DFA: An incubator for journalism

I arrived at the DFA in the middle of February 1991. I parked opposite the building at the Corner of Bean & Villiers Streets and waited until it was a decent time to go in. To kill time, I popped into Shorty Goncalves’ Madeira Supermarket for a sausage roll, a coke and a packet of 20 Chesterfields. It wouldn’t be the last time.

I’d get to know Shorty and his entire family over the next 13 years. We all did at the DFA. He supplied the milk for the tea and coffee and for all the other newspapers that we didn’t print.

I’d arrived at the DFA thinking I wanted to become a journalist. Truth be told I hadn’t shown much promise at much at anything until then, I definitely wasn’t qualified at anything. So here I was, in Kimberley, a place I only knew from line drawn maps in history books.

I needn’t have worried. I got a lead story that first day for the next day’s edition – totally by fluke. I was shepherded through the process by Farrell Adams, a young journalism intern, and Melanie-Ann Feris, who had written matric only months before. 

I never looked back. The next 13 years would give me experiences that I would never forget; from literally sitting at Nelson Mandela’s feet in Galeshewe’s dusty veld to scribbling furiously in the front row of the City Hall as Eugene Terre’blanche invoked Armageddon to then president FW de Klerk trying to compose his entourage in the Savoy Hotel down Old De Beers Road after being stoned in Roodepan.

In the first eight months, I’d had almost 1 000 articles published; from front page stories to movie reviews and even stories of little girls learning to model on a Saturday at the library. I did politics, crime, courts – and the city fathers in two different councils. I might even have covered a sports event for legendary sports editor John Harrison. I’ve never written that much or over that wide a spectrum since.

Journalism at the DFA was as real as it will ever get. If you wrote something people didn’t like they told you. If you got it wrong, woe betide you. There was no backstabbing, you got it full frontal in the aisles at Trevenna or around the bar of the Star of the West or – when I became editor – over the desk from you. The one thing it did was keep you honest, a lesson that stood me in great stead when I eventually left the DFA.

We worked hard and we played hard, as I’m sure the generations did before us and as has the generation that followed. There was an incredible camaraderie. On other papers there’s always been a traditional divide between church and state: editorial and commercial, with no one ever seeing the people who do the hard yards actually printing the paper – or going into the streets to sell it. At the DFA, we were all one. 

When the time came to stop reporting and move to sub-editing and laying out the paper, I was actually taught my trade by compositors Andrew Christians and Russell Benjamin, while Ivan Fredericks and Graham Gordon showed me what could work on a press and what wouldn’t – something that would have been unheard of anywhere else.

As journalists we had to do everything at the DFA, from writing to photography. I bought my first ever camera, a Pentax K1 000 from Klein Bros with a company loan. I blush to this day remembering how I raced back to the newsroom, literally shouting ‘stop the press’ – even though it was only late afternoon – boasting of the pix I had in my camera.

I raced downstairs to the darkroom. I’d been at a protest on Market Square, at one stage on my knees trying – I thought – to frame the most compelling photographs. I narrowly avoided being eaten by slavering police Alsatians. But it was only in the pitch blackness of the darkroom as I fumbled to open the back of the camera and extricate the film cannister that I discovered I hadn’t wound the film on in the first place and as a result there was not a single image at all.

The experience instilled in me an incredible respect and passion for news photography and real news photographers that endures to this day. When Steve Lawrence became the first resident professional photographer to work at the DFA in May 1996, one of the first things I did was to sell my camera kit – I never regretted it. 

Steve was and is an incredible photographer who I had the privilege of working with twice, first at the DFA and afterwards. He was a stickler for getting the right picture – on his terms, once memorably moving art works about at the William Humphreys to do just that. His photograph of Nelson Mandela in a suit and a tie on a donkey cart in the Northern Cape remains one of the most striking images ever taken of probably one of the most photographed individuals in the history of this country.

Baldwin Ndaba was also another colleague, who I first worked with in Kimberley and then again afterwards. Baldwin was the first journalist who ever got me sued, but he wouldn’t be the last. The thing about Baldwin though has always been that his research has been impeccable and – as his foes have found out to their cost – irreproachable. There were many brave reporters who I had the privilege of working with at the DFA; Melanie-Ann Feris chief among them, but Baldwin was in a league of his own – and has been all the time I’ve known him.

I had the privilege of working with Johan du Plessis for 11 of the 13 years I worked at the DFA – and developing a deep friendship in the process. Today he’s the editor who has occupied the editor’s chair the longest of any of us in the last 140 years.

He survived the Trust Bank grenade blast in 1993, literally walking past it, covering it and then coming to the office, where he was supposed to be the night editor, and writing the story up and then laying out the front pages and seeing the edition off.

The watershed 1994 elections were everything history remembers them to be and more. They were exciting, they were miraculous – they were peaceful.

I am grateful that those of us who were there at the time were able to appreciate those years for what they were then – and appreciate them even more now as we enter the 25th year of our democracy. What followed though was just as exciting, perhaps even moreso, a brand new shiny province with its own provincial legislature and a premier in Manne Dipico, who in many ways mimicked President Nelson Mandela not least in his unbelievable ability to segue from English to Afrikaans, seSotho and then isiXhosa without missing a beat – or a punchline.

These were halcyon days, but not without their challenges. News editor Patsy Beangstrom, probably the longest serving news editor not just at the DFA but in the entire country, was up for all of them. The DFA was an incredible nursery for some of the finest journalists in the country who would begin their careers in Kimberley under her tutelage and then go on to become household names on radio or TV like Unathi Batyashe-Fillis or well-known bylines in the DFA’s sister titles, especially The Star in Johannesburg; notably Steve Lawrence who would become The Star’s picture editor, and Baldwin Ndaba who still covers politics to this day. Not all of them would stay in journalism, others would carve out careers in government or corporate communications like Shelley Fielding and Thami Mgwigwi or go one further and start their own businesses like Dineo Khechane. Others would go overseas to find their fortune. None of them though would ever forget their first paper.

One person in fact came and tried to leave several times, once even getting as far as America. Michelle Cahill has been editor’s PA, Bloemfontein bureau chief, sub-editor and today Live Editor, the person responsible for the digital side of the paper – Ms Fix-It extraordinaire

As for me, I came for a year but stayed for 13, got married to my own Kimberley diamond and started our family. As for Madeira Café, it would play as enduring a role in my own life; from buying cigarettes and cool drinks on account to disposable nappies too.

These days, it’s changed like the rest of us. It’s not a café any more, but a bottle store and a beautician run by the next generation of Goncalves. I still pop in there whenever I am in Kimberley and visiting old friends at the DFA

Maybe next time I’m down, I’ll book a facial.