It Was 20 Years Ago Today


I don’t often keep newspapers. Like sushi, they’re meant to be consumed on day of purchase. You flip through them while they’re hot off the presses, turning back the pages, double-creasing the folds, scanning the massive broadsheet pages, alighting every now and again on an item of fleeting interest.

Then, having had your fill, you re-fold them in any old way and toss them in the nearest bin, or benevolently leave them for the next passenger. Newspapers, as we all know, are the first draft of history. Who wants to hang on to a first draft?

But for some reason, a sense of once-in-a-lifetime occasion, perhaps, a feeling that maybe one day my first-born daughter, then just a few months old, waiting in my arms in the queue, might want to take a look at what this day was all about, I held on to this edition of The Star, the Late Afternoon edition of Wednesday, April 27, 1994.

As you can see, it has not weathered the years terribly well. It has a great rift down the middle, it is fraying at the edges, it is yellowing from exposure to the light.

I probably wouldn’t get more than 50 cents for it at my local antique shop, and since it cost me R1,10 on the day, that wouldn’t be much of a dividend.

Still, as I turn the pages now, and I hear the snap of ruffling newsprint, like thunder rolling across the plains, I am pleased I held onto this, not for the sake of memory, but for the sake of tomorrow. This is where the whole thing started. Come, let’s flip through the pages.

Page One Lead

“Apartheid dies today.” Just three words, as stark as a telegram from the warzone, introduce the main story, beneath the splash headline, “Vote, the beloved country”.

The headline, a spin on the title of Alan Paton’s famous book, was re-echoed on the front page of the Saturday Star of April 26, 2014: “Fly, the beloved country”.

I thought at first that this was a story about some new low-cost airline, but it turned out to an overview and a celebration of the altitude we have attained after two decades of democracy.

Page One Comment

An Editor’s Comment on Page One is a very rare thing, reserved for occasions of great historical import, when the Editor (in this case, actually, the Editor-in-Chief) emerges from the wings of the Op Ed page to say a few words in the dazzling glare.

“Today, the birthday of the new South Africa, our country changes profoundly for the better,” it begins. Then there is some reflection on “the majority taking their rightful places on the ship of state, while the old crew stays on as willing co-pilots.”

But 20 years down the line, the line that leaps out is this: “Burdened by the close-up view of worries ranging from poverty to crime rates and shortages of tomato sauce.” We still have a long way to go, and those big worries are with us still, but at least we can safely say that we have all the tomato sauce we need.

Page One Quote

“It’s an incredible feeling, like falling in love.” Thus sayeth the Arch, after casting his vote. This is in a foot-of-the-page section called “The People Say”, which today, of course,  would be “The People Tweet”.

Page Two

This has traditionally been one of the best-read pages of The Star, because it contains the Weather Report.

In the Transvaal, the forecast said, it would be partly cloudy in the north with fog along the escarpment. In the Orange Free State: Fine and mild. But the winds of change were blowing throughout the land, and soon the Transvaal would be consigned to history, and the Orange would be dropped from the Free State.

A short item on this page, headlined “Poison in water rumour denied” assured the public that there was no truth to the rumour that poisons had been introduced into supply lines serving the Reef from the Vaal Dam.

Page Three

“Shares soar on relieved JSE”. Undeterred by a nationwide blitz of at least 16 explosions in the three days leading up to  ballot day, the overall index of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange gained 172 points to finish at 5240.

“Even paper and pulp company Sappi, which reported depressed profits yesterday, gained 300c to R45.” So if you had invested in some Sappi shares back then, today you could sell them for – let’s quickly Google – R33,90. Sorry. Paper just isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on anymore.

Also interesting on this page is a big advert for Rembrandt van Rijn cigarettes, in which we see a rainbow shining gloriously over a field of tobacco – “The Cream of the Crop”. Today, of course, cigarette adverts are not allowed in South African media, although they still do go on and on about rainbows.

Page Four

An advert for 702 Talk Radio, capitalising on the Big Story of the day, boasts of “an unbiased team who’ve always believed the opinions of the man on the street are as important as those of the politician on his soapbox”.

How times have changed. These days, copy like that, suggesting that there are no women on the streets and no female politicians on soapboxes, wouldn’t even make it beyond the first round of reverts.

Not that it would really matter, because we would all be getting our election news from Twitter anyway.

Page Six

In a round-up of election news from across the country and across the globe, in eighth position on the far left-hand column of a left-hand page, we find this item from the South African Press Association:


Just to be clear, this happened on Tuesday, April 26, 1994. But you have to admit, it really puts that whole “fire pool” business into perspective.

Page Seven

Three-quarters of the page is devoted to this election ad from the DP (Democratic Party), a beta version of the DA. The ad takes aim at the Nats, for their suggestion that the party is “too small to be a strong opposition to the ANC”.

To back their claim that they’re plenty big enough, they reproduce the mastheads of seven English-language publications that advised their readers to vote DP.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to the great newspaper tradition of unashamedly advising readers which party to vote for? It’s a really tough thing, having to make up your own mind.

photo 2

Page 8

A full-page ad for the National Party, “the only party big enough to stop the ANC picking your pocket. Don’t waste your vote on other parties”.

This rather ambiguous command is accompanied by a little picture of FW de Klerk, and the slogan “We’ve made the change”, which is surely, given the circumstances, the biggest example of chutzpah in the history of electoral politics.

Page 9

Letters to the Editor. Yes, people wrote Letters to the Editor back then. In fact, the Letters Page even had an Editor of its own. It was a much sought-after job. Who wouldn’t want to spend their whole workday tossing letters into the bin?

The standout letter here is “Decision clearly politically inspired”, referring to the decision by the SABC to withhold the scheduled screening of a satirical election special by Pieter-Dirk Uys, entitled One Man, One Volt.

What’s really shocking, in retrospect, is that nobody even makes satirical election specials for the SABC to ban anymore.

Page 10

The Op Ed page, with its familiar tone of editorial harrumph. The main editorial is a complaint about the proposed new name of the Star’s home province, Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging, or PWV for short.

“We do not want to be called by three initials, and if we Transvalers make our case loudly enough, we do not need to be,” harrumphs the editorial we.

Of course, in the end, we became Gauteng, and the Star probably complained about that too.

Pages 14 to 19

The Classifieds. Yes, the Star had classified ads back then too. There was even a section for “Arms/Ammunition” – CASH FOR YOUR UNWANTED FIREARMS URGENT – but really, the main thrust here was on Escort Services, and calls for responses to Municipal Tenders.

Page 22

What was on at the movies. Once you had had finished standing in the long, snaking queue, and making your mark on history, you could choose from an interesting selection of new releases, including  “Fearless”, “On Deadly Ground”, “Dazed and Confused”, “Boiling Point”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”.

Page 26

“English tour may bomb”. We tend to forget, from the distance of headlines and public holidays, what a perilous, precarious state South Africa was in, in the brisk autumn days of 1994.

So much so, that there was talk that England might be forced to cancel their upcoming rugby tour of the country, in light of the spate of pre-election bomb blasts.

As it turned out, the English came, and they won the First Test at Loftus, and lost the Second at Newlands. And in the winter of the following year, the Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa, and we all know what happened then.

Happy Freedom Day, everyone!






2 comments on “It Was 20 Years Ago Today

  1. Wow! Great news, good staff. I am inspired to look back, read what happened back on the 27 April 1994. I remember the long queue of voters; great numbers. I was among the number of the voters.

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