‘This is a goer,’ declares Deon du Plessis. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Great White Hyena is presiding over a news conference in the Johannesburg offices of the Daily Sun, the largest daily in Africa. Mr du Plessis is publisher and part-owner. Seated before him are his editor, Themba Khumalo, an amiable Zulu in a baseball cap, and a cheerful menagerie of subs and reporters. Some weeks ago they ran a story headlined ‘Dark Secrets of Crime Terror!’ which revealed that unscrupulous witch-doctors were charging up to £8,000 for magical potions (almost) guaranteed to render thieves and armed robbers invisible to police. Now fate has delivered a follow-up in the form of two criminals caught at a Soweto roadblock with 19 stolen credit-card machines in their boot and a bag of magical potions dangling from their rear-view mirror. There are photographs. ‘I like it,’ says Deon. ‘This is front-page.’
It’s also a cue for a bout of reminiscing about similar stories, of which the paper has carried many. ‘Penetrated by a python’ featured a woman ravished by a snake that came out of the toilet. ‘Raped by a gorilla’ told the story of a witch-doctor who sent a giant ape-like creature to punish a woman who had spurned his love proposals. Rewrite man Denis Smith, formerly of Paddington, recalls a story about ‘stuff in a bottle’ that was ‘supposed to give you a permanent hard-on’ but instead rendered a Sun editor unconscious for four days. By now everyone in the room is incapacitated with laughter. The Great White Hyena wipes tears from his left eye (the right is covered with a piratical eye-patch necessitated by recent surgery) and says, ‘What on earth will they make of this at the Dorset Echo?’
Well, yes. Du Plessis may sound like a joker, but he’s also the central figure in a tabloid revolution that has outraged the pious, shaken corporate monoliths, lured three million virgin readers into the newspaper market and triggered a furious battle about questions of national identity. Left-wingers portray South Africa as a painfully politically correct society imbued with gender sensitivities and what have you. The Daily Sun suggests otherwise. It is conservative, at least to the extent that it supports old-fashioned family values and clamours for tough law enforcement. Gay rights make it a bit queasy, and it does not like illegal immigrants who come here to steal our jobs and defile our women. And finally, it is respectful of the cult of ancestor worship and frequently carries stories about miracles and magic. This cocktail has proved enormously popular. Founded in July 2002, the Daily Sun now sells 500,000 copies on a good day, utterly dwarfing all competitors.
Several ironies lurk hereabouts. Eleven years ago, when Nelson Mandela came to power, South Africa boasted a dozen or so English-language dailies, all owned by white media conglomerates and deemed to be in dire need of what we call ‘transformation’. Within five years almost all these titles had new owners (often black) and a new ideology — billows of soft-left waffle about women’s rights, human rights, gender issues and cultural diversity. Reading these papers became an ordeal, but one bore it because this was supposedly what the black masses wanted. Only they didn’t, as it turns out. Circulations stagnated. Pundits blamed the internet, but Deon du Plessis knew better.
Du Plessis is the sort of Boer that the English have been caricaturing for centuries: a jovial giant with thighs like tree-trunks and a great raw slab of a face. He likes guns and big-game hunting. He eats and drinks to excess, tells dirty jokes, swears. His car licence plates read ‘Beast1’ and his business philosophy comes from Conan the Barbarian: ‘Find the enemy, crush him and hear the lamentations of the women.’ He and his heiress wife are famous for their outrageous parties. A friend was at one such when gunfire broke out in the backyard. Drunk and bored, Deon was shooting up the shrubbery with a shotgun. On another occasion, trolling for marlin in the Indian Ocean, he came across a boatload of ‘wily orientals’ fishing illegally in SA territorial waters. He drew his long-barrelled .44 magnum and charged, crying, ‘Fuck emperor! Fuck emperor wife!’ through a bullhorn.
Until 1999 or thereabouts du Plessis was a senior executive at Independent Newspapers, the local arm of Tony O’Reilly’s empire, which owns the dominant broadsheets in all South Africa’s major cities. It was not a happy relationship. Tony’s South African acolytes tended to be blow-dried metrosexuals with delicate manners and carefully manicured PC opinions. Du Plessis was an ex-war correspondent with vivid views about almost everything, including ‘the man in the blue overall’. This mythic African hero is a skilled worker with money in his pocket. He’s a home-owner, thanks to government subsidies. He’s saving to buy a car, and even has enough money to go on holiday, an unthinkable prospect for his parents. ‘I like the man in the blue overall,’ he says. ‘He’s optimistic and positive-minded. He’s going places.’
Du Plessis wanted to launch a tabloid for Blue Overall Man, but O’Reilly turned him down, allegedly on the advice of minions who whispered that the Boer was totally out of touch with the mood of black South Africa. Whereupon the Great White Hyena resigned and started pounding pavements with his business plan. Banks turned him down, Rupert Murdoch’s organisation likewise, but he eventually secured the backing of Media24, the owner of a string of Afrikaans newspapers and magazines. Today du Plessis’s paper sells more than all of O’Reilly’s titles put together.
A Sun story is a story about the everyday travails of ordinary people. Domestic squabbles. Struggling to get the children educated. Battling to get lazy politicians to do their duty. Falling victim to crime, or striking back against criminals. ‘We call it people’s justice and it’s a rough thing,’ says du Plessis. ‘Mobs turning on suspects and setting them on fire. The police don’t come, so people take the law into their own hands.’ Sun readers also have a taste for stories about ‘strong women who refuse to be pushed around’, and witchcraft is very popular.
This formula reduces critics to apoplexy. Joe Thloloe, a past chairman of the National Editors Forum, says the paper ‘exhibits contempt for black South Africans’. University professors complain about ‘brainless perpetuation of stereotypes’. Mathatha Tsedu, the editor of the somewhat pompous City Press, opines that neither reporters nor readers really believe the guff that appears in the Daily Sun. Maybe so, but it’s interesting to note that criticism emerges mostly from the leftist elite that led the 1990s campaign to transform and democratise ‘apartheid media’. It galls them beyond endurance to see the masses lining up to buy the Daily Sun, but as the former human rights commissioner Rhoda Kadalie points out, they have only themselves to blame. ‘The tabloids are a reaction against politically correct newspapers,’ she says.
‘I don’t really give a shit about critics,’ says Sun editor Themba Khumalo. He can afford to be dismissive because he and du Plessis are walking on water these days, buoyed up by a triumph that might be unique in the annals of journalism: the Daily Sun is so popular that readers are known to sell used copies to neighbours at half-price. It employs three typists to record tip-offs and accolades from fans. The volume of incoming calls is such that the switchboard sometimes c
rashes. Market research reveals the highest readership in South African history.
The paper’s critics charge inter alia that the paper ignores the great issues of the day. ‘It’s true,’ says du Plessis. ‘We don’t do traditional politics. We do real politics. Real politics is shit flowing past your front door because the municipality won’t fix the sewerage. It’s workmen leaving open holes for kids to fall into. It’s police ignoring calls for help. Last year we did a thing called the Hall of Shame. Every day we invited people to send us details of how the government had failed them, then published the names and addresses of those responsible. I think that campaign contributed to the emphasis Mbeki’s government is now placing on local government delivery. That’s where the rubber hits the proverbial road. Don’t say we’re not political.’
He also bridles at suggestions that it is racist to air stories about magic. ‘I’m not going to slag off these beliefs,’ he says. ‘We once carried a picture of a bed on a roof in the township of Mangaung. The owner insisted that he woke up there. His neighbours told our reporter there was a white horse hanging around, and that the horse and the removal of the bed were connected by magic. Are we supposed to go to Mangaung and tell people they’re talking shit? I’m not going to do any such thing. We’ll report it as it was told to us.’
Like the tale outlined at conference of Fikiwe Godo, 38, whose home was invaded by a swarm of killer bees. A witch-doctor, Nogazi Ntoni, 46, informed Mrs Godo that the bees had been sent by her ancestors, who were upset because the family had failed to perform certain rituals. She advised them to slaughter a cow to appease the spirits, and presented them with a bill for 280 quid. The Godo family did as instructed, but the bees refused to leave, and when they asked for their money back, the sangoma said sorry, I spent it on booze. Whereupon the angry family dumped buckets of cold water on her head. Another goer, but there is a dispute about the headline. A sub suggests ‘Evil ancestors send killer bees’. ‘Never!’ thunders the Great White Hyena. ‘This is not the Surbiton Times! This is Africa! Ancestors are never evil!’ Bees on the other hand are fair game, so the gathering eventually settles on ‘Cursed by evil bees!’
In a few hours, ‘Cursed by evil bees!’ will be on the news-stands battling for attention against an array of imitators. Du Plessis’s partners in Media24 have launched Die Son, a national redtop in Afrikaans. The Sowetan, a once lively tabloid that followed the PC trend only to suffer a catastrophic fall in circulation when the Daily Sun appeared on the scene, has fired the self-regarding editors who presided over its decline and returned to the mass-market battlefield. Broadsheets have been forced to cut tedious PC waffle and brighten their news holes, and Tony O’Reilly has struck back with the Voice, a racy tabloid edited by an Irishman named Karl Brophy. One gathers that Mr Brophy simply cannot believe the stories you get here — mystery, magic, Jesus appearing in people’s bathrooms, and man-eating sharks in the surrounding seas. (This last gave rise to the immortal headline ‘Great sharks eat whites.’) ‘Brophy thinks he has died and gone to tabloid heaven,’ says a friend who worked for him.
So there you have it. A once stagnant newspaper market has turned into a ‘thunderdome’ (Khumalo’s phrase) where lively ’bloids battle like gladiators for the roar of the crowd. I am rather enjoying all this. Missionaries, Marxists and Great White Masters have always sought to feed South Africa’s natives what they thought was good for them. It’s nice to see Blue Overall Man spitting out their tepid medicine.