Four decades of networking

Tanya de Vente-Bijker is a freelance journalist and radio presenter, executive member of the National Press Club for the past ten years and busy doing her master’s degree in Journalism on the history of the National Press Club.

In 1978 late journalist Bernadi Wessels, then at the Rand Daily Mail, came with the ambitious idea to start a press club in Pretoria, similar to the Washington Press Club, with representatives from all media houses.

He brought this idea home after his travels as correspondent overseas. Together with other colleagues and the assistance of Joh Groenewald, the idea became reality.

Muriel Hau Yoon, part of the first secretariat of the club together with Joh Groenewald, remembers the exact founding date of the club: 12 July 1978 at die Kaapse Wyn-Taphuis on the corner of the former Vermeulen and Van der Walt streets.

The press club’s gatherings from thirty years ago had a different character than today’s monthly networking functions. “We had our own bar, emBARgo, in Don Hamilton’s Boulevard Hotel in Struben street,” remembers Tok Grobler, a founding member.

Pedro Diederichs, a newspaper reporter for Nasionale Pers in Pretoria, later head of Beeld has fond memories of those early press club days. The offices of newspapers Beeld, Pretoria News and Rand Daily Mail (and others) were located in the Pretoria CBD. After work journalists met for a drink at the Boulevard Hotel to exchange stories and boast about scoops. It was mostly men, with only a handful of female journalists working in the media in those years.

Pedro remembers the good relationships between reporters and spokespersons alike. He remembers names like Jan Bezuidenhout, Alta Oberholzer, Roy Devenish, Alton Burns, Neil Jacobson, Jan van der Merwe, Val Boje, JJ Cornish, Thys Steyn, Cor Leijenaar, Ina Schaum and Jorrie Jordaan.

He says the hotel owner Arthur Honey and barman “Oom Tiny” looked after the journalists and made sure they weren’t thirsty. Sometimes late night a call would come through on the bar phone line warning journalists about a roadblock in Pretoria Street, Silverton…

Tok recalls later years the bar was moved to Coleen’s Pressbar at the Proteahof Hotel on the corner of Schoeman and van der Walt Street. Nowadays the members meet at different locations each month for the networking function. The culture of meeting in the bar every day after work is long gone…

Bernardi was appointed the first chairman of the press club. Johan Gieselbach (then at the SAUK, later CEO at the Wolraad) took over from him. “The chairmen came from the SAUK for years. After Johan was it me, followed by Robbie Terblance and the late Pieter Theron,” says Tok.

Another member that was with the club since the early eighties is Nico van Burick from Landbou Weekblad. Tok met him when they worked together in writing for the army’s newsletter, Uniform. Nico and his wife, Annemarie, was also secretariat of the press club for a while.

Ben Rootman and his partner Martin van Niekerk from Junxion Communications took over the role of the secretariat from them for 18 years, they resigned earlier this year.

Nico claims that he and late Jan Viljoen have rewritten the constitution as it is today. Ben just laughs about this statement. He says no one can remember whether this is true. He remembers the original constitution was put together randomly over a few beers. Joh Groenewald, founding member and first secretariat of the press club diarised that the very first constitution was send to members in September 1978.

Joh also recalls the very first press club event on 27 September 1978. It was held in the Boulevard Hotel, which really became home to the club in the early years. After only a few months of existence, Bernardi Wessels and other arranged a sponsorship for the club with BP Suid-Afrika. Joh diarised this event as well: this momentous sponsorship took place over lunch in the Burgerspark Hotel. Over the years several different companies sponsored the club and the club still rely on sponsorships to function.

Back in the days the executive committee gathered over lunch time to discuss club affairs, naturally over a few beers. Today the executive committee continues to meet every month. These days it is done after work, with wine and they meet in the press club’s “home” the emBARgo, the cellar of the Orange Restaurant in the Court Classique Hotel.

Apparently when Amanda Visser was the first female chairperson in the late nineties she wanted to ban the drinking during meetings… She denies it. But Nico and Annemarie van Burick say they were in the meeting where she banned it. “She got angry because the meetings frizzled out after a few drinks.”

However, with Amanda at the top, the Press Club entered a time of transformation. “It was an exciting time in politics with the first democratic election behind us. It was the beginning of Thabo Mbeki’s era as president. His role in the country and its profile has brought him the newsmaker of the year prize,” she recalls. Meeting Thabo Mbeki stands out as a highlight in her time as chair.

In 1999 the Pretoria Press club changed to National Press Club of Pretoria. During a committee meeting Ben suggested the name should be changed to Tshwane Press Club, to which one of the older members angrily reacted: “Then I would rather call it the National Press Club.” Ben says they grabbed this opportunity with both hands. The new identity was confirmed at the AGM. However, Roy Devenish says this idea of the National Press Club was on the cards since day one.

Yusuf Abramjee served as chairperson for two periods. In 2000 Yusuf Abramjee was elected as chairperson for the first time. He was the first chairman of colour and worked very hard to make the press club representative of colour and gender. Yusuf was re-elected as chairperson again in 2008 until he resigned in 2012. He also brought some big (and sometimes controversial) newsmakers to address the pr”ss club. Annemarie still remembers the press conference with Eugene Terre’Blance after he was imposed imprisonment. “Eugene has told the conference: “Ek is verbyster, maar nie verbitter nie’”. Two journalists at the back of the conference whispered to each other, ’almost like shaken, but not stirred’.”

Yusuf remembers the conference with the Zimbabwean high commissioner to South Africa, Simon Moyo. “After the formal speech, I handed a gift to him: a poster that read: ” Mugabe – You cannot silence us. “Moyo stormed out of the briefing room, furious.”

Tok says one of his best memories is that the press club was one of the first and very progressive forums where boundaries were crossed. “I think we took the first few steps in breaking down the walls of apartheid in the time in the professional atmosphere. The press club has contributed a lot to build relationships with government and diplomatic corps and has also given respect/prestige the journalistic profession. “

The club recently elected its new executive committee. Jos Charle was re-elected as chairperson of the club and Antoinette Slabbert elected as deputy chairperson.