War of Words
Memoir of a South African Journalist
Benjamin Pogrund
Seven Story Press. 381 Pages. $26.95.
I did not know Laurence Gandar. I was barely a year old when he began his stint as Editor of the Rand Daily Mail on October 1, 1957. By the time he was fired 12 years later, he had made his mark on history and had probably become the editor most hated by the ruling National Party. I was finishing primary school and looking forward to high school when his employers dismissed Gandar in an obvious attempt to silence the most left wing (by South African government standards, at least) of newspapers.

At that time I was unaware of his or his paper’s existence. In our household, going without a daily newspaper was just another fact of life as for millions of blacks in apartheid South Africa. I did not know then that the Mail, as his paper was known, was published in Johannesburg and had become the most vociferous critic of the white minority government. There were more important things than newspapers for many black folks to consider.

Later, much later, I began to learn about Gandar and the role he’d played in the old South Africa. Sadly, his contribution to press freedom in our country is not widely known. That’s why Benjamin Pogrund’s book is so important, even if it’s essentially about Pogrund’s beloved Mail and his life as a reporter, a journey which would not have been possible if Gandar had not been at the helm at the Mail when it started.

Although Gandar fought in North Africa and Italy in World War II and held the rank of captain as a brigade intelligence officer in the Sixth South African Armored Division, he was not considered to be a courageous visionary. Perhaps those who appointed him and thought he would perform a rescue operation were blinded by the fact that he had been recruited from public relations. If this were the case, they should have looked instead to his service in the army. This was a brave man who took his newspaper to new heights, changing it from a publication written by whites for whites into one which blacks accepted as their champion.

No wonder, then, that when the Mail was closed in 1985, Thami Mzwai, one of South Africa’s most radical and influential black journalists, wrote: “From one’s high school days the Mail had a special place in the hearts of the black community. It was the first paper to regard them as human beings. It fought for them. Its blend of inspirational and aggressive writing was the talk of the times. For one to be seen tucking it under his arm was a sign of intellectualism. Whether one could read or not did not matter. Even reporters from the Mail were at some stage regarded as a cut above other reporters. If you announced yourself as from the World (a black newspaper) people would look at your feet. When from the Mail you stood a good chance of getting a free drink and unbounded hospitality. The Mail as a flagship of black aspiration had made its mark.”

This epitaph might as well have been written in honor of Gandar. He fulfilled his dream of changing the Mail into a beacon of light, an instrument of change, and engine of reform because, as he told Pogrund, it “was absolutely essential to help keep up the spirits of the small embattled forces of liberal-minded people who might otherwise have been crushed, to demonstrate to blacks that there was at least one sizeable white institution that understood and was prepared to fight for the removal of their grievances, and to show the outside world that there were still some upholders of Western norms and values alive and kicking in South Africa.”

But standing up for the rights of those whom the government of the time viewed as subhuman exacted a price: Whites, the Mail’s traditional readership, deserted in droves as they were unable to stomach Gander’s hard-hitting editorials and his efforts to bring the realities of South Africa home.

According to Pogrund, Gandar was left bereft by the death of his wife, Isobel, in 1989 after 45 years of marriage. He contemplated suicide, but was excited by the birth of a grandson and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and chose life. Thank God he did. Although he died at age 83 in 1998, he had lived to see the release of Nelson Mandela, the birth of a truly democratic South Africa, and the demise of the National Party. Laurence Gandar was a great South African, a newspaper editor who was ahead of his time.

As I read Pogrund’s memoirs I became acutely aware of Gandar’s hand in shaping South Africa. Given all the changes that have taken place in South Africa since 1990, it’s so easy for contributions such as his to be forgotten. Pogrund reminds us of our debt to people such as him.

So, what about the rest of the Pogrund’s book? I found it an easy read, a book which those interested in South Africa will enjoy. While Gandar was scaling new heights as an editor, Pogrund was making a name for himself as a courageous reporter who was imprisoned, hounded by the South African security police, and spied upon by some colleagues. He had what most reporters yearn for—credibility. He enjoyed the confidence of Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Scoops became synonymous with his byline. Here are a few:

  • He was in the black township of Sharpeville on Monday, March 21, 1960 when the PAC staged a protest. Police fired on the crowd, killing 68 and wounding 186. The majority of them were shot in the back. He reported this story as it happened, not as the police wanted it to be reported.
  • He was the first to report on Nelson Mandela’s belief that it was futile to talk peace in light of the South African government’s show of force and intimidation.

Pogrund’s honesty and perception shine through. For instance, he thought then that Mandela was not a scintillating speaker, but one who impressed people with his sincerity and quality of his speaking.

One should not forget that Pogrund was seeing South Africa through white eyes from a liberal white newspaper’s point of view. This is understandable. However, writing from this perspective, or indeed from the black one, may blind an author. Pogrund says that the Mail’s exposé of conditions inside South African prisons led to an improvement of their plight. Though the investigation excluded Robben Island, the infamous prison where South Africa incarcerated political prisoners, he implies that its publication helped them as well. I’m not too certain if all of them would agree with this.

Still, I was impressed by Pogrund’s book. Sadly, it reminded me how much black journalists owe it to themselves, history and their country to write about their experiences. Their books might read differently than Pogrund’s.

Dennis Cruywagen, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is former deputy editor of Pretoria News, the only English daily newspaper published in the South African capital.

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