Editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya has left the Avusa group, I hear, and will only be present through his weekly Sunday Times column.
It is extraordinary that he should depart so quietly, having had such an important role in the country’s biggest paper for a number of years. (It is clearly the biggest again, the Daily Sun’s circulation having slipped considerably.)
People in the ST newsroom were speculating about his absence in the past week or two, with no one clear about what lay behind it. But I learnt reliably today that he had packed his bags and left at the end of last year to write a book.
Fortunately, his weekly column is set to continue, and that is a big plus. It is without doubt one of the must-reads of our national press.
Mondli’s period at the ST will be remembered for his courage in backing a powerful investigative team, defending their backs, and standing up consistently and courageously for the paper’s right to speak out. The paper did some brave things under him.
And Mondli has been both perspicacious and outspoken in his column, being prepared to speak out frankly in the face of huge political pressure.
The ST went through a rough time a few years ago under his leadership with a spate of bad stories. Mondli commissioned a task force (which I was part of) to investigate and make recommendations. We exchanged sharp words at times about the implementation of those recommendations, but there is no doubt the paper got back onto a strong and more consistent footing and re-established the place it has long held as the number one Sunday paper.
In recent months, it faced a challenge from the repositioned City Press under Ferial Haffajee at Media24, but the ST remains strongly dominant, even though its circulation – like so many papers – had flagged a bit. City Press has certainly upped its presence, but this is not yet reflected in the circulation wars.
Makhanya was moved upstairs to be group editor-in-chief a couple of years ago, away from the daily newsroom buzz. It must have been an uncomfortable place to be, looking over the shoulders of the title editors and with publisher and former editor Mike Robertson looking over his, so it is not great surprise if he had enough of this limbo position.
I am left wondering where he will be headed, as he is still relatively young. He came to the Weekly Mail in the early 1990s as a young comrade carrying the scars of the KZN battlefields. He did an important stint as editor of that paper (by then the Mail & Guardian) and then onto the hot-seat of the Sunday Times.
I am certain he is the only one of our newspaper editors who has written about his part in the political killings fields of the 1980s. (“My life as a comrade”, Weekly Mail, May 1991)
“As a warrior in Natal’s bloody township war, I saw people butchered and hacked to pieces. I witnessed a wounded man being burnt to death and was party to the burning of homes. Nauseating as it all was, I was proud to be part of it,” he wrote under the pseudonym Oscar Gumede.
Quite a journey he has been on. Quite a range of things to be proud of. And a few bodies to count (though more figuratively than literally, I hope).
His book, like his column, will be something to look forward to.