On December 20, I sent the final page of my 200th edition of Grocott’s Mail to press in the basement of the building. The press began clunking. It was with a heavy heart that I shut down my computer for the last time and became the former youngest editor of the country’s oldest newspaper.
Some readers thought I had become a casualty of the ongoing quarrel between the newspaper and the Makana municipality. Not so. In fact, I regret leaving without seeing the tussle to its bitter end because this is a fight worth fighting; at stake is press freedom.
The confrontation is now headed for court — something that the newspaper tried to avoid. If I had to pinpoint the beginning of the souring of relations, I would say it was after we published details of a scathing Auditor General’s report claiming that R13,7-million could not be accounted for. Our report angered municipal manager Pravine Naidoo. And not long after it appeared, the municipality decided that it would no longer do business with Grocott’s Mail. (This was before Minister Pahad threatened to withdraw government advertising from the Sunday Times.)
Politics, of course, is an intriguing world of back-crossing and double-stabbing. A few months after the advertising boycott, Naidoo received his comeuppance. One morning he was ordered to hand in his municipal cellphone and remove his car from the bay reserved for the MM. After six years as the municipal manager, Naidoo was between jobs. He lodged an urgent high court application to be reinstated in his R850 000-a-year-job.
Naidoo’s court application was rejected. But I read in a recent edition of the newspaper, of which I’m now just an ordinary subscriber, that he has appealed against the decision. He wants his job back because, as he told the court, although he had suffered personally, his own woes were nothing compared with how Makana would suffer without his bottom in the hot seat. Good ol’ Pravine — always putting his city first.
My story about whether Naidoo really has the interests of Grahamstown at heart starts with a ringing phone. It was October 18, a Thursday morning, when the phone rang. I stared at it with loathing. Deep into the Grocott’s production day a ringing phone is bad news. It means a late advert has just been booked, which means shuffling stories, juggling photos and redoing a page’s layout.
The cut-off for booking adverts is Wednesdays at 1pm but, like most community newspapers, Grocott’s can’t afford to turn away ads. I always tried to be accommodating, but this Thursday was different. We were one designer down and we needed to squeeze a lot of news into a tight newspaper. More adverts mean less space for news. I was about to tell our advertising manager, Ronel Bowles, “Sorry, no can do,” but I didn’t have the chance.
Ronel was bursting with excitement. Her tone was a punch in the air, cartwheels down High Street and a whelp of you’ve-just-won-the-lotto delight. “The municipality,” she breathed — fireworks going off between pauses — “has booked an ad.”
In any other world, those would be six drab, dull, dry words. I leapt off my chair and did a jig on my desk (OK, I just yelled, “Whoo-hoo!” loudly). The municipality’s adverts were back. The ad pull-out had hit us hard financially. We had to freeze a reporter’s post, which meant one less job in Grahamstown.
At first, the municipality wouldn’t give us reasons for its boycott. Then, after a bit of badgering, officials agreed to meet us. That’s when Patrick Ntshiba, the councillor who chaired the session, confirmed my suspicion about the reasons for the ad pull-out — and almost borrowed a line from Seinfeld‘s famous Soup Nazi in the process. “Grocott’s is a launching pad to throw missiles against the leadership of the municipality and the ANC. We have evidence. We have taken a very political stance with regards to Grocott’s — no business for you.”
Naidoo droned on about how much he respected freedom of the press. But, no matter how you try to spin it, withdrawing advertising because you don’t like what’s being written is not showing a commitment to press freedom. It had been a short leap from disapproval to clampdown.
Naidoo said our concerns would be discussed at a mayoral meeting. I didn’t feel very hopeful. Which brings us back to the ringing phone, Ronel’s news about the municipality wanting to place a late ad and my jig (OK, “Whoo-hoo!”).
The notice the municipality wanted to place would cost just R420 — not worth the schlep — but as a gesture of good faith I agreed to accommodate it. We rearranged articles, juggled layouts and found a space for it in the newspaper. Films were made and the page was ready to be printed.
Then, about two hours later, the phone rang again. It was technical and infrastructural services director Dabula Njilo, saying the municipality wanted to pull the ad. Not because the information on the notice was incorrect; they were pulling the ad because the official who had placed it had forgotten that Grocott’s was on an advertising blacklist.
It’s too late, I explained. The page had been done. The electricity went off. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might have thought that the municipality had cut the town’s power to prevent us from producing a newspaper that carried their ad.
The power returned and so did director Njilo. “Listen,” he pleaded, “it was a terrible mistake. The MM is very angry. He is furious. We don’t do business with you. He insists that we stop it.”
I agreed to pull the advert on condition that the municipality paid a cancellation fee, the costs of our designer’s time, and the costs of the film and plates. Naidoo agreed to pay the bill, which came to about three times the amount that the advert would have cost. Of course, it wasn’t his money, it was residents’ money.
The notice, by the way, was about a nine-hour water interruption — information that residents would have found useful.
We published the news of the water interruption anyway, but it struck me that Naidoo would rather spite residents and not inform them that their taps would be dry than do business with Grocott’s. Now, does that sound like someone who has the city’s interests at heart?