The phone rang two or three times and Don Bentley was not in a hurry to lift it. He sat at the only seat in the sub-editors’ department of The Star, Johannesburg, and the ringing phone was a constant nuisance. As the newest recruit to the subs’ team, the phone and answering it went with the turf.
``Hello, subs,’’ said Bentley eventually, abruptly, irritation in his voice
``Ello,’’ said the man at the other end of the line. He spoke with a heavy Afrikaans accent.
``I want to speak with Patrick Pearson,’’ said the caller, rolling the ‘‘Rs’’ and the “Ls” in Patrick Pearson’s name.
Bentley called to Pearson across the room and when he came to the phone Pearson froze on the spot.
``Well if you must,’’ he said after listening to what the caller had to say for some minutes. As he put the phone down he stood in silence for a moment, looking out of the window at the traffic on Sauer Street outside. No sooner had he returned to his desk than two burley men came into the sub-editors’ department from the corridor outside. They wore crumpled grey suits and frowns.
``Meneer Pear-r-son, you are to accompany us to John Vor-r-ster Square police station,” one of the men, a security policemen, said to Pearson. As the sub-editor was led out the second police officer scanned the sub-editors’ desks, looking for typewriters. There were only two in the room, at a rear desk for editors wishing to use a typewriter to rewrite copy. The police officer fed typewriting paper into these and slowly, deliberately, pressed the keys. He left with samples of the key’s impression on the paper.
Bentley had been in South Africa for about a year, as part of a working holiday on a continent he had fallen in love with during a previous trip to East Africa. It had been just that, a working holiday, and he had not given much thought to role of the press, and its power in South African society.
The arrest of Patrick Pearson, who had interviewed a banned black nationalist leader for an article for a London newspaper, brought home the dangers that journalists opposed to the government’s apartheid policy of black and white separation were exposed to in their daily lives. This was journalism at the sharp end and Bentley wanted to be a part of it.
Bentley had come to South Africa as first a sub-editor in the sports department of the Star, a post which also involved covering soccer matches during the football season. His talents as a sub-editor, though, had been noted and before long he was moved into the news sub-editors’ department. It was a promotion of sorts that had been to Bentley’s displeasure when it happened, because he had enjoyed the sports department and the occasional forays into writing about soccer. He had, after all, ambitions to return to reporting, and eventually had hopes perhaps to set up as a freelancer in Johannesburg, a market that he had discovered to his disappointment was an overcrowded one. His turn would have to wait and Bentley had decided to stick with sub-editing for a year before trying to convince the Star that he should go reporting.
Bentley had, meantime, written a couple of pieces for the Star’s opinion pages as part of a process to establish his credentials and credibility as a writer. One of these had concerned the issue of the day in South Africa, beyond the country’s racial politics, and that was the arrival of television.
The ``box’’ was still on the horizon of the South Africa of the early 1970s, although plans were well under way to build a television centre in Johannesburg and other assorted infrastructure, including provision of sets.
The absence of television in South Africa had a remarkable spin-off for Bentley. For a young man obsessed with and in love with the printed word in the form of newspapers, South Africa at the time was newspaper heaven. Foreign correspondents visiting South Africa immediately remarked the structure of the media in the country was as it had been in Britain and America decades previously. Evening and daily newspapers flourished, untroubled by the largely state-owned radio which did not make inroads into advertising revenue, at least in the way television would capture major advertisers when it arrived.
The Star, South Africa’s biggest newspaper, was in fact an evening publication, selling around 200,000 copies each afternoon. Not only was this newspaper journalism at the sharp end, politically, the Star made professional demands on its journalists, who had to meet strict deadlines throughout the day.
Bentley, when he worked as a messenger boy in Fleet Street a decade previously, had been thrilled by the sight of the London Evening News’ yellow vans dashing about the city to deliver newspapers, and to meet the commuter trains to the suburbs. He always wanted to work for such a newspaper, as a reporter, but the opportunity never presented itself in London. Now he was on the inside, a witness to the remarkable birth each day of this chronicle of a city’s 24-hour life.
The opinion piece Bentley had written about the arrival of television, recalling the Bentley family’s first television in the 1950s, led to the Star asking Bentley if he wanted to become a reporter. Someone with a knowledge of television, and its impact on society, would be handy in the future. In the meantime, Bentley was assigned to the general news desk, covering stories that could range from mining accidents in the Johannesburg gold mines, to car crashes, to covering the courts and covering municipal affairs.
A requirement for reporters in South Africa was to be able to speak and understand the official language of Afrikaans, something taught to all schoolchildren, but this rule was waived for Bentley, on condition that he made an effort to learn some Afrikaans up to the level of being able to understand the radio news.
Bentley soon mastered basic Afrikaans and this made it possible to leave the environs of Johannesburg and take trips into the country, the platteland. Afrikaners were proud and protective of their language but most spoke English and if an ``engelseman’’ made an effort to talk their tongue they usually came around to speaking English. Bentley always took a black driver with him, as was the custom in South Africa of the seventies, and if he ran into difficulties he could always get the African driver to interpret for him. Most Africans spoke Afrikaans and the irony was never lost on Bentley that a black man, not allowed to have a say in the country of his forebears, should be the facilitator of contact between two white tribes, the English-speaking and Afrikaner South Africans.
There was another irony to life in South Africa. As with the white tribes, the press was neatly divided between English language and Afrikaans newspapers but Bentley was constantly surprised on country trips at the large number of Afrikaners who took the Star, preferring it to the Afrikaans evening and morning press, or taking them both in tandem.
The Afrikaner press was government supporting, a mouthpiece for government propaganda, and part of the process to shape South Africa as the government wanted it to be, shaped on racial lines. Afrikaners, though, were keen to discover what was actually happening in their country, and overseas, not just a version of events fed to them by their government.
Within the English speaking press there were also subtle divisions, making news gathering and reporting just that little more exciting for Bentley.
The English press in South Africa was divided between two giant countrywide groups, basically representing the evening and morning press, and in Johannesburg there was much competition between the daily newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, and the Star.
The Rand Daily Mail tended to take a far more controversial approach to politics and was more forthright in demanding an end to apartheid. Although the Star also advocated black advancement, if not immediate majority rule at that point, it tended to sit on the fence, and present the facts instead of taking a stand. It was not a campaigning newspaper like the Rand Daily Mail, and left its main advocacy to an initiative it supported, TEACH, to give every African child an eduction. On this, the management of the Star and its sister evenings newspapers believed a prosperous multi-racial future could be built.
Star journalists, however, still fell foul of the law, especially those laws that restricted reporting. These usually concerned reporting the activities of banned people, political activists under forms of house arrest or restriction whose views could not be published.
The Star sub-editor Patrick Pearson - who was a reporter working in the subs’ room for editing experience - had travelled to Cape province to interview a banned African nationalist leader, Robert Sobukwe, at his Kimberley home.
Pearson had sent the interview to the Observer in London, a newspaper with a strong history of rigorous opposition to apartheid, but the letter containing the article had been intercepted by the security police. Just the mere fact of a policeman opening the letter had been construed under the law as publication and Pearson was hauled before a court to be fined. Luckily for him it was an offence not deemed worthy of a prison term. Pearson, however, was confronted by a considerable legal bill for his defence and he had to take freelance reporting work on one of Johannesburg’s Sunday newspapers on Saturday nights to pay this off.
Another reporter Bentley had known at the Star, Harry Tshabalala, was later to receive a jail term for active involvement with the African National Congress.
Bentley’s reporting career blossomed on the Star, so much so that he lost motivation to realise his dream for the time being, to join a Fleet Street newspaper, especially the Daily Express, as a correspondent.
What was it about the Daily Express that was so exciting to just about every journalist Bentley had never met?
On his travels in southern Africa, Bentley found that “the man from the Express” was still held in awe by the travelling press pack, and by the people he met. Bentley remembered in the early 1960s seeing a picture in the Express of its entire foreign correspondent crew, who had gathered in London for a conference. They were seated on rows of benches like a soccer team, but with more members.
Foreign correspondents with names like Sefton Delmer and Rennie McColl were treated like royalty. It was the same with home and sports reporters on their respective turfs. How many sports writers of Bentley’s generation and before had set off on their careers after reading the Daily Express each morning.
Bentley had met the Daily Express correspondent in Johannesburg, and offered his services as a back-up stringer, but soon realised his schedule at the Star, in which he was constantly out of town covering stories that might not be of interest to the international press, precluded this.
To aid his reporting for The Star Bentley had a vital advantage over his South African counterparts. He had a British passport that enabled him to travel in African countries where white South Africans were barred. He eventually was given an assignment as a roving reporter covering events across the entire continent and then made bureau chief in the then Rhodesia for two years.
They were marvellous times for Bentley but they had to come to an end. He had been out of England for too long and wanted to return. And the press in South Africa was losing its power, and magic. Television had arrived and the newspapers were suffering. Their worth, as had happened worldwide, seemed to be devalued by the day, and it troubled the great lover of newspapers, Bentley.
The Star, suffering inroads to its classified advertising, became a 24-hour newspaper and the Rand Daily Mail suffered a different kind of decline. Because of its outspoken stand against apartheid, it was increasingly bought by Africans who did not have the purchasing power demanded by the bigger advertisers. The advertisers deserted it and the newspaper was allowed to wither and die.
The Daily Mail, like the Star group, was partly-owned by prominent businesses with interests in mining, and journalists were bitter that bigger efforts were not made to underwrite a press that was so desperately trying to shape the future of a new South Africa.
It was time for Bentley to pack his bags, and say farewell to his African experience. It would all count, though, for another assault on the newsrooms of Fleet Street.