HARD though it is to believe, twenty years have passed since the Rand Daily Mail folded and the Weekly Mail started publication. Its founders pooled redundancy payments and donations to launch the paper and some of the original journalists were volunteers writing anonymously. Simply reading one of the early issues was a subversive statement in itself and these beginnings, and the struggles later experienced by the paper, created a loyalty that persists to this day.

The WM was censored, raided, harassed, obstructed, prosecuted and for a month even closed down by the granite-faced men who then called themselves the government of South Africa. These were the darkest days in the history of South Africa: the nadir of any society occurs when the authorities employ lawlessness and illegality to oppress their own citizens. In those days it required considerable courage to practise overtly dissident journalism and a number of reporters had long spells of detention without trial.

The WM established its credentials early with the publication of details of security force involvement in the destabilisation of Mozambique as well as nefarious activities within South Africa. Then it published the names of detainees and conditions in detention, an indication that it was following in the footsteps of the RDM which uncovered the prisons outrage of the 1960s and the information scandal (Muldergate) of 1979. The WM certainly did not invent South African investigative or crusading journalism, but it contributed mightily to its survival. It also played its part in the fall of apartheid, helping to delegitimate the power of a hated regime.

The paper sustained the concept of a free and credible press at a time when society was about to implode. It made no bones about the nature of the South African system as it then was: a ‘sjambokracy’ in the memorable description of Anton Harber. Famously it made every effort to evade the emergency and security regulations that threatened to strangle the flow of information, especially about what was going on in the townships.

It is also worth remembering in these times of suicide bombers operating in the name of Islam, that it supported Salman Rushdie as he faced a terminal fatwa when the United Democratic Front in cowardly fashion reneged on its support. It did its best to cheer us up in desperate times, realising that humour not only contributes towards morale, but can also be a useful and non-violent factor in the struggle against political evil. The paper represented an extraordinary example of commitment as well as courage entirely at odds with today’s shoddy materialism. In spite of the dire circumstances, those were days of hope of something better for South Africa.

One might dismiss all of this as nostalgic reminiscence about the comradeship and solidarity of past struggles, interesting in itself perhaps, but no longer of any relevance to a country basking in the reflected glow of one of the most admired constitutions in the world. On the contrary: we need the WM’s brand of journalism just as much now as we ever did. There are two main reasons for this.

First, our government, like its predecessor, confuses the vague and debatable concept of the ‘national interest’ with its own party political agenda. In 1980 the Steyn Commission into the Press put forward the view that South Africa’s media should be organised in support of the state. That sort of crude manipulation is now an historical curiosity, but the periodic bullying of the Office of the President, on behalf of a person who is supposed to represent all South Africans, is similar in its intent: to impose an orthodoxy that suits the ruling party. There is a climate of circumspection and self-censorship abroad.

Criticism is muted or deleted for fear of labelling as unpatriotic or racist, far more wounding and intimidating for many than the old insults of communist or liberal. In these circumstances a fearless press is essential.

Second, during the apartheid era it was common cause, except to the politically myopic, that the government, like all authoritarian regimes, was corrupt, repressive and fundamentally immoral. This was recognised by most South Africans, and much of the outside world. But in a context of democracy, especially one in which the main political party trades on liberation credentials, it still takes great determination to investigate and expose political and other ills. The liberators are protected by an aura of self-awarded virtue that is very effective in deflecting criticism.

The WM played a significant part in the creation of a democratic South Africa. But an ever greater service has been its role in preserving space for investigative journalism that goes to the very heart of the most important issue in South African politics today: power and the way it is exercised. Anthony Sampson, chronicler of the 1956−1960 Treason Trial, wrote about throwing ‘light on the darker regions of South African life.’ We are fortunate to have a press that continues to do that fearlessly. Without it we would be largely uninformed about one of the defining crises of contemporary South Africa, the corruption that threatens to swallow the resources necessary for a just socio-economic order. The people of South Africa did not struggle for a corrupt arms deal or fraudulent oil trading with fascist Arab regimes. But without a free and courageous press we would remain in ignorance.

This article was first published in The Witness on 8 August 2005 and entitled ‘Champion of freedom’.

Further reading: Irvin Manoim, You Have Been Warned: The First Ten Years of the Mail & Guardian (London: Viking, 1996); 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian edited by Shaun de Waal (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2000).