Former editor Gasant Abarder has many inspirational stories to tell in debut book, Hack with a Grenade

By Opinion Time of article published Dec 2, 2020

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Kevin Ritchie

Hack With A Grenade is a metaphor for the power newspaper editors have – and the obligation on them and journalists to tell stories correctly, fairly and honestly. To tell stories to enlighten because they’re in the public interest – not to interest the public as clickbait.

It’s the title of journalist and former editor Gasant Abarder’s debut book, a collection of 10 ostensible backstories he either published or wrote in a career that spanned the deputy editorship of the Daily Voice, editorship of the Cape Times, and an unprecedented two stints in the editor’s chair at the Cape Argus, culminating in him becoming editor-in-chief of all three, plus the Weekend Argus and the Cape Community Newspapers stable as the inaugural – and to date only –regional executive editor of Independent Media, Cape.

The back stories all occur in the Cape; from the inimitable Daily Voice’s “Remona finds Jesus in My Toilet”, to the unforgettable Dignity Project and #FeesMustFall, but they reverberate far beyond the Mother City.

They aren’t really a collection of backstories from an editor’s notebook but actually an opportunity for perhaps the most inspirational and innovative editor of his generation to reflect on some of the stories that made the biggest headlines during his tenure and explore what they say about us as a nation.

Thus, a meeting with Magadien Wentzel, the ex-prison gang boss immortalised in Jonny Steinberg’s The Number, opens Abarder’s eyes to the forgotten and vulnerable in his city and the inherent contradictions of criminalising poverty and the uphill, almost impossible, battle that those who have done their time face to make a success of life on the outside.

Wentzel sows the seed for what became the Dignity Project, fronted by Danny Oosthuizen, who overcame homelessness, terminal illness, addiction and stigma to write a weekly column on all of this for the paper before ultimately succumbing to cancer.

Slain MK guerrilla Ashley Kriel provides a prism to introduce Lukhanyo Calata, the scion of another freedom fighter and himself one of the SABC8, to unpack the dysfunction in the current South Africa, while creating an opportunity for Abarder to make a heartfelt apology to Kriel’s family for the way the Cape Argus handled the freedom fighter’s death and demonised activists in the Struggle.

The tragic story of Zephany Nurse, stolen at birth, in turn is a perfect opportunity to speak about the gentrification of Cape Town.

The 10 vignettes cover life in all its guises; pain and joy, sadness and hope; traversing politics to religion and sport.

The chapters are all new, although many will have owed their genesis to Abarder’s much-loved Friday Files column in the Argus and latterly Sunday Slice in the Weekend Argus. All of them are written with deep passion and understanding.

Hack With A Grenade is a love letter to a lifelong passion for the craft of what we know as journalism; not the stenography of what often passes for it, nor the vicious opinionated bigotry masquerading as news on social media.

A great newspaper, said Arthur Miller, is a nation talking to itself. The stories in the newspapers Abarder edited let readers meet, understand and ultimately reach out to one another across the divides of apartheid and the echo chambers of social media.

#FeesMustFall, and Abarder’s decision to go on to the UCT campus and find student leaders not just to tell their stories but to actually write them in the next edition of the Argus, which they would edit, is perhaps one of the finest examples of exactly that.

Abarder worked tirelessly to produce authentic – and brave – newspapers. Many other editors tried to emulate him. Very few came close.

Hack With A Grenade is a wonderful, often self-deprecating retelling of those times, but it’s also a very important reminder of the importance of journalism and the critical need to do it well.

The launch of Hack With A Grenade will take place in Cape Town tomorrow, Durban on the 7th, Johannesburg on the 9th and Pretoria on the 10th. The link for the book:

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