Hot ink and hot air: the demise of a newspaper

1 04 2014

Since childhood, I have loved the smell of hot ink. Clutching my father’s hand, I would stagger down the Victorian lane where our regional newspaper’s press chugged like a dragon protecting its lair, and breathe in the silky, hot fumes, dreaming of putting those words from my head onto paper: having them stamped wetly onto newsprint, shortly to dry and immortalise themselves. Sometimes resident pigeons would stalk arrogantly through escaped splashes and their footsteps would mark ownership of lane and building alike: the stamp of an institution that was Proudly Pietermaritzburg.
That newspaper, then the Natal Witness, was part of the town’s identity. Once renowned for being a quality newspaper where only the maddest and best could survive, it fought many struggles over the years. Through centuries it housed some of the best journalists this country has ever seen: it survived wars, the total onslaught, and even, initially, the desertion by its owners in favour of capital. It has for a number of years clung to the remnants of a dignity no longer understood. But now, tired, it is in its death throes, too fatigued even to remonstrate as corporate storm troopers frogmarch remaining perceived recalcitrance out the building, ignominiously dumping journalists in steaming heaps on the pavement.
This is a small story that is part of a much bigger tale, that of the corporatisation of the intellectual. An intellectual is someone who uses his or her mind creatively, who thinks independently, comes up with ideas and may even try and find solutions to public problems. And such people can be deeply problematic in a corporate environment: they don’t listen and they won’t be put in ticky-tacky boxes. Noam Chomsky says the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on – because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions for which they work.
Two such journalists have been marched off the Witness premises so far this year: one for asking how (re)trenchments were justified when the editor was earning R126,000.00 per month, and another for having the audacity to ask for written reasons for his own retrenchment. Perhaps it was a little embarrassing for management to have to go back to that ink, though: the press has always carried the newspaper, and asset stripping is always an uncomfortable function to describe when people are suffering. When Media24 first bought into the newspaper and publishing company, they invested some extra R40 million to subsidise the new press – clearly both part of their strategy to expand their representation into KwaZulu-Natal, and acknowledgement that the ink was far more profitable than that lost ideal, news.
The irony in the situation, of course, is the overwhelming silence surrounding this somewhat major onslaught on printing and media in KZN – with the first frogmarch coinciding with Media24’s application to be able to cover the Oscar Pistorius trial, on the grounds of press freedom, no less. No stories are written. Virtually nothing appears in cyberspace. The only grubbing around happens in the streets of the Independent Group – and that’s among the small people on the ground, not those in the mahogany suites where the carpets are so thick and the walls so impenetrable that the only sound one can hear is the faint rustle of nests being feathered.
What we are left with is yet another newspaper sacrificed on the altar of profit, and massive retrenchments: no librarian, junior reporters dragooned into writing opinion pieces, too few sub-editors (which is undoubtedly why the “Witness Repoter” bylined a story this week), dwindling administrative staff, and yet another family business eventually dissected into its various components and auctioned off.
This isn’t an isolated story, but a global one. This is a world where corporatisation is overwhelming and cash is the bottom line. The problem is that to include intellectuals in any world, you need a system that values truth: a world where the ink is allowed to dry.





Roadtripping & Research

24 03 2014

Research road-tripping alone: the phrase is life, endured and known. It’s also one of the best ways of getting away on the spur of the moment when the Academy has just gotten Too Much.

And so it was, early one Wednesday morning, that I hit the road and left the green hills of Natal for the Free State, research on the agenda, files and notebooks filled with nacky tarradiddles and preliminary readings in the boot, and one thought on my mind: to garner information about a man long-dead, and to gain some much-needed existentialist perspective on my own life.

I left Pietermaritzburg with Brandfort in the Free State as my ultimate destination, although my base would be Bloemfontein. One forgets how big South Africa is until one hits the road: this trip would take me through the Midlands of Natal and on a gentle left curve around the mountains of Lesotho into the Free State. Planning on sticking to the N3 in order to get there as quickly as possible, I also wanted to get a feel for how my research subject, John Weston (1873-1950) must have felt travelling through this region, so many years ago.

The N3 – the main national road to Johannesburg for us Natalians – is one I have travelled many times before, and there is some comfort in looking for one’s favourite roadside landmarks: the spurting fountains at the foot of the Wagendrift Dam wall (named after a drift through the Bushman’s River used by wagons on their way to the Witwaterstrand Goldfields), crossing the Tugela River, and Van Reenen’s Pass which climbs the Drakensberg Escarpment, eventually spitting one into the grasslands surrounding Harrismith. Van Reenen village is home to the Llandaff Oratory, the smallest consecrated Roman Catholic church in the southern hemisphere (it seats just eight), and I fleetingly wondered whether Weston ever visited there: was he a religious or spiritual man? And what would he think of it today, when it punts itself as the church who will “marry anybody, any time day or night. We are the Vegas of chapels” (sic)?

Stopping briefly in Harrismith at a small café proclaiming “Best Biltong!” (it wasn’t bad), I asked how long it would take me to get from there to Bloem on the N5. “I think about two hours,” said the gap-toothed youth. “Try our ostrich, Tannie!” An hour later I still hadn’t gotten to Kestell: the maniacal road works between Harrismith and Kestell took an extremely long time. (Actually, most main roads in the province have road works: legend has it the money for the roads is depleted). Kestell nestles in the foothills of the Rooiberge in the Maluti Mountains and is really beautiful: from the road you can see the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church designed by the famous architect Gerard Leendert Pieter Moerdijk, who produced over 90 South African churches and is best known for the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Sandstone gives the village a pinkish tinge. I consider a library stop, but the road is calling.

Mountains to the left of me, undulating hills to the right. The cosmos begins: verges and pools of pinks and whites, begging to be bunched. Then the golden fields of sunflowers, promising riches as they lift their heavy heads to the midday sun, and then the rolling mealie fields, tassels whispering in the wind. I stop under a willow tree, just to gaze, next to a grey-haired businessman on a Harley. He is looping from Cape Town around the Free State and back again: Mossel Bay, Knysna, Port Elizabeth, East London, Mthatha, Kokstad, Underberg, Mooi River, Harrismith, Bloemfontein, Kimberly, Vryburg, Upington, Pofadder, Springbok, Clanwilliam, Citrusdal – places he thunders through or sleeps in, depending on whim. “This is how I rediscover time,” he tells me. “This is when I think.”

I, too, am thinking. Bethlehem passes, Paul Roux announces antiques, Senekal blurs by. Winburg flashes past and I know Bloemfontein is not that far away. So many people have walked or driven these roads in so many ways for so many years; the road is straight, the fields stretch away into the horizon on either side, interrupted every so often by a small koppie. What drove Weston here?

I discover later large parts of the Free State and the Northern Cape provide perfect flying conditions, to the extent that international gliders flood the area from November to January each year. Weston was a pioneer of aviation in South Africa, founding the South African Aeronautical Society in 1911, as well as an engineer, farmer, soldier and philosopher. He took his family around the world on fanstastical caravan trips: “Our system of education is altogether wrong…Children are crammed to become glorious gramophones, and end in being failures in life because they cannot think.”

John and Lily Weston with (from left) Kathleen,  Anna and Max (date uncertain)

John and Lily Weston with (from left) Kathleen,
Anna and Max (date uncertain)

I think about Weston’s words, and the importance of critical and creative thought, in my strange accommodation in Bloemfontein. The hotel – with around fifty rooms – is virtually deserted. Outside decorations consist of plaster models of bovine skulls, and a koi pond completely fenced in and over with wire and large padlocks, and all dinners consist of indistinguishable stews. The electricity fails every evening and the generator doesn’t work: I continuously expect Norman Bates to knock at the door and offer me a candle.

It rains every day, and my foray into Brandfort begins with my taking the wrong turn-off and ending up lost in the middle of nowhere. I drive 40kms of dead straight dirt road without seeing a live being other than birds and one guinea fowl. Not even Google Maps will help me… my very own Hitchcock movie. The sense of melancholy is overwhelming. Suddenly a koppie appears on the horizon, and my navigational skills kick in: it has to be a town!

Indeed, it is Brandfort, an intriguing and very pretty tiny village with hidden depths. Everyone has a garden, and everyone seems to have a story. There have always been stories here: the Anglo-Boer war saw the British incarcerate both Afrikaans women and children (15,500 of them died here), and black people in (separate) concentration camps; ANC freedom fighter Winnie Mandela was exiled here in 1977 and remained for nine years; Crystal Palace F.C. midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi was born here; apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was schooled and matriculated here; former president CR “Blackie” Swart farmed here; and Cornelius van Gogh (Vincent’s baby brother) died in a field hospital here in 1900 after being captured by the British during the Anglo-Boer War. Local legend has it that six of Van Gogh’s paintings are somewhere in the village…

And, of course, there is Weston. He lived here for many years, in a house still standing: the Admiral John Weston House (locals call it the Vlieghuis). It is a restaurant and coffee shop now, quaint and colourful, and an excellent amateur museum. Weston’s workshop – the site of the first aeroplane assembled in Africa (1911) – has been rebuilt as it was burned down (allegedly by German sympathisers) in 1913. Turns out he moved to Brandfort because “it’s the right place in Africa to fly”, and because the silence appealed to him.

Admiral John Weston House, Brandfort

Admiral John Weston House, Brandfort

These first two days launched me on a research adventure: my interest is deep, and the narratives involved are extremely complex and very human. The rest of my Free State road trip was spent chatting to people, taking copious notes, and spending much time in archives and libraries, needing weeks, not a couple of days. Weston assembled his plane and took people flying over 100 years ago: he was a fascinating man by all accounts, and I’m hooked for all sorts of reasons. So, watch this space!





A bad day for Jacob Boo Boo

11 12 2013

I was also late for Nelson Mandela’s funeral: in fact, I arrived shortly before Barack Obama. But that’s ok for two reasons – I had been wading through exam results at work, and I’m not a famous president. Eventually flying into the lounge trailing tablets, documents and colleagues, I was a little discombobulated to find the Hedonist watching a B-grade TV series on his laptop, and the Hulk, the Smartass and the Big Daddy engrossed in Top Gear.
“Boys!” I shrieked. “Change the channel! I’m so embarrassed!” Little did I know how embarrassed I would feel a couple of hours later.
We immediately switched over to the FNB stadium. It was pouring with rain and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was pretty inaudible, partly because of what was clearly a mediocre sound system, and partly because the crowd was obviously getting bored.
Then American gospel musician Kirk Frankland took the stage. Or, rather, took the field, trailed by some poor bloke with an umbrella desperately trying to keep up. “Why aren’t they using South African musicians?” asked the Smartass. No one had an answer. “I’m sure I’ve seen him before somewhere, though,” said the Sassy Editor thoughtfully. “Who will be a witness?” screamed Kirkland, and the crowd stamped and cheered in appreciation. The cameraman clearly had an answer: he immediately focussed in on a large gentleman with an even larger automatic rifle. “That’s it!” said Sassy Editor cheerfully. “He was on Oprah, quite a while ago, talking about how he gave up his porn addiction!”
Our American theme continued with the arrival of Obama under an Avis umbrella, just in the nick of time. “I bet he was waiting outside in his car,” muttered the Smartass. “I would have.” Obama, always a brilliant orator, delivered a passionate valediction and didn’t seem at all phased by the steady trickle of departing mourners. He reminded us of the leadership and humility of Mandela, and the need for those remaining to continue to engage with the inequities inherent in society. “Men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs,” he said, as a few other heads of state squirmed uncomfortably in their damp seats. Golly, I thought, what about Guantanamo Bay? But then I remembered that politicians’ promises are soon forgotten, if they win the hearts and minds of those who count.
And so the service ran on. The media contingent, braving ever-increasing inclement weather, produced a continuous flood of despondent tweets and Facebook posts. The crowd’s growing restlessness developed into jeers and boos; many toyi-toyied on the spot, although that may have been an attempt to warm up. “I bet most of those people are only there to get out of work,” muttered the Exploited Postgrad. “We weren’t even given the day off!”
For those who did have the day off, they clearly wanted to use it once cold and boredom set in. The trickle of departing mourners flowed into a flood. Cyril Ramaphosa asked the comrades please to be patient and not leave, urging them to show the same discipline as would have Madiba, but he could neither plug the stream nor the banter: he eventually had to interrupt Pranab Mukherjee to tell a band to shut up. They left.
More technical problems surfaced when the Cuban translator’s mike broke. She carried on with poise. Unfortunately, the on-stage pretend sign language bloke didn’t break, but he, too, showed immense poise with his knacky hand flapping, resulting in confused and angered deaf people all over the world.
The crowd left in the stadium had cheered Ramaphosa. They had also cheered former presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk. When Jacob Zuma took the stage, the crowd booed. I almost felt sorry for him, until South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, urged journalists to ignore the boos: “Let’s not reward the small minded group that came here with the intention to “embarrass” SA by turning them into a story”, he tweeted. (Those in charge at the SABC clearly agreed – they banned all news footage showing the ANC in a bad light).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu chastised the babel once more. Those who had remained to the bitter end then trickled away, taking the boos, brollies and bad music with them into the afternoon, while above those heavy rain clouds remained.





Being the ‘Blade Gunner’ has its perks

18 02 2013

Oscar PistoriusInternational reporting about and commenting on the “Blade Gunner” murder allegations have reached saturation point, and the general hypocrisy underlying much of this raving leaves me completely nauseous.
Reeva Steenkamp, the face of Avon cosmetics and Tropika Island of Treasure participant, is dead. Her family is mourning; her boyfriend, South African international double amputee athletics legend Oscar Pistorius, has been arrested and charged with her murder. It’s an international news story: it’s being rammed in our faces through all forms of media, and everyone has an opinion.
Pistorius will appear in court on Tuesday. Steenkamp’s autopsy report has already been completed. Extensive forensic testing has been done, and one assumes these toxicology and other forensic reports will be fast-tracked through the system. The country, the world, needs answers for this heinous crime.

The same day she died, countless other South Africans were murdered, but their families will not be as lucky as Steenkamp’s. They will have to wait months for an autopsy report, and a good few years for any toxicology report, which last I heard, had a three-year backlog. In some cases, only then will police decide to press charges; only then can approaches towards closure be made, and questions answered. What an indictment these double standards are on our society.
At the beginning of October last year, my sister’s youngest daughter was found dead in her flat. Paramedics and police suspected foul play.
However, no fingerprints were taken. No forensic pathologist was present. No evidence was gathered. The “crime scene” was compromised. No senior police officer was present at the scene. The investigating officer was not present: indeed, the current investigating officer was appointed nearly ten days later.
In short, the South African Police Services acted in a most incompetent and unprofessional manner. They compromised the crime scene. The investigating officer now has no evidence with which to work. The constables present made insufficient statements, and now, when pressed, say they “cannot remember” any details of the scene.
Witnesses will be interviewed, and all of the evidence collected which concern’s Steenkamp’s death will be tested in court, allowing for a reasoned judgement. This is correct procedure and the function of the judiciary, and a vital part of any democracy. However, for this process to run smoothly, the police procedure and the evidence forming the basis of the State’s argument, has to be solid and competently processed. In my niece’s case, there is no evidence because of sheer incompetence, and hence no case, and no way of answering any questions. Ever.
In addition, this police incompetence has caused immense emotional trauma in our immediate and extended family, and the possible irretrievable breakdown of some relationships. Closure of any sort would have to be achieved through private investigative efforts, and this is prohibitively expensive. Local politicians from all parties are not interested. I have lodged two complaints about the way this case has been handled, one at the police station concerned and one through national government: to date, no one has responded to either.
In short, two mothers and two fathers are grieving the loss of their daughter at the moment. The one daughter was a public figure; the other one was not. The one daughter’s death is being competently investigated; the other death is not. Perhaps Steenkamp’s family is fortunate in the sense that the police station in their area is functional and competent, but a part of me still questions whether according preferential treatment to an individual because of social status is simply illustrative of the hypocrisy inherent in our society.





Bring back the dysphemism!

12 04 2012

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”: Yeats’ famous line is probably truer now that it was 100 years ago. Tact, diplomacy and sensitivity have been taken to such extremes that it has become almost impossible to be honest. We tend to keep quiet, avoid conflict at all costs, curl up in escapist cocoons, rather than speak plainly with integrity.

But it can be kind to be cruel sometimes. We need to face all the reality of life in the 21st century, embracing the wondrous splendour of our world along with the stark brutality and ugliness. If your best friend is being incredibly stupid, say so. She’ll thank you some day, even if she stops talking to you for a while. If the plumber does a lousy job, tell him he is an idiot and refuse to pay. If your plants don’t grow properly for no reason, swear at them – it works!  

We need, in short, to begin saying it as it is, even if we do come across a little brutal on occasion,

This is not what the education authorities in New York City are doing (see http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/03/26/war-on-words-nyc-dept-of-education-wants-50-forbidden-words-removed-from-standardized-tests/). Worried about certain words or topics making students feel unpleasant, they are requesting that a whole bunch of words be removed from city-issued tests.

This includes “dinosaur” because of its links to evolution and in case it upsets creationists; “Halloween” because it suggests paganism; “birthday” because it offends Jehovah’s Witnesses; references to some foods like “pepperoni” because it is offensive to people of some religions or cultures who don’t eat it;  “divorce” in case some kids’ parents are going through one; homes with swimming pools in case some kids don’t have one; in depth discussions of sport that require prior knowledge; nuclear weapons; occult topics (including fortune tellers); anything to do with parapsychology (so anything to do with ghosts, psychic people, near death experiences, reincarnation and so on); expensive gifts or vacations; religion; religious holidays and festivals (including Christmas, Yom Kippur and Ramadan); sex; alcohol, tobacco and drugs; sex; slavery; terrorism; vermin (rats and roaches); violence; war; witchcraft; and so it goes. The dumbing down of future generations continues.

I’m quite surprised they didn’t ban the word “stupidity” as well; not only are you never meant to say, “How could you have been so stupid!”, after your child has experimented with a kitten in a microwave and then been very upset at the result, but it is also a word frequently used to describe the people in administration who draft rules that the people who actually teach are meant to follow.

You could replace “toilet cleaner” with “custodial artist”, but no matter how inventive you are, this is still a person who is paid to clean up shit. And a “residentially flexible individual” is still a homeless person. Secretaries, for some reason, are now known as administrative assistants, and frankly anything with “admin” in it has negative connotations in the 21st Century, so I really don’t understand that one, particularly  because the term is derived from the Latin word secernere, “to distinguish” or “to set apart”, with the eventual connotation of something private or confidential. But for some reason this has now been considered a bad thing.

Come to that, I’m a short, fat woman – and would prefer not to be labelled “a simultaneously virtually and horizontally challenged female individual”. And if I’m mugged, I’ve been subjected to outrageous violence, not the unforeseen funding of the historically disadvantaged underclass.

I want to know if my kids are lazy; having someone write on their report card, “Christopher was severely motivationally depressed this term” doesn’t help at all. Why not just say, “Christopher was unspeakably lazy. In fact, he is a complete slacker who is driving me to early retirement, or at least a bottle of Johnny Walker”.

And calling someone a piece of white trash is somehow far more descriptive than yelling, “You piece of a member of the mutant albino genetic-recessive global minority (pause to take a deep breath) potentially recyclable leftovers!”

Plain speaking is healthy. Why blot out anger with Prozac, when it’s so much easier simply to speak one’s mind?

 





It’s a miracle…

22 03 2012

…I’m writing again!








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