Arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa, left, and others at King Shaka airport near Durban for the repatriation of the remains of Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE
Arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa, left, and others at King Shaka airport near Durban for the repatriation of the remains of Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE

City Press: The Chapter We Wrote
By Len Kalane
Jonathan Ball Publishers

The history of the country’s black newspapers is saturated with all the vicissitudes of SA history — brave resistance to apartheid, well-meaning but also cynical white financiers, eccentric editors and writers — and all of these make for ambiguous, strange and sometimes contradictory phenomena.

Len Kalane, editor of City Press from 1995 to 2000, has produced an interesting book on how the paper emerged and flourished. He outlines its history after its takeover by Naspers in 1984, just a few years after its launch by Jim Bailey, the owner of Drum magazine, in 1982. The paper was named after the Golden City Post, which Bailey launched in 1955 as Sophiatown was being bulldozed.

More than an account of the paper’s history, Kalane has produced a fledgling political and social history, shedding light on how apartheid determined the lives of black people, and how they resisted. In part the book serves as an introduction to apartheid history and contains brief histories of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement, Azapo and the United Democratic Front (UDF). But Kalane borders on the hagiographic in his version of Naspers’s role in the rapprochement between black and white.

Its editors had a great influence on the style of the paper, but also on contemporary politics. Under first editor Philip Selwyn-Smith, “a true English gentleman” who had fought in World War 2, the paper tackled issues big and small. Bailey’s Fleet Street bent ensured a steady diet of racy tabloid stories — sex, violence and sport. But politics was as big a mainstay as the Miss Soweto contest, soccer and boxing.

The paper thrived especially under veteran Nieman fellow Percy Qoboza, who had edited The World and was headhunted to take over as editor in 1986. Kalane sets out a series of scoops, near scoops and significant turning points covered by the paper, with reprints of articles about significant events and a number of examples of Qoboza’s editorial column, delightfully named “Percy’s Itch”.

The paper’s greatest function, according to former news editor Bruce Cohen, was to give the UDF the publicity it needed, and front pages were designed so they could live on as posters. After selling 4,000 copies of its first edition, circulation reached a peak of 350,000 in 1994.

Adapting to the post-apartheid period, it launched a business section in 1999, edited by Simba Makunike, since black people were also interested in “what was going on in their economy”. It also began to feature the arts, movie reviews and lifestyle sections.

This reflection of the changing nature of black life in SA is part of the book’s value, but Kalane does not do the later period justice. This is partly because of his fascination with Drum and his failure to interrogate the paper’s newer bosses.

The book is tinged with nostalgia for the style of Drum and its famous journalists — Henry Nxumalo, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa and Lewis Nkosi — and much of the book reflects on Drum personalities, especially its owner, Bailey, who gets a chapter of his own. Kalane announces in his introduction that the book is a history of City Press, but also of Drum, Bailey and the Naspers of the 1980s.

City Press journalists were working in a milieu different from that of Drum: the shadow of June 1976 meant heightened resistance, necklacing and Winnie Mandela’s vow to burn the country. Journalists in the 1980s and 1990s were, Kalane strikingly opines, “a shadow of the celebrated 1950s legends”. As “products of Bantu education”, they were “less self-assured, less confident and uncertain”. Nevertheless, he names a few “rough diamonds”, among them Victor Tsuai, Fred Khumalo, Mondli Makhanya and Justice Malala.

As with most capital projects, white money was the facilitator. Bailey, the eccentric son of mining tycoon Abe Bailey, used his resources to give black writers an outlet for their creativity. Kalane is respectful of Bailey, who made possible the dissemination of morale and information vital to resistance against the regime.

Bailey sold City Press and all his publications, including Drum, in 1984 to Naspers. It was a historic move, especially since the National Party held 74,000 Naspers shares. Cape-based Naspers, from its beginnings at odds with the Transvaal and Free State verkrampte version of Afrikanerdom, had by the late 1960s begun to define a relatively liberal verligte stance, more and more convinced that classical apartheid was unworkable.

It was a contentious takeover, and the book begins with Kalane driving Qoboza to a meeting with Naspers boss Dawid de Villiers at the Landdrost Hotel. After the meeting, the pair were in a state of shock, wondering if they should resign and whether the paper’s journalists would stick with it.

Kalane comes to approve of the Naspers takeover, presenting it as part of the beginning of the verligte triumph over the verkramptes that eventually led to negotiations for a nonracial democracy.

Questionable relations between black newspapers and white capital are hinted at but not explored. Bailey might have been the facilitator, but he paid apartheid wages, Kalane reveals. Under Naspers, City Press was given fewer resources than its Afrikaans flagships, a fact Kalane does not mention.

Kalane also elides some of the drama that played out in the newsroom, such as the decision, under the editorship of Vusi Mona, to publish Ranjeni Munusamy’s article on whether Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy, which resulted in a commission of inquiry.

Kalane’s lack of critical distance from Naspers blinds him to the cynicism of the Afrikaner conglomerate, which fired De Villiers for not supporting the NP soon after it bought City Press. Naspers has made all the right moves to outgrow its reliance on the apartheid state and emerge as a towering presence on the JSE. Yet it refused to appear at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while Kalane was editor and 127 Naspers journalists made a separate apology for having given succour to apartheid.