Chapter One – From strength to vulnerability

Chapter 31 – 150th anniversary

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Chapter 31 – 150th anniversary

On Monday, 2 November 2002, The Mercury produced a 150th anniversary supplement to commemorate this special occasion. As the second oldest daily newspaper in South Africa, it was something to crow about.

In this supplement, the incumbent editor and previous editors were invited to make a contribution through short articles on their period in office.
The following are the contributions:
JOHN PATTEN – 1991-1996
The period of my editorship of The Mercury was one of rapid and turbulent transition both for South Africa and for the newspaper. It was a major challenge to maintain high standards of journalism in such volatile circumstances.

In politics, the Nationalist policy of apartheid had officially died several months previously, but the troubled process of bringing all the factions of a divided society together to shape a new democracy had only just begun.

I became the first (and last) editor of The Mercury to be appointed by the old Argus Company, whose editorial tradition had been liberal, non-sectarian and responsible. It was left to the editor to direct news-gathering and to garner and generate comment that would assist the public debate in the direction of the highest public interest. During the years of apartheid, the Argus group papers had been outspokenly anti-Nationalist.

The Mercury under its previous owners and editors also had a fine reputation, but its image was undoubtedly more conservative. The year 1991, however, was not a time to be weighed down by conservative influences. The country was moving towards an open, non-racial democracy. The role I saw The Mercury playing was to help the different communities of KZN make the adjustments in thinking that could make a working democracy possible.

Market research undertaken for the company identified certain priorities as being important for The Mercury. From this a formula was devised for presenting news with a serious bias and a special place for financial news.

Design changes stood the paper in good stead, for it finished second three times and then first in the Frewin Trophy newspaper design competition. In 1995, The Mercury became the first paper to win both the Frewin and McCall trophies in a single year.

Later, when Independent Newspapers of Ireland bought the Argus Company, a total restructuring and repositioning of newspapers took place, and The Mercury was assigned the upmarket position in Natal Newspapers.

The final transition in my time as editor was for the company to demonstrate that its newspapers were not white islands in a black sea, but were part of the multi-racial South African community in every respect. It was my pleasure to stand down by retiring early to facilitate the appointment of the first Indian editor of a daily publication of Natal Newspapers. Dennis Pather was appointed editor of the Daily News, and then of The Mercury.

There have not been that many editors of The Mercury in its 150-year history and I am proud to count myself as one of them.

When I joined The Mercury in March 1996, it was at a time of considerable transformation and political change in South Africa.

They were exciting and tumultuous times as the paper came to terms with a new ANC national government, a new IFP-led provincial government and new Irish proprietors with new ideas and demands. The Mercury was still largely regarded as a “white” newspaper with a long colonial past.

I determined to move The Mercury in a more liberal direction, following the course that John Patten had already set. We wished to appeal to a wider spectrum of our new rainbow nation, especially as some of our older and more traditional readers had turned away from the paper because of steep pricing policy which had accompanied the introduction of the Business Report section.

A dynamic new writer, Kaiser Nyatsumba, joined us from Johannesburg, adding a new dimension to some rich and fertile political thinking on the paper.

Strategy sessions on the paper were noisy and sometimes unpredictable. We decided to grow our efforts in the business community and also to try to provide hope for our readers, many of whom were feeling beleaguered and bewildered by the massive changes occurring around them. We interacted with the business community and with their support began a new section, called the HighRoad, based on Clem Sunter’s scenario and with his blessing.

It is still an important part of the paper to this day, mainly due to the substantial input of David Canning, who I believe set new benchmarks in local business reporting.

The paper’s circulation stabilised and began to grow. Part of its success came from the classic design of The Mercury, carefully nurtured and watched over by design editor John Waters and, combined with good quality printing, ensured that The Mercury won the top newspaper awards, including the Frewin and McCall trophies in successive years. The talented staff of reporters and sub-editors fully deserved this recognition.

I was a little sad in a way when I was promoted a few years later to be editorial director of Independent Newspapers KZN and made way for the hugely talented and pioneering editor Dennis Pather.

They were great days on The Mercury and ones I will always remember.

DENNIS PATHER – 1999-2002
As you well know, editors don’t just appoint themselves. They’re chosen by the principals of the company, and to be absolutely candid, I greeted my appointment as editor of The Mercury just over three years ago, with a fair dose of apprehension, even foreboding.

I’d enjoyed fairly extensive experience on most of the major newspaper titles in the province, but not a day on The Mercury, not even as a freelancer. My perspective of the newspaper had always been that of a strait-laced, snobbish and politically conservative morning daily, one that had appealed primarily to a white audience.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that the title had long been under private ownership and its link with the then Argus stable was relatively recent. It was not a product I could at the time hold close to my bosom, and feel warm and comfortable about. In short, I had difficulty feeling an affinity for the product.

Much of that perspective was to change after June 9, 1999. I discovered I was in the company of a group of seasoned professionals and eager young journalists who accepted the historical baggage the title carried and were not committed to adapting and keeping paced with a changing and growing market.

Some of my more recent predecessors had already started the process and the turning point, I believe, came when The Mercury’s journalists had come to terms with the title’s market positioning.

We were broadly upmarket and aspirational, but more importantly, truly non-racial in character.

Today, the Mercury enjoys an enviable reputation for the quality and credibility that ranks it among the best in the country. This is true for both its news content and the way in which it packages and presents the news.

The newspaper’s recipe in publishing has been a simple one: deliver the widest possible news and sports coverage reliably, credibly and comprehensively to enable readers to make informed decisions.

The team behind the newspaper is proud of the package it now delivers to its thousands of readers each morning, especially its local, and international coverage of financial matters through Business Report and Network, as well as the role it plays in promoting development and growth in KwaZulu Natal through the HighRoad.

I now feel proud and privileged to have spent three thoroughly enjoyable and eventful years as editor of a newspaper that has truly succeeded in rewriting its history going back a century and a half. May it grow from strength to strength in the future.


It has been a special honour to take over the reins of The Mercury as it enters its second 150-year period.

As this supplement shows, Durban and The Mercury are now light years away from those early colonial days of 1852. Back then the main concerns were with Britain, the protection of white settlers’ interests and in subduing and developing a harsh and challenging countryside.

The Mercury’s early editorials reflected these attitudes, but at the same time its journalists were fiercely independent, robust and courageous in their criticism of those in power.

The Mercury has grown and prospered because it has consistently identified with this region and with the interests of its readers.

Clearly, the landscape, attitudes, politics and public events have changed dramatically over 150 years. Yet many fundamental issues remain the same.

On the simplest level, Durban remains a wonderful place in which to live. It still has (except for \January and February) a pleasant climate, relatively high rainfall, good resources and many talented and hard-working people.

These people have worries reminiscent of the early days on which The Mercury reported – under-development, unemployment, and competition from the hinterland and other ports.

Early editorials chided the local port authorities for their lack of knowledge and foresight – today we are still frustrated by the port’s inability to efficiently handle all of South Africa’s growing trade volumes.

IN the 1890s, The Mercury was complaii9nig about Cecil John Rhodes’s plans to develop rail links from ports in the Cape to Johannesburg, fearing a “freezing out” of Natal. Today we are equally concerned about inefficient railways and the Airport Company’s higher prioritisation of facilities in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Instead of rolling up our sleeves and appreciating the assets we have, we also still look too enviously at the growth of business around the Witwatersrand and at the investments being made in Mozambique.

Who knows what this newspaper and its readers will look like when its staff gathers to celebrate its triple century in 2152?

We may all be growing our own food in the bath – and teleporting ourselves to spend the weekend on Mars.

However, my guess is that many of our readers will still face the personal challenges we share with our forebears – securing a living, educating our children well and making the daily choice between doing right and wrong.

My hope is that The Mercury will then still be helping people of this region to live better and more prosperous lives.

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