MAKING HISTORY AT READER’S DIGEST

Mention ‘Reader’s Digest’ to any well-read, politically savvy member of the older generation and the chances are you’ll hear comments such as ‘right-wing’, ‘conservative’ and ‘Republican’.
And that would be an accurate description of the organisation that was once the biggest publishing company in the world, with branches in numerous countries across the globe – including South Africa.
And yet, looking back over a long career in media, I would say: ‘Reader’s Digest made me’, notwithstanding that there were major elements of good fortune in an incredible rise to the top for me.
My journey began at the Cape Herald – and with a chief sub-editor named Chris Walton…
Gangly in appearance, and awkward in demeanour, Walton was an excellent sub. – and it came as no surprise when he was head-hunted – by the Reader’s Digest.
About a year or two later, in the mid-1980s, he, in turn, head-hunted me.
It happened in a spur-of-the-moment type of way, outside the Argus Building in St George’s Street, when we bumped into each other and he asked me: ‘Don’t you want to work for the Reader’s Digest on a really great project?’
The Cape Herald no longer existed – and, to be honest, I was not very happy writing stories about washing-line thieves for one of its community newspaper replacements – The Plainsman.
So, we arranged to meet for a chat.
A few days later, I made my way to the Reader’s Digest headquarters on the corner of Strand and Chiappini streets at the other end of Cape Town.
Walton said: ‘We’re doing a history book – from both a black and a white perspective. I’d like you to edit it.’
I was very interested, but I also knew that the Digest had a reputation for being more than a little right-wing. I oohed and aahed about that, but Walton assured me: ‘You will be in sole charge of editorial policy.’
Then came the clincher.
‘How much are you earning at The Plainsman?’ he asked. I told him – and he offered to double that. I immediately accepted.
I found out afterwards that he was prepared to go much higher than that.
The original concept of the proposed history book, in which Walton had done the groundwork, was, to put it bluntly, tame.
It had a “gee-whizz feel about it: “Did you know Mahatma Gandhi made a pair of leather sandals for Jan Smuts?” That kind of thing.
I hired a UCT-based, and initially skeptical, Colin Bundy, one of the top historiographers in the country, to be the consultant for the book – and, together, we changed the concept completely.
Walton, to his credit, agreed to allow his initial concept to be completely overhauled.
Then, with a crack team of researchers overseen by Bundy, we started putting together packages full of stories about the history of black South Africans that very few people knew about.
We decided that the title would be: ‘The Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: the Real Story.’
Not everyone was happy about this, with those who criticized it, including Bundy and Christopher Saunders, who stepped in when Bundy had to leave the project, correctly saying that in history it is impossible to claim having written the “real story”.
But Walton’s gut feel was that it was a title that would sell. And he was right.
He was adamant too that I had to do as much of the writing as possible because of my writing style – ‘light and enjoyable (even for serious subject matter)’. But I also managed to assemble a team of crack writers for the project.
I had 13 months to finish the book – and there were moments of drama during its compilation: the first was when, instigated by Bundy, I told management I wanted to use photographs of Nelson Mandela, who had not been seen by South Africans for over 25 years.
Walton turned a funny colour.
Nick McCrae, the managing director of Reader’s Digest, South Africa, was supercool though. He asked one or two questions. I explained why it was important to have Mandela in the book. He said, ‘Fine, but then we have to print it outside the country.’
And that’s what we did. Once the book was printed – I think it was in either Singapore or Malaysia – the crucial question then became: would it get through customs.
If it didn’t, one thing was clear: the Reader’s Digest careers of a number of people, including my own, would have come to a sudden end.
It got through customs and the next thing was to get it to the customers as quickly as possible. This also went off without a hitch.
The Illustrated History sold close to a quarter of a million copies in South Africa and more than 40 000 copies overseas. A history lecturer at UWC described it as the publishing coup of the decade.
In his review of it, Tom Lodge, one of South Africa’s top historiographers, wrote: ‘To have made history into a mass commodity while retaining so much of the complexity and integrity of the original specialist literature is a monumental achievement. It is an accomplishment which has few parallels in scope or sophistication.’
In its ‘suggested readings’ section, “The Rough Guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland” described it thus: “Physically weighty, but written in a delightfully light style, the Illustrated History is an essential volume on the shelves of anyone interested in the democratic history of South Africa.”
I was more than chuffed….
The success of the history book pushed me up the SA company’s hierarchy, certainly as far as Reader’s Digest’s American bosses were concerned. I was the most senior black editor at the company at the time when there was a clamour overseas to disinvest from South Africa.
I played my cards close to my chest.
Nevertheless, I was taken aback when Christiane Duval, the human resources director of the company, called me to her office one day, and bluntly asked me: “Would you like to live in a white area?”
Reader’s Digest, like other US companies doing business in South Africa, was in a quandary.
It was a signatory to the Sullivan Principles, a set of social responsibility guidelines drawn up especially for South Africa by a US pastor, the Rev Leon Sullivan. But even so, it had found that workplace change as envisaged by Sullivan to be tame.
In fact, equal facilities and opportunities, and black people in senior positions hardly made the news even then. And all the time, pressure on US companies to disinvest from South Africa completely was growing.
Reader’s Digest wanted to make a profound anti-apartheid statement.
And then, in 1988, PW Botha, of all people, gave it a chance to do something that would get it into the news.
Botha did some tinkering with the Group Areas Act, pulling out of his hat a concept called ‘Open Group Areas’.
What he was prepared to allow was racially mixed neighbourhoods. But, like buying on tick, there were some conditions that had to be complied with. These mixed neighbourhoods had to have a government permit – and they had to be ‘high-class’ – and in a major city.
So, Christiane said to me: “Pleasantville [that’s how we referred to company headquarters] is prepared to buy you a house in whichever white area you choose.
And when you pay back the money, there’ll be no interest.”
It didn’t take me a minute to make up my mind.
‘No thank you,’ I said.
‘Are you sure, you don’t want to think about it?’ she asked.
‘There’s nothing to think about,’ I replied.
Here was the other thing about Botha’s ‘Open Group Areas’: to live in one of their upper-class houses, a coloured or Indian person (I don’t think this ‘new deal’ applied to Africans) had to knock on doors of white people in the immediate neighbourhood and ask: ‘Excuse me, would you mind very much if I moved into number 44?’
I thought – and please excuse my French: ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck … there is absolutely no way that I am going to knock on a white person’s door to ask for permission to stay next door to him or her.’
Anyway, that’s how I missed having a house today in Constantia or Llandudno.