Find the front page!

The boxing upset of the 70s – and how the Rand Daily Mail almost lost the scoop.

IMAGE: Courtesy of South African National Library.

The Rand Daily Mail’s ‘technology-aided’ scoop on Gerrie Coetzee’s win in Monte Carlo 40 years ago almost never got to print.

Boxing was big in South Africa in the 1970s. And South Africa had some big boxers. So when Gerrie Coetzee won the right to fight an elimination bout for the World Boxing Association’s heavyweight title in glamorous Monte Carlo on 24 June 1979, it was the perfect opportunity for the Rand Daily Mail to showcase its cutting-edge technology by getting the story out before any of its rivals.

However, the newspaper bosses hadn’t reckoned on a third-year BJourn student who would be sitting at one of their fancy new “video display terminals” as a trainee sub-editor. That student was me and this is the story of how that Mail scoop nearly didn’t happen. Most people know how excited editors shout “Hold the front page” when there is late and important news. This was “Find the front page!”

I was excited to get a vac job at the Mail. For years, it had been a leader in investigative journalism and in hammering away at the injustices of apartheid and the foibles of National Party leaders. The paper’s coverage of the Soweto uprising in 1976 and Steve Biko’s murder in 1977 proved the paper’s credentials and the 1978 headline “It’s all true” helped to confirm the murky details about Information scandal, bring down the responsible minister (Connie Mulder) and his boss, John Vorster. Now the newspaper was leading the way in technology.

Rhodes University journalism students could apply for jobs at newspapers in the South African Associated Newspaper (SAAN) group if we attended enough typing classes to reach a (very basic) standard of proficiency. I had previously had a stint on the EP Herald where the curse of the “cute animal” story came up, as I had been warned it would, on my first assignment. Kiewietjies were nesting in the path of javelins that would be thrown at them at an upcoming athletics meeting. What could be done? I don’t remember the angle, but it was published so the story must have passed muster on the sub-editor’s desk.

For my stint on the Rand Daily Mail, I was going to be a junior sub-editor and the Rhodes Journalism Department wanted me to write a report on the paper’s technological innovations. Instead of five small pieces of paper separated by carbon paper being inserted into typewriters for every few paragraphs, journalists could now type into the “video display terminals” – what we now call computers. In the printing works downstairs, the days of lead type being expertly placed on trays were over. The vast, clanking, rollers were replaced by sleek printing machines that could read digital layouts.

The first thing I discovered was that there was a certain amount of fear about the VDTs. There was talk that women should wear lead aprons in case the radiation from the machines should affect their ability to have children.

I also understood that as a student part-timer I was unlikely to be asked to work on the front page. But the instruction that I received on the first day – that all front-page stories had to be set in a certain font (no exceptions) – was diligently noted.

As the narrator says in Ivan Vladislavić’s recent novel about the relationship between a young white boy in South Africa and Muhammad Ali in the early 1970s, The Distance, “sports events happened once only, in real time” and “the main record was in the press, in print columns and grainy images.” Although television had come to South Africa since the Ali era, the front-page splash still carried enormous weight, especially with the “Boxburg Bomber” pitted against the black American who had conquered (and lost to) Muhammad Ali. White South Africa’s sporting isolation was starting to bite so there was a certain amount of desperation in the air.

When the night of Sunday 24 June 1979 came along and it turned out that the subs’ desk was light on experience, I thought I was well-equipped to tackle the simple task of turning around the boxing story that had just come through from Monte Carlo. Just check the story for spelling and give it some cross-heads if it needs them, I was told.

Gerrie Coetzee had pulled off the upset of the decade and beaten Leon Spinks. The Mail would be on the streets in record time. The scoop was secure!

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong? To start with, I made the mistake of remembering that emphatic instruction about the font. The story in the font as it appeared on my screen fitted perfectly, but I knew better. So, when I sent the story back to the sub-editor in charge that night, it was too short. Cue very angry senior staffer. Now all I had to do was change it back to the font that the incandescent chief sub wanted and all would be well. Had I had remembered to press “save”, all would, indeed, have been well. In those early days of computers, you had to press “save” every few minutes. I hadn’t. So that was a second error.

Now there was no story, and the Mail’s “man on the spot”, Brian Ross-Adams,was off carousing or chasing the next story in Monte Carlo, a long way from a telephone or telex line. Cue panic.

Real physical panic. After some minutes of rushing around on more than one floor of the building, I spotted, in a corner under the slatted stone stairs, a figure intently reading from a VDT. “Are you reading the fight story,” I asked. Jack-of-all-trades “Fish” Snoyman was a fight fan and I was saved. He sent it to me, I saved it and sent it to on to my angry superior with no changes.

A short time later, residents of Johannesburg who had stayed up late could read the headline “Gerrie KO in one!” and the Mail had its technological scoop.

I suppose the delay had only taken up a few minutes, but I was completely drained. Coetzee’s reward for beating Spinks was a title fight against John Tate at Loftus Versfeld four months later, which he lost.

I had another go at working on a newspaper, the Natal Mercury, in that December holiday. In Johannesburg in the Mail canteen I might have bumped into Helen Zillie, famous for the October 1977 story that appeared under the headline, “No sign of hunger strike – Biko doctor”. In Durban one of my colleagues was Leon Mellet, a crime reporter more famous as the “Skrikruiter” in a series of photo stories, who later became a Brigadier in the police and spokesman for the Ministry of Law and Order. The Mercury’s politics were so far removed from the Mail’s it was difficult to understand how they were covering events in the same country, let alone how they belonged to the same newspaper group.

By 1985 the Rand Daily Mail had been closed down and I was a schoolteacher. I expect that a therapist will one day unlock to what extent my decision to stay away from daily journalism was linked to Gerrie’s big night. After my history honour’s thesis on the Cape Town suburb of Observatory was published, I started working as a freelance journalist, writer and researcher. But I can’t say I have ever fully learnt to trust computers.  

First published in Business Day, 20 June 2019.