Geoff Sifrin

Press man with heart: RIP Martin Dannheisser

MARTIN Dannheisser. Photograph courtesy

WITH A LARGER-THAN-LIFE presence, and a passion for the arts and for basic integrity, Martin Dannheisser was a champion of press freedom in politically precarious times. His was the presence that turned any dinner party into a memorable event, and he was the man who could ignite a laugh in the bleakest of contexts. A beloved friend, deeply respected professional and treasured family man, Dannheisser died suddenly in his sleep on 28 August 2018. He was 78.

Known and loved in bridge-playing circles and speech-making ones, Dannheisser adored the medium of the newspaper. Indeed, in his Johannesburg home, there was a display of slugs from the pre-computer days of hot metal printing, when printers set type by hand. These beautiful wooden and sometimes cast letters mirrored from the ones you can read, were inked and printed in relief: Wonderful objects and conveyors of meaning to the world.

Martin and his brother Peter ran a community newspaper during apartheid called the Springs Advertiser, and a printing works named New Era Press, which became famous among anti-apartheid activists in the 1970s and 80s for refusing to buckle when the racist regime tried to stifle all papers it didn’t like.

In the midst of the states of emergency and the killings of the 1980s, most newspapers and journalists had succumbed to the threats of the apartheid government. Some daring ones, however, continued producing investigative stories exposing the sordid nature of the regime’s actions. But where would they print them? And how would they distribute them?

The Springs Advertiser!” those in the know would surprisingly say. Running what was ostensibly an out-of-the-way commercial rag, Dannheisser was one of the last remaining pillars of a free press during that tortured era of the South African media when violence was everywhere in the country and newspapers had to be printed under grim, frightening circumstances.

He was the classic veteran newspaper man in the ‘old’ style: tall, rough-cut, with a hardcore work ethic which would make him stay up long hours to get a paper print-ready. He believed doggedly in an independent press; his company provided services to a wide spectrum of papers, including high-profile anti-apartheid publications such as the Weekly Mail, right-wing Afrikaner publications, and cultural publications such as one for the then Inkatha cultural liberation movement which aimed at a resurgent Zulu nationalism.

He had a mischievous, dry sense of humour with which he would catch people by surprise. He once took the arts editor of a local paper aside and told her with a straight face that he intended to scrap the entire arts section of the paper and replace it with advertising. She was appalled. And outraged. And then she saw the sparkle in his eye. Dannheisser was a great lover – and supporter of the arts in South Africa, across the board. He and his wife had season tickets at many of Johannesburg’s theatres and concert halls and were brave and impassioned enough, even in their latter years, to visit theatres and arts festivals in out-of-the-way and dodgy places. Their personal contemporary South African art collection boasted gems by artists of the ilk of Deborah Bell.

Dannheisser was also a very straight talker. When an advertising sales rep in a local paper once glibly announced at a sales meeting that she hadn’t achieved any sales for several weeks, he responded angrily that she should ‘get off her backside’ and go out and sell and sell and sell! She picked up her handbag and ran out of the room in tears. Later that day her husband called to threaten the editor. Dannheisser was, of course, on the mark.

A great orator, coming third in the world in a Toastmasters competition, and a celebrated Rotarian, he was someone for whom culture mattered. A trained tour guide of the city’s heritage, Dannheisser had a wise sense of perspective and priorities.

One of the founders of the Weekly Mail described how Dannheisser would agree to print by “scribbling the price and the terms on the back of an envelope” because it was too dangerous at the time to put it into a formal contract.

The situation of the anti-apartheid media at the time was fraught with insecurity. A few publications, such as the Rand Daily Mail, continued to carry stories which embarrassed and infuriated apartheid’s racist motivators. They were accused of intentionally smearing the image of South Africa in the eyes of the outside world for nefarious reasons, and essentially for being ‘unpatriotic’.

The RDM was controversially closed in 1985, partly for its anti-apartheid stance in the midst of the massive clampdown by security forces. Some of its journalists then pooled their severance pay to create a new paper, the Weekly Mail, which continued the anti-apartheid stance, and today is known as the Mail & Guardian.

It was in this troubled media environment that the Springs Advertiser remained a reliable and important ally. It continued servicing and printing many provocative independent papers through the 1980s. The media community who continued to report and publish, did so at great risk to themselves. Journalists were harassed and arrested and laws were passed which made it almost impossible for them to do their jobs.

But irrespective, the edited content of the openly anti-apartheid Weekly Mail, produced in its Johannesburg offices, would arrive week-after-week at the Springs Advertiser’s premises to be printed, before it was loaded onto trucks for distribution. Dannheisser had a lawyer on hand to check that the material was strictly within the letter of the law: he knew that a tiny deviation would give security police an excuse to prevent publication altogether. Talking about those sexily dangerous days replete with everything from nasty right wing graffiti to bomb threats, Dannheisser, related how police would often raid the premises to delay printing and sometimes, out of spite, would take away an entire week’s print run for ‘checking’, only returning it when it was too late for distribution.

Dannheissers’ ownership of the Springs Advertiser – which was originally established in 1916 – dated back to 1948. Martin’s father Walter had arrived in South Africa from Germany in the early 1930s and had settled in the town named Springs, east of Johannesburg. There he raised and educated his two sons, and there, he bought the paper along with the printing works. Over time the group grew to include five local titles: the Springs Advertiser; the Springs Outlook; the African Reporter; the Highveld Herald; and the Bethal Echo. The Dannheisser brothers ran the Springs Advertiser until 2006 when they sold to Caxton, the major owner of South African community papers.

But more than just an advertising rag, over the years, the Springs Advertiser under the leadership of the Dannheissers was also a significant incubator for young writers, where they received skills and professional acumen to make them sought after by the general press, and the careers of people in the industry of the ilk of seasoned arts writer and sub-editor Christina Kennedy, attest to this today.

Dannheisser, who held official positions in the newspaper industry, was born on 9 September 1939 and educated at the London College of Printing before he served in the South African army: In the trajectory of his press career, he was chair of the Provincial Press Division of the Newspaper Press Union, a member of the Media Council, and chairman of Capro, an independent representative body of media owners representing community newspapers.

He leaves his wife Anne, daughters Helene and Rene, son-in-law Steven, grandchildren Kendra and Jared, and his brother Peter and family.

4 replies »

  1. Having been born in Springs and grown up with Martin all my life I wholeheartedly endorse what the the writer has stated in this article. However I would also like to mention the role Martin played in keeping the Springs Reform Shul so active over many years in virtually every aspect of its religious, social and cultural affairs.As also did Anne. Ina addition he had a magnificent singing voice and indeed acted as Rabbi and Chacen on many many occasions. He was indeed a remarkable personand is missed by all who knew him.

  2. A wonderful tribute to Martin. It is an important obituary. Martin was all those things and more.
    Because he had humility which we don’t see too often today, many do not know of the important role he played during apartheid. He had integrity ,and that is so important in the Press world.
    He also was a multitalented man , I feel sure that Geoff Sifrin has enlightened those who only knew Martin as an excellent host, the life and soul of a party, a pleasure to know and a wonderful friend.
    He and his wife Anne had a great partnership. He is sorely missed.

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