The Southern Cross: Farewell and Look to the Future
The Southern Cross’ retrenched staff came together one last time for a sad farewell — and some to chart the way for the publication’s future, as SYDNEY DUVAL writes.
As a window on the Catholic world, and beyond, The Southern Cross found itself turning another page in its history on July 29, just several weeks short of the centenary of its foundation. But this was no celebration.
Rather, it was a sad moment, played out as a cinematic drama approaching surreal dimensions in the old St Mary’s High School in Cape Town’s Tuin Plein, which serves as a roadside boundary for the Catholic campus in Cape Town, from the Grimley building, bookshop and schools down to the cathedral, presbytery and chancery.
Board members and staff served as the cast—masked and socially distanced. The script was a mix, first of lively dialogue in the boardroom in a meeting that charted the future of the publication, then muffled words in the main office as the retrenched staff of the newspaper gathered for one final time.
The props comprised stacks of bound volumes for archiving, old files for dumping, and office brica-brac awaiting the auctioneers.
This paraphernalia was going, but was not yet gone. They stood as stark remnants reminding us that the old newspaper and staff were active casualties of Covid-19, of reprehensible incompetence by the postal service, and of a disquieting indifference within the Catholic Church itself.
Some R500 000 from a sympathetic donor would have made a material difference in a time needing generous responses.
Also there—masked, prayerful and reflective—was Cape Town’s Auxiliary Bishop Sylvester David, who sprinkled us with holy water, an asperges of refreshing raindrops for the road ahead.
We had formed a lopsided rosary for this brief but uplifting liturgical action, so impressive in its elemental simplicity.
This was part of the farewell blessing for the nine staff who were no longer going to be employees of The Southern Cross. They included Pamela Davids, the admin manager who served the newspaper for close to 47 of its 100 years.
But Ms Davids will continue to serve The Southern Cross, alongside editor Günther Simmermacher and online editor Claire Allen to bring out the weekly edition digitally until late September, when The Southern Cross will relaunch as a monthly magazine.
It is a sign of their unwavering loyalty to Catholic media that they are prepared to do so as freelancers, at a significant financial sacrifice.
Planning the future
This was the purpose for the meeting of some board members and these three loyal servants of The Southern Cross.
We met to consider practical steps to keep the weekly newspaper afloat in critical times. We had reviewed the projected cash flow, the A4-size magazine option, printing sources, distribution, paper quality and quotes.
At noon, chairperson Rosanne Shields and the rest of us joined the other staff and Bishop David for the farewell blessing and for souvenir photographs in the office and on the pavement outside.
Ms Shields spoke with profound gratitude for the work, support and sacrifices the staff had shared in keeping the paper going in unprecedented circumstances (see this week’s guest editorial for her comprehensive narrative).
She read a compelling message from former editor Michael Shackleton, who was advised not to attend due to the health risks of Covid-19. His words touched us deeply.
“You are right to see this moment as one to look ahead, to express the solid virtue of Christian hope in these oddest of times. Life comes and passes, and it is always mysterious, because it flows from our Lord who is himself mysterious to us,” Mr Shackleton wrote.
“Looking back, I am gladdened that I have known and worked with and for The Southern Cross for a long time. Looking forward, I have no doubt that all our work and prayers are important and God is with us, even when we are bewildered.”
He recalled the episcopal motto of Cardinal Owen McCann, who himself edited The Southern Cross twice, as a priest in the 1940s and after his retirement as archbishop of Cape Town. His motto was: “Nisi Dominus in vanum”, which means: “Without the Lord (we labour) in vain.”
“We have not laboured in vain,” Mr Shackleton wrote.
“Thanks to you, Rosanne, to our board of directors and to all who have kept The Southern Cross on course. Thanks to our brilliant staff, especially to Günther, who has had to carry a particularly heavy load with his dependable vigour and strong faith,” he wrote.
He concluded: “I look forward to the plans now in place to get our engines running smoothly again into the years ahead. We say in the liturgy: Life is changed, it is not ended. So be it. Love and prayers.”
In his brief homily, Bishop David echoed Mr Shackleton’s sentiments with words and experiences of his own.
The bishop said he had grown up reading The Southern Cross. He had associated the name and value of the newspaper with the Southern Cross constellation of stars which had served as reliable pointers to help guide the early sailors in their voyages down the African continent.
80 years of memories
I have been reading The Southern Cross for nearly 80 years—and writing for it for some 50 years.
I recall its coverage of the unforgettable Marian Congress in Durban 1952; its staunch support for the Bishops’ Campaign to save Catholic schools from the clutches of Bantu Education in the ‘50s; its reports criticising the injustice and oppression that flourished under apartheid; its coverage of the Catholic schools remaining steadfast in opening their schools to all, regardless of colour or creed, and retaliatory action from the government; its gathering of news concerning the spiritual, liturgical, pastoral and socio-economic outreach of the Church in other parts of the world—keeping us in touch with journalism that found creative energy from a more holistic scaffolding.
A recent headline that caught my eye expressed the scope of the paper’s coverage of contemporary events from local to the wider world: “From the Cape Flats to the pope’s open door.” The paper’s own door has been opening very wide.
At heart, The Southern Cross is a lighthouse that keeps the Good News alive.
The evangelising disciples and St Paul themselves were journalists who recorded the signs and deeds of their times. Their ministry was an early form of social communications, in writing and speaking, to keep families and communities connected in their Christian faith.
For us now, keeping The Southern Cross alive in digital and affordable print format would be a valiant mission worth struggling for. This country needs all the help it can get as it grapples with a deadly pandemic, unemployment, hunger, murderous violence, and endless corruption and looting of funds that should be alleviating the suffering of the poor.
Sustaining critical voices that raise these concerns, that find the courage to speak truth to power, should be a shared mission for our local Church, from the hierarchy and priests and religious, to the parishioners and sodalities who kneel in church benches all over the country… in cities, towns and villages.
A message of encouraging hope from a resounding voice from the past is a message that can continue to help bind us together in spirit, mind and heart in forming communities that serve humanity today. As St John says: “In the beginning was the Word…”
We have been taught and formed to listen to, and to communicate the Word. This is a gift for all ages and seasons.
We have been taught and formed to listen to, to communicate, the Word. This is a gift for all ages and seasons. As a journalist on the old World newspaper that was once banned, I interviewed a woman from Soweto. I asked her what she considered important in her life. She replied: “That my children learn to read and write. They must have words.”
If the Catholic Church community could cooperate some 70 years ago to save its schools from Bantu Education, could it not join hands today in a spirit of solidarity to uphold The Southern Cross as the messenger with words that can help both heal and transform our land?
This narrative ends with two moments from my work as chancery assistant in Cape Town in May 1989.
Archbishop Stephen Naidoo was to host Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool and Julian Filochowski, director of CAFOD, a major source of support for Catholic Aids projects in South Africa.
They were accompanied by Anglican Bishop David Sheppard, also of Liverpool, the former England cricket test player who had struck a blow for nonracial sport when he refused to play against South Africa over the treatment of Basil d’Oliveira (a Catholic).
Archbishop Worlock and Bishop Sheppard had formed an ecumenical alliance to minister to Liverpool’s disparate communities.
The party arrived in Cape Town on May 23—the morning after Archbishop Naidoo had been taken to hospital. It became my job to drive them to socio-economic development projects on the Cape Flats.
Cardinal McCann hosted us to dinner where the talk soon fixed on the political and social inequities of apartheid—and what to do about them.
At one stage the cardinal suddenly got up from the table, with these words: “There is something we can all do together and that is to pray for our country.” He led us into his private chapel where he soon had us kneeling in prayer.
At the airport for their return flight home, Archbishop Worlock said to me: “We have something for you.” It was a signed copy of their book on their Liverpool ministry, entitled Better Together.
We have lost Catholic Welfare and Development. Together, let us not lose The Southern Cross.
Sydney Duval is a veteran journalist, Church worker, and director on the board of The Southern Cross.