Alide Dasnois: The only editor who did not lead with Mandela's death
Opinion / 23 November 2019, 09:09am / Ayanda Mdluli
The days of black professionals, especially in the South Africa media space, taking whippings lying down from those who are opposed to transformation and black ownership in the sector should have died in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa.
Sadly, the remnants of those dark days are still among us, and as we have unpacked, the cancer of institutionalised racism has continued to eat away at the heart of the South African media industry.
This cancer has become so widespread that Independent Media has become the subject of much demonisation from our colleagues and competitors, who will stop at nothing to destroy a company that employs more than 1500 people and the rest of the subsidiaries which employs tens of thousands.
Some are former employees who left under circumstances that would not look good on any CV, some are competitors posturing through the poison pens of their journalists, and some, dare we say it, harbour a more sinister motive.
Their egregious claims and wilful snipes have ranged from blatant mistruths to selective amnesia.
In this five-part series, senior journalist Ayanda Mdluli unpacks the lies, fake news, curious claims and motives of writers Ferial Haffajee, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield and Dougie Oakes.
Here is the truth about those who refuse to accept the transformation of the South African media.
Ferial Haffajee, the former editor of the City Press and a current associate editor at a donor-funded website, the Daily Maverick, in her article earlier this week titled “How not to lead” in Fin24 took a swipe at Independent Media and Executive Chairman Dr Iqbal Survé, when she wrote that Independent Media titles are “crumbling”.
It is correct that Independent Media’s circulation has dropped. The same is true for all media houses in South Africa.
However, a review of the past five years’ ABC figures shows that the Independent Media titles have actually performed better than the titles of their competitors. For example, Haffajee has edited the City Press publication, which she was removed from when City Press’s circulation fell from a reported high of more than 200000 to its current 60 000.
No Independent Media publication has plummeted like City Press.
Similarly, the Sunday Times owned then by Tiso Blackstar (now Lebashe), which had a circulation of half a million, is a pale shadow of its former self with fewer than 150 000. (If the figures are reported to be higher than what I have stipulated, I hope I can be forgiven because stuffing three free editions of the Sunday Times in your letter box, does not count as high circulation.)
Truth be told, black readers in their droves had deserted City Press under Haffajee. It would also appear that black readers had been reluctant to buy the Sunday Times, which was hard to swallow for its new owners.
I could be off the mark here, but it is my belief that the patronage system that supports certain narratives through the mouthpieces of people like Haffajee still has a stronghold on what they want the people of South Africa to read.
Nothing much has changed since 1994. That is with the exception of Independent Media, who has dared to tell a different side of what is going on in the country and, therefore, resonates with the majority.
Management at most of these media houses remains largely untransformed too.
At Independent Media, the management and editorial staff reflect the demographics of democratic South Africa.
Haffajee refers to a loss of a generation of skills when white journalists left Independent Media. However, she implicitly fails to mention the generations of skills of black talent promoted by Sekunjalo. The very same people would never have been given these opportunities under the Irish ownership.
Haffajee refers to Dasnois and others, as being hounded out of Independent yet, she provides no evidence.
In fact, those in the know at Independent Media, will tell you that Survé delegated editorial and operational responsibility to other executives, who made the decisions to hire or fire employees based on their performance. Not Survé.
Whatever Dasnois says about her resignation from Independent Media (she was never dismissed), she will forever be known as the only editor in the world who did not publish former president Nelson Mandela’s death as the front page lead of the paper she edited.
Today, the Cape Times’s official archives on the reporting of the death of the global icon, does not mention Mandela in its front page lead.
Taking a look back to 2013, many newspapers around the world and in South Africa had foresight to change their front pages, but not the Cape Times.
The Mandela wraparound, no matter how much she tries to spin it, will never be considered the front page lead.
Dasnois was always going to be removed, as is confirmed by Chris Whitfield’s call to Gasant Abarder as the editor of the Cape Times, but her failure to lead with Mandela’s death on the front page of the Cape Times led to her being asked to step down earlier than planned.
Also, by deciding not to lead with Mandela’s death, she prevented tens of thousands of Cape Times subscribers from reading about it the next day. Her decision to do a wrapper delayed the distribution of the Cape Times and other newspapers of the Independent Media group by more than five hours, resulting in many Cape Town citizens not seeing the news of Mandela’s death on the front page.
Production managers at CTP described how it was impossible to insert the Cape Times into a wrapper, which became a logistical nightmare, so that almost 90% of Cape Times readers did not receive their paper, nor Mandela’s death on the front page.
In my view, Dasnois should not have been offered the Labour Bulletin editorship either, she should have simply been fired.
If she had been a black editor, she almost certainly would have had her employment immediately terminated, and been described as incompetent.
Haffajee refers to an editor who was treated “brutally” but she does not say by whom or elaborate as to how. But, one of the journalists who was treated disgracefully, and by the people Haffajee defends, is Aneez Salie, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) regional commander of the Ashley Kriel Detachment in Cape Town, and current Cape Times editor.
An example that Salie has shared was how he was fired by Independent in 1986, despite an agreement with his then editor that he go on indefinite unpaid leave because the apartheid security police were after him.
And after the victory of the ANC, when he was able to emerge from underground he was initially refused re-employment by Independent.
He was then offered a job in the accounts department “because white journalists would make his life a living hell for being with MK”, according to the general manager at the time.
He refused the accounts job, and was then employed at the most junior position at Independent’s community newspapers, at the lowest possible salary.
(To see the way Independent treated Salie read his chapter in the newly released book by Shirley Gunn and Shanil Haricharan, titled Voices of the Underground.
Below is an extract of Salie’s first-hand account of what he endured at Independent Media:
“I had arranged unlimited unpaid leave with my editor, Ted Doman, and told him that any money due to me must be paid to my lawyer, Essa Moosa, who would use the money to pay child maintenance for my daughter, Shihaam, while I was underground.
“My agreement with Doman was documented, but in January 1986, the company dismissed me, claiming that I had absconded. I had the records to prove my story, thanks to MWASA’S good recordkeeping. Once I produced proof, Independent Newspapers was compelled to reinstate me.
“In 2001, the position of deputy editor opened up at the Cape Times. I applied, was interviewed and had to do a written test, which took place four days after my mother had died.
“Although the office offered to postpone the test, I told them I would take it. I was doing it for my mother, who had taught me to read before I went to school, and for my father who brought the Cape Times to our house every day for half a century.
“The test involved an interview and writing an editorial on the Myburgh Commission’s inquiry into the collapse of the rand. Afterwards, editor Chris Whitfield told me that I was the best candidate, but according to him, I lacked business acumen. Chris told me not to worry, though: they would organise business courses for me, after which I could take over the position.
“I soon discovered that they had no intention of offering me those courses, and instead of getting the deputy editor position, I had to go on working as a reporter. I stuck it out for twelve years. During that time Chris appointed Alide Dasnois as Cape Times deputy editor.”
Today, Salie employs a diverse group of people in his newsroom, including a number of African journalists, one of them who serves as his deputy editor.
This move would have been unheard of during Whitfield and Dasnois’s tenure at Independent Media. During their time at the Cape Times, not a single African journalist was employed.
The Cape Times under Salie’s leadership now reflects the story of the entire Western Cape; the poor, the homeless, the urban, business, the rural and not just the story of the rich, of the Southern Suburbs and the Atlantic Seaboard.
The Cape Times, under Salie, has today, won international acclaim and remains one of South Africa’s quality papers of record.