Musings and memories

2010-03-26 00:00

IT has been a great privilege to have edited The Witness for the past 15 years. While this newspaper’s readership footprint may be limited primarily to Pietermaritzburg and the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, its reputation extends far further.

This is partly due to its dedicated and gifted staff members, all in their way mavericks and idealists, who have won us coveted design and reporting awards at various competitions. And it is partly due to the strong liberal tradition that The Witness has always subscribed to.

This liberalism is not of the party-political kind but rather a broader sense of humanity that champions generosity, tolerance, freedom and the rule of law, and opposes authoritarianism of any sort. If the paper has a bias, it is for the powerless against the powerful, for without the possibility of being shamed publicly there are many unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Of editorship itself, there are as many styles as there are individual editors. Some are public, some are private. Some write copiously, some not at all.

About 10 years ago there was an editor in this province who was extremely public. Not a week passed without something written by him in his newspaper, or a photograph of him presenting an award, or an opinion expressed by him personally on a matter of public interest. This swaggering overexposure began to pall and a groundswell of disapproval rose up against him, fuelled primarily by e-mails, and before long he was gone.

Of the faceless variety, there can be no better example than William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker. For 35 years, from 1952 to 1987, almost invisibly, he charted the course of that elegant journal, his reputation based on his judgment, his courtesy and his quietness. The stellar team of writers that he assembled — including such names as J. D. Salinger, John Cheever, Edmund Wilson and Ved Mehta — all blossomed under his trust and tutelage. For more than three decades his spirit infused the magazine’s building in Manhattan, and even if staff seldom saw him, he was always there.

Given modern realities, editors of daily papers in South Africa today­ need to choose from the variety of responsibilities required of them and to forge their own identity. Far more than a byline, editorship involves working with a staff of journalists and a multitude of readers in pursuit of a better world. With this objective in mind, each individual­ must engage with a ceaseless stream of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and letters, and chair a relentless sequence of meetings, or what are rather grandiosely referred to as editorial conferences, while also keeping a nose to the news and an eye to the legal dangers that lurk in the wings. And no editor can afford to forget that he or she is dealing primarily with people who need to be respected and accommodated.

Within this topsy-turvy world I have at times attempted to write a fortnightly column but before long other demands have intruded and my intentions have foundered. Also­, unlike most of my associates, my interests have not been linked primarily to politics, and on those occasions when I have written, I have chosen topics as varied as reflections on Auschwitz, studies of colonial meltdowns in Algeria, Ireland and Zimbabwe, thoughts on the importance of family history, and tributes to Pieter Pieterse, Guy Butler, Killie Campbell and Bhambatha kaMancinza Zondi.

A characteristic of The Witness is the particularly close relationship that it enjoys with its readers. With nearly half of its sales going to subscribers, there is a degree of intimacy between the newspaper and its “family” that is enjoyed by few, if any, other papers in South Africa.

This closeness brings with it an added responsibility, and when I cast my mind back over the years I am reminded of examples of intimacy between readers and the position­ of editor, rather than specifically myself, that with hindsight seem remarkable. Beyond the usual­ daily interactions, some agitated or critical and others confiding or approving, as editor I have been asked for advice on a multiplicity of issues. Even spouses with errant partners have at times sought counsel. And some fellow KwaZulu-Natalians who were considering emigrating have wanted to know if I thought they had a future in this country.

At dusk one evening, at our then offices in Longmarket (now Langa­libalele) Street, I received a telephone call from a former resident of the midlands who had recently emigrated to Australia. In what she called the madness and dislocation of her family’s departure, many heirlooms had been unthinkingly put up for auction, and she was inquiring whether as editor I thought an advertisement in The Witness would successfully encourage the purchasers to sell them back to her again. How was “Dear ’Maritzburg?” she asked, and when I described the night settling on the city, with the mynahs chattering at their roosts in the trees in the Tatham Gallery gardens, over the telephone line from Australia she wept at her loss of it all.

Perhaps the most dramatic occasions have involved firearms. I remember when a Pietermaritzburg businessman who had fallen on hard times, and who felt that in its coverage The Witness had contributed to his misfortune, talked his way into an interview room with a shotgun wrapped in a blanket. At first he kept the weapon hidden, like a parcel that he had been compelled to bring with him, and when he unwrapped it there was momentary concern, but the tenor of our deliberations was not vicious and for more than an hour a reporter and I listened to his anguish and his anger at the world.

The most poignant of all involved a man who was waiting to see me when I arrived at work one morning. He was deeply agitated and wanted to talk. It soon emerged that the previous day an appalling tragedy had befallen him. Having earlier foiled an armed robbery in his shop, he had in the flat above the premises re-enacted the drama for his family and in the process his pistol had gone off and his young son had been shot dead.

For the whole night he had tramped the streets of the city with the pistol on him, considering whether or not he should kill himself. Before dawn he had bought a copy of The Witness in which he had read a brief report of the incident, and had then decided to confront the editor. At length in my office he confessed his remorse, his devastation and his self-hatred at what he had done, and all I could do was offer­ ineffectual words of consolation. He then left, his pistol still with him. I often wonder what happened to him, and whether he was able to pick up the pieces of his life.

As I prepare to hand over to my successor, I am conscious of the shadows of my predecessors down the corridor of time. Because The Witness is 164 years old, they form a long procession: Buchanan, Ridley­, Smith, Statham, Aylward, Longlands, Thompson, Rose, Young, Skelton, Potter, Calpin, Johnston, Talbot, Lennox­-Short, O’Shea, Prestwich, Eldridge­, Steyn, Willers, until I took over in 1994. Next week, fresh from his duties on the Sowetan in Johannesburg, Fikile Moya arrives at our Willowton offices, and on Thursday the baton passes to him. Stylish, energetic­ and inquiring, he will bring a new vigour to this venerable newspaper, and I wish him well.

• John Conyngham is to take up the position of group editorial director of The Natal Witness, and a place on the company’s board.

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