From Rightist to "Brightest"?
The Strange Tale of South Africa's Citizen

By Adam Jones

[Journal of Southern African Studies, 24: 2 (June 1998), pp. 325-45.]


I would like to express my gratitude to all those in the South African press who extended their friendship and sat down to converse with me. Special thanks to Ismail Lagardien, then Sowetan's parliamentary correspondent; Sue Lane, former custodian of the Times Media Library; and Belinda Rimer, who did much to make my stay in Johannesburg an enjoyable and enlightening one. A doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded the field research. Jacquie Golding-Duffy, now media correspondent for Independent Newspapers, very kindly proofed a draft of the article and offered helfpul comments, as did an anonymous reviewer for Journal of Southern African Studies.


Political transition regularly throws media institutions into turmoil, particularly those that maintained an official or semi-official relationship with the ancien régime. In South Africa, newspapers across the political spectrum have experienced something of an identity crisis as the transition has reconfigured political relationships and models of professional journalism. Yet the institution that one would expect to undergo some of the most profound transformations - The Citizen, founded as a state propaganda tool in the 1970s, and strongly pro-Nationalist throughout the late apartheid era - instead has trod a cautious path ever since its origins were unveiled in the 'Info Scandal' of 1978. It secured a surprisingly strong, multiracial readership, and garnered a degee of professional credibility. The paper has used both these bedrock attributes to ride out the transition to majority rule. Indeed, it has emerged in perhaps the most advantageous position of any South African English daily. The article, based in part on in-depth interviews with Citizen staff, explores the idiosyncratic evolution of this press institution and the factors that allowed it to survive and even flourish in the wake of the Info Scandal. Continuities and transformations in the paper's functioning since the transition began are also considered. The article concludes by sketching a likely scenario for the paper's future in the new South Africa.


We are not very transparent [as an institution]. Because of the success of The Citizen, we have a lot of enemies. (Koutie Van Heerden, General Manager, The Citizen(1))

The Citizen is the greatest anomaly in South African journalism. The circumstances of its birth in 1976 have made it the target of near-apocalyptic denunciations. 'The shameless spawn of the Info Scandal', Desmond Tutu called it.(2)  Even those less prone to biblical rhetoric descend to melodrama when The Citizen is the subject of discussion. For Joel Mervis the paper was 'born in a morass of lies and deceit' and still stands as 'a monument to state corruption.' It was 'born in political sin', Rex Gibson declaimed, 'bereft of the legitimacy of the marketplace, secretly funded with our taxpayers' money ... a joy to the far Right, an enigma to accountants.'(3)

But here this 'most notorious of the apartheid-era newspapers' is still(4)  - and not merely scraping by, either. It has the most idiosyncratic institutional functioning and physical presentation of any daily newspaper in South Africa; but it has won a devoted readership, making it the third largest daily in the country at the time of writing. Counted out more than once, The Citizen has successfully secured a market niche that is more than apartheid-era smoke and mirrors - as The Star discovered when it launched a court case against its rival in October 1994. Those proceedings saw The Star challenge The Citizen's Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for the period January-June 1994, charging that they ran too far counter to industry trends to be genuine. The allegations were reminiscent of a 'dumping' scandal that had ensnared The Citizen shortly before its propaganda origins were divulged. Nearly two decades after the ignominy of those earlier revelations, though, the original ABC audit was investigated and confirmed; The Star was forced to pay the costs of the new audit.

In the wake of the case, Ken Owen concluded that The Citizen 'has the fading Star in its sights', and was approaching the highest-ever circulation of The Rand Daily Mail - the paper that had helped to unmask The Citizen in 1978.(5) Citizen editor M.A. 'Johnny' Johnson crowed on the leader page that 'If our sales "went against the trends," it is because more people are buying the paper, confirming The Citizen's popularity as South Africa's brightest, newsiest morning newspaper.'(6) Two years later, the paper was still riding high. A survey by Lyndall Campher of the Hunt Lascaris group numbered The Citizen among circulation 'winners' in the new South Africa, citing a rise from 110,746 to 138,071 between 1986 and 1996. 'The Citizen', Campher confirmed, '... has found a formula which works.'(7)

This stable market niche is not the only curious aspect of the Citizen story. Another is the professional credibility the paper garnered over the years, despite its compromised origins and pro-Nationalist sympathies. In its dowdy and often reactionary way, The Citizen - to cite Owen again - has served as 'the closest thing to a newspaper of record in South Africa.' 'For the news of the day, professionally judged and correctly weighted', Owen wrote, 'one must go in Johannesburg to The Citizen.'(8)  The visitor to The Citizen finds several such comments posted around the newsroom - talismans, perhaps, against the lingering public derision that staff face when they venture outside the Perskor complex in Doornfontein.

This professional credibility reflects the substantial semi-autonomy that characterized the paper's dealings with its Perskor owners. Any attempt to explain this autonomy leads rapidly to a further striking curiosity of The Citizen's functioning, one that dates from the paper's very early days. While 'Great Man' theories of history may be out of fashion, the fact is that The Citizen's institutional identity was primarily the product of a single powerful personality: Meyer Abraham Johnson, Chief Editor for all but a few days of the paper's life. At the time of writing, Johnson, who would turn 75 in March 1998, was still at the paper's helm - the most venerable editor on the South African English press scene. Whatever course the paper would take after his departure, Johnson's formative influence and vision of The Citizen seemed likely to cast a long shadow.

In The Citizen's political 'line' during the apartheid era and the tense negotiation process that brought it to an end, one finds further surprises. Johnson was 'generally faithful' to the Nationalist cause, as Gavin Evans and many others have pointed out. But he was also a 'maverick' capable of unexpected nuance - even quasi-liberal posturing.(9)  Reading his editorials from the 1980s and early 1990s, it becomes gradually more possible to conceive of Johnson editing The Rand Daily Mail in the 1960s - a position he was apparently tipped for.(10)

The Citizen stood in 1996-97 on the cusp of a change that would transform it more thoroughly than at any time in the two decades of its operations. The details of the project remained unclear, but their overall character was surely established by the dramatic July 1996 announcement that Perskor, the paper's Afrikaner owner, would merge with Kagiso Trust Investments (KTI), among the most prominent of the new Black investment consortia. The Perskor-KTI merger was 'arguably the most significant black empowerment deal in the new South Africa.'(11)  It represented the culmination of growing ties between the two companies, as one of apartheid's favoured clients scrambled to reposition itself in the era of majority rule.

For the media, of course, the fate of The Citizen quickly became the focus of the deal. It was expected that KTI would 'not only play a role in the commercial aspects of the newspaper, but [would] also be involved in the editorial composition of The Citizen.'(12)  Affirmative-action policies seemed imminent, reflecting the fact that The Citizen had by far the worst record on Black advancement of any English daily. At the time of fieldwork in mid-1995, not a single Black journalist, photographer, sub-editor, junior editor, or senior editor was to be seen in The Citizen's halls and offices, though there were rumours of a Black darkroom assistant.(13)

Perskor had signalled its affirmative-action intentions even before the merger, with the February 1995 appointment of Eric Mafuna, 'a well-known marketing expert and promoter of Black business', to The Citizen's board of directors.(14)  The joint venture with KTI represented a logical development both for The Citizen as a press institution and for Perskor as the paper's sponsor. This may seem counter-intuitive, in light of The Citizen's racialist origins and suffocatingly White staffing structure. But it is tenable when one considers the most exquisite irony of all: since not long after The Citizen was founded, apartheid's creation has been read mostly by Blacks! In 1994, they accounted for 60 percent of Citizen readers (with Coloureds and Indians tallied separately; see Table 1). These are sales and subscription figures, moreover, and do not reflect the greater number of readers per copy that predominates among Black South African readerships.

Table 1
The Citizen: Reader Profile

Racial group




182 000



30 000



20 000



232 000



352 000



584 000


Readers per copy


Source: The Citizen Marketing Services Department, September 1994; based on AMPS 1994 survey figures.

It is true that Blacks were drawn to The Citizen largely by default (the paper enjoyed a lock on the Johannesburg morning market between 1985 and 1990), by its relatively cheaper price (around two-thirds that of the other Johannesburg dailies), by its tabloid format (convenient on long minibus commutes), and by the paper's nonpareil racing-sheet, 'The Punter's Friend.' But that such a devoted Black readership could be attracted to The Citizen under apartheid, despite the paper's origins and editorial sympathies, suggested that the possibilities for further expansion into the Black market were as impressive for The Citizen as for any of the avowedly liberal South African dailies. (15)

This relatively optimistic picture seemed unlikely twenty years ago, when The Citizen's intimate links to the apartheid state were exposed, and the paper found itself at the heart of the greatest political scandal in South African history - and the biggest story South African journalism had ever broken.

The Info Scandal and After

On 29 October 1978, the Sunday Express published details of what would become known as the 'Info Scandal.' The Express stories, and coordinated revelations in The Rand Daily Mail, exposed a massive propaganda operation by the apartheid regime, targetting foreign as well as domestic media and populations. But they focused on the provenance of an odd daily paper that had first hit Johannesburg streets on 7 September 1976, allegedly under the ownership of Louis Luyt, a right-wing Afrikaner millionaire.

There was, of course, more to The Citizen than first met the eye, though a fuller account of the paper's genesis only emerged in the years following the Info Scandal. In his 1980 memoirs, The Story of an Afrikaner, Nattie Ferreira - an early partner to the high-level machinations that gave birth to The Citizen - recalled a conversation with then-Minister of the Interior Dr. Connie Mulder. Ferreira said he proposed

the establishment of an English-language newspaper which would support the Government within the framework I had explained. Communication was the key. ... Such a newspaper ... would create a positive atmosphere and make it possible for anti-Government [i.e., most English-speaking] voters to change their allegiance because they would be shown the positive aims of an evolutionary policy.

Ferreira claims he gave Mulder an estimate of R25 million in start-up costs, suggesting the money be raised through government 'contacts and ... influence in financial circles' - without, that is, the direct state involvement that would have destroyed its credibility among English readers. The recommendations followed the classic Afrikaner press model: most of South Africa's Afrikaans-language dailies were founded similarly by consortia of ideologically-motivated Boer nationalists.

Shortly after Ferreira's meeting with Mulder, Louis Luyt made his bid for ownership of South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN) - the first serious attempt by Afrikaner capital to gain a foothold in the English press. Ferreira, a key source for Express and Mail investigators who casts himself as a strongly verligte ('enlightened') Afrikaner, was purportedly horrified by Luyt's bid - and by his subsequent decision to start a new English paper, to be called The Citizen. Nonetheless, Ferreira allowed himself to be appointed political editor of the new venture. He resigned some weeks later after clashes with 'the right-wing ex-editor of the Sunday Express', Johnny Johnson, who had replaced original editor Martin Spring only ten days into the paper's life. The Citizen, Ferreira lamented, had turned out to be 'more right-wing than the Nationalist [Afrikaner] press.'

Speculation as to The Citizen's real sponsor began the moment the paper hit the streets. The Nationalists' antipathy towards the English press was hardly a secret - 'You hate me and I hate you', Prime Minister John Vorster told English journalists at one press conference.(16) The fact that The Citizen was a morning daily - positioned against the regime's bête noire, The Rand Daily Mail - provoked dark mutterings. In the absence of hard proof, however, the allegations were fairly easy to deflect. 'We dismiss with contempt this rotten smear by the Left-Wing Rand Daily Mail about the finances of the Citizen', Johnny Johnson editorialized after one such round of speculation, condemning 'a whispering campaign of the most vicious kind.'(17)

The pace of revelation stepped up, however, when the Sunday Express and The Rand Daily Mail began looking critically into the performance of the Mail's new morning competitor. They discovered first that The Citizen was pulping 30,000 copies a day on Louis Luyt's farm, in order to claim an inflated circulation and amass more credibility and advertising revenue. Then, on 29 October 1978, the Express published its explosive article, THE CITIZEN SECRET REVEALED. The Citizen, according to the account, 'had been heavily financed by public money channelled through massive and secret State funds.' This and subsequent reportage in the Express and Mail established beyond serious doubt that, as Ferreira helpfully summarizes it, The Citizen

1. ... was started with money from the Department of Information's illegal 'secret fund.'

2. R12m was 'loaned' to [Louis] Luyt for this purpose. The former Prime Minister, John Vorster ... personally chose Luyt as the front-man.

3. John Vorster, Connie Mulder and General Hendrix van den Bergh, former head of the Bureau for State Security, were key figures in the secret project.

4. Luyt's attempt (before The Citizen was started) to buy SAAN, an Opposition press group[,] was also an Info plan with tax-payer's money behind it.

5. The former Secretary of Information, Dr. Eschel Rhoodie[,] was The Citizen's behind-the-scenes political boss. Luyt had to sign a contract that he would accept and carry out Rhoodie's 'guidelines.'

6. When the Info affair was first disclosed ... John Vorster appointed General van den Bergh (!) to 'investigate' it. He would try to save Vorster and Mulder from political destruction by saying that the investigation was covered by the Official Secrets Act. This would make any further press revelations illegal.(18)

The Citizen's first response was to deny the allegations, reiterating that the paper was 'an independent business venture' and claiming that 'legal advice has been taken.'(19) But the die was cast. Less than a week after the Express story appeared, Justice Anton Mostert, head of a commission appointed to investigate simmering allegations of secret slush-funds and other financial irregularities, issued his confirmation of 'the improper application of taxpayers' money running into millions of rands' and 'corruption (in the widest sense of that word) relating to public funds.'

The Citizen's origins, it was now plain, lay in a R64-million 'propaganda package ... put together to sell apartheid to [South African] voters and to the Western world as a whole.'(20) The first and in many ways most substantial of the 'gates' that followed Richard Nixon's travails, 'Muldergate', as it was also widely called, led to 'the resignation of Vorster from the State presidency, the breaking of General van den Bergh, the all-powerful head of BOSS [the South African secret police], [and] the breaking of theof the Transvaal Afrikaners in the National Party.'(21)

The news hit The Citizen like a bombshell as well. Joel Mervis has argued that the paper's denials of foreknowledge constitute 'an astonishing admission of ignorance from a paper which in so many other respects showed it was neither naive nor stupid.' (22) But it appears possible that no-one at the paper knew - or chose to know - of the scale and intimacy of Luyt's collusion with the regime, Johnny Johnson included. Alex Hattingh, then a Citizen staffer, spoke of 'confusion' reigning in the wake of Mostert's announcement. Sports Editor Chris Swanepoel, one of the few staff remaining from the early days, presented a vivid picture of the in-house sense of shock:

It was devastating. I've never seen Johnny Johnson so devastated. I remember, that morning Louis Luyt was in Johnson's office the day that Justice Mostert blew the top off [the scandal]. He assured Johnson there was no state funding behind the paper. Then, two hours later, the press conference was held [at which Mostert announced his findings]. Mr. Johnson was walking the hallways like a ghost.

The joke exhortation - 'Pay your taxes, buy The Citizen' - had been found to be literally true, almost beyond the wildest speculation. The Citizen had acquired a stigma, a mongrel status, that it only today seems poised to slough off. The stigma clung most palpably to the paper's journalists, who were constantly confronted with public hostility. Helen Grange, now a reporter with The Star, remembered: 'There was a lot of strong reaction from people who would be considered liberal or progressive during those days. Some people would just refuse to talk to you. Quite often you would be thrown out of meetings because you represented the government mouthpiece.'

The Info Scandal was a blow from which few thought the paper would recover. But The Citizen struggled on under its new owners, Die Afrikaanse Pers (Perskor), who purchased it for a song - 'the price of the printing press', according to Allister Sparks(23) - and operated it on a shoestring. Again according to Sparks, the sweetener in the deal for Perskor was that it would receive a government-funded printing press that could be used for other, more profitable ventures.(24) Notable among these were lucrative state-sector publishing contracts (such as educational texts and the Telkom phone-book account). These Perskor could access together with the much larger Nasionale Pers, another favoured regime client.(25) Perskor's ties to the Nationalist regime were undoubtedly intimate: State President De Klerk and his wife headed the invitation list at the paper's 21st anniversary celebrations in 1992.(26)

While distancing itself from the paper, therefore, the Nationalist regime sought to ensure that The Citizen would maintain an organic relationship with the Afrikaner political class, and not stray far from its founding institutional imperative: to advance the interests of Afrikanerdom in general and the National Party, especially its more conservative Transvaal wing, in particular. The Citizen thus departed from the norm of South Africa's English press, in that direct profits were a secondary consideration. Perskor brass surely hoped The Citizen would become self-supporting, and perhaps turn one day into a modest money-spinner. But until it did, means would be found to keep it going - as a pro-apartheid counterweight to the solidly anti-Nationalist English daily press, and as a source of corporate prestige for Perskor.

Structural and institutional continuity between Perskor and the upper ranks of the Afrikaner regime was preserved through the Broederbond. Ostensibly a 'cultural organization', the Broederbond served as a secret society encompassing a near-majority of Afrikaner professionals (especially educators), senior civil servants, and politicians.(27) It sought to guarantee nothing less than 'ultimate Afrikaner domination' at every level of South African politics and society, and to guarantee Afrikaners a hefty piece of the economic pie as well. The media were a consistent focus of Broederbond recruitment efforts.(28)

In their 1978 work on the Broederbond, The Super-Afrikaners, Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom provide a list, purportedly about 60 percent complete, of then-members of this 'most exclusive and influential underground movement in the Western world.' At the time, the authors wrote of Perskor's Board of Directors that it 'include[d] at least nine Broeders out of a total of 12', including Marais Viljoen, then-President of the Senate. A comparison of the names on Wilkins and Strydom's incomplete, 17-year-old Broederbond list with the 1995 Perskor Board of Directors still turns up five matches and two possible matches out of 15 present and recently-retired (or deceased) board members. Extrapolating from the 1978 list, and assuming nearly two decades of further influx to Broederbond ranks since Wilkins and Strydom's book appeared, it seems fair to wonder whether Broederbond preponderance was even greater than this tentative comparison suggests.(29)

Thus Perskor and the wider Afrikaner establishment, rather than the state per se, became The Citizen's sponsors in the wake of the Info Scandal. This held true through the ownership transformations of 1996. For Perskor, the advantage seems largely to have been symbolic - and uncertain, in the opinion of Senior Assistant Editor Martin Williams:

I said to Koos [Beytendag, Chairman of Perskor], 'What do you want from the newspaper?' And he said [imitating Beytendag's Afrikaner accent]: 'I want prestige and I want clout.' This is a bit of an enigma to me, because it's since dawned on me that he actually thinks the paper's very good as it is. Now, to me, it might have readers, but I don't think it's got prestige. I honestly don't. It's not viewed anywhere as a prestige product, as far as I can work out.(30)

Nonetheless, Perskor kept The Citizen afloat through years when the paper truly was 'an enigma to accountants.' To judge strictly by its advertising-to-copy ratio, the paper should not have survived the 1980s. South Africa's powerful advertising consortia were reluctant to patronize The Citizen, owing both to its illiberal image and (paradoxically) to its Black majority readership. In a 1990 chairman's statement, Koos Beytendag 'bemoaned The Citizen's failure to attract "its rightful share of advertising."'(31) According to Advertising Manager Pat Wills,

We've had a problem getting advertising, basically because of the paper's political background. The Citizen started off as a political, right-wing, government newspaper. ... Largely, the companies that decline to advertise with us are the major corporate people, the Anglo-Americans [for example]. We have overcome a lot of the right-wing perception. But give a dog a bad name and it stays.

The ability of recent ad revenues to sustain the newspaper, at least at a subsistence level, is a subject of some controversy. Roger Wellstead, general manager of Sowetan, claimed that 'For [The Citizen] to survive like that, unless it's got some formula that we haven't thought of, it just cannot make a profit. If we ran on that advertising ratio, we'd be bankrupt.' But Citizen General Manager Koutie Van Heerden countered that 'the paper is profitable', although 'we don't make big profits.' Andrew Beattie commented that when he worked at the paper in the late 1980s, 'it definitely wasn't running at a loss', but 'had stabilized and was making a profit.' Nobody, however, has contended that the advertising levels are anything other than anemic.(32) Perskor seems to have been willing to accept these marginal or even negative returns, and to provide strategic infusions of subsistence funds, in return for the entrée to the English market and the wider political culture that its flagship provided it.

Perskor's purse aside, several crucial factors and developments allowed The Citizen to recover from the ignominy of its founding and the apparent alienation of its target audience, and to find a secure if somewhat stagnant market niche. The first was the financial crisis and eventual closure of The Rand Daily Mail in April 1985. Any number of commentators and interview subjects have noted the irony of The Citizen's outlasting the Mail - the latter was, after all, a major player in the humiliating unmasking of The Citizen's corrupt origins. But the closure of the Mail gave The Citizen a monopoly in the Johannesburg morning market for the latter half of the 1980s, until The Star introduced its morning edition in 1990.

With the closure of the Mail (and the Sunday Express in the same year), 1985 was 'the year of the big chop' in the South African newspaper industry. That proved a further boon to The Citizen. A large pool of mostly young journalists was expelled on to the South African job market (more skilled senior journalists were quickly snapped up by newspapers abroad, notably in Australia). The Citizen, despite its low pay levels, offered steady employment. And it could not afford to be choosy about its journalists and sub-editors: as late as 1995, General Manager Koutie Van Heerden acknowledged that 'We have difficulty attracting skilled and qualified people.' Typical of the new recruits was The Star's Helen Grange, who graduated from the Rhodes University school of journalism to find 'there were a lot of professionals out on the streets. So it was very difficult to get a job in newspapers when the industry was flooded with out-of-work journalists. I took what I could get, I'm afraid, and The Citizen was it.'

The presence of these youthful, mostly liberal and radical staff seems to have provided something of a counterweight to The Citizen's pro-Nationalist political orientation. For Helen Grange, the arrangement

was anarchic, basically. Because there weren't any journalists there who outwardly supported the National Party! Somehow it came together in a very fiery and amusing mix. The middle-ranking people, the news editors - they were untrustworthy as far as we were concerned, and apparently as far as Johnny was concerned, because he used to treat them like shit. I mean, he wouldn't even address them by their names! Most journalists, apart from the two or three civil-servant types in the newsroom, had quite clear political views. Johnny was under no illusion about the mutiny in the ranks, and the fact that [journalists] were there just to learn the skills and move on.(33)

Journalists were not the only assets snapped up by The Citizen after the demise of the Mail and Express. 'The Punter's Friend', a racing tip-sheet that had run in the Mail for years and was hugely popular with its predominantly Black readership, was taken over by The Citizen and instantly became one of the paper's most popular features. It was instrumental in allowing apartheid's creation to build a new core constituency among less-politicized but racing-mad Black readers.(34)

Another explanation for The Citizen's ability to withstand the fallout of the Info Scandal was the paper's bare-bones material functioning. The Info Scandal forced a radical downsizing of operations: approximately half of Citizen staff were let go. 'It's a shoestring operation', acknowledged General Manager Koutie van Heerden in 1995. 'Our staffing levels have always been very small compared to other newspapers. We have about 70 staffmembers; other [papers] will have two or three hundred.' It was not always thus: News Editor Poen de Villiers remembered that 'this newsroom was full when I started working here', before the downsizing. Business Manager Ian Smith also indicated that 'ten, fifteen years ago, The Citizen was a very aggressive newspaper with a strong editorial staff.'

The staffing deficit was mirrored by a declining material infrastructure. To wander the near-empty newsroom of The Citizen in mid-1995 was to step back in time twenty years, to antiquated technology and musty, drab offices. 'It's such a dismal place, it really is', said Business Day's Robin Chalmers, who worked at The Citizen for a brief spell in the early 1990s. 'The newsroom has almost none of the energy and bustle of its counterparts at The Star and Sowetan. In fact it is mostly empty for most of the day, picking up steam only in the later afternoon and early evening.'

The decrepitude of the physical surroundings was reflected in the paper's visual appeal, or lack thereof. Despite Johnson's regular references in leaders to the paper's supposed 'brightness', under his tutelage The Citizen was almost anti-design: blocky and print-heavy. The antiquated production approach struck Martin Williams particularly strongly when, in the latter half of 1994, he arrived to take up the position of Senior Assistant Editor and Johnny Johnson's heir apparent. Williams came to the paper from the Natal Witness, one of the more prosperous and professional South African dailies:

I was shocked when I arrived here. We were subbing [sub-editing] in a way I'd last subbed in the 1980s, using a pen and paper. You see this cable in the wall? It's for an Aztec [computer] terminal. It's been here for years. They had the equipment and they kicked it downstairs. They've got the equipment for Pagemaker, very advanced equipment, but they've kicked it all downstairs to the Works Department [of Perskor]. They've had people sent out and trained how to use the Apple Macs and so forth. Poen [de Villiers, News Editor] has told me that people phone in, because we're always advertising for subs [sub-editors]; they say, 'Okay, what system are you on?' 'No, we hand-do it' - they say, 'I'm not interested.' It's a dying skill - the half-dozen people who can still sub like that are here!

Among other things, downsizing dictated that much of The Citizen's editorial content would be drawn from outside sources - the SAPA news agency and foreign wire services - rather than generated internally. The Citizen's dependence on the services turned its pages into 'a comprehensive though characterless compendium of SAPA messages.'(35) Its growing role as a 'newspaper of record' thus reflected material necessity as much as Johnson's omnivorous appetite for news. It also drew The Citizen's content in a more politically centrist direction: wire services standardly adopt a moderate, mainstream tenor in their reporting, to maximize their appeal to a broad cross-section of clients.

Professional morale, though, plummeted along with the declining in-house resources. 'You'll never get an exclusive off a wire service', Ian Smith lamented in 1995. 'I think quality's gone down, just because we have far fewer people.' Several staffers testified to Johnny Johnson's preference for SAPA copy even over that of Citizen reporters. 'We've got a handful of reporters here', said Martin Williams, 'but if they write something, and SAPA wrote something [on the same topic], Johnny will take SAPA['s version]. That's very demoralizing for the staff.' 'It's pretty much a slap in the face every time that happens', another staffer agreed, not for attribution.

As the above account illustrates, it is difficult to discuss The Citizen without attention to Johnny Johnson himself, with his 'peculiar combination of conservative chutzpah, fierce individuality, and out-and-out weirdness.'(36) Johnson's energy and vision was sufficient to establish The Citizen as a surprisingly credible news source; it was also a millstone around the paper's neck, inhibiting the path of professional modernization that seemed likely, in 1997, to dominate the post-Johnson era.

Meyer Abraham Johnson

There are two types of people: those that hate Johnny Johnson, and those that don't hate him that much. But you cannot but respect the man - not the personality, the man. Johnny just does it his way. He doesn't come out trying to explain himself; he's not apologetic for what he does either. He's never pulled punches. He's just a hard-arsed journalist. Johnny's taken the newspaper to where it is. Look at the circulation today. Look at the stable audience, the predominantly Black readership. ... Maybe there's a moral there; maybe Johnny Johnson is the moral, and maybe people should take another look at Johnny Johnson. (Alex Hattingh, former Citizen staffer.)

A detailed and remarkably consistent image of Johnny Johnson's influence on The Citizen emerges from interviews. Unfortunately, these third-party appraisals must be offered in lieu of firsthand observations, or indeed any substantial testimony from Johnson's own lips or typewriter. To this researcher's knowledge, Johnson has never given a published interview; nor has he published any autobiographical reminiscences. His secretary for many years at the paper, his wife, has successfully fended off attempts by interlopers to break the silence. In 1995, she greeted a request for an interview with the patience born of wisdom that a parent might display, when a child asks why there is so much suffering in the world. 'Mr. Johnson doesn't do interviews, actually', she explained. And though her sympathetic mien never faltered, neither did her resolve in denying access to the man himself. Thus I can record only one medium-distance glimpse of Johnson, through a tangle of sub-editors, as the production process heated up one night late in the fieldwork.

Under the circumstances, and given the decisiveness of his hold over The Citizen's operations,(37) perhaps the best thing Mr. Johnson could do was stay out of the way. In this respect, research at The Citizen was greatly blessed. The indefatigable Johnson was on holiday for the first time in anywhere up to a decade. Staff took it as a faint sign he might truly be mortal. With his autocratic presence banished to the beaches of Australia, Citizen editors and journalists regularly (if often anonymously) confessed that they felt far more comfortable speaking to an outsider about the operations of the paper.

In what main respects can we locate Johnson as central to the course The Citizen has taken in the last two decades? First, consider his cultural positioning. Not only is Johnson an English-speaking South African; he is also Jewish.(38) Thus, he is doubly an outsider to the Afrikaner political class that founded The Citizen and sustained it throughout its life. We enter into speculative terrain here, but it is possible that Johnson's positioning helped him, and his paper, to establish an identity separate from Perskor and the Afrikaner political class. Johnson, moreover, seems to have courted a symbolic distance from the Nationalist regime - to the extent that there are those, themselves liberally-inclined, who see him as a political liberal.(39) He wrote in a 1985 leader that

Despite its controversial origins, The Citizen has never been a tool of government. It supports the Government's reform initiatives, but is not a National Party mouthpiece, meting out praise or criticism where it is justified. It respects the sincerity of the [liberal] Progressive Federal Party and gives that party, as it does all other parties, fair and objective coverage in its news columns. ... The Citizen has always been an honest, highly professional, politically independent, middle-of-the-road newspaper, observing the best traditions of journalism, serving all sections of the community, and being noted particularly for its very South African outlook. That it has survived in the face of bitter competition, that it is growing in circulation and importance, is a tribute to its integrity and to the position it has achieved in the marketplace.(40)

Certainly, the outright zealotry of the conservative Right was rarely imputed to Johnson; nor does significant pressure seem to have been placed on him to move beyond the quasi-liberal wing of verligte Nationalist supporters. In his leaders, the foundation of The Citizen's editorial identity, Johnson often struck a reformist note, occasionally registering ringing dissent from government policies. In particular, Johnson regularly differed with the government over implementation of its press policies, offering defenses of media freedom scarcely distinguishable from The Citizen's more liberal English-language cousins. (The trend began even before the Info Scandal was uncovered.(41)) 'The lamps of Press freedom have gone out in South Africa and will not be switched on again while the emergency lasts', he declaimed in December 1986, as the regime cracked down harder on the media.(42)

One cannot simply take such comments at face value, of course. It was in the interest of both Johnson and Perskor to air criticism of the government on tactical questions, in order to make the paper's strategic support for the system appear more credible to the paper's readers (especially, perhaps, its Black readers). But it is also unlikely, given Johnson's quasi-liberal roots and highly personalistic style, that such comments were nothing more than a cynical ploy.

Johnson's personal attitude towards the liberation forces also seems to have evolved, in part because of his admiration for Nelson Mandela as an individual. 'He's obviously infatuated with Mandela', said Senior Assistant Editor Martin Williams. 'He goes out of his way to say nice things about him, not to offend him.' According to Richard Steyn, former editor of The Star, Johnson originally 'described Mandela as a terrorist and the devil incarnate', but now, although he 'doesn't like the ANC, he likes Mandela. So Johnny has mellowed to some extent.' The admiration apparently predates the onset of the transition process, which one could see as encouraging a more generous attitude towards the man who would become South Africa's first democratically-elected president. Andrew Beattie recalled that in the 1980s, 'when it wasn't the done thing at all', Johnson would 'talk about what a great man Nelson Mandela was.' Helen Grange described Johnson's politics during the transition as 'somewhat schizophrenic, you know, moving between an ANC line back to a National Party line, and sometimes even back to the Conservative Party line.' By the time of the first democratic elections, though, Johnson's 'mellowing' had progressed to the point that The Citizen could proclaim 'the liberation of the Black masses is at hand'; remarkably, the paper backed no party in the election, urging its readers only 'to vote ... and help determine the future of the country and all its people.'(43)

Throughout, Johnson's strategy seems to have been to take cover behind classical conceptions of professionalism and objectivity in editorial content.(44) This was evident not so much in newsgathering (as we have seen, The Citizen did relatively little of it), but in news selection. News was an obsession for Johnson: Ken Owen called him 'perhaps the country's shrewdest judge of news, with an unerring instinct for the lowest common denominator of public interest and taste.'(45) Nearly all interview subjects testified to Johnson's herculean energies in this respect, and the generally positive impact on The Citizen:

Johnny Johnson is highly regarded as an editor in this town. He's very good, and he's my kind of editor. He's the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves and doesn't think about the golf course all fucking day. (Lloyd Coutts, Sunday Independent.)

I would agree that Johnny Johnson is a singular newsman. I don't have great admiration for his political views, which are poles apart from mine; but he's absolutely dedicated to his job, and he has a very good news sense. (Richard Steyn, former editor, The Star.)

In a professional sense he's brilliant. He's probably one of the best editors I've ever worked for. Simply because he's one of those hands-on editors. Gets in there at ten o'clock in the morning, rolls up his shirt sleeves, and gets down to it. I used to leave at seven or eight, and he was still there. He was phenomenal. (Robin Chalmers, now with Business Day.)

For news, The Citizen has still got the best reputation. News dominates everything! Forget the features and the fancy writing and the typographical gymnastics; it's just squeezing the news in! I think we might lose some of that edge when Johnny goes, because there's not many people left like that - everyone wants smart, lovely little pages, [and] balanced design ... (Ian Smith, Citizen Business Editor.)

You open that paper and it's just stories. Any time I have to check up information coming from court reports, I would always go through our files looking for The Citizen's stories. Because The Citizen's stories allow the court reports to run as long as they want to make them. As a result, you have three times as much information [as in other newspapers]. (Brendan Templeton, staff reporter, The Star.)

Perhaps uniquely in mainstream South African newspapers, Johnson even privileged news over advertising copy - an option open to him thanks to Perskor's laissez-faire approach to management, discussed further below. Ads, for example, were pushed to the back of the newspaper rather than placed in prime positions near the front. According to Business Editor Ian Smith:

Just looking at the level of advertising, we could obviously do a lot more. That's because Johnny doesn't like advertising. Advertising people came to me once and said that a big bank had taken over another bank, they wanted four or five pages [of advertising], which was something like 67,000 rand [in revenue]. I went to Johnny and said, 'Look, we've got this huge ad, and if it needs extra space I've got copy I can wrap around it.' Johnny said, 'I'm sorry, I can't have advertising dictating to me ...' So there it was! The advertising people here hate going to Johnny. There's whole pages without a single ad in them.

By these varied means, then, Johnson repositioned The Citizen in the wake of the Info Scandal, establishing it as a credible news source and shifting it successfully towards the reader-rich political centre. Under apartheid, said Andrew Beattie, 'The Citizen was the kind of newspaper you could read without being insulted by anti-ANC propaganda, even if you were an ANC supporter. There was plenty of stuff to read apart from the propaganda. And Johnny Johnson made it clear which pages would have the propaganda on them, and which would be plain, ordinary news.'

It is important to appreciate how this unusual arrangement suited Perskor. First, The Citizen never wavered from its general pro-regime stance under apartheid. 'It embraced all the values and policies of the National Party', said Helen Grange. 'It upheld apartheid, it upheld capitalistic structures and the policies thereof. It was pretty simplistic in that respect.' As far as Johnson's outsider status was concerned, The Citizen's sponsor may have seen it as lending added credibility to a newspaper that sorely needed it after 1978. Finally, as noted, Johnson's occasional notes of dissent might have cast the limited pluralism permitted under apartheid in a more positive light - and the Afrikaner political class along with it. As Johnson himself noted in his 1986 leader on the state-of-emergency provisions, 'A relatively free Press has been the best vindication South Africa has had for its claim that it is not an authoritarian state.'(46)

There is the further question of exactly how interested Perskor was in The Citizen's day-to-day operations. For the most part its attitude seems to have been one of benign neglect. As one Citizen staffer pointed out, 'the owners of this company are our printers ... [and] they know nothing about newspapers.' Perskor's role, said Alex Hattingh, was simply to 'allow him [Johnson] to carry on in his autocratic, bombastic way.' All interview subjects questioned on the matter agreed that the personal relationship between Johnson and Perskor Chair Koos Beytendag was crucial in blending the requirements of institution and sponsor. Johnson 'has no power without the chairman', said Senior Assistant Editor Martin Williams. 'It's the relationship between them - that's where the power exists. If the chairman says go, he walks. But as long as he has that relationship with the chairman, he doesn't go.'

We have seen that this arrangement gave Johnson near-total control over The Citizen's internal operations, including hegemony over the advertising department and an absolute say in editorial matters. Johnson was thus able to shrug off many of the institutional constraints that owners and managers place on the editorial operations of newspapers in South Africa and around the world. His degree of supremacy was - and for the time being still is - unmatched in the English press.

Citizen Redux?

There was, however, a dark side to the professional environment that Johnson constructed and presided over at The Citizen. Johnson's personality was variously described as 'obnoxious', 'difficult', and 'workaholic.' 'He's a grumpy old man and we all feel he's past it now', one staffer said. 'We really think he should have retired.'(47) Said another: 'The editor is very tired, and he's got no interest outside of newspapers. He's fighting to hang in there. ... A bit of a dead hand.'

In the past, claims that 'the reign of ... Johnny Johnson is now drawing to its close' have proved about as accurate as decades of U.S. predictions that Fidel Castro's downfall was imminent.(48) As of late 1997, Johnson was still at The Citizen's helm. In the wake of the KTI merger, however, and barring supernatural intervention, his near-term departure did seem probable.(49)

Who would guide The Citizen into the new era? It was far from certain that an in-house candidate, like the long-suffering Martin Williams, would be Johnson's replacement. In fact, there seemed a good chance that a Black candidate would be 'parachuted' in, with a view to 'modernizing' the paper's institutional persona through a symbolic changing of the guard. Regardless of who occupied the editor's chair, though, a number of pressing tasks seemed likely to guide a revamped Citizen project. While emphasizing that he might never have a chance to implement his plans, Martin Williams did provide a thoughtful and detailed overview in 1995 of where he saw The Citizen heading in the post-apartheid era - one that few in positions of power in the new Perskor/KTI hierarchy appeared anxious to dispute.

The most urgent requirement for Johnson's successor was the modernization of Citizen operations: expanding the paper's resources, reaching out to old and new constituencies, and fine-tuning the paper's editorial content. In Williams' view, this would likely be implemented under the auspices of a formal relaunching. The intention would be to bolster The Citizen's professional functioning and market positioning through investment in new technology, along with a brighter, more streamlined design.

With greater resources, said Williams, The Citizen would be able to generate more of its editorial copy internally.(50) A more engagé approach to the journalistic scene, domestically and internationally, also seemed in the cards. 'I would be outward-looking, and I mean that in every respect', said Williams. 'Joining the Conference of Editors, sending journalists on training courses and outings, so they mix more with other journalists to know what's going on in that world. So we become more part of the journalistic community, in every sense.' Other outreach projects would aim at boosting the paper's circulation (about 140,000 in 1996). 'I think they've got to be realistic about it', Williams argued. 'Because 55,000 to 65,000 more copies of The Star sell each day [than of The Citizen], and that's not good enough. Why should people be buying that paper and not ours? I wouldn't be happy until we actually pass The Star. I think it's nonsense.'

The most obvious expansion strategy would be to build on The Citizen's already-strong base among Black readers. 'I think the biggest potential is obviously in the Black market', Williams acknowledged. 'The time is long gone when the Black market was regarded as one that advertisers didn't want because they reckoned Blacks couldn't spend money.'(51)

As part of such outreach, the most glaringly backward feature of The Citizen's standard operating procedure would have to be addressed: the uniformly White hue of the staff. Under his direction, 'there would definitely be affirmative action', Williams claimed. 'I know and have worked with quite a few Black journalists. [But] I wouldn't approach any of them to come and work here now. Because the environment is very unhealthy and unhappy.'(52)

Nonetheless, truly radical affirmative-action policies did not appear to be in the offing, even in the wake of the KTI merger (see below). And The Citizen's outreach efforts would seek to attract new readers 'without losing our broader appeal', in Williams' view. In part, as Ken Owen has noted, The Citizen today 'succeeds because its right-wing orientation gives dispossessed whites a voice.'(53) This core readership may prove even more important if The Citizen can position itself to benefit from the largescale White flight from post-apartheid broadcast media, many of which have been transformed almost beyond recognition since the end of the Nationalist era. In this context and generally, more liberal White readers also seem a promising growth sector, according to Williams:

I think it's important for us to cater to the right wing, but my impression of the approach I would adopt is that it would be broader. It wouldn't be unsympathetic to the left at all, or to any reasonable political approach. I think the only ground for restriction would be if people were inciting racial hatred or violence. Otherwise, they can have their say, as far as I'm concerned. This goes with what Payton described as one of the tenets of liberalism, one which is often left out, and that's a generosity of spirit. I think we have to be more generous than we are now.

There are indications that the shift towards a more liberal constituency was in the minds of Perskor planners well before the 1996 merger with KTI. Williams said that when applying for the job of Johnson's heir apparent, he was open with Perskor Chair Beytendag about his liberal political views. During one of several lengthy interviews, in Williams' recounting, Beytendag glanced at a reference letter calling Williams 'a true liberal.' Beytendag 'opened his eyes very wide and said, "What does this 'liberal' mean?"'

I explained about basic freedoms: freedom of association, freedom of the press. That seemed to appeal to him. When you come down to it, a lot of these people whom one might regard as right wing, they actually believe in those things too. More and more, now that they're on the receiving end [of the new order]!

Such a shift, of course, would be less radical than many of The Citizen's detractors would contend, given Johnny Johnson's overriding emphasis on 'neutral' hard news and his sometimes-ambivalent editorial stance. Together with Black-advancement initiatives, though, it would allow The Citizen's sponsor, Perskor, to present a reformist face to the public - and to the nouveau régime. As Business Editor Ian Smith put it, 'I know that they [Perskor] were very anxious to get on the right side of the ANC government, as any commercial organization with big government contracts would be.'

The corporation's greatest concern was the lucrative state textbook and telephone-book market. But Perskor/KTI faced plenty of competition in the new era, mostly from publishers whose political-correctness quotient far exceeded Perskor's. Moreover, around the time that Eric Mafuna was appointed to the Citizen Board of Directors, the government announced that it would write and print school-text supplements for the next three years, rather than undertaking a general replacement of texts in schools. One Education Department employee said the Ministry's decision was 'driven by political imperatives', and by an unwillingness to be viewed as 'conniving with publishers'; losses to publishers and printers, including Perskor, were estimated in the millions of rands.(54)

The KTI merger was surely motivated in part by Perskor's desire to open new avenues of opportunity to compensate for an expected shortfall in traditional sources of revenue. The merger, though, should not be seen as presaging a far-reaching transformation of The Citizen's functioning, either in terms of the relationship between the paper and Perskor or with regard to editorial content and orientation. The role of KTI in the paper's day-to-day operations remains peripheral: the syndicate is limited to three directors on a Perskor board of nine. Moreover, Chairman Eric Molobi indicated that KTI would not involve itself 'in the day-to-day management' of The Citizen, slack as it already was. He described such intervention as

a recipe for chaos. We must leave the management to do what they do best. We can't just tell them what to do; we must learn to understand the business, and from there develop a strategy for change. ... You cannot change a newspaper overnight. Repositioning The Citizen will have to be done cautiously and thoughtfully. It still has the image of being a bastion of right-wing thinking, but if you change a brand too drastically, you could end up killing it. The paper has a strong black readership - maybe not for the news content - but we have to consider that when debating potential changes. We will be canvassing other editors, marketing and advertising experts to come up with a feasible, workable solution - and it will take time.(55)

Molobi's comments suggest that financial considerations will increasingly come to predominate - that The Citizen, in other words, will move closer to the free-market model that South Africa's English press has standardly followed. The new emphasis on profits will serve as a major point of consensus in blending Afrikaner 'old money' with the emerging Black capitalism typified by KTI. Fani Titi, a director of KTI, stressed that 'we are first and foremost business people and we have a response to make money for Kagiso Trust.' Simply doing so, he suggested, was Black 'empowerment' of a sort.(56) Eric Molobi and Koos Beytendag also emphasized the role of money as a lubricant: in a joint statement issued in the immediate wake of the merger, they noted that 'politically, [the merger] unites two entities from opposite ends of the spectrum. Economically, it brings together a superb mix of business synergies.'(57)

The implications of this cautious, profit-oriented approach for Black advancement at The Citizen seemed considerable. They appeared likely, for instance, to affect the pace of affirmative-action measures. Molobi stressed in post-merger comments to the Mail & Guardian that

Affirmative action for the sake of it is not productive. ... Training is a long-term undertaking and we need to emphasise skills and competency before colour when making appointments. But at the same time there is no room for complacency.(58)

Politically, other continuities will probably be evident. We have seen that The Citizen has long taken a mildly reformist line, while buttressing the status quo. Under the new ownership arrangements, a similar stance vis-à-vis the ANC-dominated regime is quite possible - especially if this brings benefits in the form of state publishing contracts, new advertising accounts, and an expanding Black readership. Even before the KTI merger, in 1995, Helen Grange stated that 'The Citizen seems to have settled down grudgingly into a sort of Government of National Unity-supporting newspaper.' A more 'developmentalist' tinge may emerge if The Citizen a) grows more liberal in its editorial outlook, and b) seeks to become a newspaper of record for government policies, notably the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). Unlikely though it may seem, one can even imagine The Citizen coming to supplant Sowetan in this latter role - to an extent, at least.(59) Skeptics should note that in 1995, Perskor's flagship was already outselling the nationally-distributed Sowetan in the Greater Johannesburg area.

If the quest for profits and modernization can be expected to stir up Citizen operations over the coming years, one can also expect The Citizen's longstanding emphasis on hard news to serve as bedrock for the transition to a post-apartheid, post-Johnny Johnson era. Asked in 1995 to predict where and how The Citizen would stand five years hence, staff reporter Martin McGhee responded: 'As far as content goes, I'll take a wild guess and say I don't think it would be much different. We would have progressed as far as technicalities go ... But content-wise, I think the news mix that we have right now is dead right.'


The Citizen likes the status quo. It will move with the status quo if it moves slowly. (Nick Lane, former SAPA reporter.)

The changes were gradual and we rolled with them. (Martin McGhee, Citizen staffer.)

South Africa's transition from apartheid, like most political transitions worldwide, has thrown domestic media into a ferment. The effects of political emancipation will echo across the media spectrum into the 21st century. The state broadcasters, for example, have been turned on their heads. 'Two years ago', Barney Mzthombothi wrote in Nieman Reports in 1996, 'there was not a single black face in the upper echelon of the SABC [South African Broadcasting Corporation]. Today there is only one white male left ...'(60)

White, privately-owned media have instituted affirmative-action policies not just in staffing, but in ownership. The mighty Anglo-American Corporation has divested itself of the near-monopoly it once held over the English daily press; on the receiving end of the divestitures have been domestic Black consortia, along with foreign investors (like Tony O'Reilly of Independent Newspapers) attracted by the large but underdeveloped South African media environment and the'liberalized' economy. These new magnates tend to bring with them models of technocratic 'efficiency', ambitions for both expansion and 'downsizing', and particular visions of the desirable balance between managerial and editorial operations. These often clash with apartheid-era practice, leading to at least one high-profile resignation, that of Star editor Richard Steyn in 1994.

The result has been a protracted period of uncertainty typical of transition situations, as leading press institutions and individual editors and journalists have struggled to adapt to the new opportunities and constraints. The challenge of reinvention is particularly acute for the Afrikaner newspapers, which carry the torch of the once-dominant Afrikaner culture. But even newspapers that supported the liberation struggle have experienced something of an identity crisis in the post-apartheid era. 'It's clear that in 1995, an anti-apartheid newspaper is about as relevant as a newspaper in Britain today fighting for woman's franchise', said former Mail & Guardian Editor Anton Harber. Aggrey Klaaste, former Sowetan editor, concurred: 'In the past, writing was a fight against evil. So there was a kind of passion in the writing. It's a bit difficult to get all fired up about this [new] freedom, which carries with it a great deal of responsibility.' The fate of the alternative newspapers that flourished in apartheid's waning years attests further to this crisis of redefinition. Nearly all have collapsed as the tap of foreign funding, crucial to their survival, was gradually turned off.(61)

In this complex and still rapidly-transforming environment, The Citizen stands out - as it always has. The English paper that one would expect to mirror most closely the identity crisis of the Afrikaner press instead trod a stolidly traditional path right through to 1996. Only then, with the KTI merger, did The Citizen appear to be jumping on the bandwagon of change. But the changes mooted were not what one would predict for a former government-propaganda organ that is still the most right-wing of the English-language daily papers. A far-reaching modernization project is in the offing, perhaps under the stewardship of a Black editor. But changes in the basic conception and selection of 'news', in the paper's orientation towards the political and economic status quo, in reader demographics - all these seemed likely to be incremental rather than dramatic.

This article has sought to explain the roots of the many unusual and counter-intuitive features of The Citizen's functioning since the late 1970s. It has suggested that the combination of an indulgent and not particularly vigilant sponsor, an iconoclastic Chief Editor, and an addiction to mainstream wire-service copy all helped to ensure that the post-Info Scandal incarnation of The Citizen was never quite the pro-apartheid attack-dog that its critics assailed. Indeed, the comprehensiveness of its news coverage and its tabloid format, combined with its market positioning and fortuitous acquisition of a popular racing tip-sheet, proved highly attractive to less-politicized Blacks, who came to constitute a sizable majority of readers.

The result is that of all the Johannesburg dailies, it may be the old pro-Nationalist warhorse, The Citizen - in a revamped but recognizable guise - that is best poised to expand its circulation and influence in post-apartheid South Africa. Many will find such a conclusion both ironic and paradoxical. As I hope I have shown, though, ironies and paradoxes abound in the life of this odd but enduring press institution.

Postscript: As this article was going to press, a source at The Citizen reported that, at the paper's 1997 Christmas party, Johnny Johnson announced his impending retirement as Chief Editor.

Update: In 1998, Perskor was bought by Caxton Publishers, which thus became owner of The Citizen. In October 1999, Tim Du Plessis, former deputy-editor of the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, was appointed Citizen Editor-in-Chief. According to Caxton chair Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, quoted in The Mail & Guardian (18 October 1999), "We believe Du Plessis is suitably equipped to fulfil our ambition for The Citizen of becoming South Africa's premier daily newspaper."

Interviews Cited

Johannesburg, March-June 1995
(All positions were current at the time of the interview[s].)

BEATTIE, Andrew. Sub-editor, Weekly Mail & Guardian; former staffwriter, The Star, and sub-editor, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 17 March 1995.

BEYTENDAG, J.M. (Koos). Chairman, Perskor Group. Johannesburg, 13 April 1995.

CHALMERS, Robin. Reporter, Business Day. Johannesburg, 12 April 1995.

COUTTS, Lloyd. Features Editor, Weekend Star. Johannesburg, 12 April 1995.

DE VILLIERS, Poen. News Editor, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 20 March 1995.

GRANGE, Helen. Senior Journalist, The Star. Johannesburg, 30 March, 11 April, 12 April 1995.

HARBER, Anton. Editor-in-Chief, Weekly Mail & Guardian. Johannesburg, 14 March 1995.

HATTINGH, Alex. General Manager, Intermedia Periodical Services (member of the Perskor Group). Johannesburg, 20 March 1995.

KLAASTE, Aggrey. Editor-in-Chief, Sowetan. Johannesburg, 24 April 1995.

LANE, Nick. Reporter, South African Press Association (SAPA). Johannesburg, 27 April 1995.

McGHEE, Martin. Staff Reporter, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 25 April 1995.

SMITH, Ian. Business Editor, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 21 March 1995.

SPARKS, Allister. Director, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism; former Editor-in-Chief, Rand Daily Mail. Johannesburg, 16 June 1995.

STEYN, Richard. Former Editor-in-Chief, The Star (1991-1995). Johannesburg, 28 March 1995.

SWANEPOEL, Chris. Sports Editor, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 20 April 1995.

TEMPLETON, Brendan. Staff Writer, The Star. Johannesburg, 12 April 1995.

VAN HEERDEN, Koutie. General Manager, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 20 April 1995.

WELLSTEAD, Roger. General Manager, Sowetan. Johannesburg, 24 April 1995.

WILLIAMS, Martin. Senior Assistant Editor, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 31 March 1995.

WILLS, Pat. General Manager Advertising, The Citizen. Johannesburg, 13 April 1995.

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1. To reduce the number of notes, I have not referenced the comments of interview subjects separately. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are drawn from interviews conducted in Johannesburg between March and June 1995. A complete list of interviews appears at the end of the main text.

2. Tutu quoted in W. Finnegan, Dateline Soweto (Harper & Row, New York, 1988), p. 36.

3. J. Mervis, The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper Story (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1989), pp. 434, 451; R. Gibson, 'It [the Sunday Star] was a newspaper with potential', Sunday Star, 23 January 1994.

4. J. Golding-Duffy, 'Can print remain lily-white?', Electronic Mail & Guardian, 6 August 1996.

5. K. Owen, 'Is the new SA killing the press?', Sunday Times, 6 August 1995.

6. 'Star's challenge on Citizen sales fails', The Citizen, 12 October 1994.

7. ABC January-June 1996 circulation figures, cited in L. Campher, 'Spotlight on Media', The Mail & Guardian, 24-30 January 1997. For Johannesburg's other English dailies, the figures were 211,688 for Sowetan (a dramatic rise from 113,675 in 1986); 169,994 for The Star; and 38,146 for Business Day. Only The Star was numbered among the 'losers', with circulation down from 201,426 in 1986.

8. K. Owen, 'The habits of free men have atrophied in SA', Sunday Times, 23 May 93; K. Owen, 'Decline and fall of the editors', Sunday Times, 29 January 1995. In 'Is the new SA killing the press?', Owen wrote: 'Why does The Citizen succeed where The Star fails? Well, for one thing, despite its shabby appearance, its shaky grammar and its disdain for theories of design and news organisation, it is the better newspaper. It publishes the news.' As Owen's criticisms of The Citizen here suggest, it is the generally parlous state of the South African press (as he perceives it) that lends Perskor's flagship what credibility it has.

9. G. Evans, 'One Nat paper not happily following FW', Weekly Mail, 23 February 1990.

10. The story has it that Johnson was solidly in the running to head the flagship opposition paper after Laurence Gandar (who had proclaimed the Mail's 'clear and unambiguous political policy' to be 'liberal in content and contemporary in spirit') departed the scene. 'But suspicious of Johnstone's [sic passim] political stance, the RDM journalists, led by Allister Sparks, protested against his appointment. Gandar himself insisted that Johnstone was not acceptable to the RDM staff.' Instead, Raymond Louw took over. M. Williams, Powers of the Press: The World's Great Newspapers (Quartet, London, 1982), p. 325. In 1974, Johnson was again rumoured to be in line for 'the plum job' of editor of the mighty Sunday Times. Once again he was bypassed, according to Gavin Evans because 'his rightwing United Party political views were not in line with those of his SAAN bosses', and he left SAAN 'in a huff' only to sign on with The Citizen two years later. G. Evans, 'Is it Rosebud for Citizen Johnny?', Weekend Mail, 5 February 1993. According to Helen Grange, 'I just got the impression that Johnny had kind of decided to sell his soul in order to be an editor. Because he was punted to become the editor of The Rand Daily Mail, and he never made it. He was always very upset about that, because he was very ambitious at the time. And as a compromise he was given The Citizen, I think. My impression was that he accepted the compromise, but his attitudes and political belief-structure were not necessarily part of it.'

11. 'Boost for black business as Kagiso and Perskor merge', Independent Online, 14 August 1996. <>

12. Golding-Duffy, 'Can print remain lily-white?'

13. Andrew Beattie, Scope, formerly The Citizen: 'No Blacks were ever hired by The Citizen.' Helen Grange, The Star, formerly The Citizen: 'I think the highest job title that a Black had at the time I was there was "photographic assistant", "darkroom assistant." That was it.' Robin Chalmers, Business Day, formerly The Citizen: Q. Did you have any indication, when you were working there [1993], that there was an attempt to bring a couple of token Black faces on board? 'Absolutely not.'

14. 'Mafuna appointed to The Citizen's board', The Citizen, 23 February 1995.

15. Another prized demographic offered additional room for expansion: women. The Citizen had a readership that was 73 percent male in 1994, far beyond the South African norm.

16. Cited in J. Crwys-Williams, The Penguin Dictionary of South African Quotations (Penguin Books, Johannesburg, 1994). At a National Party Transvaal congress in November 1988, meanwhile, P.W. Botha referred to members of the media as 'little jackals', 'muck-rakers', and 'lunsrieme', which The Star helpfully translated as 'slimy ropes used in the control of trek oxen.' D. Braume, 'Newsmen are like jackals, says Botha', The Star, 17 November 1988.

17. Quoted in Mervis, The Fourth Estate, p. 443.

18. N. Ferreira, The Story of an Afrikaner: die Rewolusie van die Kinders? (Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1980), p. 176.

19. M. Rees and C. Day, Muldergate: The Story of the Info Scandal (Macmillan South Africa, Johannesburg, 1980), p. 87. Rees and Day's is the standard work on the scandal, and can usefully be supplemented by Ferreira's engaging though self-justifying account.

20. Walker, Powers of the Press, p. 330. This was emblematic of the state's overall devotion of resources to the propaganda effort. For an overview, see A. Harber, 'The Flip Side of Censorship', Weekly Mail, 30 June-6 July 1989. The Bureau of Information, which replaced the Department of Information in the wake of the Info Scandal, employed 697 people as of 1988, with a budget of R33 million. It released 35.5 million publications (including newspapers and newsletters aimed at Blacks, and 'glossy magazines' like Panorama and SA Digest). It produced 53 shows and 80 exhibitions, as well as a number of films.

21. Walker, Powers of the Press, p. 331. The lionizing of the Mail's role bore a remarkable similarity to the symbolic value claimed for The Washington Post in the American Watergate affair, as Walker also points out (p. 330).

22. Mervis, The Fourth Estate, p. 446.

23. Quoted in Rees and Day, Muldergate, p. 140. Perskor was established on 1 April 1971 by a merger of Afrikaanse Pers and Voortrekker Pers. It merged with Republikeinse Pers in 1974, 'entering the magazine market and subsequently obtaining greater access to English-speaking readers', which its purchase of The Citizen bolstered. As of 1992 Perskor had a book value of \\$330m and an annual turnover of R673m. See 'Perskor celebrates 21st anniversary in style', The Citizen, 27 November 1992.

24. Said Sparks: 'The Citizen survived because [the government] never really ceased funding it. ... When [the Info Scandal] was exposed, the government sold it to Perskor, and with that went this new printing press. I believe the way it continued to operate after that is by using the press for commercial printing as well as for The Citizen, with that offset against the losses of the paper. The paper must still run at a loss: if you have a look at its advertising content, the ratios are not at an economic level. So it's a loss-maker, but the loss is offset by commercial printing from the gift of the press, which enables it to be in fact a money-spinner. The quid pro quo for getting the press free was that they would continue running a pro-government newspaper.'

25. A. Crotty, 'Press barons case the state', Finance Week, 23 September 1993. According to one estimate, Perskor received 70 percent of the phone-book revenue and 15 percent of textbook contracts. A. Vermeulen, 'Race on for textbook market', Business Day, 31 January 1995.

26. 'Perskor celebrates 21st anniversary'.

27. As journalist Gus Silber put it: 'It is untrue to say that the Afrikaner Broederbond is a secret, racially exclusive power bloc masquerading as a cultural organisation, since everyone knows that the Afrikaner Broederbond is a racially exclusive power bloc masquerading as a cultural organisation.' Quoted in Crwys-Williams, The Penguin Dictionary, pp. 60-61. Emphasis added.

28. There is an overview of the founding and rise of the Broederbond in D. Harrison, The White Tribe of Africa (British Broadcasting Corporation, London, 1985), Chapter 7. On the media, see I. Wilkins and H. Strydom, The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1978), p. 23, citing a 1978 Broederbond circular: 'It is important that Afrikaners working in the newspaper industry are considered for membership. These people, because of their working conditions, cannot always take part in public affairs or serve on public bodies. Their work gives them exceptional opportunities to exercise leadership and influence so they merit consideration, especially as they perform, or can perform, a service to the Afrikaner cause.' As early as 1963, Dr. Piet Koornhof, Broederbond Chief Secretary, issued a report recommending 'that an English-language newspaper be established which is equipped to reach the top level of English-speakers and by that means exercise influence' (quoted in Wilkins and Strydom, p. 271).

Today the Broederbond has been renamed the Afrikanerbond, and has adopted 'a new non-racial, non-sexist constitution.' It seems set to play a reduced role more in keeping with the 'cultural' character that thinly disguised its political machinations under apartheid. Its function in civil society may soon be similar to that of a Masonic or even Rotarian organization. See S. Brümmer, 'Afrikanerbond attempts to adapt to change', Electronic Mail & Guardian, 27 September 1996. <>

29. Wilkins & Strydom, The Super-Afrikaners; Group Annual Reports, Perskor, 1994, p. 16, privately supplied. Wilkins and Strydom's list occupies the entire last section of the book.

30. Staffer Martin McGhee's appraisal was similar: '[The Citizen] is certainly a flagship publication [for Perskor], let's put it that way. I think that's the main consideration. ... Prestigious? I'm not too sure. I don't think it's got to that stage yet.'

31. J. Jones, 'Citizen caned', Financial Mail, 29 June 1990.

32. Tony Koenderman of Finance Week passed perhaps the most measured verdict on the role of advertising in The Citizen's material operations. 'The Citizen, started in the mid-1970s, took 12 years to reach the point (about three years ago [i.e., in 1987]) where it could claim to be breaking even. Circulation (particularly among blacks) and advertising revenue have both risen strongly since 1986 ... [But] even with its notoriously low salary structure, it's difficult to see how The Citizen can be getting the kind of returns which some of the more profitable papers are achieving. A count of a recent 44-page issue found six pages of display ads and 10 pages of (lower-yield) classified - a long way short of the 60% advertising ratio which most publishers consider the minimum acceptable.' Koenderman, 'Two's company, seven's a crowd', Finance Week, 5 July 1990.

33. Andrew Beattie's recollection of skulduggery at The Citizen around the same time is also worth citing: 'Izzy [former sub-editor Ismail Lagardien] and I actually indulged in a bit of guerrilla journalism. It was The Citizen's style to always refer to the ANC, the PLO, the IRA - anyone who was a leftist - as "terrorists." And we would often jigger that around, and refer to "the Zionist terrorists," and that would get through [to print]. We'd write book reviews under the name Lev Davidovitch Bronstein [Trotsky's given name]. These things were actually noticed by a couple of people. I'd be totally deluded if I thought we actually did anything to change the public's perception of the newspaper, because we didn't. We were just working there under sufferance, because no-one else would employ us. But I remember once Johnny Johnson came walking out of his office and said, "God, the Russian Ambassador in Maputo has just taken out a subscription to The Citizen!" He couldn't understand it. I'd like to think it was linked to the subversive role Ismail and I played. Who knows?'

34. As one of William Finnegan's informants told him in 1987, The Citizen's 'totally wrong editorial profile for the black market' was overcome by 'big black readership ... two days a week: Wednesdays and Saturdays. The two pre-racing days! You see, the Citizen took over a racing-tips section called Gilbey's Punter's Friend from the Rand Daily Mail when it closed. Blacks are great punters, and Gilbey's Punter's Friend has lots of credibility with blacks.' Quoted in Finnegan, Dateline Soweto, p. 127.

35. R. Louw, 'Remember the days when a newspaper told us the news?', Weekly Mail, 20-26 December 1985.

36. Evans, 'Is it Rosebud ...?'.

37. For instance, former Citizen employee Andrew Beattie commented: 'It's mainly due to the character of Johnny Johnson that The Citizen is what it is. Because he runs that newspaper with an iron hand. Every single decision that is made at The Citizen is made by Johnny Johnson.' A Citizen staffer likewise stated (not for attribution) that Johnson's editorial control over the paper was 'total. He doesn't delegate. There's no backup management staff. He's got total control.'

38. Helen Grange stressed the significance of Johnson's Jewishness in an interview: 'He was also Jewish, and the Jews in this country were very much alienated and victimized by the Afrikaners.'

39. Andrew Beattie, for one, said he considered Johnson 'actually quite a liberal guy. He's not inherently a slavishly subservient government butt-smoocher.'

40. Editorial, 'Welcome', The Citizen, 1 May 1985.

41. In October 1977, The Citizen decried the closure of Percy Qoboza's World and Weekend World (predecessors of Sowetan) in language that could have been drawn straight from The Rand Daily Mail: 'This is a sad day for the Press of South Africa. ... [W]hatever the World and its sister newspaper did or did not do, destroying them by a stroke of a pen and a proclamation in the Government Gazette was not the answer. ... Freedom of the Press is indivisible. If some newspapers are not free, all are not free.' Editorial, 'A sad day', The Citizen, 20 October 1977.

42. Editorial, 'Lights go out', The Citizen, 11 December 1986.

43. Editorial, 'Call to vote', The Citizen, 26 April 1994.

44. 'I don't think Johnny is a political animal at all. I think he's a cynic. Always has been. And he's over and above all else a newspaperman. He loves the craft. Frankly, I don't think politics particularly interests him, or ever has.' (Helen Grange)

45. Owen, 'Is the new SA killing the press?'

46. 'Lights go out'.

47. Commentary in the wider society has tended to follow these lines. Aubrey Sussens, once an assistant editor to Johnson, told Style Magazine in November 1988 that he was 'pretty nearly impossible' to work for, 'sarcastic, critical, and unpredictable', though she has mellowed somewhat in her views: 'I used to regard him as a bastard, now I find him amusing.' In March 1990, The Citizen lost a defamation case against Frontline editor Dennis Beckett; the Rand Supreme Court found that Beckett's reference to Johnson's becoming 'increasingly depraved' was fair comment. Frontline, April-May 1988; 'Citizen editor loses defamation suit', Business Day, 2 March 1990.

48. For example, according to Eddie Botha in the Financial Mail, Martin Williams' 1994 appointment meant 'Johnny Johnson ... has finally decided to call it a day' (Botha, 'Senior citizen', 23 September 1994). According to Business Day (22 September 1994), the appointment 'fuel[s] speculation that the rumoured departure of [The Citizen's] editor Johnny Johnson might have been forced.'

49. J. Seaton, 'Kagiso-Perskor merger sets tongues wagging', Independent Online, 30 August 1996. <http://>

50. According to Martin Williams, 'For the first time in years, while Johnny was away [in Australia], I used a locally-written piece about [the 1994 massacre at] Shell House.' Journalists were 'very excited' to see that 'now they can get their local stuff in.' Another staffer confirmed, not for attribution, that Johnson's absence was vital in allowing Citizen staff a chance to flex their professional muscles: 'I know that much of the management of Perskor consider that Mr. Johnson is The Citizen. Without him there'd be no paper. And I think we proved that to be a fallacy over the month that he was away. ... Certainly in [that] month ... morale was way up.'

51. Alex Hattingh, a former Citizen employee, points out the obvious irony in the paper's newly-advantageous positioning: 'Our opposition in the old days was The Rand Daily Mail. It was sunk because it was seen to be neither fish nor fowl: it served two markets, black and white. And today that is the strength of the Citizen newspaper!'

52. A number of other staffers echoed Williams' appraisal, stressing the professional payoff that a Black-advancement initiative could bring. In the opinion of staff reporter Martin McGhee: 'I think we're all agreed that we should have some Black reporters and photographers. We in the trenches feel that we miss a lot of stories that The Star or the Sunday Times would get, in the townships or in the regions, that White reporters wouldn't have access to. I feel that sort of change is necessary, not only because of the South African environment, but purely because I feel it's essential if the newspaper is not only to expand but to become more community-orientated.'

53. Owen, 'Is the new SA killing the press?'

54. A. Vermeulen, 'Govt to print new school materials', Business Day, 2 February 1995. Meanwhile, tendering was fierce for the phone book contract (6 million Telkom directories nationwide), with over a dozen companies vying for the tender shared since 1989 by Nasionale Pers and Perskor. 'Rivals allege that Afrikaans publishers profited in the past through their close association with the former National Party government', notes Ciaran Ryan, though Perskor's Koos Beytendag was quoted as rejecting the notion. 'All ... printing contracts were awarded to Perskor after we successfully won formal tenders that were issued through the formal Tender Board', Beytendag said. 'Some tenders were won, but many were lost.' He made similar comments in a (brief) personal interview: 'Some contracts you win, some you lose. That's business.' C. Ryan, 'Publishers wrestle for phone books', Business Times, 5 February 1995.

55. Molobi quoted in M. Wackernagel, 'Kagiso treads softly, but surely', Mail & Guardian, 30 August-5 September 1996.

56. Quoted in Seaton, 'Kagiso-Perskor merger'. Emphasis added.

57. 'Boost for black business', Independent Online, undated.

58. Molobi quoted in Wackernagel, 'Kagiso treads softly'.

59. A 1996 survey by the Johannesburg-based Media Monitoring Project found that of all the South African dailies, The Citizen, together with Beeld, devoted the greatest proportion of its editorial content to coverage of government activities. The Mail & Guardian cautioned that 'this was largely owing to The Citizen filling its editorial pages with agency copy. ... Where copy was self-generated in The Citizen, it was often negative reports related to government issues.' Still, at least in a limited sense, The Citizen seemed well-positioned to serve as the 'newspaper of record.' J. Golding-Duffy, 'Media favours the government', Electronic Mail & Guardian, 26 July 1996. < BUS29.html>

60. Quoted in D. Schechter, 'Visiting South Africa', Z Magazine, July/August 1996, p. 59. Schechter's article is an excellent overview of transformations in the state broadcasters.

61. On the alternative press, see G. Ansell, 'A still small voice', African Agenda, 1, 1 (1995), pp. 30-31.

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. This article is copyrighted by Journal of Southern African Studies (Routledge Publications) and may not be reproduced without permission of the publisher. Individual passages may be quoted with appropriate acknowledgment.
Last updated: 27 November 2000.