Fifty years ago, the first edition of the daily Zambia Times rolled off our presses in Central Africa and I was in charge of the news operation.
It’s as close as I’ll come to giving birth.
I went to Africa from UPI in London where I rewrote and edited cables from Africa six nights a week. Most days, I was at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
What British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called the “winds of change” were sweeping away colonial empires and white-ruled Africa was the perfect place for an aspiring photojournalist in 1963. I was young and cocky and when a UPI client in Central Africa had trouble recruiting for his newspapers, I signed on.
Zambia still was called Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate headed for black majority rule and independence in October, 1964.
The landlocked country had a lot going for it. Copper exports were in demand, the climate was moderate, the land was fertile, its infrastructure was modern and race relations were peaceful.
En route, I landed in Salisbury, the capital of colonial Southern Rhodesia, and interviewed black nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo in Harare township in a cloud of police tear gas.
Then I flew north to my new assignment in Kitwe, on the mineral-rich Copperbelt mining town on the Congo border. There, I joined the multiracial, multinational staff putting out the new weekly Zambia News and planning the daily Zambia Times. It would wholeheartedly support majority rule and compete with the Northern News, a daily owned by South Africa’s Argus Group.
After a few weeks, I flew east to rural Fort Jameson on the Nyasaland/Malawi border to cover the pre-independence national election away from urban centers. People walking however far to vote for the first time are awe-inspiring. My favorite photo is an African woman with her voter registration card stuck in her head scarf.
Back in Kitwe, our publisher was Max Heinrich, a German immigrant who built his post-war fortune in Northern Rhodesia after years in South West Africa and South Africa. Our press was on his brewery property; beer truck drivers delivered our papers.
Max’s genius was two-fold. He built a national monopoly on the industrial production of traditional home-brewed maize beer, Chibuku. It was sold primarily in township beer halls. He also sold Munkoyo, a non-alcoholic version of the maize beer, to the copper companies for miners’ underground hydration and nourishment. However, newly independent Africa was enamored of socialism; nationalization of the brewery was a clear threat.
Zambian leaders left it alone in exchange for a pro-government weekly and daily.
It was our good fortune that many of those same politicians studied in the United States and they did not want a lapdog press. Our reporting and editorials were not uncritical but they were not adversarial.
My too-brief studies of cultural anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies helped shape that approach. I learned that for all of the promises of elections and parliaments, Western loyal opposition was alien to tribal cultures from which Zambian political leaders came.
What we call consensus was closer to traditional decision-making. That understanding became key to cohesion among the new daily’s white expats and black Zambian and Rhodesian colleagues.
I was the only “Yank” on staff. Rhodesian reporters included the scion of a pioneering white family and black graduates from a segregated South African university. A senior editor at the weekly Zambia News was so well-connected that he and the new president used only first names. He often began “Ken said …”
Another Zambian, a reporter who went to Communist East Germany on scholarship for journalistic training, came home with little training and no sympathy for attempts at Cold War political indoctrination. Two Afrikaner reporters came north because they were unhappy with South Africa’s racist white apartheid government. Another white reporter was a fugitive as a member of the South African Community Party; the sound of any helicopter made him nervous because South Africans used them to snatch opponents in cross-border raids.
We had Scots, Brits and New Zealanders on the editing desk. Photographer Tommy Murray later became famous in London for his images of Rock stars. Printers, engravers and pressmen were drawn from everywhere.
Before long, I shifted from the Sunday paper photojournalist to senior reporter, then news editor of the daily startup team.
Photographers encountered and quickly solved a problem that bedeviled the Enquirer years later: producing perfectly exposed and recognizable black and white faces in the same pre-digital image. We also learned who to send on which stories. Race and gender weren’t the issues; white reporters spoke none of the local African languages. That sometimes meant whites wrote about whites and blacks about blacks; imperfect but often better than sending two reporters on one story.
Our commitment to publish before independence celebrations almost went awry when our first editor-in-chief left. He was an odd choice: He’d worked for the Rhodesian information agency with white-ruled colonial Rhodesia’s unyielding anti-black policies. The next editor-in-chief was a Brit who died shortly after arriving when his Peugeot rolled on an unpaved track. Our general manager told me I was the new editor, despite my utter lack of management experience.
Reporters and photographers were delighted. Copy editors — called subeditors — were disappointed when their talented chief subeditor didn’t get the job. To their credit, no one sulked. They were all pros.
The entire staff worked overtime to compensate for my mistakes and ignorance; their goodwill made the paper possible. I also persuaded management to bring black African salaries up to those paid to us expats. As I argued, paying black Africans less than white expats in a newly independent black-governed country was counterproductive.
My new title and expanded role — including writing the daily page 1 editorial — heightened suspicions that I was CIA. Me? If I weren’t CIA, what explained a 25-year-old white guy from Minnesota editing a nationalist paper in a black majority country heading for independence at the height of Cold War competition for Africa? The mundane answer was that there was no time to recruit a new editor and I was the only journalist there with reporting and editing experience.
The daily was a success. The Sunday Zambia News prepped our largely African audience for the new paper. Energized by independence, they embraced us as their paper, while our established competition, the white-oriented Northern News, was tainted by its South African ownership.
The big story began at midnight Oct. 23. We covered national independence celebrations in the capital, Lusaka, but I went to a black African township in Kitwe to see the Union Jack replaced by the red, green, black and gold Zambian flag. Ecstatic Africans celebrated noisily and dour colonial officials quietly watched their careers wither.
My African adventure died two months later on New Year’s Eve, 1965. We would not publish again. “Tiny” Rowland’s Lonrho (London Rhodesian) investment house bought the paper and would merge us with his other purchase, the Northern News.
I had to tell the staff. I still hate New Year’s Eve.
After helping with the transition and saving as many jobs as possible, I took a generous “golden handshake” and left.
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