The Rand Daily Mail was a South African, English language newspaper that became famous in the 1960s for its editorial opposition to apartheid.
It began publication in 1902 as a conservative sheet serving English-speaking whites in “the Rand”—local parlance for the Witwatersrand goldfields near Johannesburg (“rand” is a geological term for an escarpment, so its metonymic use here is similar to the way southern Californians often refer to the San Fernando Valley as simply “the Valley”). South Africa was a country sliced to shreds by conflict: racial, class, and white ethnic conflict. Over five different languages were spoken throughout the nation. Within the Rand, the paper was reliably establishment, though it did occasionally break ranks to support white miners.
When the Afrikaans National Party began implementing its policy of apartheid in 1948, the Daily Mail at first made little objection, and it did not flip to an all-out anti-establishment editorial posture until the late 50s, after the government began attacking the press.
From that point on, the newspaper quickly established its liberal-progressive bona fides, although it was really, by Western standards, more centrist than liberal. Because of government censorship, the paper would not have lasted long were it not centrist in orientation, and one of its great achievements was managing to report the truth about apartheid while remaining in business.
As a centrist paper, the Daily Mail ultimately fell victim to the country’s disappearing political center. By the late 70s, blacks composed a majority of the newspaper’s readers, but in the 80s they began abandoning the paper for new, genuinely radical, black newspapers. At the same time, the country’s white population was moving farther and farther to the right, and they too began canceling subscriptions. The newspaper lost over $20 million in its final decade.
The Rand Daily Mail folded in 1985. Since that time, it has been celebrated for its superb investigative reporting—especially its exposés of government corruption—and for opposing apartheid in the face of government censorship. Former employees, however, have also noted that hypocrisy, especially on issues involving race and segregation, was rampant among newspaper personnel from top to bottom, an important reminder that no newspaper is produced outside its specific historical contexts. Even so, the paper remains an important source for historians who need reliable information on what was happening in South Africa during the era of apartheid.
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