After almost 77 years of providing constant news coverage, the South African Press Association is turning off the lights.
The announcement in late February that the country’s only independent news wire service was closing shop left many saddened, shocked and disappointed.
However, no one was more shocked than Sapa’s current staffers, who had dedicated so much of their time to keeping the news flow going and had been led to believe the wire service would continue, but under a different guise.
This was not to be and in late February, employees stood in the blue Sapa boardroom in absolute shock as editor Mark van der Velden told them of the board’s decision to halt all operations.
Sapa was anything but perfect, and many complained about the “grey copy” it sometimes produced, but Sapa was reliable and no other institution covered a large national story like Sapa.
Former news editor and executive editor, Hannes De Wet, recounts one of those stories.
It was 16 August 2012 and platinum miners at Lonmin in Marikana, North West were on strike. The story had been dragging on for days, De Wet said.
Sapa had been sending reporter Molaole Montsho, who lived in Rustenburg, out to the mine to keep an eye on the situation.
De Wet explained how he had been sitting in the executive editor’s chair giving incoming stories a glance before they went off to the subeditors, when someone took a dictate from Montsho.
He said at first glance the story did not seem very exciting — a couple of paragraphs saying police and the miners were exchanging fire with live ammunition.
De Wet called Montsho.
“‘Montsho, are you sure those were live bullets?’ His breathless response: ‘Yes, I am sure. I am counting 18 bodies’.”
De Wet put the phone down, added to the story that a Sapa reporter had counted 18 bodies and transmitted it.
“That story went viral, as they say in the new electronic age. It was used by virtually every major international hard news outlet because it gave the first inkling of the dramatic extent of the Marikana shooting,” he said.
Everyone knew about Sapa.
“Montsho obviously filed his first story the moment he heard the shots, even before the aftermath became clear. And he became the man — interviewed by the BBC and other radio stations across the world.
“Those were the days,” De Wet said.
Russell Norton, a former staffer, news editor and deputy editor, reminisces about the Shell House massacre on 28 March 1994.
Norton said he arrived at the Sapa offices in the early hours of the morning to find a smartly dressed young woman, Micel Schnehage, in a smart black suit and “fairly short skirt”, who was running the foreign desk for the week.
The Sapa office then was on the lower floor of the Kine Centre between Commissioner and Market streets, in central Johannesburg. The office door was kept open on hot summer days to allow for a breeze.
“The door was open now and a hollow booming sound penetrated the room. We lifted our heads. A second boom really got our attention. That’s coming from End Street bridge… eastern side of town, I observed. ‘Grenades?’, Schnehage asked hopefully,” Norton recounts.
“Ripping a notebook from her handbag, Schnehage said she would pop out and have a quick look. Won’t be long. I know I’m on foreign this week. I next saw her about 15 hours later,” said Norton.
He said Schnehage returned to the office “looking trashed”, her arms, legs, and bare feet smeared.
“The smart hairdo had long since been flattened and haystacked. The fi-fi high heels hung dead by their straps around her neck. On her face a fading manic grin as the adrenaline subsided.
“She had thrown herself into the fray and kept up a running file of news copy documenting the drama of the streets for hours.”
This was the nature of Sapa.
Many of the country’s reporters started their careers at Sapa. The news wire has seen a number of characters walk through its door.
Former news editor, Sipke de Vries, was one of those.
De Vries confesses to not being known as “a news editor of great tact or to be very diplomatic”.
He remembers the first democratic elections in 1994. De Vries said Sapa worked under great pressure with a full staff complement and dozens of dashers and part-timers.
One of them was a former staffer, who was known to be “unpredictable” but who offered to help out on the day.
A few days before the election a politician was making a public address in Yeoville, Johannesburg and since the former staffer lived in the area he was sent to cover the event.
However, on the night concerned no copy was forthcoming, De Vries said.
“The next morning I got a call from a woman saying she was phoning on [the staffer’s] behalf.
“Without waiting for her to say anything I said: ‘What’s the excuse this time? Did he die or something?’
“The very subdued answer was: “Yes, as a matter of fact he died last night of a heart attack.
“This one really gobsmacked me and I had to backtrack very fast to apologise profusely. We did send flowers to the funeral,” De Vries said.
On Tuesday night during Sapa’s last few hours, many of these former staffers, clients and anyone interested met at Sapa’s office in Greenside, Johannesburg to say goodbye to Sapa and pay tribute.
It is the end of an era.
Goodbye Sapa, thank you for the news. — Sapa