Forging a new journalism at Cape Times
Aneez Salie’s struggle credentials are impeccable. He can count some of the liberation movement’s biggest heroes amongst his closest friends. These credentials have stood him in good stead since he took over the helm of one of Cape Town’s oldest newspaper titles.
Under Aneez Salie’s editorship the Cape Times has evolved into a place where staff are growing along with the readership figures, writes Gasant Abarder.
Aneez Salie, after a seven-year absence in the underground with Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), came back to Independent Newspapers in 1992. But dark days lay ahead. First, the company refused to give him his job back.
“Seven years later, we walk into the union’s office, pulled the files and took it to management and they were forced to take me back. But they said you’re not going back into journalism, you’re going to work in the accounts department.
“I refused. They were forced to hire me, but at the least possible pay and in a junior position, as a reporter for Cape Community Newspapers.
“Remember, at the Cape Herald I was already at the level of news editor. But I thought, let’s accept that and rather get back because of the support I got from Chris Hani that I must go back into the media to help transform it and, secondly, to revive the unions.
“I got back and worked at community newspapers until 1995 when Moegsien Williams became editor of the Cape Times and it became wholly owned by the Argus group.”
But Aneez’s new struggle was beginning. His outspoken nature and sense of social justice would not allow him to tolerate the inequalities that existed at the then Independent Newspapers.
While the country was embracing change rapidly, it was business as usual when Aneez returned to his old employers.
“It was, in fact, worse than anything that apartheid dished up. First of all, we were regarded as second-class. Because we were black, we were assumed to be not as good as the whites. And on the other hand, the whites never had to prove themselves professionally.
“They got their promotions, many of them purely on the basis of their skins. So as I said, firstly they insisted I go to accounts, then they gave me the most junior position, and the manager at the time said, take it, we can try and get you over to the Argus once you’re in.
“There was an editor then who would later write a book about Madiba, but he was the one who had oppressed us very badly. His news editor, in whose honour Sanef named an award, was one of the worst of them. He actually worked with the security police. We knew that, and we could see that in his writing.
“My request to be transferred to the Argus was rebuffed by them. The news editor said we might give you a chance but you’ve got to cover courts, and as you know that is the most junior reporting job. When Moegsien came was when I got my break. They decided to punish me, pick on me, oppress me daily, because I had the damn cheek to liberate them, and they resented us for that.
“Everyone expected us to take revenge on them, but the Struggle was never against the whites, never ever. It was against apartheid. Just like in apartheid Israel, the struggle isn’t against the Jews, it’s against this racist Zionism.
“For years they suppressed me, kept me back. I didn’t get promoted, in fact they cooked the books, they broke the rules, the law, by putting a junior person there, somebody I had trained from internship up, to be my boss in the hope I would just get fed up and leave. The whole intention was to get us to just go away.
“We were treated very badly and of course it was also painful to us to see how our people, their issues and events, were of secondary importance.
“And, if a black child dies, it will appear in the briefs column. If a white child’s bike is stolen, it’s on page one.
“At my very first week at the Cape Times, I got up in the newsroom in front of everybody and I accused the news editor of being a racist. I had done stories in Khayelitsha, an area that was never covered before.
“People had to be encouraged to pay for their municipal services again, and there was a campaign and I went to Khayelitsha and I reported extensively there, and my stories got reduced to fillers.
“But nonetheless I persisted. I reported what the leadership in Khayelitsha had said, that the people are now starting to pay for their services, and I did the story. This news editor said to me: ‘No, I cannot accept this. You’ve got to get chapter and verse, get me the figures and the facts and all of that and only then will I consider the story’.
“That’s when I got up in the newsroom and accused him of being a racist. I said: ‘You want chapter and verse from Khayelitsha? But if Mrs Shapiro from Sea Point says “Boo”, you print it just like that even though it might be the biggest rubbish under the sun?’
“You can imagine how they marked me after that, for the rest of my working life. I was their object of hate because I stood up to them, I wouldn’t take the apartheid they were dishing out.
“They are the people now sitting in judgement of me? How absurd. We soldiered on, took all their abuse because as I said, I am here very mindful of the very high price we paid to be here. So I couldn’t just pack up and go.
“I would have been excused. I could have gone back to the ANC, could have been a multimillionaire today, a general in the military. But I saw my responsibility as being in the media because I could do it and I could do it well.
“I stuck it out and finally, when Dr Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers in 2013, he liberated us for a second time. For the first time now, we could write what we liked, and Doc didn’t come and tell us to write what the ANC, or what he wanted us to write about. No, it was the opposite. That is why our business is so successful, that’s why we have increased readership, increased circulation, because we tell the truth.
“Everything is new, strange almost, and the job is different and I’ve been called upon to lead now, which I’ve been doing in the union.”
One of the most humiliating moments was when Aneez applied for the job of deputy editor at the Cape Times in 2001. He aced it, was told he was the best candidate, but never got the job.
“I was interviewed by the then general manager and the editor. It was a written and verbal interview. I did this just four days after my mother died, bearing in my mind my mother had taught me to read before I could go to school.
“My mother said when she got married her father brought the Cape Times into the house and there was one every day since, and I am the fifth of seven children. So I absorbed the Cape Times even in my womb through my mother.
“Then she died and I go for this interview for deputy editor of The Cape Times. She loved the Cape Times, despite its many shortcomings, at the time.
“The editor came to me and said I was the best candidate, and of course people like that news editor were free to apply. If he did apply I beat him fair and square – the editor said so.
“But the editor’s words exactly were: ‘But in the interview you betrayed a lack of business acumen’. Which I found very strange because I had grown up in shops. My grandfather had two shops in Claremont Main Road.
“In the military underground there were big sums of money at times and you had to manage it all, not only money but lives. But the editor added, not to worry, we will organise business courses for you and then we will proceed.
“Of course those business classes were never organised and when I proposed one they turned me down. So, from 2002, when I should have been deputy editor, I had to wait until you came along in 2013, 11 years later, to be given the chance. Then Doc, of course, came along and made you editor of the Argus and me editor of the Cape Times.”
But even in the days after Aneez was announced as my deputy, the same people who denied him his chance urged me to change my decision. It was, in fact, the best decision I have taken in my short career in editorial management. I could not have asked for a more astute, strategic operator than Aneez.
As my successor, Aneez’s approach has been bold. The Cape Times has been covering unchartered terrain. There have been historic moments, like the Cape Malay Choirs in a masthead picture and a similar treatment for Spring Queen contestants. It is revolutionary and it works as the circulation increase suggests.
But for Aneez it’s not so new and revolutionary. He is simply applying the principles learnt during his life of struggle.
“I enjoy the unprecedented freedom of the media and freedom of expression. We can write exactly what we like, and in fact that was an instruction from Dr Survé, that we do not take sides and that we always give the other side.
“This media freedom is very precious to us. But of course, freedom is never free. We paid a really heavy price because one of the major fruits of our struggle for liberation was the freedom of the media, which was always part and parcel of the Struggle. Having been honoured and privileged to be involved in that struggle, I know first hand of the sacrifices and the huge cost at which it came.
“I could sit here the whole day and rattle off a list of names, but let me just mention a few. Ashley Kriel, for instance, who was my best friend. And Anton Fransch was another one, who was my best friend. They come from a time, and we come from a time, when people were involved in the Struggle, for no glory or economic benefit.
“People made a supreme sacrifice because they believed people should be free of oppression and we in media should be free to say what we like. So it’s unthinkable today that I wouldn’t apply anything but the strictest rules of fairness, etc, because we owe it to the people who gave their lives.”
There is a buzz in the Cape Times newsroom. They’re a fiercely loyal bunch and quite competitive too.It is quite refreshing to see the change and diversity in personnel.
Aneez has also changed people’s lives. For example, the editor’s PA, Liesl van der Schyff, soon became the Cape Times’s social media content producer after Aneez discovered she had a marketing degree but was appointed by predecessors as a newsdesk assistant.
“You have to inspire the people you work with, you’ve got to convince them not through your words but through your deeds and to make it clear to people that everyone is a leader here, everyone can and should lead.
“So we’ve adopted a policy here at the Cape Times. Firstly, ‘each one, teach one’ – it was the credo of our struggle from the students of 1976 and even before. So here we have a situation where you see the most beautiful situation in the newsroom where those who have been mentored and trained along the years, now take the younger people under their wing. And the younger ones also have an enormous amount to teach us, all those old-fart ideas we have.
“We’ve also adopted a policy of collective leadership. I’m not shirking my responsibility. On the contrary. But they’re all capable of leading and they should and they do. So we rotate the chair at meetings for instance and people take on responsibilities way beyond what their jobs require.
“The third policy is criticism and self-criticism which also comes from the Struggle. It was a very important part of the ANC-led liberation movement: that you must be open to criticism from your comrades and you must be critical of yourself too. That’s all done with the intention of building each other up, not breaking one another down.
“Most importantly, we really don’t take sides, we always try to reflect all voices. Of course there are those that don’t want to have their voices in the Cape Times, like the premier of the Western Cape, who labelled my appointment and what’s happening at the Cape Times as a scandal.
“And then when our readership increased and our circulation increased, what is she going to say? Well she now says that the more discerning reader doesn’t read the Cape Times.
“But let me put in bluntly: we don’t take crap from anybody. And now and again some people need to be told to p*ss off, so we tell them to p*ss off.”
Aneez rarely takes credit for achievements. It is his way to rather heap praise on colleagues. “Our people are mostly young, and that’s historical, but there’s a couple of people with lots of experience. We are very lucky to be so diverse. We have people from Mitchells Plain, Bonteheuwel, Milnerton, Kraaifontein, Hout Bay, all over. So we have all ages, all races – we’re a mix.
“We’re a very broad church. There’s no one ideology, everyone has their open views. But we encourage everyone, and this is very important, that when you come to work in the morning, please leave your -isms, your religion at the door. When you work here, you represent everyone’s views.
“The most valuable lesson you can learn is that this isn’t something you do for yourself. It’s a service – a calling, actually. You serve the public and if you want to live in a society that is transforming, non-racial, democratic, that is non-sexist and prosperous, then you have to apply those principles every day in your work. It’s being mindful of all those and not compromising at all.”
* This is the second part of a two part profile of Aneez Salie.