I WANT to tell you an incredible story. It is a story that will go down in the annals of South African journalism history as one of those “I was there” nights.
It was the night Madiba died.
I was at home when word came: “Madiba’s dead.” I had just a few seconds to mourn Madiba before running out the door. As I drove, the National Anthem was playing on my radio. I wept.
On the fourth floor of Newspaper House there was controlled chaos. The news floor is a living engine of ideas, words, sweat, tantrums, meltdowns, genius, creativity, banter, noise, phones, shouted ideas, coffee. When it’s busy, it looks like what a television newsroom should look like. Someone should have filmed us that night.
In the middle of the news floor is a small pond of chairs (20 years ago, I would have written “there is a sea of chairs”) half-filled with sub editors, the surgeons of journalism, some of them semi-functioning human beings, but wielders of scalpels and delicate stitches when faced with the badly written word. A few years back, the Irish cut costs again, and many of the subs have been centralised and homogenised, editing stories about lives in other cities, cities some of them have never been to.
I started on the Cape Times in 1981 as a raw cub reporter over at 77 Burg Street. Tony Heard was the editor. We even had a Society Editor back then, the wonderful, incredibly glamorous Gertrude Cooper.
It was Gertie the subversive who rallied the secretaries, the high speed dictate typists and the men from the presses to threaten downing tools when a hostile takeover loomed. The night Madiba died, I walked into the Cape Times just before midnight and into controlled chaos. Gertie would have loved it.
There was no time to change the front page, our deadlines are early, our computers slow and cantankerous. A plan made months ago for exactly this scenario was to produce a “wraparound”, a broadsheet double page that literally wraps around the newspaper, preserving the already written, edited, printed copy in the existing Cape Times. The wraparound is a time-honoured tradition on the great newspapers of the world to mark events that change history. Special edition wraparounds are artefacts that are treasured, kept, framed and hung in museums, on the walls of presidents, changing hands for enormous prices years down the line.
Our printers were warned they had a long night ahead. Production editor, Glenn Bownes, kept up a running commentary to remind us that time was fleeting. We almost doubled our print run, meaning we could potentially reach close to 300 000 readers.
I won’t single out individuals: that night was a magnificent, collective effort, ranging from our newest recruit, Xolani Koyana, to grizzled veteran Mike Stent.
Over it all, like a conductor, was our editor, Alide Dasnois.
There are two things you want in a crisis. Calm people, and serenity.
That night Alide was calm and serene. And decisive as always. No hesitation. Decisions made instantly, like “extend the printers’ deadline to 2am, keep it simple, dignified; definitely, FW de Klerk on the same page as Thabo Mbeki, edit that Reuters obit down to 900 words, give it two columns with a four deck head, deep pic with it, we’ve got 27 minutes left; Boetie, your timeline anchors the DPS beautifully, bring up Lance’s front page design, stunning; we have to keep the bar code upfront, this is what the Pick n Pay tellers will scan in the morning, not the old front page, drop the weather, that’s inside, yes we need the date, this is one of those ‘I was there’ front pages; use the picture of Francois Pienaar and Madiba, it’s an icon; there’s a literal in the down page story in the well on page 2, Liesl, the website is looking great, keep posting the statements as they come in….”
We got the paper off screen and down to the printers at one minute to 2am. It was a miracle of old-fashioned belt and garters, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, sweat, swearing and sheer genius print journalism, genius we may never see again.
If you have a copy, treasure it.
As the adrenalin subsided, we dug out a forgotten bottle of Johnny Walker and toasted Madiba out of polystyrene cups.
Alide Dasnois was relieved of her post as editor of the Cape Times later that morning, Friday, December 6, 2013: the day the world learned Madiba was dead.
Dr Iqbal Survé, owner of Independent Newspapers, said “it is my considered view, and that of the senior executive team of Independent… that the failure of the Cape Times to lead with such a momentous event, was an affront to the dignity of Madiba and a disservice to our readers”.
The Madiba wraparound is the best newspaper I have ever worked on. Time Magazine voted it one of the 14 best front pages in the world. It was three hours of magic, Madiba magic. History called, and the Cape Times answered.
Alide Dasnois was the editor. I was there. It was our last Madiba moment.