Memo to Cabinet

David Bullard | Jun 02, 2019
If you really want economic growth you’ll have to ignore those who regard financial success as evidence of class exploitation.

In September of 2002, the first genuinely black editor was appointed by Johnnic Publishing to edit the Sunday Times. It was Mathatha Tsedu, a man with a distinguished record in journalism stretching back almost a quarter of a century. He had been awarded the Niemann Fellowship in 1996/97 and had been a winner of the Nat Nakasa Award for courageous journalism. At the time of his appointment, he was the chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum, a lobby group whose apparent role is to speak out on behalf of journalists with whom it agrees. 

I was still with the Sunday Times back then and was writing for various sections of the newspaper, including the Lifestyle section. Mr Tsedu’s first official engagement was to attend a drinks party in the company auditorium intended to woo advertisers to the Lifestyle section. That would have included travel companies, hotel chains, motor manufacturers and so on. At the time, the Sunday Times had an impressive LSM 10 readership which, roughly translated, meant that people who had money bought the newspaper and were assumed to read it. 

Towards the end of the drinks party, our new editor was introduced and, as a courtesy, asked to say a few words. Casually attired, and wearing his trademark Greek fisherman’s cap, he proceeded to lecture the predominantly pale-faced audience on the hardships of a township upbringing and the injustices of a post-apartheid South Africa, pointing out that very few black South Africans could afford the sort of things we were writing about in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper. It wasn’t really what the newspaper’s advertising department needed to hear and, if memory serves, the evening ended with most of our well-victualled guests wondering why they had even been invited.

This, I think in hindsight, was the turning point for the Sunday Times. In the language of corporate gobbledygook, the newspaper was to be ‘strategically repositioned’, which was a euphemism for saying it needed to appeal to a new black demographic. The argument that the Lifestyle section was ‘aspirational’ no longer held water. On the contrary, the articles that had previously appeared in the Lifestyle section extolling the virtues of the new Mercedes S class or gushing about a sunset over a secluded beach off the coast of Bali were now seen as offensive. It was felt that they mocked people who couldn’t afford such things and deserved to be toned down, if not dropped altogether. 

Mr Tsedu’s tenure as editor lasted just over a year and he holds, as far as I am aware, the dubious distinction of being the only editor of the Sunday Times ever to be publicly sacked rather than quietly put out to pasture as happened with the unfortunate Ray Hartley. Mr Tsedu was booted from the Sunday Times in November 2003 for ‘not editing the paper in a manner consistent with his contract of employment’. Happily, the dirty deed was handled by then Johnnic Communication CEO Connie Molusi (can you imagine the political fallout if a white boss had sacked a black editor?). One of the problems that had surfaced very early on was the absence of the editor on a Saturday night when the final pages of the paper were being ‘put to bed’. 

When he had been given the job of editor nobody had apparently explained that he would be expected to work on Saturday nights (sometimes late into Saturday nights) although one might have supposed that the title of the publication he was editing might have been a clue. Another problem was that the Sunday Times was starting to lose readers, as more and more articles appeared which could be interpreted as hostile to those members of society who might be deemed more privileged that others. As the more affluent readers drifted away from a paper that no longer catered to their Sunday reading needs, the advertising started to dry up. After all, as one motor company executive said to me, there’s no point in spending R250 000 on a wraparound of the Lifestyle section to advertise your new luxury saloon if none of the readers can afford it. The harsh reality was that the repositioning of the paper, while it may have satisfied a deep desire to virtue signal to the ruling party, was a disaster commercially. Back in the 1990s, if you didn’t get down to the corner café to buy your Sunday Times by 11am latest you would find that they had sold out. These days they are still wrapped in the plastic in which they were delivered on a Monday morning, awaiting collection to be pulped. 

Moral of the story: you alienate your best-paying customers at your peril. That’s a message that the newly elected members of the Cabinet might like to bear in mind when they set about rebuilding the wreckage the Zuma legacy has left. If you really don’t like wealth creators of any complexion in the country then perhaps you could let them know early on and give them the opportunity to wind down their businesses, boost the unemployment numbers, and move to friendlier shores.  But if you really do want to create employment and boost tax revenues, it might be worth remembering that the visible rewards of hard work and ingenuity may well be offensive to some, and particularly to members of the leftist media who regard financial success as prima facie evidence of class exploitation.  My advice would be to ignore them. After all, as I have already explained in some detail, the media model has been a dismal failure and we can ill afford the country going down the same stony path. 

*Mathatha Tsedu was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his services to journalism and his selfless contribution to the liberation of our country by President Ramaphosa in April 2019.

 

David Bullard is a columnist, author and celebrity public speaker known for his controversial satire.

 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the IRR.

 

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