I wanted to be a journalist, but there were a few hurdles - first, having left school without matric, I was at a disadvantage - only matriculants were considered, Roy Billett, chief sub-editor and one of our neighbours, told me when I enquired.
Keen to be independent I left school at the first opportunity and worked for the Department of Public Works. Since there was job reservation in the early ’60s, finding a job in the public service wasn’t too difficult. So, I eventually completed my matric and during my early working career found a job at the Pretoria News as a copy typist.
No cellphones and other marvellous means of communication existed then, so it was good old landlines, phoning stories through to the copy typist to meet a deadline, if you weren’t in the office.
Although I managed to get in some freelance stories, a journalist vacancy wasn’t forthcoming, so I left for greener pastures, although not in my ideal job.
One day I was tipped off that there was an opening. I applied and found myself in the office of editor Andrew Drysdale’s office for an interview. I was lucky and to my delight found myself the following month sitting at a desk as a reporter.
The years at the Pretoria News were the best of my working life - I learnt so much, not just about the complicated world we live in (I joined in 1976 a month after the Soweto riots), but about myself, as over the years I worked alongside people from other races who were not only treated equally but were often more senior to me.
To this day, many of my former colleagues are my good friends.
It was a rough time in South Africa when I began reporting; there were “terror trials”, people were banned, the townships were on fire. And then the Church Street bomb exploded a few blocks from our office one Friday afternoon. Strangely, we were all at our desks. There was a few second stunned silence, we looked up and Alan Dunn, then news editor, said one word: “Go!”
We ran. Arnold Kirkby, who took his own pictures, was first on the scene and those grisly shots will always remain in my memory.
The police and emergency services were already there and it was like a scene from a disaster movie.
Taking notes while speaking to people, we took turns running back to file updates. We did our jobs in spite of our fear and shock at what had happened.
Over the following years, as court reporter, the Information Scandal broke and I covered Eschel Rhoodie’s trial. Before then, the Biko inquest and that of the ANC insurgents who were caught shortly after some of their comrades had held people hostage in the Volkskas Bank in Silverton. They were killed and so was at least one civilian.
They were terrible times.
I remember the newsroom as a community - we supported one another, we socialised together, but we were also competitive about getting our stories on the front pages. One cannot be a good journalist unless you are passionate and committed. Working hours don’t exist if there is a story to be had.
It was a treat when Morris Legoabe, one of the photographers, would pick me up over a weekend and go to Mamelodi, meeting people and making contacts. So many of my friends outside the Pretoria News had never been to a black township, let alone sat down and had a meal with any of its citizens. We had all grown up so separate from each other to serve the agenda of the Nationalist government.
Before gambling was legalised, one Sunday morning I got a call from a police contact - a casino in Esselen Street had been raided.
I called the news editor and asked which photographer was on duty - called him out and off we went. I spent the day interviewing, tracking down those arrested and we got great photos. All written and processed that evening for the morning paper. Those days there was no online edition, copy for early next day front and inside pages had to be through overnight. That was what made it all worthwhile, scooping other newspapers and filling the front page.
I eventually moved on to media officer at Unisa where I had completed my BA. I stayed in contact with Pretoria News and I am honoured and thrilled as a freelancer, to be part of the team bringing the ‘News’ 120th anniversary stories to our readers and to be a very small part of its history. I hope it continues for another 120 years.