Journalism: It’s my calling
How a cub reporter became a nationally syndicated,
top tier journalist, almost overnight


A liberal arts major (how quaint?) at the University of Cape Town, I graduated in December 1973 with a degree in sociology and economics.
For what career it qualified me, I had absolutely no idea. Neither did I have any idea at that stage of my development that I was a seemingly natural-born writer. Even then, and certainly today, crafting elegant prose came easily, as if from a spigot.

Back from my second “grand tour” of Europe that winter, I was scanning the want ads (oh, yes, they used to appear in newsprint!) when I saw a notice for a “cadet reporter.” Having not the faintest idea about journalism, not even knowing then that I might have a talent for writing, I applied. Lo and behold! I was accepted.
In March 1974, I found myself in the offices of South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), corporate parent of the Rand Daily Mail newspaper (hounded by the government into oblivion in 1985) and Sunday Express in Johannesburg. (See
History of the press in South Africa)
After a six-week training course, I was deployed for a six-month stint on
The Cape Times, my hometown morning newspaper.
By a fortunate happenstance, the start of my journalism career coincided with a major new move by the government to suppress the student protest movement, in particular the
National Union of South African Students NUSAS.
Having recently been an insider with the group, and maintaining all my personal connections to its leaders, I was perfectly placed to cover the unfolding drama.
Apart from the white students, at this time the English language press in South Africa was the only effective voice of opposition to the Apartheid regime. The parliamentary opposition, the United Party, once the governing party, was weak and emasculated.
The only member of Parliament giving voice to the concerns of those not represented there was Helen Suzman, the heroic, sole Progressive Party representative.
Read her New York Times obit

suzman
Helen Suzman

So the English-language press was equally as loathed by the National Party administration, as were the English-language student movement and academia. From time to time, the government would embark on some nefarious endeavor to intimidate or otherwise suppress the vigorous opposition entities.
One way it did so was to “ban” them. By edict, it could and did impose draconian restrictions on individuals and institutions. The one that hit closest to home was when it “banned” former
NUSAS President Neville Curtis in 1973.
He was not allowed in the presence of more than one individual at a time, could not be quoted in the press, was barred from any political activities and could not associate with any other banned persons. He was geographically restricted to the Cape Town municipal district, had his passport confiscated and had to frequently report to the police.
He and his associates (among them, me) were almost continuously monitored by the not-so-secret police. Whether by design or happenstance, the monitoring was far from secret. The phone clicked as soon as we got a dial tone. Mail was frequently and obviously tampered with. The black car parked outside Neville’s house (and mine) with two or more plainclothes but unmistakable policemen inside was more Keystone Cops than James Bond.
Neville and his friends adjusted as well as possible to his new circumstances.

At the time, I was covering the proposed desecration of the last remaining undeveloped beach within Cape Town’s city limit,
Sandy Bay. Its remote location, reachable only by a 20 minute hike through the bush, made it a favorite of nude sunbathers, and the voyeurs they inevitably attracted.

Sandy Bay still unspoiled Sandy Bay

A developer had proposed to build a huge resort a few yards from the white, sandy beach, ruining it forever. A group of upstanding citizens, however, did not like the idea. On August 27, 1974, Peter Ravenscroft of Save Sandy Bay invited me to visit the site with members or the group. Going to the beach on a work day certainly appealed to me, so I joined the group of half a dozen on the 20-minute slog to the beach.
As we approached over the top of a ridge, we spied a bulldozer grading the side of a hundred-foot high, pristine white sand dune, seemingly getting it ready for construction. I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures.
Suddenly, the bulldozer driver stopped his rig, jumped off it and lunged in my direction. I kept taking pictures. As we wrestled for the camera, my companions jumped on the man, overpowering him and pulling him off me. He soon gave up, jumped back atop the bulldozer, and drove off.
On the way back to the office I stopped at the Wynberg police station where I filed assault charges against John Doe. Back at The Cape Times, I wrote a third-person account of the events, which ran in the next morning’s paper along with one of my pictures. (
Read the full story here) The story and picture appeared on page three. No byline.
That same afternoon, our competition The Cape Argus ran a front page story on the assault charge I filed … their cop reporter obviously picked up the police report, as any good cop reporter would. (
Read the full story here)

Also that afternoon, the Save Sandy Bay group filed in Superior Court for an urgent restraining order against the developer, Costa Areosa, and its bulldozer driver. I was present at the hearing in my official capacity as a reporter. The order was granted immediately; the judge was aghast that the developer was moving dirt long before his plan had been approved by the City Council.
Thus came about my first front page
lead story in the paper, and my first byline, both an honor for such a rookie reporter. (Read it here)
My mother was so proud, she showed the paper to all her friends. Fortunately, this would soon be followed by even more high impact front-page stories by me.

SandyBay5

To this day, Sandy Bay remains pristine. See an undated image of it here No access road has ever been built, and certainly no beach front resort.

I was quickly building a reputation as a solid reporter for The Cape Times. Since I joined the staff, I had been under the expert tutelage of City Editor Wessel de Kock, who later became a noted author of, among other works, “A manner of speaking: the origins of the press in South Africa.”
De Kock was old school journalism at its finest. No amount of book learning could replace the inimical holler by which he summoned me to his desk in the newsroom in the late afternoon where he dissected and reassembled my amateurish prose.

After deadline, he would often spend time on further instruction with me at the adjacent press bar … there was even a disused door leading from the second floor newsroom right into the upper lounge of the bar. Long before my time, the convenience must have been appreciated. Even in 1974, many in the newsroom wore green eye shades and some, no doubt, kept a small bottle of hooch in their desk drawer. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, of which I contributed my fair share, having taken up the ugly habit at about age 15.
Our desks were adorned with upright Underwood typewriters. We typed copy on small sheets of newsprint, stapled them together and enclosed them in a vacuum tube bottle that was then hurled with force through the tubes hugging the ceiling on to their next destination. After landing at the city desk, where they were edited for content, they were then “vacuumed” to the copy desk for style and spelling check, and thence to typesetting – a three-story creaky apparatus with molten hot lead feeding into the top and small blocks of type emerging at the bottom. The blocks were then arranged on a lead plate for printing.

Meanwhile, Neville Curtis had been growing increasingly frustrated with his restrictions, and the resulting impotence he felt as a change agent in South Africa. Many of us had already concluded that our futures – and that of our country – were bleak. Our group debated this topic way into the wee hours of the morning many a time, and we knew our options were limited. But we gradually arrived at a consensus conclusion.
If we remained in South Africa, as immoral a society as we perceived ever existed, our very presence would contribute to the hegemony of the white minority, something we had battled to the core of our being since we had attained awareness of it. As white, gay and Jewish, I was a member of a triple-play minority, acutely aware of my personal oppression and that of those around me. It was increasingly obvious to us that the white minority could not indefinitely continue to oppress the black majority without also imposing severe repression on the white dissenters … us. None of us imagined in our wildest fantasies the peaceful outcome that would transpire some 18 years hence.
We decided, individually and ultimately collectively, that our only moral alternative was to withdraw entirely from the corrupt, irredeemable society. Within a few years, many of this inner circle had left for new lands.
Neville was among the first. But, with severe limitations on his movements – no passport, constant surveillance and no legal way to leave the country – his plans were made in the utmost secrecy. I was unaware he was on his way to Australia until he was more than half way across the south Indian Ocean aboard the luxury Italian liner Guglielmo Marconi.
Alerted by a newspaper editor (at Neville’s behest, I assume, but cannot be sure) in Perth that he had arrived in Freemantle on Sept. 21, 1974, I managed to get through to him on a ship-to shore phone. As noted in the second paragraph of my front page story
Student leader seeks asylum Curtis could not be quoted because he was a “banned” person.
It was a blockbuster scoop for me. Not a single other reporter had it, and a version of my story was syndicated throughout the country on Sept. 23, 1974, appearing on the front page of every major English language newspaper.
I had graduated into the big time of South African journalism, a mere six months into my career, and no doubt irked the embarrassed cabinet ministers responsible for Neville’s escape.

A few weeks later, as planned, I was transferred back to Johannesburg to join the staff of the Sunday Express, another publication of South African Associated Newspapers.
When I left Cape Town, I was driving a 1970 white, four-door Peugeot, an inheritance from dad. It was a tank of a car; solid steel, sluggish, heavy, dour. Once back in the metropolis, I quickly substituted a 1974 Yamaha 125cc motorcycle as my transportation around Johannesburg. It was my first motorcycle. I loved the sensory exhilaration riding afforded, but hated the wild traffic; far too many had no idea about how to drive in the city.
The weekly Sunday Express was a tabloid, in size and demeanor. Sensational stories were its front page teasers, but there was some serious journalism inside.
An example of this was my story on
Starvation: That’s what life offers 8 out of 10 Africans
It is also an indication of the direction my reporting was taking: stories about the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the voiceless victims of Apartheid South Africa. I believed this was the best I could do to be a change agent, and apparently in the view of the government, it had a measure of success.
At this time the secret police began an intimidation campaign, not against me, but aimed at my parents, Barney and Molly in Cape Town. Midnight phone calls, unmistakable “clicks” indicating a wire-tapped phone (theirs), warnings of dire consequences if I didn’t stop rocking the boat.
They were understandably freaked out. Our long-distance conversations (we assumed they were being monitored) became more strained, but the theme often veered to where on earth I was heading, geographically and in my career.

Early in 1975, I completed my journalism cadet course and joined the staff of the Rand Daily Mail as a full-time reporter.
I was beginning, however, to perceive that my time as an unfettered, anti-government reporter in South Africa was somehow limited. Too many of my associates – both from the student movement and the news media – had been the victims of government retribution. The more I practiced my profession, the more it felt like the forces of oppression were closing in on me.
So it was with a mild sense of urgency at first that I began applying to a few California colleges, knowing the quickest and best way to get a medium-term, temporary entry visa to the U.S. was to apply as a student. In the South African fall of 1975 (spring in the U.S.), one of my applications was accepted: San Diego State University offered me a place in its journalism program, although they would not recognize my B.A. and admit me to graduate school. With my F-1 U.S visa in hand, just after my 23rd birthday, I began preparations to emigrate.
The pieces fortuitously fell into place.
Suddenly, in June, a handful of my colleagues in the Daily Mail newsroom got draft notices. I was one of them. We were ordered to report for military training on July 1 in Kimberly, a diamond mining center with a large military base about 300 miles southwest of Johannesburg. There was no way I would go.
I bought a roundtrip ticket to London, scheduled to depart on July 10. The return portion was deliberately to be left unused; it was to mitigate the suspicions of passport control officials at the airport, who closely monitored those exiting on one-way tickets to ensure there were no ‘illegal’ emigrants, such as banned persons or draft evaders.
At the end of June, I officially resigned my job and coincidentally disappeared from public view. I vacated my rental in Observatory, Johannesburg, and with all my possessions loaded into my white Peugeot, drove through the night and the next day to Cape Town. During the following days, I never used the phone. I paid cash for everything. I planned my arrival at the parents’ Sea Point home for the evening.
We spent the next few days saying goodbyes to all the Cape Town family. Mom and dad somehow obtained five thousand U.S. dollars (foreign exchange was strictly limited and hard to come by in South Africa in those days), with which they enthusiastically sent me off to find my fortune in the wide world.
On July 10, 1975, accompanied by my friend Rob Gloster (who was leaving under almost identical circumstances), I nervously boarded a non-stop flight to London, having successfully made it through passport control despite being AWOL for 10 days. As the British Airways Boeing 707 lifted off from Jan Smuts Airport, we both breathed a huge and audible sigh of relief.
We got smashed on champagne on the plane that night, our last time together.