Journalists' memoirs tend to fall into two categories — those with a story to tell, or those with a score to settle. Benjamin Pogrund, one of South Africa's most courageous reporters during the dark era of apartheid, has added a valuable third dimension in War of Words (Seven Stories Press, 380 pages), a vivid account of what it was like to stand on the front line of press freedom during that period. His story conveys his compassion and an enduring belief that if people of differing races and ideologies can only know the facts, the world will be a better place.
That such optimism has survived a life full of disappointments and betrayals says a great deal for Pogrund's innate fair-mindedness. Liberal by instinct, Jewish by origin and an outsider by temperament, Pogrund also has that "element of anger" which keeps the best reporters in the hunt day after day, year after year. In his case, this was an anger born of determination that the ugly reality behind the neat façade of apartheid be revealed to the widest possible audience. Indeed Harold Evans, the distinguished British editor who ran Pogrund's reports from South Africa in the London Sunday Times, believes that his "seminal contribution" was that he reported — straight and dispassionately, without favor or hostility.
In apartheid South Africa, letting the facts speak for themselves was revolutionary, subversive and dangerous. Until Pogrund began reporting on African affairs regularly in the Rand Daily Mail in 1958, most of what went on in the townships and tribal "homelands" to which blacks were consigned was ignored by the country's mainstream white-run press. Simply to report police conduct in a riot accurately, as Pogrund did at the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, was a break-through. Destroying this blind spot proved lengthy and contentious. But it had lasting effect. In 1985, when the Mail bit the dust, the country's leading black paper the Sowetan published an enduring epitaph: "It was the first paper to regard [blacks] as human beings. It fought for them. Its blend of inspirational and aggressive writing was the talk of the times."
But that is to jump ahead. The loss-making but hugely influential Mail had by then waged a lonely 30-year struggle on behalf of truth and decency against overwhelming odds. Scores of Kafkaesque laws circumscribed its coverage. It was infiltrated by government spies, communists and agent provocateurs. Its management was either inept or craven or both. Yet despite everything, and thanks to a succession of strong editors, the Mail not only survived but set a standard that all other media outlets in South Africa are still judged against.
Pogrund's account of these years and particularly his assessment of two episodes — the 1969 trial when he and Mail editor Laurence Gandar were charged with publishing untrue information about prisons, and the opportunistic closure of the Mail 16 years later — has a biting, hard-edged quality which elevates this book well beyond the normal biographical rut. Pogrund was put on trial several times, imprisoned once, had his passport removed and was twice investigated by the security police as a threat to the state. His compensation was the lasting respect and affection of many of the "new" South Africa's leaders, including Nelson Mandela.
The temptation now is to leave to history books the saga of the courageous Rand Daily Mail and the fate of such individuals as Benjamin Pogrund. But that would be a big mistake. Today the press in South Africa is still white-dominated, but now it is also marginalized and enfeebled — and the roots of this lie in the loss of talent (black and white) and commitment after the closure of the Mail. Racism remains an issue, too; not long ago the press was accused of "subliminal racism" — an ominous, catchall charge that disturbs Pogrund as much as anyone.
In War of Words Pogrund never claims the moral high ground and explicitly rejects the idea that he and the Mail were fully paid-up members of the anti-apartheid struggle. "That would have been totally unacceptable to the newspaper, and offensive to my own sense of journalism," he writes. Instead, the motivational commitment was to something more enduring — truth and the rule of law. It's a fine line, but it is one that remains as valid as ever for reporters, be they in Serbia, Pakistan, China, Colombia or a dozen other countries where the press still faces a daily struggle to report the facts.