was R1, our format was traditional broadsheet and we still had a “late final” edition.
“Supermarket strike settled” screamed our banner lead headline, a good strong font over two decks. Fittingly, given how the old man felt about the youth and the importance of their education, our page one picture was of the Cape Argus High Schools Quiz, which is still going strong.
It’s an extraordinary image, taken at Madiba’s official presidential home, Genadendal, by photographer Karina Turok.
“I had half an hour with Madiba between his engagements and wanted to do something different, something casual, something intimate. I asked him what he normally did when he relaxed, when he had a few rare moments to himself in his busy schedule. He told me what he loved to do most was put his feet up, drink his Perrier water and read his newspaper,” Turok recalled this week.
And as Turok’s beautiful photograph shows here, his newspaper of choice was The Argus.
As the editor of this newspaper, an institution in this city, seeing that image this weekend – a time of such heightened emotion – laid an overwhelming weight of responsibility on my shoulders.
Madiba loved this paper, we loved Madiba, and our newsroom this past exhausting week has been consumed attempting to give him the best possible tribute we could.
Watching the hundreds of hours of coverage about Madiba’s life on TV this week, I came across a documentary – Madiba and the Cartoonists – and a fascinating story told by Turok’s husband Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro. I called Zapiro up this weekend and asked him to relate the story again.
“I was sitting at my desk, busy drawing, on what was just an ordinary day in early 1998. The phone rang and my wife said it was the president’s office on the line. When I took the phone a woman told me to ‘please hold for President Mandela’. Then I heard that distinctive voice: ‘Hello, this is President Mandela. I am very upset with you.’
“I was worried that he must have been annoyed with some of my recent drawings. ‘I read that your cartoons will no longer be appearing in The Argus and when I am at Parliament I won’t be able to see them every day – and I really love seeing them every day,’ he said.
“I was shocked and told him I was amazed and honoured he had contacted me, and what made it so much more special was that in the last three-and-a-half years my cartoons had become more and more critical of the government.
“‘But that is your job,’ he told me. That always stood out for me, that as much as Madiba respected cartoonists and satire, even when our criticism was directed at government, he valued and supported our role in society.”
This week has rushed by in a wave of emotion, grief, joy and pain, evoking strong memories of the life of a man the likes of which we have never seen before – and will probably never see again. For years now we have expected – and dreaded – that call, that text message, that announcement.
On the evening of December 5, we had heard of an urgent Mandela family meeting and scores of vehicles pulling up outside Madiba’s Houghton home.
By the time our newspaper had gone to print at 9.30pm all we could report on was the angst and concern, with no official statement.
By 10pm there was a growing worry. A few unofficial sources reported that Madiba had passed on. But they remained just that, unofficial, and there were some sources who denied it altogether.
By 10.30pm, however, more and more sources were confirming off the record that the moment we had all dreaded had arrived. By 11pm, we had word that the SABC was preparing to go live with a “very important announcement”. I rushed into the office, but with our deadline long past, I was the only one in an empty newsroom as President Zuma announced on national television at 11.45pm that “our nation has lost its greatest son”.
As much as you prepare yourself emotionally for the news and think you will be ready to absorb it when it finally comes, I wasn’t prepared to hear Zuma utter the words that Madiba had “departed”.
I stood numb, in shock, in tears, but there was no time to mourn.
The printers had given us a deadline of 1am to change our paper and I frantically called on whomever I could find.
Fortunately, key members of our production team had formed the “Black Journalists’ Golfing Association” and convened their weekly “meetings” on nearby Long Street, after putting our last edition of the week to bed.
That three of the association’s founding members are white and that none of them has ever really swung a golf club with any distinction is neither here nor there. But, importantly, they were able to rush back into the office: Rob Ewart and Colin Appolis, led by our head of news Yunus Kemp.
Extraordinarily, the paper’s most senior staffers started trickling in, asking simply: “What can we do?”
There was John Yeld, a reporter who has dedicated 35 years of his journalistic career to The Argus, and the equally experienced Martine Barker, our managing editor.
After taking medication and turning in for the night, our head of content and production Robyn Leary groggily rushed in from Claremont, with the most experienced member of our newsdesk, back desk editor Vivien Horler, also reporting to sub copy and proof pages. The long-time head of our picture desk, Heather Bisset, was also there, pulling the best selection of the thousands of Madiba images we have on file and making sure we had the best possible pictures on hand.
Two of the finest writers in the country, Michael Morris and Jonathan Ancer, with whom I am privileged to work , appeared from thin air. Jonathan pulled together a beautiful piece capturing a grim, historic announcement and the ripples that were already starting to be felt around the world.
It was crazy, organised, calm chaos, but as frenetic as the moment was, we were prepared.
In little over an hour, we had changed and dedicated six news pages to covering Madiba’s death, while also changing our op-ed and leader page, and inserting an editorial paying homage to Madiba.
We pulled out and ran Michael’s obituary, long prepared and long on hand, a piece mayor Patricia de Lille’s spokesman, Solly Malatsi, the next day rightly called “one of the most beautifully written tributes to Madiba”.
Michael was our political reporter when Madiba was released in 1990 and he still has the notebook containing his scribbled notes from Madiba’s famous Grand Parade speech on the day of his release, as well as a copy of how our newspaper covered Madiba’s release at the time.
Fittingly, for a man who has worked for this newspaper for over 30 years and has written a book chronicling 150 years of its history, Michael’s Mandela obit was the most important piece of writing in our newspaper that night – and possibly one of the most important pieces ever published in the long, proud history of this newspaper.
We, of course, changed our page one, but no words were needed. Just a solemn black masthead, a beautiful image of a smiling Madiba, and his date of birth and the date on which he passed away.
It seemed surreal that we could be drawing a line under Madiba’s life, putting a finite date to when he had physically left us, but our team in that landmark edition paid beautiful, fitting tribute to his life.
It’s been special this week seeing how our team has responded to the biggest story of our careers, seeing John Yeld with all his experience have the vigour of a cub reporter, hunting for iconic colour pieces that typified the special relationship Madiba had with Cape Town.
I’ve been extremely proud of every single edition we’ve produced since Madiba passed away.
A cover that will go down in our annals is our black and white page one image of Madiba kissing the hand of Farieda Omar, wife of the late Dullah Omar.
Madiba had famously written in Long Walk to Freedom how he had been to the Rylands home of the Omars hours after his release from Victor Verster prison and the urban legend goes that Farieda Omar’s chicken breyani was his first home-cooked meal after his release.
Graciously though, Mrs Omar debunked that famous myth last week in John’s piece, saying the Omars had in fact not even been at home when Madiba came by and that Madiba had instead gone to well-known activist Saleem Mowzer’s home, where the only one home to greet him was Mowzer’s sister Nishaad, heavily pregnant at the time.
One of our younger reporters, Daneel Knoetze, tracked down Dawood Khan, the man tasked with sourcing the convoy of Toyotas Madiba’s entourage used to drive him out of prison on February 11, 1990.
It was important for me to also send two of our own – immensely talented and proud Xhosa women Cindy Waxa and Sipokazi Fokazi – to record Madiba’s final journey home to Qunu.
And they didn’t disappoint. On the first day of their arrival, they filed a beautiful story recalling the memories of the villagers of Qokolweni, where Madiba had gone to complete his primary schooling.
The villagers remembered how Madiba returned to the village in 1990, with Chris Hani.
For us at the Cape Argus, it’s been an intensely personal week of reflecting on and recording Madiba’s life and legacy.
Sadly, in our newspaper group this has also been a week of furious debate over the issue of a free press and how we objectively cover our country’s robust democracy.
All I can say is Madiba did not spend 27 years in prison for nothing. He did not come out of prison to be confronted by the massacres of Boipatong, Shell House and many others, and to calm a seething, hurting nation after the callous assassination of Hani, to continue to keep our country on a path of peace and reconciliation, for nothing.
There need be no fears about this paper’s integrity. We will continue to cover and expose corrupt politicians who steal shamelessly from our people and threaten the democracy Madiba and many others strived for, and many died for.
In Madiba’s spirit, our newspaper’s philosophy is one that seeks to build this country, to look at its soul and its society critically, while celebrating its advancements and being positive about its future.
We will continue to strive to be objective and fair, beholden to no party or individual, but to the interests of our readers.
As Madiba would have wanted, we will continue to do our job.
* Jermaine Craig is the editor of the Cape Argus.