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The end of an era

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DFA News Editor, Patsy Beangstrom bids farewell to readers.

I JOINED the DFA with my newly-earned degree from Rhodes University in the early 1980s, excited and honoured to be part of what I believed, and still believe, is one of the best newspapers in the country and certainly the best job one could ever have.

I can speak for hours, if not days, about the stories I have covered, the people I have written about, the events that made us laugh and those that left us shocked, heartbroken and in tears.

The fact that I left university and was immediately thrust into one of the most difficult times to be a journalist in South Africa, when a myriad of laws effectively choked the press, did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

When I walked into the doors of the DFA in Permanent Way at the end of 1983, Graham Etherington had just taken over as editor from Mike Lloyd a few years prior, changing the focus of reporting to an attacking journalism which pushed circulation up – even if it was just to make sure that you weren’t the latest victim of the Editor’s pen.

The DFA at the time still printed two editions, including an “extra”, with a different front and back page, catering for its black readers. The eighties were the days of Vusi’s Viewpoint and Barbara’s Page, the latter run by Barbara Kiddie (* ée Buck), who used to write the social columns of the paper (usually visiting De Beers dignitaries), a cloud of cigarette smoke wafting above her head, a cigarette holder hanging from the side of her mouth, as she pounded the keys of her typewriter.

Those were still the days where journalists typed their “stories” on old-fashioned typewriters, using sheets of cut newsprint, one paragraph a page (for quick changes – often insisted on by meticulous subs who were armed with red pens and a host of hieroglyphic editing symbols). Stories were typed in triplicate, using carbon paper, and there was no easy way to cut and paste.

As a newbie, I was given the tasks looked down on by the more senior reporters, tasks that included writing the weekly “Man in the Street” column, “a column about people who don’t normally get into newspapers” and the regional news, which required phoning the manual exchanges in the various small towns around Kimberley. After all, they knew best what was happening in their communities.

We reported on the Kimberley Show, where the highlights were the De Beers dogs and the “Keep it Country” event in the evening with Sally Vaughn, Gene Rockwell, and Lance James. Each week there was a column on donations given to FACT, the Feed a Child Scheme which was aimed at ensuring that no child in Kimberley would ever have to go hungry. Events covered included a new meter maid for Kimberley, as well as articles about a barefoot waif who couldn’t run free, the 17-year-old Zola Budd. A new innovation enabled sound through the speakers of a car became finally available at the Kimberley Drive-In.

The eighties also saw South Africa erupt into violence. Schools were set alight, delivery vans were emptied, and white shops boycotted. Those seen as “collaborators” became victims of a new and savage form of execution, necklacing. The government, falling back on state of emergency laws for a third time, put a clamp on news reporting. The DFA carried a front-page announcement which read: “In terms of the State of Emergency regulations, news pictures and comments in this issue are restricted.”

It became increasingly difficult to report on events – no one knew who could be quoted, what could be reported on and only selected senior journalists were permitted to talk to the police. Journalists viewed all they met, including co-workers, with suspicion as they were possible Bureau for State Security agents and telephones were considered bugged at all times.

Much of the DFA’s news columns in the early eighties, and my introduction to court reporting, was dominated by the “terror trial” which, after running for a marathon 284 court days, saw five Galeshewe youths, facing charges under the Terrorism Act, being sentenced to an effective 10-13 years’ imprisonment.

In all of this, there were lighter events covered, including the nude farces being held in the city. The DFA was criticised for a photo of three “scantily clad lovelies” who starred in the show. One city nightclub, featuring a strip-show, burnt down and taking photos the next day in the aftermath discovered the charred bodies of two pythons in one of the acts with “Glenda”.

The eighties ended with an announcement which left many South Africans stunned. PW Botha relinquished the National Party leadership to FW de Klerk in February 1989 – signalling the end of the government’s dream of apartheid. As the new era dawned, the winds of change swept throughout South Africa – apartheid was abolished, political parties were unbanned, Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released, and exiled prisoners returned to the land of their birth. However, this was also one of the bloodiest periods in South Africa.

The corridors of the DFA – which by this stage had moved to its current premises in Bean Street and was under the editorship of Tony Ball – echoed with the news of the return of political exiles and newsroom staff were on more than one occasion seen dashing down the steps, notebooks and cameras in hand to get a picture of the returning exiles, only to come back a few hours later empty-handed and disappointed. While hundreds of Northern Cape exiles did return, they did so without fanfare.

For the first time in almost three decades, the hitherto “silent” majority no longer had to hold protest meetings in secret and almost never did a week go by without at least one protest march or meeting being held. In 1991 the ANC Women’s League chose Kimberley for the venue of its first-ever national congress. Nelson Mandela made a surprise visit on the last day.

The newspaper reflected the changing times – reporting on the enthronement of Kimberley’s first black bishop, Bishop Winston Ndungane, and the enrolment of the first non-white pupils at Kimberley schools.

In September 1991, Tony Ball announced his resignation and Charles Guild was appointed editor. The following year, FW de Klerk announced a whites-only referendum on whether to proceed with negotiations with the ANC. The answer from Kimberley, and the rest of the country, was an overwhelming “Yes” and the DFA ran a special edition which came out at midday as the results were announced.

I returned back to the DFA, after taking a break to raise my children, to work under Guild’s successor, Kevin Ritchie. Just weeks before my return a bomb blast ripped apart the Trust Bank building in town when a Russian F1 grenade was thrown into the middle of an ANC Youth League protest outside the Bophuthatswana consulate based in the building. I was back just in time to report on the historic events of April 27, 1994, the country’s first democratic elections. As the Wednesday morning dawned, DFA reporters were out on the streets early to capture the mood.

The newspaper ran a special edition on that day, updating information on how to vote and where to vote. The paper the next day encapsulated the city’s elections, with the lead story reading: “Voters undeterred by bomb threats in the Northern Cape stream to the polls”, accompanied by the aerial photographs that served as testament of the event.

Back in the DFA’s office, the price of the newspaper had gone up to 80 cents. The Man in the Street column had been replaced by Carping Point, although Vusi’s Viewpoint was still a regular. Carping Point, introduced by Graham Etherington, was a weekly column which initially ran on Saturdays and then on a Friday when the Saturday edition was dispensed with. The column was perfected by Tony Ball and the slogan said it all: “Sometimes known as Northern Cape, a sweet-and-sour fish, best tasted tongue-in-cheek and cooked up by some admittedly jaundiced observers. Savour it weekly.”

Besides the political changes sweeping through the country, other stories making the headlines was the Bobbitt trial – who cut off her husband’s penis. These were still the days when the DFA held its annual Wetstone – the literal translation being wetting the stone. The stone is the large metal table on which the paper is laid out in hot metal lead forms. Toasts and speeches were made by various department heads and the stone was blessed in traditional spirit. A massive Christmas party – to which all staff and their families were invited – was held at the City Hall, complete with a Father Christmas.

The newspaper was printed on the Uni Tubular Rotary Press which could print 28 000 copies an hour and a 24-page edition in one run. Affectionately known as “Galloping Gertie” the machine was phased out in 1985. (I remember women were not allowed into the “works section” when the press was running as it was considered bad luck. Paper breaks could see hours wasted as the newsprint had to be refed into the presses). Today the area once occupied by the printing presses serves as a garage for DFA vehicles. Typewriters have long since been replaced by computers and information is at the tip of a journalist’s fingers and not dependent on telex messages.

The newspaper continues to reflect the changing times with the ongoing and ever-improving technological advances, and our staff have all had to adapt to this new way of journalism. We have all had to become social media experts, and I have enjoyed finding news and sharing content in 280 characters on Twitter, amongst the many other platforms.

I have been fortunate to see the evolution of journalism, from the printing press to the daily sharing of news online, and I am excited to see what is in store for the DFA in the coming years. I will miss seeing the excitement of matric pupils at 3am while waiting for their exam results and the celebrations thereafter; following the political trials and covering the elections; the rush and anticipation of waiting for news to break; being the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves; and the opportunity to hear the stories of millions of people across the Northern Cape and beyond.

There have been many people who I have met and interacted with over the years and each one has touched my life in some special way. To my editors, Graham, Tony, Kevin and Johan, who have helped shape me as a journalist, a news editor, and a mentor; my colleagues, those who have travelled the road with me and those who spent only a short portion of their amazing careers in my newsroom, many of whom went from being merely colleagues to becoming friends and family; and to the many contacts I had the pleasure of working with – thank you. I am eternally grateful. There were those who taught me to be humble but also to be brave and to fight for what I believed was right. Those who supported me and stood by my side during the difficult times.

This newspaper gave me the opportunity to live out my dream to be the best journalist I could be and I am grateful for every day that I could bring the news, both good and bad, and the stories to the people of Kimberley and the Northern Cape and to be part of this proud paper.

I know my life will never be the same without the DFA. Both the institution and the people I have met along the way are part of who I am and it is with sadness that I close this door behind me. But I know that tomorrow, and all the days that follow, the DFA will continue to bring the news to the people of Kimberley – and I am proud to have been part of this.

I wish the DFA everything of the best for the future.