More than a ‘cake and tea’ paper

Chantel Erfort

As we’ve been preparing this special edition of the Plainsman over the past few weeks, on more than one occasion during discussions about stories and history, I have found myself using phrases like “when I was growing up in the newsroom”

Perhaps a Freudian slip, but the reality is that for 20 of my 40 years I have been a journalist. So, I literally have grown up in a newsroom, with much of that time having been spent at Cape Community Newspapers (CCN) which publishes Plainsman and its 14 sister titles.

Launched just a few years after the first residents moved into Mitchell’s Plain in 1976, the Plainsman, which was initially an insert in the now-defunct Cape Herald, became the definitive voice of the newly established community. It was the growing popularity – and viability – of the Plainsman “supplement to the Cape Herald” that led to it becoming a stand-alone publication, and it prompted the launch of similar products to serve Athlone and the southern suburbs. And so, the Athlone Shopper, which went on to become Athlone News, and the South Shopper, which is now Southern Mail, were born.

When the Cape Herald closed in 1986, due to declining circulation and advertising revenue, the weekly Plainsman and twice-monthly Athlone News and Southern Mail effectively became the first three papers in what was then called Community Newspapers. Four years later, a stable of Unicorn suburban newspapers was acquired and became part of the Community Newspapers group.

Over the years, these newspapers have become trusted sources of news, loyally supported by both readers and advertisers.

As I reflect on the Plainsman’s role in documenting the history and spirit of the community it serves, I’m reminded of some of the tough issues our reporters have had to cover over the years.

Journalism really does force you to grow up very quickly.

While some still hold the (inaccurate) view that community newspapers only cover tea parties, matric balls and donation hand-overs, a flip through the pages of a paper like Plainsman tells a very different story. And in this souvenir edition, you can read reporter Fouzia van der Fort’s analysis of some of the stories which have dominated the headlines over the past 40 years.

One issue that stands out for me – and which continues to plague Mitchell’s Plain and many other communities – is that of tik and its impact on the community. I recall vividly, a day some time in 2002 when former reporter Alicia Williams came into the newsroom with a hot chunk of news.

“There’s a new drug on the streets,” she told us. “They’re calling it tik and it’s very addictive.” Bearing in mind the urban legends about things like “strawberry quick”, drug-laced sweets and stamps and so on, we could never have imagined how this drug would ravage the Cape Flats for generations to come.

In an effort to play our part in educating the community about the dangers of drug abuse and to highlight the services available to those struggling with addiction, Plainsman launched a campaign to “slay the tik monster”. While the current situation is evidence of our failure to slay the monster, our success was in the valuable information we were able to gather and share, and the support our campaign attracted from respected experts in the field of drug addiction.

Of course, Mitchell’s Plain is not all bad news. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of time spent in Lentegeur where my cousins grew up – and where many of them still live. Back then, the streets were ours. We ran and played freely — and occasionally went inside the house to bother cousin Louis, who read voraciously and always had his nose in a book. At one point, there was even a story going around that he had read all the books in Lentegeur library!

Well, I hope this souvenir edition brings up many fond memories for you too I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed compiling it.

Chantel Erfort is editor of Cape Community Newspapers which publishes Plainsman and 14 other free community papers.