By Tamsin Green
Monday, 4 May, marked the 140th anniversary of South Africa’s oldest independently owned newspaper, Grocott’s Mail. In celebration of this meaningful anniversary, an exhibition was launched chronicling the colourful history of Grocott’s as well as celebrating its promising future.
The exhibition, sponsored by Mondi Shanduka Newsprint, was preceded by a seminar titled ‘Print is Eternal’, hosted by the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies and the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership. The seminar and Grocott’s ‘Then and Now’ exhibition both coincide with World Press Freedom Day which took place on 3 May.
The event was held at the Albany History Museum and showcased displays of historic collections from the National English Literary museum, the Eastern Star Museum, Rhodes’ Cory Library and St Andrew’s College.
Walking into the exhibition, visitors were greeted by the buoyant sound of the Kingswood Marimba Band, immediately setting the scene for a celebration of South African culture. The exhibition downstairs consisted of large glass cases full of Grocott’s relics, including old type setting machines and stationary. Large panels on the walls described the history of Grocott’s and press freedom in South Africa.
The exhibition continued upstairs where a gallery was dedicated to photographs of Grahamstown. The success of the event was measured by a snaking queue of people trying to find seats. The photographs, by fourth year photography students, celebrate Grahamstown’s history and showcased a series of ‘then and now’ shots taken of the city.
To honour Grocott’s and reflect on World Press Freedom day, an impressive list of speakers stood up to share their stories about Grocott’s, press freedom and time spent in prison. Professor Guy Berger, head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes, was MC for the evening, entertaining during speeches with anecdotes about newspapers in his hey-day as a political prisoner in Pretoria. The subject of press freedom was heavily imbedded in the celebration of Grocott’s, as Grahamstown was the site for the formation of the Newspaper Press Union in 1882; a union for the purpose of promoting freedom of speech in the South African press. Mayor Phumelelo Kate, who gave the welcoming speech, encouraged all to celebrate the importance of history as it is “built of a strong foundation, made centuries ago” and praised Jeff Grocott, descendant of the founding family of the paper, for serving the citizens of Grahamstown with “unparalleled dedication”.
Other speakers included Chingwaru Trymore of Mondi Shanduka, Albany Museum’s Chairperson, Advocate Les Roberts, Malcolm Hacksley of the National English Literary Museum, Louise Vale, General Manager at Grocott’s and Steve Lang, the Editor of Grocott’s. All of the speakers described the legacy of Grocott’s and paid tribute to the Grocott’s family. A special message from Stellenbosch University was sent through, wishing Grocott’s well and toasting “Power to the presses”. A standing ovation concluded the speeches, as Jeff Grocott and his wife Anne were presented with 140 yellow roses and a certificate praising Grocott’s courage and generosity.
Advocate Les Roberts of Albany Museum described the event as “a feast for the mind and the eye” and encouraged all to think of what Grocott’s has offered citizens and journalists alike. Grahamstown’s history of promoting free press coincides with Grocott’s reputation of speaking truth through power, an attribute the event has rightfully honoured.