War of words : memoirs of a South African journalist /
Benjamin Pogrund foreword by Harold Evans.
A Seven Stories Press 1st ed.
New York : Seven Stories Press, c2000.
381 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
1888363711 (cloth)
More Details
New York : Seven Stories Press, c2000.
1888363711 (cloth)
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Includes bibliographical references and index.
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This item was nominated for the following awards:
First Chapter

Chapter One

The telephone on my desk in the Rand Daily Mail newsroom rang. I picked it up and heard the deep, warm voice of Nelson Mandela. It was midmorning on Monday, May 29, 1961, and the moment I recognized the voice, I began to stammer an apology.

    "I am sorry, Nelson, that we reported so wrongly. I feel terrible about it."

    He replied, "It's all right, Benjie-boy, I know it wasn't your fault."

    That was a response of startling generosity. Only two hours earlier the Rand Daily Mail had dealt him a heavy blow, undermining his months of dangerous organizing work against the South African government. Thirteen months before, in the aftermath of unrest after police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of black people at Sharpeville, killing sixty-eight, the African National Congress (ANC) had been banned. Mandela, its leader in the Transvaal province, had forsaken his family and his attorney's practice and gone underground.

    Mandela became the mastermind of a nationwide strike call, urging black workers to stay away from work for three days starting on Monday, May 29th. That was the week when whites--and especially the ruling Afrikaners--were to celebrate Republic Day.

    The entire police force hunted him. But, sheltered by supporters, he traveled around the country from his base in Johannesburg to plan, exhort, and organize. He became known as the "Black Pimpernel."

    I was a young reporter on the Rand Daily Mail and my specialized field was black politics. I had gotten to know Mandela and other leaders of the ANC since becoming a journalist on the Mail in 1958. During Mandela's months of underground activity I had been meeting him secretly and, in part through my reporting, the Mail had published more information than any other newspaper about the coming strike.

    The first day of the strike marked the climax of Mandela's months of work. South Africa waited to see what would happen: how many black workers would heed the call to stay home? Without the masses of blacks filling the low-grade jobs, would factories and offices be paralyzed? If blacks proved their political clout, where would the next challenge to white authority emerge?

    The Mail rushed out a special edition, sold in the city and in the black townships twelve and a half miles (20 km) away. "Most Go To Work: All Quiet" read the headline, and "Police Patrol Townships Before Dawn--Officials Say Stay-Home Unsuccessful."

    The strike had failed, according to the report, which drew on quotes from the manager of Johannesburg's Non-European Affairs Department, claiming that blacks were coming to work as usual. The police echoed this.

    In fact the headline and the report were fatally flawed, the result of rushed and sloppy journalism. Though the strike was not the total success Mandela had hoped for, it certainly wasn't the failure that the Mail reported.

    The effect of the Mail's special edition was significant. At this point, the Mail was the country's foremost newspaper; its breadth of reporting and liberal stance had earned it respect among many blacks as well as liberals in other racial communities. Its report of the strike's failure would influence countless numbers of black people who were wondering what to do: If so many people were refusing to obey Mandela's call, they would reason, then whatever minority stayed at home would have to face wrathful action, starting with instant dismissal from jobs. Yet here was Mandela on the phone exonerating me, holding me blameless for what my newspaper had done to the strike, and to him.

    We were in contact again that night. He phoned shortly before 8:30 P.M., and again an hour later. Reports were coming in of shootings and deaths in the black areas, and his mood was quieter than it had been earlier.

    For publication the next day he said, "We are not disheartened," even while he admitted that "the people did not respond to the stay-at-home to the extent to which we expected them to do." He told me that it had been yet another attempt by blacks to mount nonviolent action, but the response of the government was to display intransigence backed up by the military might of its police force, the same as always. He was clearly talking about a shift to violent struggle. And that fateful step, long debated behind the scenes, was indeed taken by the ANC within weeks of our conversation.

    The inglorious contribution made by the Rand Daily Mail in putting the boot into the strike testified, if nothing else, to the acceptance that the newspaper enjoyed among many blacks. That was a recent phenomenon. It had come about rapidly, within the previous four years. The change in the newspaper, and in the public perception of it, had begun in October 1957, when Laurence Owen Vine Gandar became editor.

    There would have been little reason at that stage to believe that anything revolutionary was about to start. Gandar gave every appearance of fitting comfortably into the world of the Rand Daily Mail , a newspaper that, as he later said to me, "tended to reflect the outlook of the typical, middle-to-upper-income, English-speaking, urban group, very Rand Clubbish and Chamber of Mineish." The Rand Club, in the center of Johannesburg, was the city's all-male, all-white WASP club. A short walk away sat the headquarters building of the Chamber of Mines, the organization of gold and coal mine owners and one of the dominant players in South Africa's economy.

    The Rand Daily Mail had come into being in 1902 when Johannesburg was a mere sixteen years old. The city was there because of gold. A geological quirk, some 270 million years earlier, had created a saucerlike depression, a huge inland shallow lake. Torrential rains and rivers washed debris containing particles of gold and other minerals from the surrounding high mountains into the lake. Over millions of years thin layers of gold accumulated, separated by thick strata of rock. With the gigantic shifting of the earth's crust, rock tilted and twisted, leaving seams of gold running from near the surface to thousands of yards underground.

    By historical fate the area was within the boundaries of the Transvaal republic established by Boers (the name derived from the Dutch word for "farmer") of Dutch and French Huguenot ancestry who trekked north during the first half of the nineteenth century to escape British colonial rule. In February 1886, according to legend, a prospector tripped over an outcrop of rock exposed by erosion and dislodged a piece of ore. He panned it and found what proved to be the fabulous Main Reef. Prospectors and adventurers poured in. Overnight a tent town sprang up. Later that year Johannesburg was on the map, taking its name from burg, the Dutch word for "city," and, perhaps, from Field-Cornet Johannes Petrus Meyer, an official of the republic. In time the gold mining industry, was to stretch over a three-hundred-mile (500 km) arc, radiating east, west, and south of Johannesburg and producing up to fifteen hundred pounds (700,000 kg) of gold a year.

    Within a year of its founding, Johannesburg's population was 10,000. It grew to 100,000 in the next ten years. Horse-drawn trams came by 1889, followed by electricity the next year, as well as the growth of fashionable suburbs on the town's northern edge for the new rich elite. But the wealth beyond dreams also brought trouble: the ruling Boers were horrified by the burgeoning mining camp, with what they saw as its greedy, sinful ways. They sought to fend off the demands of the "Uitlanders" (foreigners) for political representation because of the taxes they were paying. Britain, covetous of the gold, precipitated conflict, and war broke out in 1899.

    On May 31, 1900, British troops occupied Johannesburg and also took the Transvaal's capital, Pretoria, thirty-four miles (55 km) away. The war, it seemed, was over. But the Boers refused to accept defeat and continued to wage guerrilla warfare. Eventually Britain had to bring in some 250,000 troops from its far-flung empire to crush 25,000 citizen soldiers, and even then it succeeded only by resorting to a scorched-earth policy, burning down farmhouses and destroying crops to starve the insurgents into submission. The old men, women, and children evicted from their homes were herded into "concentration camps." It was apparently intended as a humanitarian gesture, but it backfired as disease struck the camps and thousands died.

    The war and the savagery of the suppression embittered the Boers, with dire effects that were to endure through most of the 20th century. The Boers became known as the Afrikaners and their original language, brought from Holland, developed into Afrikaans. English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites were to become obsessed with their struggle for political and economic power. But at the time, with the war ended, Britain and some Boer leaders made their peace; for the moment, reconciliation between whites became the order of the day. "The people of color, who formed the majority, were excluded from power and were increasingly debarred from any right of equal access to South Africa's wealth.

    One of the indirect casualties of the war was a Johannesburg newspaper, the Standard and Diggers News , which had been subsidized by the Boer government. The newspaper collapsed, leaving behind, among other things, a stock of Linotype machines and presses, and its worried owner, Emmanuel Mendelssohn, a substantial person in the property market. In Heath's Hotel one day in June 1902 he bewailed his loss. What was he to do with the machinery? Harry Freeman Cohen, a man with a thousand mining and speculative interests, offered, "I'll buy the lot, if the price is cheap." It was--the printing press was obsolete--and in a few minutes Freeman Cohen was the owner. The deal was celebrated with a magnum of champagne.

    According to the version carried in company publications in later years, that same evening a young man with a mustache and an extravagantly long cigarette holder strolled into the hotel. "There's a likely-looking chap for you! Who's he?" asked Freeman Cohen. "That's Edgar Wallace," Mendelssohn told him. "Kitchener [the general who headed the British forces] can't stand him. He scooped everybody with his news of the peace negotiations [with the Boers] for the London Daily Mail ."

    "That's Wallace, is it? Well, I'll start a daily paper here and make him the editor," said Freeman Cohen. And, as the tale runs, Wallace had hardly finished another cigarette before, at the age of twenty-seven, he was editor of the still-to-be-published newspaper.

    It's a pity to spoil a good story, but the reality seems to have been less fanciful, even in its most minute details: Not until ten years later did Wallace take to using the extravagantly long cigarette holder, which became his hallmark. The publishers of a Wallace biography, issued in London in 1939, noted that few people knew the real story of his life. According to Wallace's biographer, Margaret Lane, when Freeman Cohen bought the printing plant, he already knew Wallace and had discussed the newspaper plan with him, including the offer of editorship at a salary of princely proportions: £2,000 a year compared with the £336 he was earning from the London newspaper.

    Wallace was, by then, a journalist with a considerable reputation as a result of being first with the news of the peace agreement between Britain and the Boers. The talks between the two sides had been held in a camp surrounded by a barbed-wire fence near the town of Vereeniging. Journalists were not allowed inside and were subject to strict military censorship. Wallace surprised his colleagues with the scoop because he had supposedly never gone near the place, spending his days sitting in a train that chugged to and from the Vaal River. When he wasn't doing that, he was using Freeman Cohen's office in Johannesburg to send cables to London to buy and sell shares.

    This was all a cover. Wallace had previously been a medical orderly in the British army stationed in the Cape. The Vaal River train passed the peace-talks camp, where an old crony served as a guard. Whenever the train went by, the guard strolled to the fence and used a handkerchief to blow his nose. A red handkerchief meant "nothing doing," blue was "making progress," and white was "treaty definitely to be signed." Using a simple, prearranged code, the information was hidden in Wallace's stock exchange cables that went to Freeman Cohen's brother in London for transferral to the Daily Mail .

    Wallace's disclosure of the peace agreement was published a sensational twenty-four hours before the British government announced the news in the House of Commons. An enraged General Kitchener punished Wallace for breaking the censorship rules by having him barred from working as a war correspondent and denying him the Anglo-Boer War medal. "This did not lessen the sweetness of Wallace's triumph, however. On a visit to London, the Daily Mail honored him with a banquet at the Savoy Hotel.

    Returning to Johannesburg, Wallace launched the Rand Daily Mail . The first issue appeared on Monday, September 22, 1902. Even by mining-town standards, the newspaper's working conditions were unpleasant. The office "was in the top floors of a ramshackle and depressing brick warren behind the corner of Rissik and Commissioner streets" in the center of town, wrote Lane.

    Originally built to house sample rooms for commercial travelers, the building was hidden from the street by a row of shops, and separated from their back wall by a narrow alley in which garbage was thrown, and nearby restaurant workers cut chickens' throats. There was no staircase. Instead, the upper floors "were reached by broad wooden ladders; draughts, noise and smells pierced the comfortless building from top to bottom. A goods hoist clattered gustily from floor to floor in that part of the office set aside for the sub-editors, and the screech of chickens, held to bleed over the garbage bins in the alley, punctually heralded the approach of lunch and dinner."

    Wallace's office was a closetlike room partitioned off in a corner, large enough only for a battered desk, a chair, and an old bookcase. The only telephone hung on the outside of the partition and was answered by whoever happened to be near it. But Wallace reveled in the dignity and prominence of being editor, lived well, and entertained lavishly.

    His prosperity was quickly apparent. According to Lane, "His figure began to fill out, and his mustache grew bolder. He indulged his taste for large pale-colored hats with rolling brims, and strolled to the office in high-buttoned suits of a sporting and opulent character. The gold-headed cane, the solid watch-chain festooned across his waistcoat, the ring on his little finger, the immaculate yellow gloves carried importantly in the left hand, bespoke him a man of consequence in Johannesburg."

    As was newspaper practice then, the first and last of the closely printed eight pages were devoted to advertisements. Notices of sales of oxen, land, and bicycles appeared alongside advertisements for "The People's Tailors--Suits to Measure at 90s" and Non-Intoxicating Lager (NIL) beer. There were also advertisements for companies and products that remain household names in today's South Africa: Castle beer; H. W. Markham, Gentlemen's Outfitter; and Mutual Life Assurance, which today is the Old Mutual.

    Personal links with Britain were all-important: hence the Mail published a news report that the train bringing the "English Mails" from Cape Town was eleven hours late. In the aftermath of the Boer war, British-imposed martial law was still in force, and the newspaper carried the names of those who had been given permits to travel to and from the Johannesburg area from the coast and other towns. The political attitude was made abundantly clear with a sharp editorial rebuke for "a manifestly injudicious manifesto" issued by former Boer generals in which they begged the world for help because Britain was not doing enough to repair the ravages of the war.

    "The [Boer] Republics," the generals wrote, "were ready to sacrifice everything for independence but now the struggle is over and our people are completely ruined."

    There were problems finding space for all that was happening in the burgeoning town. Within its first week the newspaper told readers, "Owing to a rush of telegrams just before going to Press our report of the prize-giving at the Johannesburg Public School for Boys and a mass of other interesting material has been crowded out of this issue."

    Among the items that pushed out the prize-giving was the fact that "some little excitement was caused yesterday morning about 8:00 o'clock by a small outbreak of fire which, but for the prompt action of the Jeppestown Fire Brigade, would in a short time have assumed serious proportions."

    "Money, Brains, Energy, are employed without stint in making the Rand Daily Mail ," the paper boasted. Wallace had grand plans. "We'll race the paper by special train to Pretoria," he told his staff. "We'll have a fleet of motor vans. We'll have correspondents in every, capital of the world. Johannesburg is a great city and it is going to have a great newspaper."

    The fantasy of a fleet of vans went unfulfilled, but the special train--the 699 Down--became a reality, albeit an expensive one, costing more than it earned.

    Wallace was, fifty years later, described by an official company publication as having carried out his editorship with "a lavish and brilliant Bohemianism." Too lavish, however. The reaching for foreign news lasted only as long as it took for the bills to come in--at ten shillings and threepence a word for cables from Tokyo, and six shillings and twopence a word from Buenos Aires. Those were huge amounts. Lunch in a Johannesburg cafe could be had for one shilling and sixpence. After less than ten months Freeman Cohen had to clear his bank account and borrow money to settle the debts, using the newspaper as security. The 699 Down ran no longer.

    Wallace wrote "Finis" on his desk blotter and sailed back to England to become a world-famed writer of crime novels, churning out close to 150 in twenty-seven years and spawning many movies such as Sanders of the River . Some eighty, years later his daughter in Britain was still in contact with the Rand Daily Mail , sending out copies of the Edgar Wallace Society newsletter. The desk Wallace was believed to have used as an editor was given a polish and kept in the boardroom, on display to visitors.

    One of Wallace's innovations was a Christmas Comfort Fund--soliciting money from readers to provide food parcels for the poor of the city and its surrounding areas. The fund's image of sympathy toward the underdog soon came to be associated with the Mail . As with so much in the South Africa of then and later, the image was not a true likeness: the comforts provided by the Christmas Fund were for whites only, a situation that was to persist for many years.

    Wallace's immediate successor was George Adamson, born in Scotland and described in later company publications as a "sound and steady figure." But Freeman Cohen died in 1904, and the Mail was put up for sale. The "Nationals," a group that supported the cause of the postwar Boers, put in its offer. The sale, however, was stymied by Abe Bailey, a mining magnate who was later to be knighted by Britain. He shared the newspaper's declared support for Lord Milner, the British governor set on the primacy of English and imperial British rule. Bailey put his money into the paper, but took an indirect role in the operation during the next thirty years, ensuring only that it remained in approved hands.

    The Mail 's early years, and those of its afternoon rival, the Star , set patterns that continued into the modern era. Both newspapers were owned by gold mining interests: the British-owned Central Mining Investment Company, known as Corner House, kept a tight rein on the Star . On the other hand, Bailey and the others who came after him seemed to have been more haphazard, and the Mail developed a volatile and maverick character. Corner House thoroughly disapproved. By 1914 its London headquarters was saying that the way in which the Mail and its sister paper, the Sunday Times (started in 1906), were conducted was "detrimental both to the mining industry and to the general population."

    With Bailey as the dominant shareholder, it followed that the newspaper supported the views of the gold mining houses. That was evident as early as 1905 under the shrewd editorship of Ralph Ward Jackson, a former British cavalry officer in the Eleventh Hussars.

    Many gold mines had closed during the Anglo-Boer War, and altogether 100,000 black laborers were dismissed. As mining got under way again, there was a severe shortage of labor. Mine owners, through their Chamber of Mines and with the approval of Lord Milner, imported laborers from China. Within months 50,000 had arrived, setting off howls of protest from local whites. The Mail backed the arguments of the mine owners and government that the Chinese were vital for the industry to survive; it also suggested that they were there temporarily and would return home when their contracts ended.

    At the same time the newspaper's fundamental tenet was to support a "white labor policy," which would ensure full and privileged employment of whites. That could hardly draw kudos from the Chamber of Mines, which, intent on reducing costs, made sporadic attempts to use poorly paid blacks to take over some of the work of highly paid whites.

    The contradictions were already evident in 1905 when Sir Lionel Phillips, chairman of some of the biggest mines, sued the Mail for libel because of its reports of terrible conditions in gold mines, and charges that miners were "dying like flies from phthisis" (the lung disease caused by dust underground).

    Over the years the Mail earned a reputation as a friend of white workers, and especially of white miners. Giving support to white workers would be viewed today as naked racism--except that "racism," then and for many years after, carried an entirely different meaning: it was used in an all-white context, and referred to relations between South Africans of British stock and Afrikaners. Bailey and the Mail denied being racists, by which they meant that they believed in the two white groups cooperating for the sake of the country.

    Prejudice against people of color was different. In today's terms the newspaper's attitudes were indeed racist. At the time, they were within the mainstream of South Africa's white-controlled society, which believed implicitly in white rule, then and forever, in the period immediately preceding the creation in 1910 of the Union of South Africa, which brought together the Cape, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State, the Mail did not merely take it as an article of faith that there was no question of voting rights for blacks, but even vehemently opposed--unsuccessfully, it turned out--the white liberals in the Cape who wanted mixed-race coloreds to retain their voting rights. Only for the unimaginably dim and distant future was there some acceptance of what might lie ahead, for as the editor wrote, "We feel strongly that the principle of discrimination between black and white is an absolutely essential principle of any successful policy for the peaceful governing of South Africa. Perhaps generations hence such a principle may be abandoned. But to abandon it today must inevitably lead to serious complications in the near future."

    In 1912, George Kingswell, acting for the company that owned the Mail , struck a blow for segregation at a congress of the Newspaper Press Union (NPU), the organization of newspaper owners. Until then the NPU had included among its members a black editor, Tengo Jabavu, of Imvo Zabantsundu (African Opinion). Kingswell proposed that "no colored or native newspaper proprietor should be admitted as a member of the Newspaper Press Union." The motion was carried and the point was rammed home with the added requirement that members had to be "European" (the word for whites, used until the 1960s and even later). Not until sixty-three years later, in 1975, did the NPU drop its color bar.

    The Rand Daily Mail echoed Bailey's harsh views, this time on the subject of Asians, a large number of whom had been brought in from India from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, primarily to work in the sugarcane fields on the east coast. A speech he made in parliament in 1922 was reported: "Mr. Bailey said there could be no denying that the presence of Asiatics had a deteriorating effect on the white race. The Asiatics were the white ants of South Africa, destroying the foundations of our institutions and the roots of the livelihood of the white race." The next day, under the headline "Asiatic Menace," the Mail said the government should heed the numbers of unemployed whites and "should check the Indianizing of the country and give its own sons a decent chance against the lower standard competition of Asians."

    That was during the brief three-year editorship of L. E. Neame. After him, in 1924, came the New Zealander Lewis Rose McLeod, who came to Johannesburg via the Daily Mail in London, and steered the paper for the next seventeen years with the same rigid color and class attitudes as his predecessors.

    The simple fact for the editors--and this did not apply only to the Rand Daily Mail but to all the mainstream newspapers in the country--was that blacks featured in the news only in so far as they were responsible for division among whites. They were the "Native problem"--sometimes with a capital N, sometimes not--and political differences among whites occurred in large part around differing views of how to deal with it.

    Blacks did not exist as ordinary people. The speeches of black political leaders were reported only in isolated cases. Reporting black activities was confined to occasional statements by white liberals, sometimes issuing from the South African Institute of Race Relations. Newspapers catered to readers who were, overwhelmingly, whites. The advertising they carried was directed exclusively at white consumers, and the government's activities that were reported were at all levels in white hands.

    There had been, however, one occasion when blacks were treated as flesh-and-blood newsmakers. In 1936 the United Party government, led by General J. B. M. Hertzog--a Boer leader in the Anglo-Boer War--was in the final stages of altering the constitution to radically reduce the voting rights of blacks, and limit their "reserves" to about 16 percent of the country. He sought the views of black leaders until the day that he achieved his needed two-thirds majority among white members of parliament (MPs). Literally from one day to the next, blacks disappeared from the news.

    Throughout the 1930s, under McLeod, the Mail served as a pillar of the Chamber of Mines, and supported the United Party government, lining up with the rest of the English-language press but opposed by the smaller number of Afrikaans newspapers. The Mail 's support swiftly turned to criticism if the government did anything that might adversely affect the mining industry, such as increasing taxes.

    McLeod's last few years were dominated by the events in Europe, separated by a fortnight's passage by sea or several days by air. The political divide among South Africa's whites deepened as many Afrikaners looked with admiration at the rising German colossus, both because of the appeal of the ideas of National Socialism and because of Germany's challenge to Britain. When Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, South Africa's parliament was fortuitously going into a special session. The deputy prime minister, General Jan Christian Smuts, also a former Boer general, seized the occasion to propose that South Africa enter the war against Germany. Prime Minister Hertzog opposed him, but lost by eighty votes to sixty-seven, and war was declared on September 6th. Most English-speaking whites backed Smuts, as did many Afrikaners. But large numbers of Afrikaners backed Hertzog. With opinion so divided, Smuts as the new Prime Minister did not dare order conscription; as it was, he had to put down rebellion and cope with agitation and subversion by two Afrikaans extreme right-wing organizations, the Greyshirts and the Ossewa Brandwag (Sentinels of the Ox-Wagon).

    Both English and Afrikaner South Africans volunteered for service on the side of the Allies and wore an orange flash on their shoulders to show that they had agreed to fight outside the country's borders. This they did in East Africa, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), North Africa, and Italy. Blacks were also recruited, but as truck drivers, stretcher bearers, and laborers who were allowed to carry only spears or clubs. The black response to recruiting drives was unenthusiastic, although at first some had reasonably, if naïvely, hoped that they might benefit from the war for democracy.

    The Mail gave unstinting support, in its reporting and comments, to the war. The belief in the fight against the Nazi menace was total. So, too, was its opposition to those Afrikaners who were now in the Nationalist party. (later renamed the National Party.) led by Dr. D. F. Malan, a former minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and former editor of the Burger , the Afrikaans newspaper in Cape Town, the party's official organ.

    Smuts had won an election during the war years and, in 1948, called a general election. To widespread surprise and shock, he narrowly lost to Malan and the newfangled cry of "apartheid"--Afrikaans for racial separateness. During electioneering, Malan also promised there would be white bread. This was a potent promise to a public tired of being restricted to brown bread because South Africa relied on wheat imports. These had been affected by the war, and afterward were neglected by Smuts's government, as was much else in the country, through complacency and incompetence.

    To the Mail and to English-speakers, the unthinkable had happened. The Nazi supporters--the Sunday Times had set the fashion of calling them Malanazis--were in office. Just as bad, they were Afrikaners, intent on regaining through political means the power that Britain had taken from them in the war nearly half a century earlier.

Copyright © 2000 Benjamin Pogrund. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-03-27:
The Rand Daily Mail was the journalistic conscience of apartheid South Africa, and Pogrund, who worked at the newspaper from 1958 until it was closed in 1985, was its specialist on black politics. His worthy but dry memoir focuses on professional more than personal history, detailing how the newspaper aimed to resist censorship, spot-light oppression and prepare readers for change while covering the momentous events of the 1960s and the years following. As a college student in Cape Town, Pogrund made his first contacts across racial lines; he also concluded that communism was no alternative to apartheid. As a journalist, he put in time at black political meetings, gaining insight and earning trust--so much so that he received phone calls from Nelson Mandela when the black leader was in hiding. Resisting restrictions on reporting, Pogrund produced a 1965 series on South African jail conditions that shocked the world. The Mail forged on until it was closed by its owners (establishment businessmen who grew uncomfortable with the paper's finances and politics)--and Pogrund has set the historical record straight by getting them to acknowledge their shortsightedness. He describes his professional ethos as "dispassionate"--he sought to avoid judgment in news articles while expressing more of a viewpoint in his feature articles. His resistance to advocacy journalism deserves more reflection here, as does his close friendship with black leader Robert Sobukwe, who is barely mentioned. Pogrund, who briefly mentions his "private passion" for the preservation of political documentary material, is a more interesting personality than he lets on. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-05-01:
Pogrund recalls South Africa's slide into the last terrible years of the Afrikaner nationalist government, beginning with the police shooting of 69 unarmed blacks at Sharpeville in March 1960, which resulted in the State of Emergency. He unfolds three stories: South Africa's; that of Johannesburg's Rand Daily Mail, for which he wrote from 1958 until its demise in 1985; and his own. Pogrund recounts his boyhood as the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants and his adult commitment to dispassionate reporting that could not be used as propaganda by anyone. The book is a view of apartheid's bloodiest years from inside South Africa's leading newspaper by a man who knew the country's leaders personally and who appears candid about his own mistakes and those he saw on all sides. Fascinating in both its perspective and detail, this book effectively complements Pogrund's two earlier works, Nelson Mandela: Strength and Spirit of a Free South Africa and How Can Man Die Better: Sobukwe and Apartheid. Recommended for collections on South Africa, apartheid, race relations, and journalism.--Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, March 2000
Booklist, April 2000
Library Journal, May 2000
New York Times Book Review, February 2001
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Main Description
Memoirs of a South African Journalist 'Benjamin Pogrund was our bravest reporter...the first to go to prison for what he wrote...also one of the first to befriend and support black political leaders and to stand by them regardless of the implications and threats to himself and his family. His courage was a inspiration.' - Donald Woods, author of 'Biko: Cry Freedom'. The amazing story of Pogrund's thirty years as a journalist in South Africa and his relationships with leaders such as Nelson Mandela.
Main Description
When Benjamin Pogrund, one of South Africa's most distinguished journalists, first began his career as a young reporter in the 1950s, "There had been little reason at that stage to believe that anything revolutionary was about to start." As the "African affairs reporter," and then deputy editor, it was Pogrund who first brought the words of black leaders like Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela to the pages of South Africa's leading newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail. This was the period of apartheid in South Africa and for most of the next thirty years, the Rand Daily Mail was the country's liberal white voice against the tyranny of the Afrikaner Nationalist government. A riveting memoir and a complex commentary on apartheid and freedom of the press, War of Words offers an insider's perspective on one of the most turbulent, and arguably one of the most significant, periods in modern history.
Main Description
This chronicle of South Africa's leading newspaper during 30 years of apartheid by one of the country's most distinguished journalists is also a riveting memoir and commentary on freedom of the press.
Bowker Data Service Summary
Benjamin Pogrund began his journalistic career in the 1950s on the Rand Daily Mail in South Africa. His memoirs relive the terrible times suffered by white journalists as they fought against the repressive apartheid regime and racism.

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