Nelson Mandela is named Newsmaker of the Year.
ON July 12, 1978 the Pretoria Press Club began with a handful of members. Today it is known as the National Press Club and has almost 500 members. The club meets monthly and holds regular discussion evenings and hosts newsmakers at news briefings. In 1978 late journalist Bernadi Wessels, then at the Rand Daily Mail, came up with the ambitious idea to start a press club in Pretoria, similar to the Washington Press Club, with representatives from all media houses. Together with colleagues and the assistance of Joh Groenewald, the idea became a reality.

Muriel Hau Yoon, part of the first secretariat of the club with Joh, remembers the club’s launch at Die Kaapse Wyn-Taphuis on the corner of the former Vermeulen and Van der Walt streets.

The club’s gatherings 30 years ago had a different character than today’s monthly networking functions. “We had our own bar, emBARgo, in Don Hamilton’s Boulevard Hotel in Struben street,” remembers Tok Grobler.

Pedro Diederichs, a reporter for Nasionale Pers in Pretoria, later head of Beeld, has fond memories of those days. The offices of Beeld, Pretoria News and Rand Daily Mail (and others) were in the Pretoria CBD. After work journalists met for a drink at the Boulevard to exchange stories and boast about scoops. It was mostly men, with only a handful of female journalists working in media then.

Pedro remembers the good relationships between reporters and spokespersons. He recalls names like Jan Bezuidenhout, Alta Oberholzer, Alton Burns, Neil Jacobson, Jan van der Merwe, Roy Devenish,Valerie Boje, JJ Cornish, Thys Steyn, Cor Leijenaar, Ina Schaum and Jorrie Jordaan.

He says the hotel’s owner, Arthur Honey, and barman “Oom Tiny” made sure they were never thirsty. Sometimes late at night a call would come through on the bar phone line warning journalists about a roadblock in Pretoria Street, Silverton...

Tok recalls later years the bar was moved to Coleen’s Pressbar at the Proteahof Hotel. Nowadays the members meet at different venues each month. Meeting in the same bar every day after work is long gone

Bernardi was appointed the club’s first chairman. Johan Gieselbach (then at the SAUK, later CEO at the Wolraad) took over from him. “The chairmen came from the SAUK for years. After Johan was it me, followed by Robbie Terblance and the late Pieter Theron,” says Tok.

Another member since the early 80s was Nico van Burick from Landbou Weekblad. Tok met him when they worked together writing for the army’s newsletter, Uniform. Nico and his wife, Annemarie, were also secretariat of the press club for a while.

Ben Rootman and his partner, Martin van Niekerk, from Junxion Communications, took over the role of the secretariat from them for 18 years, They resigned earlier this year.

Nico claims that he and the late Jan Viljoen have rewritten the constitution as it is today. Ben just laughs about this statement. He says no one can remember whether this is true. He remembers the original constitution was put together randomly over a few beers.

Joh diarised that the very first constitution was sent to members in September 1978. Joh also recalls the very first press club event on September 27, 1978, at the Boulevard Hotel. After only a few months of existence, Bernardi Wessels and others arranged a sponsorship for the club with BP Suid-Afrika. Joh diarised this event as well: this momentous sponsorship took place over lunch in the Burgerspark Hotel. Over the years several different companies sponsored the club and the club still relies on sponsorships to function.

Back in the days the executive committee gathered over lunch time to discuss club affairs, naturally over a few beers. These days it is done after work, in the press club’s “home” the emBARgo, the cellar of the Orange Restaurant in the Court Classique Hotel.

Apparently when Amanda Visser was the first female chairperson in the late 90s she wanted to ban the drinking during meetings She denies it. But Nico and Annemarie say they were in the meeting. “She got angry because the meetings frizzled out after a few drinks.”

However, with Amanda at the top, the Press Club entered a time of transformation. “It was an exciting time in politics with the first democratic election behind us.

“It was the beginning of Thabo Mbeki’s era as president. His role in the country and its profile has brought him the newsmaker of the year prize,” she recalls. Meeting Thabo Mbeki stands out as a highlight in her time as chair.

In 1999 the Pretoria Press club changed to National Press Club of Pretoria. In 2000 Yusuf Abramjee was elected as chairperson for the first time. He was the first chairman of colour and worked very hard to make the club representative of colour and gender. Yusuf was re-elected as chairperson again in 2008 until he resigned in 2012. He also brought some big newsmakers to address the club. Annemarie still remembers the press conference with Eugene Terre’Blance after he was convicted. “Eugene has told the conference: “Ek is verbyster, maar nie verbitter nie.’ ” Two journalists at the back whispered: “Almost like shaken, but not stirred.”

The club recently elected its new executive committee.

Jos Charle was re-elected as chairperson of the club and Antoinette Slabbert elected as deputy chairperson.

* Tanya de Vente-Bijker is a freelance journalist and radio presenter and executive member of the National Press Club. She is doing her masters degree in journalism on the history of the National Press Club.