South Africa's largest daily morning newspaper and the one best known internationally, the Rand Daily Mail, ceases publication today. The meaning and causes of the Mail's demise are the subject of much debate. But few observers would dispute that its disappearance marks the silencing of a prominent liberal voice in the community and a liberal voice par excellence in the newspaper industry.
For the past 25 years the Mail has opposed apartheid and championed the right of South Africa's subordinate blacks to participation in the lawmaking process, to social and economic justice, and to equality of opportunity.
Rex Gibson, editor of the Mail, assessed the implications of the paper's closing in a recent address:
``The diversity of the press will be reduced,'' Mr. Gibson said. ``The country will move closer to conformity.''
Political analysts have long worried that whites in South Africa already receive too narrow a range of opinion through the news media -- a range that often excludes black views. Departure of the Mail would increase pressures on surviving newspapers to conform to official wisdom, Gibson warned.
He recalled that the Mail and the Sunday Express, a sister publication that merged with the Sunday Star newspaper, exposed the ``information scandal'' in the late 1970s. The exposures resulted in the fall from power of the former minister of information, Dr. Connie Mulder, and contributed indirectly to the early retirement of the then prime minister, John Vorster.
News of the Mail's closing was welcomed by South African President Pieter W. Botha as a sign of the birth of a new, ``broad South Africanism.''
In response Gibson commented: ``I believe that what Mr. Botha was saying was that it was going to be cosier and comfier now those two papers have gone. That is to advocate conformity.''
According to the South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), which owned the Mail, the paper was closed because of growing losses. A SAAN board statement indicated that $22 million had been lost in the past decade -- and a record $7.5 million in 1984.
These figures are disputed by journalists and outside observers who contend that the losses were partly ``bookkeeping.''
Nearly 75 percent of the running expenses for SAAN papers were charged to the Mail, they say.
Had a larger proportion of the expenses been carried by its sister publications, the Sunday Times and the Financial Mail, the Mail's losses would have been smaller.
Despite a broad trend of its circulation upward, the Mail still lost money. One proffered reason was its racially mixed readership: Advertisers want to sell their products to either blacks or whites and, accordingly, choose newspapers with a predominantly white or black readership rather than one with readers of both races.
Some analysts cite the failure by SAAN management to rise to the challenge of winning advertizing as the real reason for the Mail's losses. The independent journal Finance Week remarked that the correct diagnosis of the failure is probably that ``management is blameworthy,'' either by omission or commission.
One question puzzled many observers: Why did big business, especially the giant Anglo-American Corporation, do nothing to save the Mail. Big business, including Anglo-American connected companies, held shares in SAAN.
Different explanations have been offered. One is that Anglo-American has moved closer to the ``reformist'' administration of President Botha and is prepared, if not happy, to see the Mail close.
In a recent speech in London the former Anglo-American chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, praised Botha for his courage and reformist initiative, adding: ``South Africa is not, or anyhow, should not be at this stage concerned with the normal party-political battle but with the bringing to birth of an entirely new sort of country.''
Mr. Oppenheimer's speech has been interpreted here as an endorsement of Botha's call for a ``new South Africanism'' and for consensus politics. Oppenheimer's remarks are seen as evidence that the Mail is now considered expendable in the corridors of big business.
The Mail's theoretical value to big business seemed great. While liberal in outlook, the newspaper was staunchly pro-capitalist. It also had high credibility in the black community.
The Mail thus represented a vehicle for defending capitalist values in the black community at a time when more and more young blacks were turning to socialism.
Many political observers accept that a key long-term issue in South Africa is whether South Africa will remain a capitalist country or become a socialist one. Blacks will play a critical role in determining the outcome.
Yet big business failed to prevent the death of the Mail. The Progressive Federal Party, the official white opposition party in Parliament which has long been described by its enemies as the party of big business, was strangely restrained on the issue. Its leader, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, was conspicuous by his silence.
All of which caused the president of the Southern African Society of Journalists, Pat Sidley, to charge Anglo-American and ``Anglo-connected'' Progressive Federal Party parliamentarians with culpability for the Rand Daily Mail's demise.
Under the leadership of Laurence Gandar, editor from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, the Mail was the first newspaper to withdraw support from the official white opposition party of the time.
It gave its backing to the more liberal Progressive Party, which later became the Progressive Federal Party. Most English-language newspapers then followed the Mail with their support of the party.
The Mail was the first newspaper to drop the use of the word ``native,'' which was preferred by whites but offensive to blacks. The paper chose to use ``black'' or ``African'' to describe South Africa's blacks, regarded by observers as a sign of the newspaper's sensitivity to the feelings of the voteless black majority.
The Mail was the first major daily to provide serious coverage by specialist writers of political events and developments in the black community, instead of merely reporting on black crime and sport.
Largely for these reasons the Mail's black readership increased, accounting for half of its daily circulation of 118,000 on March 15, the day SAAN made its decision to close the paper.
Even in its penultimate hour, the Mail was true to its tradition: On March 22, the day after police gunfire killed 20 blacks at Langa, the Mail was the first daily newspaper to publish eye-witness accounts of the shooting and implicitly challenge the police version of what happened.
Patrick Laurence was political editor for the Rand Daily Mail.