Image for The Chronicle 53: The Wetstone

A story of journalism, once! Number 49 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler


CHRISTMAS approached, but Don Bentley was thinking not of the Chronicle’s annual staff party at a local brewery, or the Christmas parade down Liverpool Street in Hobart. Sitting in the Chronicle newsroom late one evening he was thinking of a white Christmas long ago, one in South Africa during the apartheid white-supremacy era.


The singing of ``I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’’ had become an ironic joke in the newsroom of the Star, or at least some sections of it. It was not that snow was ever expected on the Transvaal Highveld at that time of year, summer. The song was a commentary on the office Christmas party that excluded the journalists’ black colleagues, by law.


In the white-ruled South African of the 1970s, apartheid was something you learned to live with. It troubled Bentley, of course, but it was not his problem. He salved his conscience by asserting he was a visitor, an observer, and it was not his fight.


But the fight would come to him one Christmas in the most remarkable of circumstances.


The owners of the Star prided themselves in their opposition to apartheid, voiced in their newspaper group’s publications each day, and one year took steps to break down segregation’s barriers within their own building. The office Christmas party, a time for all colleagues to get together at the end of the year, was the obvious setting for this experiment in South African social policy.


Looking at the fine print of the apartheid legislation it became clear there was nothing to stop the Star from having a social gathering of black, coloured, Indian and white staff on its own property, and provide alcohol at that. So the party was given the go-ahead with much anticipation, but even then its significance in the context of South Africa was lost on Bentley. He was merely looking for a good time at the company’s expense, but at the same time looking to avoid all the women who had landed him in trouble in previous years.


Bentley had already spent three Christmases in South Africa, but the annual wetstone had presented problems of its own for the young reporter from Britain. It had nothing to do with politics and racial ideology, more to do with drink and sex. For the previous three years Bentley had gotten hopelessly drunk on the free booze and ended up in bed with not so much strangers but women from other departments he did not know by name. He couldn’t remember the detail of these encounters but after each Christmas party an embarrassed Bentley had spent the next 12 months avoiding departments in the Star building where the women in question worked.


One year he had to keep his head down as he passed classified advertisements, the next he avoided accounts, sending someone else to collect his out-of-pocket expenses. After the third party, steering clear of the cuttings library proved particularly difficult for a young reporter with stories on the go. Bentley’s work began to suffer, and he was under instruction to go easy at the wetstone, to stay, if not on his own his feet, in this own bed.


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From a single African reporter to cover black politics, Harry Tshabalala, the black staff at the star had grown in the early 1970s after the newspaper had launched an edition for the townships. And this fuelled a growing agitation from the white journalists at the Star to have more contact socially with their black colleagues.


By law, Africans could not visit white-owned restaurants and bars and so there was no social contact between black and white reporters, except for the occasional party at a private home. These could present problems for black reporters who had to travel home to the outlying townships of Soweto and Alexandria, where there was no public transport at night.


When it came to partying, segregation certainly made an impact on the lives of both black and whites. The journalists had already managed to circumvent, or bend the laws to make their union a multi-racial one, and meetings of the South African Society of Journalists had become another contact point between black and white.


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The wetstone, although now open to all Star employees, was an institution rooted firmly in the traditions of the printers, practitioners of an ancient craft known for its clannishness and exclusivity. When Bentley thought of printers, the word tribalism came to mind. To reinforce this exclusivity in South Africa, the trade of printer was reserved for whites.


The printers, a large proportion of them from the Afrikaner white tribe that supported the government, were not entirely happy about the multi-racial wetstone when it was announced. On the day of the party, however, if there was any tension in the air, Bentley had not detected it. He was more concerned about avoiding trouble of his own, the South African drinks that had caused him so many problems in the past, Mellowwood brandy and Natal cane spirit. He stuck to the safer ground of Lion and Castle beers and, on another front, avoided the women of the classifieds, the library, accounts and circulation; circulating instead with his black colleagues.


A main player in the integration of black and white had been Lambert Prentice, the Star’s religious affairs correspondent. Befitting his role on the newspaper, Prentice carried the air of a Church of England country parson about him. A youngish man in his early thirties, he strolled between desks for a chat, as though on pastoral rounds.


When he first joined the Star, Bentley had been a sub-editor, and among his duties was to work among the printers on the stone, the wide metal tables where lead type was assembled into pages. The stone took is name from the polished, flat slabs of stone on which print was originally assembled.


Bentley, like the other sub-editors, had drank with the printers in their waterhole in a pub near the Star building after work, a tradition he continued into his reporting days. In the pub he had heard grumbles about Africans being invited to the wetstone, but had not taken them seriously. So it was something of a shock when Lambert Prentice rushed up to him at the wetstone, agitated and upset.


``We got big problems with Harry Tshabalala, Don, you gotta get over there quick.’’


‘‘What gives?’’ asked Bentley.


``It’s Big Vic,’’ continued Prentice, referring to one of the printers, Vic Smith, a towering man who had been a formidable rugby union player.


Bentley was only half listening, the drink now - even if it was only beer - beginning to take its toll, to blunt his senses, his concentration.


``Don, this is serious. It’s Big Vic ...’‘


``What about Big Vic? He’s okay, he’s my mate.’‘


``Don, Big Vic’s got a gun. He says he’s going to shoot Harry Tshabalala.’‘


Bentley looked across the crowded floor of the Star canteen, where the wetstone was held, the tradition of it being held in the print shop, with beer spilled on the stone, long consigned to history.


``Fuck,’’ said Bentley.


He put down his beer can and headed across the floor, looking for Big Vic and Harry Tshabalala.


Although he had an English name, Big Vic Smith was of Afrikaner stock, growing up in the white working-class districts of Johannesburg’s southern suburbs. He views on segregation found support among English-speakers in the print works, many from the former northern and southern Rhodesias.


``Fuck,’’ said Bentley again. When he reached Big Vic, he could see a huge bulge under his coat, that of a Magnum. Tshabalala had not seen the gun’s outline, looking Big Vic straight in the eyes, but he did not have to be told it was there.


``No kaffirs, no kaffirs at our party,’’ Big Vic shouted in a booming voice.


Harry looked scared, but stood his ground.


``And this one, he’s a cheeky kaffir,’’  said Big Vic.


``It’s okay, Vic, calm it. It’s only a party,’’ said Bentley.


``But it’s our party. It’s not for kaffirs’‘.


Bentley put his arm around Harry Tshabalala, and steered him away. Big Vic had his hand under his coat now, and he was joined by another group of printers, half of them drunk, no doubt some of them armed like Big Vic. They stood in silence around Big Vic, staring in Tshabalala’s and Bentley’s direction.


``Fuck,’’ said Bentley to Prentice.


``We gotta get Harry out of here.’‘


``How about the other Africans?’’

   
``No worries with them,’’ said Prentice, looking about him. ``They have kept their distance. I just think Harry gave something back, gave Big Vic a bit of mouth. You know, Big Vic said something to him at the bar, and Harry didn’t just avoid him, go about his business. Harry’s got to say something. Nothing serious, but Harry’s not going to be intimidated. It’s his party, too.’’ 


Bentley agreed, and was now thinking about how they were going to get Harry out of the party, and out of the building without any more drama. 


``Back stairs,’’ Bentley whispered to Prentice. ``Back ones, down to the car park. Not front stairs that go near the works.’‘


Prentice looked towards the rear doors of the canteen, which indeed led directly to the underground car park, three floors down. There Harry would be safe. The rear of the underground car park was the preserve of the African drivers, who had rest-rooms there. They were Zulus and even the printers with guns would not venture there,  looking for Harry.


``Ja, back stairs,’’ said Prentice.


Bentley instructed Prentice to usher Harry Tshabalala to the back of the canteen. Meanwhile, he wandered over to Big Vic and the printers gathered around him.


``Yes, kaffirs at the wetstone, I know it’s hard but it’s what they call progress.’‘


Bentley cringed at using the word kaffir but it was the only way he felt he could communicate with the printers, to cover the retreat of Harry Tshabalala.


``Ja, kaffirs,’’ said Big Vic again, ``Kaffirs at our wetstone.’‘


Bentley glanced behind him and could see that Prentice and Tshabalala had vanished. He hoped they were running down the stairs at that moment, heading to the basement and the safety of the Zulus. Bentley still had the printers’ attention, and was relieved they had not given chase.


Bentley left the printers, now gathered among themselves in a corner of the canteen, to their grumbling and cursing and went to the bar. He was in need of a drink, a strong drink, not Lion or Castle lager. He asked the barman for a cane spirit, and looked about him.


Bentley’s eyes fell on a rather attractive young woman from the Star switchboard. She was flashing Bentley a smile …