Editors must be taken to task

Saturday, 15 March 1997

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me

BACK in 1980, an opinionated teenage university dropout clad in tired jeans and a worn T-shirt strolled into the staff restaurant at the Daily News building, 85 Field Street, Durban.

It was his first day at work as a stringer on Post Natal. Breakfast was the most important meal of the day, so he sat down to a plate of bacon and eggs, grilled tomato, toast and orange juice. And as he stuck a forkful of toast into his mouth, a group of men in overalls surrounded his table.

"Your canteen's upstairs!" one of them said to him.

He continued eating. An anonymous finger prodded him in the ribs. "I'm talking to you, koelie. Your canteen is upstairs. This is our canteen."

He put down the fork, looked the speaker in the eye, and said quietly: "One of these days, you'll all work for me."

One by one, the group dispersed.

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Newspaper editors of that day have been outraged of late that their record has been called to account. After all, they opposed apartheid, did they not?

Well, the Sunday Times did not support apartheid, but the subliminal message was clear. Their back page pin-up used to be called the "Border Bird" in support of the "boys on the border". This was support for one side in a war between white South Africa and black Africa ­ the war against apartheid.

But there were some editors who did not take sides and strove in the finest tradition of journalism for objectivity. One of these was Sunday Tribune editor Ian Wyllie.

The Tribune newsroom under Wyllie had a sense of excitement. The question that hung over every story was not "Will this get us into trouble," but rather, "How much can we get away with?"

When Koevoet and SADF troops met in the darkness and shot each other to shreds, each believing the other was SWAPO, it was the Tribune that carried the story. When Leabua Jonathan's Lesotho government was toppled by a South African-backed coup, it was the Tribune that carried it.

Which brings me to the opening quote from Pastor Martin Niemoeller, a victim of the Nazis. When the 1986 State of Emergency muzzled the press, Ian Wyllie printed those words on the front page. It was a cry of defiance ­ a promise that the message would be carried in spite of censorship.

Some weeks later, on the Saturday night before I left this country, William Saunderson-Meyer and I were driving home after putting the Tribune to bed.

Two small explosions, then a large one, rocked Durban.

We went back to the office. Wyllie was there and had stopped the presses. Two parcel bombs at the beachfront had been a decoy for an attack on the oil refinery at Merebank.

I went out to the refinery and shouted out the story over the two-way radio to Wyllie who took dictation himself.

There was a problem. It would be illegal to run the story unless the Bureau for Information said the incidents had occurred. Wyllie decided to run it anyway. At the last minute, confirmation from the Bureau came through. Only the Tribune carried the story.

I was the teenager in the canteen. Sixteen years on, I know there are many editors who need to be taken to task for their silence during apartheid.

Ian Wyllie was not one of them. For this, he has my respect, and my thanks.