Sunday, October 25, 2020

Adios and hello again

Mondays were crazy. The unwritten convention was that on the day, everyone took leave of their sanity – for to remain sane under the circumstances was to be insane.  All were immersed in the canonical teaching of the satirist that if you can keep your head when everybody around is losing theirs, then it is quite probable that you just don’t understand the situation.

An unfortunate soul called Molatlhegi walked into that lion’s den on his first day at work. Years later, he’d continue to declare how he got such a welcome, that he nearly never came back ever again.Deadline at The Botswana Gazette was on Monday. The day would start civilly, but the tempo and sound of voices rose with the position of the sun in the sky. By past midday, all sorts of £*&%[email protected]! would trend, and new ones invented. 

Somehow, amid all that confusion and rowdiness, all the pieces ultimately fell into place – and each week’s edition of the newspaper came out. Consumers of news are like happy diners enjoying a perfect meal on a perfect night out, oblivious of the madness that goes on in the kitchen.In the years before the world went digital, almost everything was manual, including the process to put together newspapers. Stories were written with manual typewriters, and all editing was done by hand with a red ink. Design was done by hand on a mockup page, and whoever assumed that responsibility differed from one newspaper to the next. In more established operations, that was part of the sub-editors’ work. Like all skills in the ancient newspaper world, design was learnt on the job and honed over time. It was one of the more technical aspects and it required practice to become more proficient. It was one of the scarce skills of the trade, and it was a competitive advantage if you could design a page. In our newsroom, the only chap who knew anything about design was Horace Somanje, the editor himself.The edited stories would be stapled to the mockup pages, and dispatched to yet another station manned by people with yet another skill. These were the people who would interpret the drawings on the mockup page and lay out the stories as they would appear in print in different typefaces and font sizes, with the aid of a machine called a selectric composer (a IBM product).

Laid out pages would then be printed for proofreading. We didn’t have either the skill or the machines in house, so this was outsourced to a company called Statistical Services. It operated from the old industrial area next to the Gaborone train station on Haile Selassie Road. A middle aged white woman, who appeared older than her age, and that everyone called Ma Fisher ruled the roost at Statistical Services. She could swear like she had sailed with Vasco da Gama.From midday, action moved to Statistical Services where, after all the proofreading and checking and rechecking, Ma Fisher’s machines printed out camera-ready pages on a special paper. These were meticulously pasted by hand on grid tabloid-size pages, and sent by a vehicle to the printers in South Africa.I don’t know what joke the designers at Toyota were up to when they dreamt up the TUV, the ugliest piece of metal ever fitted with wheels. That was the pickup that transported the camera-ready pages to South Africa every Monday evening (before the border closed at 7pm), and returned carrying the entire print-run of the newspaper on Tuesday, usually arriving at the company’s office just before sunset. Distribution to outlets within Gaborone would begin almost immediately, notably to shops whose names may not ring a bell to readers who were born after Botswana had traffic lights – stores such as Leapeetswe Supermarket, Uncle Boyce’s Store, and Qualified Store in African Mall, as well as Pop In and Thebe Cash Store in Extension Four.

Except for Pop In, the other pioneering efforts in the FMCG retail sector by Batswana are just a distant memory from an aging reporter’s old notebook.Back to this guy called Molatlhegi. On that Monday afternoon, his first day on the advertising staff of the Gazette, he had the misfortune to answer a phone call. On the other end of the line was Abraham Motsokono, a senior reporter known to suffer no fools gladly, seeking to clarify something regarding an advert that was due to appear in that week’s edition. Alone in the office, poor Molatlhegi fumbled and mumbled something incoherent. Lesson number one, which Molatlhegi would learn soon enough, was this: Do not fumble on deadline, especially over the phone.Part of that conversation went this way:“Na’are o mang?”“Ke Molatlhegi.”“Jaanong o latlhegetse mo Gazette!”The Business Gazette was the brainchild of a Malawian expatriate, Alaudin Osman (everybody called him Al), who had just seen the end of his contract as head of Botswana Press Agency (BOPA). He got together a group of investors, mostly – quite interestingly – aligned to the party in government to put money into his novel idea. The independent media was still in its infancy.

When The Business Gazette was set up in 1984, the same year that Mmegi wa Dikgang was resuscitated, The Botswana Guardian was just two years old. The Guardian’s proprietor was a shrewd English accountant called William Jones who guarded the advertising market jealously. A story is told that when Jones saw the first edition of his new competition, he derisively labelled it “The Yellow Parrot” – an allusion to its yellow masthead. Even years after it had rebranded to the current red on white, in Jones’ world, to his death, The Gazette remained the little irritating yellow parrot.By the time someone took the most uncalculated risk since God gambled by leaving Adam alone with Eve in some rosy garden, and employed me, sans any sort of training, the paper had become The Gazette. Whoever it was whose HR skills were so patently suspect, it certainly was not Al (he was smarter than that; and besides, he already had relocated to Malawi). We were hired as trainee reporters – Galebolae Ngakane, Bernard Ragalase and me – but there was no training programme in place. You learnt to walz on the dance floor, before a live and paying audience. Too bad if you went the wrong way; you’ll learn the ropes with time.There was this bearded white chap with a broad smile who, without fail, would drop by every Wednesday morning. Dressed in well-ironed shirts with sleeves rolled up nicely so that the cuff on each arm sat just on the inside of the elbow, and a tie held in place by tucking its tip slightly into the waist of his trousers, he always carried two packs of 30 cigarettes.“Great paper, guys,” was always his verdict on each week’s edition. Then off, he’d go, often after a brief exchange of banter.

The news editor, Nicholas Sebolao (that’s Tummie Ramsden’s dad), called him Morena Jesu. One day after he had left, I asked no one in particular, “who is that guy?”.Someone (I think it was Marobi Kenosi) better informed about the shareholding structure at News Company Botswana, said nonchalantly, “That’s your boss”.“Oh yeah… And what’s my boss’s name?”“That’s Peter Olsen,” I believe this was Motsokono. The office at the time was in a residential house owned by the BDP, and behind Tsholetsa House. The party head office would later be moved there to make way for Mascom (after years after the newspaper had also moved elsewhere in town). The entire commercial operation was overseen by a business executive named Scholar Puso as the General Manager (before the nomenclature CEO was invented). He was the only person in the company who had a whole office to himself, and the fax machine – then a novel piece of telecommunication technology – was kept in his office. Such a nice chap he was, that even after he had fired me – on the instruction of the Olsens – I could never bring myself to begrudge him.

On the editor’s chair sat Somanje – the guy who designed the pages of the paper, remember? – and his desk faced the entire newsroom. He had such a fashion sense that on the day he wore scotch, every item – except for the shoes and belt – would be scotch. We called him Doctor. Each morning, he’d sling his jacket on a hanger nailed to the wall just above his chair. There was this French chap who wrote column – something to do with his country’s cultural effort on the continent – and one day he came to hand deliver his copy. He was so struck by the editor’s dress style that he asked with a perplexed face: “Horace, are you going to sing tonight? Your shirt! Your tie!”Then as he raised his eyes and saw the hanging jacket, he pitched the voice even higher: “Uuuuuh and your jacket!”.Doctor was a jolly fellow.  He’s sadly long departed to join the celestial newsroom, but that was after he’d gone back to Malawi and inherited his old man’s former parliamentary seat. He loved his drink (didn’t we all do?) and song.His best chum was this diplomat from the Zimbabwe High Commission. John was his name. One night at the Nite Shift nightclub, I found the two having what appeared like a very, very important discussion. Clearly, the matter under discussion was so weighty that they didn’t notice me. Thinking that my editor was being given a lead for the next banner headline, I drew quietly close, and caught John making a heavy pronouncement, “my brother we are dead; whether we go home now or after sunrise, our wives are going to kill us.

Let’s just enjoy ourselves, and deal with the consequences after the sun has risen”.Boys being boys, no matter their age, they raised their beer cans and toasted to John’s sound judgment!We were severely overworked and woefully underpaid, but the life of a reporter came with some privileges – like complimentary tickets to events and access to stars. I was backstage at one festival, and Sankomota had just finished their set. This guy walks up to me (not me walking to him), says “eita broer” – and I return the greeting. The he asks for a skeif, and as I produce a packet of Lexington cigarettes from my back pocket, he says in his distinctively deep voice, “Thaaaat’s the one” – as if in the radio commercial. It was Frank Leepa, the Sankomota guitarist, composer, sometimes lead singer, and leader. We partied hard. The weekend’s drinking spree would start off in the office and without fail wind up at Platform One in Gaborone Sun, where Lawi Somana and Africa Sounds would keep us until we had emptied our wallets of all that was legal tender in the republic; the change having obviously somehow inexplicably stuck to the fingers of the bar attendants. A young bank teller named Alfred Mosimanegape was the Congolese guitar virtuoso’s sidekick and bassist.

Occasionally, George Swabi would make a guest appearance to belt out “Ba ga Mmangwato ba ga Mabiletsa”, “Dikeledi”, and “Rollers” – a dedication to the world’s greatest football club of all time.We’d wake up in strange places – sometimes next to strange faces. For the former Sunday schoolboy, such incidents and accidents were a manifestation of Paul’s extortion in Romans, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”.In July of 1989, I walked into the newsroom to find that the guys (I later that learnt it was Abraham’s idea) had taken a resolution (unanimously by all present) that we would henceforth shorten our first names. And so yours truly, who had previously carried the name of some Old Testament fella, got to be known the present four-letter sobriquet.  The first edition that carried our shortened names was in the streets, and we were getting ourselves smashed at the Sports Bar one afternoon. The Mmegi cartoonist (later my colleague and housemate) Billy Chiepe, ever the quick witted quintessential satirist, pronounced us, “the Gaz Guys”.So much has happened over the years and the world has changed: The fall of the Berlin Wall. Scandals. Genocides.

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the end of apartheid. Sedudu Island. Corruption in high places. ATMs. The making of new millionaires. Presidents have come and gone. Lunatics and belligerents have occupied presidential offices across the world. Pandemics. Editors and reporters have come and gone. Most importantly, the greatest revolution of all time, the internet, has been a great disruptor. My former employer has been a witness to all these momentous events, and has now fell victim, as has many others, to the communication revolution. We say in journalism that we are not the story. Occasionally, though, we do become the story, as it happened three weeks back with a note to The Gazette’s readers from none other than Peter Olsen that the newspaper would cease its print edition.No other news organisation in this country has metarmophosed as much as The Gazette. From The Business Gazette, to The Gazette, and later The Botswana Gazette, it is also the only title from the pioneering class of the 1980s that is still in the hands of some of its original founders.We – the old geezers – may be nostalgic about some glorious past era, but business is not about nostalgia. It’s ruthless. You adapt or die. The likes of Statistical Services were taken out business by computer-aided design (CAD).

The world of publishing has been disrupted beyond recognition. Ad-spen has gone digital- and even then, mostly to the big internet giants. Sales of the print editions have plummeted, while the cost of printing and distribution keep going off the roof. Then there is a generation which knows paper as only good to roll a joint – and nothing else. So, what’s a publisher to do under the circumstances?Change, we are constantly told, is inevitable. The English poet laureate Alfred Tennyson long foretold that, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new” – and so may it be with my former employer as it begins a new chapter as an online news platform.

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