THE ANC has persistently grumbled about the media and threatened for some while to launch its own daily newspaper. Backed by Gupta family money, its long-delayed appearance last month was somewhat ironic given the name of the paper: New Age. But this is not the first South African newspaper to be published under this masthead: the previous New Age was one of five successive titles that made up the famous Guardian series of non-racial, Left-wing newspapers that survived against considerable odds from 1936 until 1963.

Its main claim to fame was that alongside 156 people it appeared as a defendant in the 1956 Treason Trial. At least seven staff were indicted and survival of the paper depended on volunteers, wage cuts and a reduction in size. It was the first publication to print the Freedom Charter; it covered the 1956−1957 Cape Town and Alexandra bus boycotts in depth; and printed letters from Oliver Tambo and Albert Luthuli. Ruth First, based in Johannesburg, exposed the links between police and gangs such as the Russians; and she, and later Helen Joseph, investigated the fate of the banished. Joe Gqabi (murdered by South African agents in Harare in 1980) and Eli Weinberg were responsible for coverage of the Pondoland uprising in 1960. In political terms it performed a significant role, maintaining communication with activists in rural areas. Govan Mbeki ran the Port Elizabeth office and New Age’s Durban office was an important link with the banned Albert Luthuli. Distribution of the paper was part of the M-Plan, the ANC’s decentralised organisational structure.

New Age was the paper of record for the Charterist wing of the liberation movement and reading it was considered a political act. Ninety percent of the readership was black and editorial policy encouraged links between the ANC and the Communist Party. Its attitude to other strands of opposition such as the Pan Africanist Congress, Unity Movement and Liberal Party was hostile. Its weaknesses were a slavish devotion to Soviet foreign policy and an advocacy style of journalism prone to error. Nevertheless, it had a lighter side, in the late fifties publishing Alex la Guma’s political comic strip entitled ‘Little Libby’ (Liberation Chabalala.) It also had literary aspirations and ran a short-story competition.

Its survival from 1954 to 1962 was a triumph of endurance. In the background was the long-winded Van Zyl commission into the press that occupied a decade. In the foreground were regular Special Branch raids. It lived with persecution, particularly during political clampdowns and the treason trial. Fifty-five people connected to the paper were detained in the 1960 State of Emergency and new recruits at that time were Dennis Brutus and Ronnie Kasrils. Often it was produced on the run, with staff hiding documents and switching typewriters.

In spite of a respectable circulation and readership, money was always tight because of a lack of advertising. Its finances were more like those of a charity. Many of the major donors were businesspeople from the Indian community and salaried staff sometimes donated money back to the cause. Not many newspapers feature street sellers in their histories, but Looksmart Ngudle in September 1963 was the first person to die in detention after torture. Bizarrely he was restricted from meetings after his death so that he could not be quoted: The Star’s headline read ‘Dead Man Banned’.

In the end New Age was harassed into extinction. An above-ground newspaper run by people with underground lives could not expect to survive in the police state South Africa had become after the introduction of the Sabotage Act in 1963. In November of that year the paper was banned, although it was revived as Spark, which had been printed monthly as a ‘ghost’ newspaper to maintain its registration. Spark was closed in March 1963 under the weight of individual bannings.

Two newspapers with the same name published half a century apart in radically different societies and circumstances. The one was the most vigorous media critic of the government of the day; the other promises to support the current government. Yet there is one noteworthy similarity. The first New Age fell victim to the censorship aims of an increasingly vicious police state. The second appears on the streets when influential members of the government have recently declared the media of a democratic, liberated South Africa a threat to the national interest.

This article was first published in The Witness on 20 January 2011 and entitled ‘Another age’.

Further reading: James Zug, The Guardian: The History of South Africa’s Extraordinary Anti-Apartheid Newspaper (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2007).