The Big Issue South Africa has come a long way since a group of determined pioneers first plotted its launch over a kitchen table and then set up shop in a ramshackle building in a seedy part of town with a single computer. Raymond Joseph, the first editor who still serves on The Big Issue’s board of directors, tells how it all came about
Back in the mid-90s, Cape Town was a harsh and unforgiving city if you were one of the dozens of abjectly poor people eking out a living on the streets of the city. Harassment and sometimes even physical beatings were a daily reality for street people, more often than not at the hands of power drunk and out-of-control members of the police force and the city’s traffic department, as well as powerful private security companies that seemed to operate beyond the law.
But, unlike today, there were few resources available to help this vulnerable community who were a daily reality in the faces of the residents of Cape Town, even if many turned a blind eye and pretended they didn’t exist. It was into this climate of fear that The Big Issue South Africa was launched late in December 1996. Today, now 15 years old, it is one of the world’s oldest street papers.
It was born out of a real need, and a sense that something had to be done to offer the desperate and marginalised street people of Cape Town an alternative to begging or petty crime; to help them earn a living and restore their dignity.
It is also the story of a group of people concerned about what was happening, who were thrown together by fate but over the years have contributed in different ways to make The Big Issue the success it has become. The key person in getting The Big Issue off the ground was community worker Debi Diamond who, determined to make some difference, was already running an informal soup kitchen from her home in Wynberg.
Passion for the downtrodden
Concerned that she merely plastering band-aids on a festering wound, Diamond began a conversation with other likeminded people working with the city’s homeless and downtrodden. One of the people she turned to for help and advice was father Declan Collins, a Catholic “warrior priest” working closely with the homeless and marginalised as part of his work at Salesians Missions in Cape Town. His passion for the downtrodden often led him into confrontations with the authorities and his own church but Father Declan was a man who was not easily cowed. He was tragically murdered a few years later while working among the poorest of the poor in the Orange Farm informal settlement in Gauteng.
The third person to enter the scene was Shane Halpin, a young Irishman who had come to South Africa as a volunteer community worker at Salesians, who soon fell under Collins’ spell and also became a passionate advocate for the city’s homeless.
At her own cost, Diamond travelled to London to meet with The Big Issue London, launched five years earlier by The Body Shop founders and social entrepreneurs Gordon and Anita Roddick, along with activist John Bird, to try and convince them to help her set up an offshoot of the magazine in South Africa.
The mother of the modern street paper movement, The Big Issue London, now in its 21st year, was the inspiration for the hundreds of papers and magazines that are today sold on the streets of the cities of the world by marginalised people. However, as a magazine based on people paying for a quality read rather than a pity purchase, they were not convinced that Diamond, a non journalist, was capable of putting together a team that would meet their high standards. What they did do, though, was give her a bit of money for a feasibility study and suggest she find a media person to assist, probably believing they had heard the last of her (ironically, the study found that a Big Issue in South Africa would not work, but fortunately this was ignored).
And so I was drawn in. By sheer fluke, a cousin met Maria Clancy — another champion of The Big Issue South Africa — at a cocktail party in London and passed on my details when she asked if he knew of any journalists in South Africa. Soon afterwards I received a call from Diamond asking me to get involved. My initial response was that it was impossible to pull off; I raised issues about funding and printing, and many other obstacles I envisaged would stand in the path of such a venture. But Diamond is someone not easily distracted and soon others came on board as we met around her kitchen table, smoking and drinking endless cups of tea and coffee, as we plotted Cape Town’s very own street paper.
No money, few staff
It soon became clear that without a reliable and cheap printer — preferably free, as we had no money, premises, equipment or staff — the dream of a Big Issue at the southern tip of Africa would remain just a dream. Not one to take no for an answer, Diamond managed to persuade the then Independent Newspapers Cape boss, Rory Wilson, to print the first few editions of a three-monthly The Big Issue Cape Town (now South Africa) for free, with a 50% discount after that. Premises, consisting of a small office, were secured in a community centre in Salt River. It was a dodgy neighbourhood and we often watched from our office window as smartly dressed people in fancy cars pulled up at the crack house across the road, to buy their fix of cocaine rocks. We also saw how the cops occasionally arrived to collect a payment in exchange for turning a blind eye.
With only one computer and space at a premium, producing the magazine was a real challenge, forcing us to operate on a “hot seat system”. Early in the day Diamond, the social director, and Halpin, the project director, would use the computer to write fundraising appeals and policy documents. Then, later in the day, editorial would move into the same space to produce the magazine on the same painfully slow, donated PC. Pulling all-nighters on deadline was the norm, but no one complained.
Journalists, swept up by the excitement of a new independent voice in the media, donated copy and pictures to fill the pages.
In those days it was printed on newsprint, a far cry from today’s sharp, glossy product. Top journalists and photographers today still contribute to the magazine for free, or at rates far below what they would normally charge. From the very beginning the policy was to produce a quality, issues-driven magazine, with a mix of advocacy and entertainment, which reported on stories and issues largely ignored by mainstream media. It would also have to be a product vendors would be proud to sell — and that people would buy because it was a good read, not because they felt sorry for the vendor. It is a policy followed by successive editors over the years and the line “Not just a good deed, but also a good read”, best captures the ethos of The Big Issue.
The first distribution debut was in the doorway of the entrance to a building on Church Street Mall in Cape Town’s CBD. Many of the early vendors were drawn from the ranks of the city’s homeless. Today that has changed to a few genuinely homeless vendors and mostly the long-term unemployed and those in between jobs selling the magazine. As an aside: should you ever want to know what social ills afflict a city, you need only look to the make-up of the vendors of the local street paper. It changes from city to city, ranging from the homeless, to the unemployed; from those afflicted by drugs and alcohol to refugees, or whatever that city’s problems happen to be.
Finally, after months of kicking down doors and bulldozing aside obstacles, the first edition was launched on Cape Town’s historical Parade in December 1996, with then Minister of Welfare and Population Development Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi symbolically buying the first copy. Bemused passers-by looked on as a parade of homeless people led by a crude “float” built on the back of a municipal truck, and some pushing decorated shopping trolleys, descended on the Parade to bop to the sounds of a live Bush Radio broadcast.
That day a flame was lit — and it burns strongly today as The Big Issue South Africa marches confidently towards its second decade, with plans to move onto the streets of Gauteng and beyond in the coming years. © The Big Issue South Africa
Follow Raymond Joseph on Twitter @rayjoe
Main photo: The Big Issue’s staff and vendors launched at picket at the entrance to the V&A Waterfront after repeated efforts to place a vendor at Cape Town’s top tourist attraction failed. Now it is one of the top sites for vendors to sell the mgazine.