The last thirty years of the 20th Century have been some of the most difficult in South Africa’s press history, which extends over the past 170 years. This book deals with some of those problems, using The Natal Mercury (later The Mercury) as a case study, while seeking to put it in context with what else was happening in the country’s newspaper world at the time.
To celebrate The Natal Mercury’s 125th anniversary in 1977, a history of the Mercury, written by former staff member Terry Wilks, was published under the title For the Love of Natal. It recounts the many successes and travails of the newspaper as Natal lived through being a Crown colony, maturing to responsible government, and eventually marrying into the Union of South Africa, which later became the Republic of South Africa.
In all those years, the newspaper was owned and controlled by members of the Robinson family, which was still in control in the 1970s when I take up the story. Wilks divided the Mercury’s first 125 years into four periods. The first he identified as from 1852 to 1890, a period of slow development when the newspaper pleaded for greater self-rule in Natal. The second, 1890 to 1910, was distinguished by the achievement of responsible government, realising the dreams of former premier and Mercury proprietor Sir John Robinson. The third period, 1910 to 1960, found the Mercury directing its attention to strengthening the province’s rights in the face of centralist influences in the Union government, and in combating Afrikaner nationalist efforts to weaken or break the country’s links with Britain. The fourth, Wilks identified as from 1960 to 1977, when he said Natal blended more harmoniously into the political life of the nation. “Gone are the Home Rulers, Devolutionists, Federalists, along with talk of Natal Stands and Secession.” He claimed that at no other time had there been such economic growth in Natal as over those 17 years, with the Mercury promoting that development and keeping abreast of technological advances.
Wilks’s picture of the Mercury at its 125th anniversary in 1977 reflected a newspaper harmoniously part of the larger Natal community, and in a rosy state of contentment. Perhaps he felt it necessary to project such a state of affairs in a book celebrating a notable anniversary, but it was a picture which obscured the darker side to South African life and the storm clouds building for a storm, both in the political affairs of the country and in the internal affairs of the newspaper itself. It was an illusion based on whites’ view of themselves as in charge of their fate, in a country which they felt desperately needed their business drive and organisational skills. There were, however, other forces at work.
While the book was written at a time when South Africa, as an apartheid state, seemed able to sustain itself and grow in spite of international opposition, there were by the 1970s already clear signs that apartheid was struggling to survive, and that white South Africa would have to adapt to change at an ever-quickening pace.
While Dr Verwoerd as prime minister had forecast that the tide of black work-seekers flowing into “white South Africa” would be reversed from 1978 onwards, it was already obvious from a decade earlier that market forces bringing the races together were stronger than ideologically-driven social engineering plans to force them apart.
Two examples help to make the point. In the first, I refer to the days the Nationalist government in the early 1970s attempted to introduce legislation into Parliament to prevent people from different racial groups working behind the same shop counters. It was a law that was overtaken by market forces entirely. There simply were not enough white people alone to serve at shop counters, even in businesses in “white South Africa”. The economy had grown too big for whites to run it by themselves.
A second example focuses on Mr Marais Viljoen, later State President, when he was Minister of Labour in the early 1970s. At that time he was a hard-case apartheid man, convinced of the need for separation of races in the workplace and that whites must hold all the top jobs in “white South Africa”. Very soon after this, when he became Minister of Posts, he was confronted with the problem that there were simply not enough white work-seekers to take up all the available postmen jobs in the Post Office, not even for delivery of post in the white suburbs. He it was who had to make provision for postmen of other races to be employed for the job, thus helping to break down apartheid in practice.
The apartheid state was developing an economy which needed the resources of all the country’s population groups, no longer in the master-servant relationship of whites to blacks, but in the co-operative relationship of fellow-citizens working for the country’s economic good. Politics was still way behind market forces, and it was to be several years before it caught up.
But the Soweto Uprising of 1976 – the year before Wilks’s book was published – was the most obvious wake-up call, that change was urgently necessary. Not only was the internal black population of the country rebelling, but the outside world was beginning to flex its muscles and demand change from South Africa much more determinedly.
The white population of South Africa was slow and reluctant to give up its privileges, and the Mercury showed the same characteristics. Not surprisingly, because it was the embodiment of white Natal thinking in many respects.
The whites of Natal were conservative by nature and, though forming the only province with an English-speaking white majority traditionally opposed to Afrikaner nationalism, they were swinging towards the National Party in sentiment the more pressure was applied to them from blacks inside and from the world outside. As South Africa was moving into a siege economy, they were beginning to stand with the apartheid government even though they did not agree with apartheid’s rigorous attempts to regulate every aspect of life affecting race relations.
While the Mercury itself was always opposed to apartheid as such, its owners and editors were extremely cautious of upsetting the commercial welfare of the company by tackling white domination head-on. Though the Mercury had an appreciable percentage of Indian readers and a few black readers, the paper lived on its white wealthy and middle-class readers, and on the advertisements of white companies who did not take kindly to liberal, socialist or radical and revolutionary black nationalist views.
The newspaper’s curious position of being upmarket-conservative reinforced its linkage with the white community, whereas its press rival, the Argus company’s afternoon-publishing Daily News, had a larger Indian readership, had a larger daily circulation, relied more on small-ads for revenue, and was part of a liberal newspaper chain that was used to putting heavier pressure on the Nationalist government.
Wilks refers to a strange incident which occurred in 1973, which says much for the position of the Mercury in Natal society at the time. One of its former employees, Lawrence Morgan, who had been the paper’s agricultural editor but was by then working for the Nationalist-owned Financial Gazette, visited the paper one day to make a take-over offer to the chairman, John Robinson.
The Rand Daily Mail reported that “a mysterious group of English-speakers, using a journalist from a government-owned newspaper as an intermediary, was interested in purchasing the Mercury.” When Morgan told Robinson he wanted to buy the Mercury, Robinson with a straight face told him: “You can buy it for 10c at the street corner.” But when Morgan insisted he was serious, Robinson reiterated the long-stated policy that the Mercury “is not for sale”. He did, however, say he would put an offer to his board if Morgan gave it to him in writing within one week. The verbal offer was purported to be for R7-million.
Morgan was reported to have said that, if the Mercury was taken over by his as-yet unnamed group, it would follow a policy of “dynamic forward-looking conservatism”. There was considerable alarm in liberal and anti-Nationalist press circles at this news, because the paper (in spite of its conservatism, still regarded as an opposition newspaper) seemed in dire danger of falling into the hands of Nationalist sympathisers. It was already known that the Nationalists were seeking an English-language vehicle to use as their mouthpiece to counter the strong anti-apartheid tone of the mainstream English-language papers.
Once word was out that some unknown group was bidding for the Mercury, there was considerable scurrying behind the scenes. Before the week was up, South African Associated Newspapers managing director Leycester Walton had made the next move, by announcing that Saan was interested in buying any shares that might be available in the Mercury. When the deadline day arrived, there was no sign of Morgan, but the following afternoon Morgan issued a statement saying the bid had been withdrawn, because the “climate which had been produced during the past week was not conducive to fair, objective negotiation”.
Wilks took the incident no further, but there is more to reveal of this mystery. I interviewed a number of key individuals inside and outside the company concerning this bid.
Mercury editor at the time, Jimmy McMillan, said Morgan asked to see him and said the editorial staff must not worry at all. The staff would remain if the take-over succeeded. He told McMillan: “I will be editorial director.” McMillan responded sharply: “Why editorial director instead of just a member of the board? You want to have control of the editorial side.” Morgan told him he had nothing to worry about with him as editorial director. McMillan’s response was firm and immediate: “I told him he could go and get stuffed. If he was in authority, I would not be there as editor.”
Alf Rowley, general manager and a director of the company at the time, brushed the incident aside, saying: “We didn’t even consider the offer. They wouldn’t put it in writing.” But he had no idea where the offer came from. He even speculated that it might have come from the Nationalist press group Perskor, because Perskor boss Marius Jooste had once said to him almost confidentially at a Newspaper Press Union meeting: “If ever you want to sell your paper, don’t forget to get in touch with me.”
Besides the political implications of the offer, the financial circumstances of the Mercury at the time were also pertinent. McMillan, said: “The Mercury was going through some pretty rough times financially. Profitability was important, because the Mercury had a number of members of the Robinson family who relied entirely on dividends. As a consequence, the dominant thought in the mind of the board was: ‘You’ve got to maintain profits as far as possible for the benefit of the family members who relied on them’.”
A consequence of the tightness of the times was that the Mercury was struggling to keep up with the development it needed if it was to hold its place in the market. One of its key needs was a new printing press to enable it to print the Sunday Times efficiently in Natal for South African Associated Newspapers (Saan), a very lucrative contract. While it had provided a di-litho extension to its existing press – a system of saddles on the press and di-litho plates - it was not regarded as ideal.
The company actually had its eyes on a Goss metroliner press that would have done the job properly, with all the necessary colour-page configurations, but the board had concluded it did not have the money for such an expensive investment. For the Robinsons, who had long prided themselves on their printing expertise, this was a harsh reality. Eventually the board swallowed some of its pride and decided to approach Saan for ways to share the costs of buying the needed press. Rival company Argus was also interested. Before any deal was finalised, word was out that the Mercury was in financial trouble.
McMillan says that Morgan suddenly appeared at the paper to make his take-over offer, ostensibly representing a group of north coast sugar farmers. Among them, the Rattray family was identified as spearheading the venture. Mike Rattray, a leading entrepreneur from the family, was supposed to be the man behind the plan, and he was reputed to be a strong supporter of the National Party at the time, financially and in other ways. David Robinson, proprietor of the Mercury in the 1980s, also linked Rattray with the plan. “I think he was involved, because he had the money. I think the Nationalists were behind it. They were going for a newspaper.”
I approached Mike Rattray, who is also involved in the ownership of upmarket private game reserves such as Mala Mala, about his rumoured link with the take-over bid for the Mercury. But he was very firm. “No. I have never heard of an attempt by my family to take over the Mercury, and I would have known, because I was involved in the business. This is the first I have ever heard of this rumour.”
With that trail leading to a dead-end, I tried another tack. McMillan said he had been involved with Nationalist Minister Dr Piet Koornhof when establishing the journalism course at the Natal Technikon, and succeeded in persuading him to allow blacks to take the course. “Koornhof showed particular interest in the Mercury, wanting to know how it was getting on, what the finances in the industry were at the time, and asking far too many questions as far as I was concerned about the paper itself.” On top of this, McMillan said: “Lawrie Morgan and Piet Koornhof were as thick as thieves. The reason I feel this was all part of the whole idea of getting a foothold in the media was that Koornhof was so close to Morgan. Koornhof was asking far too many questions.”
Deputy Editor at the time, Miles Mattson, said the concern felt in press circles at the possibility of the Mercury falling into Nationalist hands can be illustrated through the fact that he received a call from a former assistant editor at the Mercury, Ramsay Milne, who was then working at The Star. Milne told him: “If you feel you can’t continue working at the Mercury, you can work at The Star. Layton Slater (chairman of the Argus Company) asked me to give you that assurance.”
Mattson says Morgan told him he (Morgan) was promised the editorship of the Mercury if he could pull the deal off. He told Mattson: “Miles, you don’t have to worry about your position after the take-over.” Mattson replied: “What makes you think I will still be around?”
Mattson says Morgan did much good work in trying to act as a bridge between racial communities, and he “paralleled” a lot with Koornhof on these things.
So, if Rattray was not involved in the take-over bid, was Koornhof? I phoned him out of the blue, and he immediately remembered me from my political correspondent days. Asked about Nationalist plans to take over the Mercury, he spoke without hesitation and with apparent absolute recall:
“The facts are that T.C.Robertson, who was a very well-known journalist and a brilliant man and a
world-renowned conservationist, a right-hand man to General Smuts . . . he and I became friends. I
bought a house across the road from Robertson in Scottburgh, because we were close to TC. He was a
“One day he came to me and said the editor of the Mercury had telephoned him to say that if the
National Party was interested, it could buy the Mercury. I was very thrilled and I told John Vorster.
When TC heard I was very interested, the next thing he did was bring the editor.”
The editor had not come specially to see him, but had been visiting TC Robertson, who had brought
him over so they could discuss the idea between them. Koornhof could not recall the name of the editor
he said he met, but the man was unknown to him up to that moment. I suggested the names McMillan
and Morgan to him, but he was unsure.
Koornhof continued: “We had tea. The editor told me it was confidential and he did not want it bandied
about. The National Party could buy the Mercury, because it would bring very good understanding and
reconciliation. That is what we talked about.”
The first thing Koornhof did when he got back to office, he said, was to go to the Prime Minister and
tell him what the editor had said. Vorster showed great interest and told Koornhof he should leave him
to take the matter further.
Later, General van den Bergh (South Africa’s security chief at the time) telephoned Koornhof and said
Vorster had told him about the Mercury opportunity, but Vorster had asked him to “tell Koornhof
the National Party is NOT interested in buying the Mercury”. This was a considerable shock to
He said: “Van den Bergh and I were close, because my father was a minister and had baptised
asked van den Bergh to go back to the Mercury. The reason was that the day I went to speak to Vorster
about buying the Mercury, he and Connie Mulder were already advanced in plans to start The Citizen.
They had advanced so far in establishing The Citizen, and that is why they were not interested in
buying the Mercury.
“I was furious about it. I thought it came as a smack in my face. He gave me to believe they were
interested, and the next thing van den Bergh said he must speak to the Mercury and they were not
going to buy it. My perception of it is that I had a very good relationship with John Vorster, better than
with PW Botha, yet he smacked me in the face and then, without even coming back to me, went to van
den Bergh. In other words, he did not take me into his confidence.
“Afterwards Vorster told me he knew that Hendrik Schoeman, Schalk van der Merwe and myself
would never be in favour of starting such a newspaper as The Citizen, because we would argue: ‘How
can you take Nat Party supporters’ and taxpayers’ money to start a newspaper and then attack them in
your newspaper?’ The newspaper would not be acting in its own interests. You cannot defend it. That
is why he did not bring it to the Cabinet. He knew he would run into problems.”
Koornhof said he was not aware that the Rattrays were involved in the plan in any way, thus confirming Mike Rattray’s denial that his family was involved. Koornhof had met Mike Rattray, and in fact was his guest on the only occasion he attended the Rothman’s July horse race in Durban, but did not connect him in any way with the take-over bid on the Mercury. As to van den Bergh’s involvement, Koornhof said van den Bergh strongly disapproved of the Citizen project and was not a prime decision-maker in turning down the apparent opportunity to buy the Mercury. He had simply been carrying out Vorster’s orders.
Van den Bergh knew also that he (Koornhof) would have disapproved of the Citizen project, so van den Bergh had actually done something behind Vorster’s back by telling Koornhof that the Citizen project was the reason for turning down the Mercury opportunity.
I even attempted to get van den Bergh’s version of these events, but van den Bergh – whose wife had died shortly before and was himself extremely old and frail - said he was quite unable to help, because he could no longer remember the incident at all. He died a few weeks after this interview.
The one man who might still give the full answer to the puzzle, Lawrie Morgan, has left South Africa to return to Wales, and my efforts to trace him came to nought.
Mattson strongly believes, however, that McMillan could not have been the “editor” Koornhof said he dealt with. He said the Mercury under McMillan was operating as an independent newspaper, enjoying English and Afrikaans reader support. “It was consistently anti-government, but it was reasonable. It is extremely unlikely that Koornhof was introduced to Jimmy McMillan to discuss this deal. Jimmy’s whole attitude was against a take-over. He even resented Saan buying a share in the Mercury.” But Mattson admits John Robinson had a “flirtation” with John Vorster, and was always very cordial to him. “It was probably Morgan that Koonrhof negotiated with. Morgan had delusions of grandeur, but I don’t understand how Koornhof could say he did not know Morgan. Morgan was always talking about what he did with Koornhof . . . unless Morgan was spinning a line about how close he was to Koornhof.”
I went back to Jimmy McMillan, telling him Koornhof’s version of what had happened, in which he said he had spoken to the editor at TC Robertson’s house at Scottburgh. McMillan was totally dismissive of that account. Although he knew TC Robertson, he had never visited him at his house at Scottburgh. Besides which, he claimed to be well-known to Koornhof at that stage, so Koornhof would have recognised him if he had been involved. He had dealt with Koornhof over blacks being allowed into the journalism school at the Natal Technikon, and Koornhof had also called editors to be briefed by him on allowing blacks into church schools.
In any case, McMillan said “there was not a snowball’s chance” that he would have been talking to Koornhof about selling the Mercury to the Nationalists. McMillan also believes Koornhof must have been dealing with Morgan posing as the editor.
He remembers one more significant thing. John Robinson told him the Prime Minister, John Vorster, had phoned him, saying he had heard the Mercury was for sale. Robinson had told Vorster there was no question of selling the paper to the National Party, and that any problems the Mercury was having would be ironed out. While Vorster had not pressed the case for the National Party to take over the paper, he had particularly asked Robinson that the Mercury should not sell any stake in itself to Saan or to Argus – the two newspaper groups which were consistently anti-government in tone.
The most likely answer to the mystery of how the take-over bid came about is that Lawrence Morgan, latching on to stories that the Mercury was in trouble, took it on himself, without authority from the Mercury, to claim in front of TC Robertson (and through him to Koornhof) that the Mercury was for sale if the National Party wanted to buy it. It was almost certainly Morgan – not the real editor, Jimmy McMillan – who met Koornhof in the company of TC Roberston to discuss the sale of the Mercury to the National Party.
The fact that Koornhof did not know him was probably because Morgan had been pretending to his colleagues that he knew Koornhof, when in fact he did not. Colleagues claim he liked to give the impression he operated in the big league. In the bid process, he had claimed he would be editor or editorial director, and colleagues remember that in a previous job, at the Farmer’s Weekly, he had also tried to oust the editor in an attempt to get the editorship for himself. So he was a man of ambition, seemingly willing to try stratagems to achieve a top position for himself.
The take-over bid, though unsuccessful, helped to throw into sharper outline the position of the Mercury financially and how it was perceived politically. It was a self-standing newspaper with all the problems of a smaller company in raising capital for expansion. It was anti-Nationalist in political leaning, but conservative in expression, staying in line with the public sentiment of its main body of readers and advertisers.