Half a century of change at Grocott’s Mail – 1970 to 2020

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In the third fifty years of Grocott’s Mail, from 1970 to 2020, the newspaper has undergone profound changes in almost every aspect of its existence. Readers from the 1970s could never have imagined that news media in general, and newspapers in particular, would change so much.

As a family business, the Grocott family had an overwhelming influence on the birth and life of the newspaper. In 1966, William Jeffrey ‘Jeff’ Grocott, great-grandson of the founder Thomas Henry Grocott, became a partner in the firm and ran the business with his father’s brother, Thomas Hugh Grocott until his uncle passed away in 1980.

The 1970s and 80s were fraught with tensions and violence between the National Party government and the majority of South Africans.

The Bantu Education system was the focal point of the struggle as Afrikaans was made a language of instruction in secondary schools. The whole system was characterised by racially-separated schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers.

The Grahamstown student uprising in 1975 was one of the first to occur in South Africa. Pupils at Nathaniel Nyaluza High School gathered for a sit-in and refused to write the mid-year examinations.

Grocott’s Mail was focussed on the white, English speaking readers of Grahamstown but as this town’s racially segregated residential areas were close to each other compared to other towns, people of all colours saw the first hand effects of apartheid and the student uprising.

A critical point in the protest actions occurred in 1977 after the murder of Steve Bantu Biko on 12 September. Police reacted violently against a crowd of about 350 students who were protesting against Bantu Education. Grahamstown anthropologist, Cecil Manona observed, “thereafter the townships were never peaceful – isolated cases of burning of schools, stoning of cars on the national road through the township, and the stoning of buses began.”

In October 1983,the intolerant hand of apartheid made itself felt once again as Grahamstonians decided to remember the banning of 19 local organisations in 1977. Shortly before the service was due to begin on 19 October, a banning order was issued. Grocott’s Mail reported: “A service which was to have been held in the Anglican Cathedral here last night to commemorate the clampdown six years ago on 19 organisations and individuals was banned three hours before it was due to start”.

Pressure increased through the 1980s as Grocott’s Mail reported on stayaways and further protests. In 1986 it reported on a three-day stayaway by workers at the university and calls for 16 June to be declared National Youth Day to commemorate lives lost in Soweto on that date in 1976.

In 1986, the apartheid security apparatus targeted the media and Grocott’s Mail was not spared. In her autobiography, Bridget Hilton-Barber describes how she was one of many journalists who were detained in July:

“I was having a cup of tea at work when two security policemen appeared at my desk at Grocott’s Mail on 3 July 1986 waving a detention order. From Grahamstown I was taken to Alexandria, a small coastal hamlet. I spent my first three days there without a change of clothing or toiletries, but was given food from the local hotel, such were the anomalies of being a white detainee”.

She ended up spending three months in detention without trial.

What the blazes?

Over the years, several fires have shocked the people of Grahamstown, claimed lives of its citizens and destroyed far too any of its finest buildings. Grocott’s Mail has always been there to report on the blazes and take photos of the flames.

As far back as 1905, the front shop of  Grocott and Sherry was destroyed in an inferno, but the printing works was saved.

The Monument for the 1820 Settlers was razed by a fire in 1994 and then rebuilt shortly afterwards. The newly rebuilt edifice was officially re-dedicated by President Nelson Mandela in May 1996.

In April 1998, His Majesty’s Theatre on Hill Street was consumed by a fire,allegedly started by street children in a back alley. Grocott’s Mail reported that the owner of the business, Mr Sonne was overcome with shock and said, “. . . for 22 years I have been following the same procedure at closing and now this”.

Fortunately, no one was hurt and the imposing architectural features of the façade were undamaged in the devastating fire

Fire and rescue services from Fort Beaufort, Port Alfred and Port Elizabeth were called on to help put out a fire in the building on the corner of High and Bathurst Streets in February 2005. It took the fire and rescue services five hours to douse the flames. The historic monument was used as a storage facility at that time was completely razed, but no one was hurt.

A massive fire razed the Broadway Cash and Carry wholesale warehouse on 28 April 2013. Photo: Steven Lang

The huge fire at Broadway Cash and Carry on Raglan Road destroyed all their stock and most of the infrastructure of the wholesaler on 28 April 2013.

The fire at Birch’s sewing facility in April 2017 was serious, but much of the stock was saved.

Several other fires have destroyed businesses and homes in Grahamstown through the years causing profound misery and death.

Mandela was comfortable in Grahamstown

Grahamstonians have always held a special place in their hearts for the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Since his release after 27 years of imprisonment, he visited Grahamstown three times.

Naturally, Grocott’s Mail covered all three of his visits – the first on 16 May 1996 to become only the ninth person to receive the Freedom of the City and to rededicate the 1820 Settlers Monument.

An article in Grocott’s Mail published on 17 May 1996 describes Mandela arriving by Air Force helicopter from Port Elizabeth. He was met by the mayor of Grahamstown, Mzukisi Mpahlwa, and Premier of the Eastern Cape, Raymond Mhlaba who reportedly said, “This is your country, we are your people. Feel comfortable with us all.”

The processions began at a soccer stadium and Mandela travelled along M Street, which is now known as Mandela Street. According to former councillor Michael Whisson, also on the Council at the time, the stadium was “full of very happy people, with singing and dancing, including the President himself”.

2. Grocott’s Mail paid tribute to former President Nelson Mandela when the great leader passed away on 5 December 2013. He visited Grahamstown three times and was very close the heart of the city.

Madiba returned to Grahamstown in that same year on 30 August 1996 to witness the inauguration of David Woods as Principal and Vice chancellor of Rhodes University.

He returned for a third visit on 6 April 2002 to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Law at Rhodes University.

When Nelson Mandela passed away on 5 December 2013, Grocott’s Mail sent two reporters to his home village of Qunu to attend his funeral. The newspaper published special photo pages of that sad but memorable event.

New owners, new directions for Grocott’s Mail

During the 1990s the business ran into problems which resulted in the closure of the stationery and bookshop. Grocott’s Mail continued to have difficulty making ends meet. One of the large media groups was interested in purchasing the newspaper but the owner at that time, Jeff Grocott wanted to keep control in local hands and so it was that Rhodes University bought the newspaper in 2003.

Rhodes Journalism School set up the David Rabkin Project to manage Grocott’s Mail as an independent institution under a duly constituted Board of Directors. Rabkin was a journalist on the Argus in Cape Town, who was later jailed for 10 years for resisting apartheid.  He subsequently died in exile in Angola in 1985.

Significant changes were inevitable as the Journalism School was committed to harnessing the newspaper as a real-life incubator for soon-to-be journalists in the country’s young democracy.

Grahamstown woman, Nontyatyambo Petros was Grocott’s Mail’s first black editor and made many significant changes in the editorial outlook of the newspaper. Photo: Supplied

For the first time in its history, the newspaper had a black editor Nontyatyambo Petros, and she immediately changed editorial direction of Grocott’s Mail so that instead of serving only the interests of the largely white  middle class, it became a fully-fledged community newspaper serving all the residents of Makana Municipality.

She was a local woman and knew the local community, having attended Mary Waters High school in Grahamstown. She then attended Rhodes University where she graduated with a joint honours degree in journalism and media studies and industrial sociology.

The initial changes she brought about in her two years as editor provoked strong reactions from the more conservative elements in Grahamstown, but since then the newspaper has gained credibility as a community newspaper in the true sense of the term.

General Manager of the David Rabkin Project, Louise Vale insisted that the Project was trying to create an open media culture through ensuring a balance in terms of the voices and pictures published in the newspaper. “The aim is to serve all segments of our community, and to reflect the diversity of our society in general”.

Grocott’s Mail carries mixed messages about the Grahamstown Bicentenary

The bicentenary of Grahamstown in 2012 was even more contentious than the centenary had been a hundred years earlier. The Makana Municipality set up Project 200 to oversee commemorations which were envisioned to unify residents across colour lines. There was an real risk of the event having serious polarising consequences as Grahamstown was established to act as a bulwark against the Xhosa population.

An editorial in Grocott’s Mail said,

In observing the 200 years of our past we would never wish to glorify colonialism or racial oppression, but we do need to reflect on the past and acknowledge that we have a history. …It is instructive to learn from the positive aspects of our past. We have had our share of heroes and interesting eccentrics — let us learn about them, and in some cases learn from them. Grahamstown has also had its share of villains — we need to know about them and not pretend they don’t exist. Project 200 will provide fascinating opportunities to find out what really happened in this town of ours. Grocott’s Mail – 24 January, 2012

The editorial pledged coverage of all 200 Years in Project events and sought contributors for relevant articles on local history. However, the absence of sources about anyone except the affluent white sector of the population made it difficult to keep the promise.

The Fingo Festival had a fresh approach to transform negative mindsets away from feeling like permanent victims of a racist past. This poster advertises and all-day event commemorating Project 200 on 27 June 2012.

An interesting aspect of Project 200 were events put on by a local cultural group called Fingo Festival. The group’s activities included drama, role playing, poetry and music. Organiser of the group, Xolile Madinda explained that he doesn’t want to continue as an oppressed child, and that it was important not to get bogged down in the past.

Related to the tensions surrounding the bicentenary was the often heated debate about the plan to change the name of Grahamstown. The battle was fought on many fronts, not least of which were the letters pages of Grocott’s Mail. The newspaper never took a formal stand on the issue but allowed readers to write in and share their sentiments.

Those who wanted it changed said that the town was named after a butcher – Colonel John Graham, who slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of Xhosa people in his bid to protect the British Empire’s borders.

The Keep Grahamstown Grahamstown, KGG, campaign argued that the name had nurtured a valuable reputation as a centre of learning, tourism and cultural values that would be thrown away if the name were to change.

Eventually the name was changed – Grahamstown became Makhanda and most people have accepted the change with differing degrees of equanimity

Still more (sad) changes

Grocott’s Mail had a Then and Now exhibition to celebrate its 140th anniversary. The exhibition was made up of a series of pairs of photographs showing a particular location now and what it was like 110 years ago.

In the year Grocott’s Mail celebrated its 140th anniversary with a Then and Now exhibition at the Albany Museum, it was also a time for some rather gloomy milestones. Electronic media was making ever greater inroads into the printing business and the newspaper was forced to retrench eight print-shop staff as the old printing machines stopped rolling.

Printing was to be done in Port Elizabeth where massive machines could do in 30 minutes what the Grocott’s printers would take 16 hours to do. The firm began as a printing works and over the decades printed everything from books to stationery forms to newspapers and anything else in between. The machines stopped on 26 June 2009 and were subsequently sold off.

Louise Vale said that a combination of tough economic times and the realisation that the Rhodes University-owned paper needed to “focus on its core business of publishing” had prompted the decision.

Dennis Richardson and Jeff Grocott old friends who worked together for many years. Richardson was the Print Manager while Grocott was the owner of the printing works and the newspaper. Photo: Steven Lang

It was also the end of another long road as former owner, Jeff Grocott retired after 49 years in the business. There had always been a Grocott in the firm.

The structure of Grocott’s Mail was changing as the focus locked onto journalism and how young people were learning to become the finest journalists in the country. It was no longer a printing business.

It had a website, a Facebook page and even experimented with an innovative app that could put the latest news onto the user’s phone. The newspaper was rapidly entering the age where the virtual was real.

Vale had overseen the transition of a family business into a place for experiential journalism. She left the project in December 2010.

A farewell party for Louise Vale – (l to r) ANC Councillor on the Makana Council, Julie Wells; Grocott’s Mail General Manager, Louise Vale; DA Councillor Michael Whisson and traffic officer Terence Bafo.

In May 2013, the newspaper changed its publication schedule from Tuesdays and Fridays to only Fridays and in the following year the newsroom was moved from Church Square to the Africa Media Matrix on Rhodes Campus.

It is still an integral part of the Journalism school and is used as a training ground where students are encouraged to learn writing and photography skills. It is also a platform where young people can learn the multi-media skills required by today’s journalists.

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