Benjamin Pogrund on the Rand Daily Mail: Former Deputy Editor Reflects on the Newspaper’s Critical Role in the Anti-Apartheid Movement
Guest post by
Benjamin Pogrund, former deputy editor, Rand Daily Mail
[Editor’s note: For decades Benjamin Pogrund served as the Rand Daily Mail’s African Affairs Reporter. He closely covered the issues and events that profoundly impacted South Africa’s black population, including the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. Pogrund later served as Deputy Editor from 1977 until the Mail’s closure in 1985. In the comments below, Pogrund—recipient of the 2005-06 Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award—provides firsthand insight into the outsized role the Rand Daily Mail played during the struggle to end apartheid.]
The Rand Daily Mail was ahead of its time in reporting and exposing apartheid evils and in opposing oppressive government. This is why it was shut down.
The Mail was always a contradictory newspaper: although owned by mining interests from its start in 1902, it was known for siding with the underdog – which, for the first two-thirds of its existence, meant the white underdog.
That changed in 1957 when Laurence Gandar—a quiet, reserved man—became editor. Little was expected from him except professional journalism. But he proved to have radical ideas and compassion, and he had an inner core of steel. Gandar dissected apartheid with deep and brilliant writing that electrified the country.
Gandar took his pioneering into the news columns, assembling a staff of journalists whose political views stretched from left to right but who shared a commitment to fair and honest reporting, investigation and robust comment. The newspaper became the pacesetter in illuminating dark corners of South Africa and gave hope to blacks by pointing to a new direction for the country. It transformed itself, the rest of the Press and deeply influenced the political scene.
The board of (white) directors soon turned against Gandar and in time got rid of him. His successor, Raymond Louw, made his own singular contribution: he invested the Mail with a tough news sense while retaining its policy strength.
Integral to this was that the Mail turned the newspaper adage, “When in doubt, leave out,” on its head. Instead, as the authoritarian government’s restrictions grew on free publication, the newspaper sought to get as much into the open as possible. It wasn't always consistent; but right up to the end, even when tight laws and controls were throttling the Press, the Mail ensured that no-one would ever be able to say that they had not known about the ravages of Afrikaner Nationalist rule.
The Mail was admired by most South Africans of all colors and was honored by its international peers. The reason for respect was why it was loathed by many, but by no means all, within the white community, and they finally prevailed in getting the commercial owners to close it in 1985.
It's exciting to know that with digitization the Rand Daily Mail's treasure store of information about crucial years in the old South Africa will now be more widely available.