A media story that is not over yet

Review: Vivien Horler

Paper Tiger, by Alide Dasnois & Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg)

We staff were pretty pleased when Dr Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers in 2013. For years the Irish owners of the group, headed by Sir Tony O’Reilly, had been exporting the company’s profits to shore up his failing media empire in the UK and Ireland.

Under O’Reilly, bureaus in London, New York and Washington were closed, as was the Argus Africa News Service. Newsrooms were juniorised and staff was shed. In 2011 the Media Workers Association of South Africa published a case study which pointed out staff numbers had dwindled from 5 223 in 1994, around the time the Irish bought the company, to 1 500.

Assets were stripped. The Pretoria News lost its presses and its printers, the old Argus garage building on its valuable site off Buitensingel Street was sold, followed by the Newspaper House presses and then Newspaper House itself.

When I started as a junior reporter in the 1970s, the Argus boasted three court reporters; a crime staff; defence, religion and shipping correspondents; political staff who covered Parliament as well as provincial and local authorities; education and health reporters; financial and property staff; an arts department; two women’s departments, each with its own women’s editor – which did seem a bit much; its own subbing pool and a well-staffed cuttings library.

By the time the Irish went, most of these had gone too. Newsrooms had been sharply reduced, the cuttings library closed and the cuttings dumped, and a general subbing pool served all the titles in the group.

At this stage the authors of Paper Tiger – Alide Dasnois, editor of the Cape Times, and Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape – found their jobs increasingly difficult. They write: “Editors’ roles became complicated: on one hand they were trying to bring out credible newspapers, on the other to protect their dwindling resources from cost cutting.”

So there was optimism when Survé bought the group. He said at the time he did not intend to make any major changes in his first 100 days of ownership while he assessed operations.

Late on December 5, 2013 – almost exactly 100 days later – President Jacob Zuma announced Nelson Mandela had died. By that time of evening newspapers across the group had largely finalised the next day’s morning editions, and now had to scramble to get the latest news into print.

As anyone who has followed this saga knows, different newspapers adopted different strategies. At the Argus editor Jermaine Craig opted to clear several pages including page one, page three and the “oped” comment page. Despite various claims to the contrary by people including former Cape Times reporter Tony Weaver and media commentator Ed Herbst, this was perfectly possible in spite of time and equipment constraints.

Dasnois, on the other hand, famously chose to leave the Cape Times as it was and instead carry the Madiba news, comment and tributes in a four-page wraparound.

The Cape Times’s lead for the morning of December 6 – which remained in place inside the wraparound – was a report on the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into what she referred to as the “improper” awarding of a contract to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium. Survé was chairman of Sekunjalo.

The next morning Dasnois was effectively fired.

This was one of the first of a raft of changes to Independent News & Media. Many experienced reporters – of all colours – left over the next few years, some saying they had been forced out, others no longer feeling at home in the company. One of the first to resign was Whitfield, who left in early 2014, followed by most my colleagues and friends.

The subtitle of Paper Tiger is “Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers” but in fact the book focuses to a large extent on events at the Cape Times around and after the firing of Dasnois.

The book makes for gripping reading, although close followers of what has happened at Independent Newspapers will be familiar with a lot of the content, much of which has appeared in various media in the past six years.

However, in the style of recent local histories such as Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, Pieter du Toit’s The Stellenbosch Mafia, Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage, and Crispian Olver’s How to Steal a City, Paper Tiger provides a useful and  comprehensive record of events as they have unfolded.

But times roll on. In the past week the Public Investment Corporation, which provided a chunk of the money Survé used to buy the media company, filed liquidation proceedings in the Western Cape High Court against Sekunjalo Independent Media, which the company has rejected as “incompetent, mala fide, malicious and frivolous”.

Clearly this story still has a way to go.


If Mediterranean food is good, Cape Med must be better…

Review: Myrna Robins

Cape Mediterranean, by Ilse van der Merwe (Struik Lifestyle)

Neither heritage nor nostalgic – the contents of this colourful hardback focus on the fare you would find on long lunch  tables, set in vineyards, on patios or under beach umbrellas.

The meal starts with breads and spreads, goes on to tapas-like starters, followed by generous salads and vegetable dishes around crisp roasts or grilled seafood. Such appetising scenes can be found all over our country, but are more prevalent in the Western Cape, where the Mediterranean climate calls for seasonal, sustainable al fresco feasting.

The cuisine of the Mediterranean basin incorporates that of south-western Europe, the Middle East and north Africa, and is driven by olive oil, fruit, vegetables, seafood and wine, with some meat and dairy. Many South Africans who relish contemporary fare embrace CapeMed, as it also known, while often adding more poultry and meat than the northern cooks do. Continue reading

Damn… busters! Stripping the myth from truth

Review: Vivien Horler

Chastise, by Max Hastings (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)

Do you remember the book The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill? The movie of the book, made in 1955, has been described as the most popular British war film of all time.

It celebrated the destruction of two dams in the Ruhr valley in May 1943 by the use of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs”, a project designed to wreck Nazi Germany’s industrial heartland and hasten the end of World War II.

But Max Hastings, prolific British writer and former editor of the Daily Telegraph, says much of what we think we know about the Dam Busters is wrong.

People who embraced book and film – who included the young Hastings himself – loved the story because the raid seemed victimless, “save for the 53 dead among the gallant young men who carried it out. In truth, however, something approaching 1 400 people – almost all civilians and more than half French, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian mostly female slaves of Hitler – perished… more than in any previous RAF attack on the Reich.”

Many of those who died below the dam walls had heard the Lancaster bombers approaching and were taking shelter in cellars, only to drown as the water from the breached Möhne dam swept through their homes.

The raid on the dams took place on the night of May 16-17 1943. At this stage Britons were war weary, sick of austerity, separation and poor food. The tide of war was turning after the humiliation of Dunkirk, the Blitz, the earlier real threat of a German invasion and the loss of Tobruk. The victory at El Alamein in November 1942 was a major boost, later to be followed by the 8th Army’s landings in Italy (September 1943), but the D-Day landings were still a year away. The dam raid, says Hastings, lifted Britons’ spirits.

But at what cost? Hastings reminds us that most of the air crews of 617 Squadron (motto: Après moi le déluge – after us, the flood) were of the same age as gap-year students today, and most did not survive the war.

“They were unformed in almost everything save having been trained for flight and devastation: many still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner.”

But amid 21st century unease about the widespread bombing of civilians, we have to remember that Britain was literally fighting for her life. As an old man, Australian Dave Shannon of 617 Squadron referred to “sanctimonious, hypocritical and grovelling criticism about things that were done in a total war”.

Continue reading

Not so much a white man’s war

Review: Archie Henderson

The First Campaign Victory of the Great War, by Antonio Garcia (Hellion & Company)

When the centenary of the start of World War I came round a few years back, there was a scramble for heroes. The ANC government recalled there had been a tragedy called the SS Mendi; older English-speaking whites again remembered Delville Wood; and Afrikaners quietly recalled the Rebellion.

I doubt that the Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 was openly commemorated. Frankly few, if any, give a damn about it today. Even in Memel in the Free State, once the home ground of Christiaan de Wet, a volksheld of the Boer War and the Rebellion, and where there is the country’s only monument to the Volksopstand, there was not a murmur, as far as I am aware. Not even a biddag.

Sadly, no one remembered to remember the 3 000 black soldiers who fought in the invasion of German South West Africa (now Namibia). Even today, and even with an ANC government which is always conscious of a lack of military heroes, are they remembered. But without them, as Antonio Garcia hints at in his book, the South African victory might have been more difficult to achieve. They were used mostly as labourers, but even when they performed acts of heroism, such as when a South African artillery commander was rewarded with the DSO for one action, his black comrades, who had performed crucial support roles, went unacknowledged. Continue reading

Hair is a political issue – even if you’re just eight

Review: Natalie Cavernelis

Wanda, by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali, illustrated by Chantelle and Burgen Thorne (Jacana)

“Miss Bush! Miss Bush!” the boys on the bus shout at Wanda, pointing and laughing at her thick, kinky hair.

Eight-year-old Wanda is bright, strong and bold, but the relentless teasing she faces daily over her hair is wearing her down and making her miserable.

Parents of kids with hair like Wanda’s, and kids themselves, will easily identify with Wanda’s daily woes.

Wanda daydreams of having long and silky-smooth hair, “like a superhero cape”. She knows if she arrives at school with her hair loose and not tied up, her teacher will call it “a bird’s nest”.

Her natural confidence is taking a battering.

Continue reading

If it’s not all right, it’s not the end

Review: Vivien Horler

Travel Light, Move Fast, by Alexandra Fuller (Serpent’s Tail)

Alexandra Fuller and her mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, are en route from Budapest to Lusaka when they bump into an old friend at OR Tambo Airport.

It has not been an ordinary journey – father Tim Fuller became mortally ill while on holiday with Nicola in Budapest, and days before his death Fuller flew from Wyoming to be with them.

So there they are, Nicola and Fuller, known to the family as Bobo, at Joburg airport. Bobo’s carry-on luggage includes a small cardboard box marked: “Human remains. Handle with care. This way up.”

The friend, expecting Tim to be there somewhere – as indeed he is – looks around for him. Says Nicola: “I’m afraid Tim’s on Bobo’s hip.” She pauses and adds: “You remember my daughter Bobo? No, of course not. She wasn’t middle aged when you last saw her.”

The friend’s eyes swivel to Bobo’s box and then widen. Fuller writes: “I imagine it’s fair to say that however shocking the change I’d undergone since Harriet had last seen me, it was nowhere near as shocking the change Dad had undergone since she’d last seen him.” Continue reading

Forget Vietnam – the US fought more deadly wars

Review: Archie Henderson

The Earth is Weeping: The epic story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Atlantic Books)

America’s longest war was not Vietnam, Iraq or even Afghanistan, where US troops have been fighting since 2001. The longest war was fought on American soil, virtually from the time Europeans landed in the New World and against a variety of indigenous people, known first as Indians, more pejoratively as Redskins, and only recently as Native Americans. It was a civil war before the Civil War.

Hollywood and Louis L’Amour, among others, would distort that war. Indians were often cast as barbarous villains resisting progress. I should know; I was a victim of cowboy movies and cowboy books that shaped a young mind. Then along came Dee Brown with his book Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 that changed perceptions of that war, and turned us into bleeding hearts. Continue reading

A life unplugged

Review: Vivien Horler

The Way Home – tales from a life without technology, by Mark Boyle (Oneworld)

Irishman Mark Boyle is an outlier – he does things differently.

A few years ago, as an experiment, the business school graduate decided to go for a year without using any money, which resulted in a book The Moneyless Man.

Starting in 2013 his next “experiment” – one whose parameters are a little less clear  – was to give up technology. No cellphone, no computer, no car, no electricity, no fridge, no running water. The result is this book, its manuscript written entirely in pencil. Continue reading

Saving Ningaloo and other meditations

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton (Penguin)

Anyone who has read Tim Winton’s recent novel The Shepherd’s Hut knows that he is a phenomenal writer.

He would seem to be best known in his native Australia for his 1991 novel Cloudstreet, but The Shepherd’s Hut (reviewed by The Books Page on October 14 2018) is the first of his books I’ve read, and I thought it was brilliant.

Which is why I bought The Boy Behind the Curtain, a collection of essays, on a recent visit to Australia.

Winton has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice, and has won the Australian Miles Franklin award four times – that award is named after the author of the delightful and quirky novels My Brilliant Career (1901) and My Brilliant Career goes Bung (1946). Continue reading

The doctor who unravels the deads’ secrets

Review: Vivien Horler

Unnatural Causes – the life and many deaths of Britain’s top forensic pathologist, by Dr Richard Shepherd (Penguin Books)

unnatural causes

Four people were in the vehicle accident which claimed the life of Princess Diana in Paris in 1997, and three of them died.

Paradoxically, according to top British forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd, the princess was the least seriously injured of the four.

The driver, Henri Paul, and the princess’s lover, Dodi al Fayed, were killed instantly. The Al Fayed’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, the only person in the car who was wearing a seatbelt, was seriously injured. But Princess Diana was conscious and speaking when the ambulance arrived, and as a result the paramedics concentrated on Rees-Jones.

But what no one knew was that the princess has sustained a tiny tear in a vein deep in one of her lungs, which slowly began to bleed. Continue reading