The sufferfest

If you talk to Styli and Branko about the last 10 years, there comes a point when both of them drift away from the quantifiable language of business – payrolls, reader numbers, ad revenues, sponsors and grants – and wander into the realm of the mystical. Think Mysteries Of The Unexplained meets The Newsroom.

Both men express a sense of wonder that they articulate in slightly different ways. Styli, who came out to his family as an atheist in a Daily Maverick column, reverts ever so slightly to semi-religious tones, while Branko, hinting at his past in Belgrade as a science-fiction publisher, alludes to universal fatalism.

Despite being hard-nosed realists, they share a sense of incredulity that Daily Maverick is still here. That their convictions won through in the end. That, when they needed it most, Lady Luck appeared with a gift (usually in the form of cold hard cash). That people, readers, members believed in their vision. That Daily Maverick survived.

How the hell did it happen?

“If you look at every stage of this business when we were trying to raise money, every time it should not have worked,” Styli says now. “There were so many points of failure, and there was no reason for anyone to give us money. Daily Maverick should not have survived till this point. Yes, I can write a business plan, and maybe that helped to sell the idea and to formulate thoughts, but none of the stuff came true that we were expecting to come true. I feel like there was more than just that. Like it was one of those things that was meant to be.”

Looking at Daily Maverick’s behind-the-scenes operations, particularly in the early years, two phrases come to mind. One is: “Whatever it takes”. The second is: “Sufferfest”.

The “whatever it takes” ethos was in play right from when Styli came onboard as CEO in October 2009, because his role was part-time until the launch of iMaverick in 2011. That fact in itself epitomised the business approach of Daily Maverick: as much as possible was spent on editorial, to the extent that a part-time CEO and a freelance salesperson encompassed the non-editorial efforts that the company was willing to commit resources to.

This inexorable dedication to prioritising its written content, while difficult to fund, has resulted in Daily Maverick attracting top talent. But what Daily Maverick writers tend to share is not just journalistic ability, but also a sense of themselves as in some way alienated from the mainstream.

Of his team, Branko says: “We are all outsiders in a way. It helps a lot. One of the problems with the established media is that they became too much like insiders. Then you have Hurricane Iqbal [Surve], The New Age, ANN7, the SABC is rotten to the core – the space is really narrowing down for people who can provide that vital role in a society.”

Good writers tend to be skittish beasts. There’s a reason why Branko frequently refers to his job as one of “herding cats”. From the outset, Branko and Styli went to almost desperate lengths to ensure that Daily Maverick writers were paid what they were owed on time.

“When people ask ‘how old is Daily Maverick’, I say: ‘X number of payrolls’, because getting through each one was so tough,” Styli says.

“I have a fear of the number 25 because on the 25th of every month, you make a payment, you give birth to that payroll and you’re pregnant with the next one straight away. You start counting down the days to the next one. For many of them, and I am not exaggerating, we would start the month unsure if we’d be able to make the next one.”

There was a two-year period, from 2011 to the end of 2012, when Branko and Styli did not take a salary for half the time, while making sure everyone else got paid. During that period, they were only ever late with paying staff on one occasion: when only half salaries were paid, with the balance deposited three days later. Years on, it’s still one of their biggest regrets.

Styli says: “We had just hired Carien du Plessis at that time, and [the salary debacle] was like the second month she was with us. She said: ‘This is not for me’ – though happily she has since re-joined Daily Maverick in a part-time capacity.”

Then Phillip de Wet, Branko’s co-founder and deputy editor, tapped out.

Says Styli: “After that delayed salary thing happened, we were on shaky ground. No one could blame him when he handed back his shares and moved to the Mail & Guardian.”

Over the last 10 years, at the lowest ebb of the sufferfest, both Styli and Branko either sacrificed their salaries or lent the company money to the tune of more than R1-million.

“There were so many times that I would have to take out a new credit card or borrow from my dad or my sister,” says Styli. “When we had sold our family house in Joburg to move down to Cape Town, we were lucky to have made a profit on that sale. That money was used to tide Daily Maverick over for a couple of months until the investment came in. My wife nearly divorced me when she found out I’d done that.”

On another occasion, school fees were due for one of Styli’s kids. But both Styli and Branko had maxed out all available lines of credit. Salaries had to be paid, and Styli would have to find a way to cover the shortfall.

“I made the call to pay staff instead of school fees. I knew that I could drag it out for a while before the school started sending legal letters, and I backed myself to hustle and replace the additional loan before the school went into debt-collection mode. I knew some of Daily Maverick’s staff had school fees of their own to pay and I didn’t want them to have to go through that kind of stress themselves.”

“Theirs was the Deluxe Mzansi Stress package, a unique blend of seat-of-the-pants uppers and end-of-days downers that comes with spearheading a crack squad revealing and analysing nation-changing stories, navigating the rapids and undercurrents of political and corporate power, all while keeping a modest business afloat.”

Stress. Both Branko and Styli have had to handle vast amounts of the stuff. Not only the kind of workload stress we all have to handle, or even the “will we make it, won’t we make it” stress of any start-up or SME. Theirs was the Deluxe Mzansi Stress package, a unique blend of seat-of-the-pants uppers and end-of-days downers that comes with spearheading a crack squad revealing and analysing nation-changing stories, navigating the rapids and undercurrents of political and corporate power, all while keeping a modest business afloat. And then, of course, there’s the bonus ball stress of living in South Africa in all its gory glory.

It took its toll. For Styli, one of the worst moments came when Daily Maverick got the opportunity to pitch its second The Gathering conference to MTN Business in the summer of 2011.

“We were just 18 months old at the time, and as a new company it was a huge opportunity for us to pitch to a big-name sponsor. We’d managed to put on the first Gathering [in 2010] with a budget of around R20k, begging and trade-exchanging our way to the successful equivalent of an underground grunge event,” Styli remembers.

Styli was sitting at home the night before the big pitch, relaxing with his then one-year-old son Lukah, while his wife was out.

“It was one of those muggy Joburg summer evenings that usually holler out to thunderstorms for relief. Lukah was only in his nappy, and I wasn’t wearing much more myself. The sliding door to the patio was open, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see some figures emerging from the darkness of my garden. I knew what was about to happen: we were about to become another Joburg statistic.”

Styli remained still while three armed men half-ran into his living room, two pointing guns at him and one handing him his son. They demanded to know if Styli had a safe and if anyone else was home. Then they took him to the bedroom, where they tied him up with ties.

“The ties were a relic of my past finance days,” he says ruefully. “I hadn’t worn a tie in ages. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about this gig: that you can arrive at work wearing homeless-chic and no one really cares.”

Styli remembers feeling “strangely calm” throughout the event, knowing that any panic or hysterics would endanger him and his son’s life. The burglars grabbed electronics and his wife’s jewellery before making off quickly through the front door.

“It was all over within 10 minutes or so. I managed to get myself free and called my neighbour for help, before calling the police. My wife arrived not much later.”

Looking back, what strikes Styli most about the incident was his insistent sense at the time that he could not allow life to get in the way of keeping Daily Maverick going. The traumatic event he had just survived simply had to be pushed to the back of his mind.

“I knew the MTN meeting was a huge deal for us and we needed to pitch the next day or else suffer the corporate malaise of rescheduling that would take weeks to happen, if at all. I can’t remember how I got to sleep that night. I got dressed the next day – I definitely wasn’t going to wear a tie – and headed to the meeting to make the pitch. Once we were done, I headed home and told Branko what happened. It didn’t take much longer for the shock to arrive, and I then spent the next two days in bed, hit by a bus. It’s amazing how we react in times of extreme stress, and how the mind can compartmentalise things. It also wasn’t a big call to make: we’d already committed so much and things were already so tough that every day was critical.” The kicker? MTN Business never took up the pitch.

Dealing with the stresses of a start-up can be countered for most by turning off and tuning out every now and then. That was a luxury not available to the Daily Maverick team, because 2011 was a helluva year: the Middle East was imploding, the ANCYL was exploding, the local elections were upon us and the fight against the Secrecy Bill was in full force. And when he wasn’t part-time CEO’ing, Styli managed to snatch a South African Breweries award for some sports writing.

No country for old men

“It is Friday morning and Cairo braces itself for what is expected to be the largest protests since the mass demonstrations began,” brand-new Daily Maverick international correspondent Simon Allison reported from the epicentre of the action at Tahrir Square, in Egypt’s capital, in early February 2011.

“After two days of vicious street fighting between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters, this could well be the last roll of the dice for the opposition movement, which is desperate to finish the job it started, and finish it now.”

Producing a series of unswerving articles direct from the Arab Spring in Egypt, Simon added strong credibility to Daily Maverick’s international portfolio of self-made content with his reportage on the people’s revolution.

Simon’s writing transported readers to the heart of Egypt’s new dawn: “It took 18 days to bring [deposed Egyptian leader Hosni] Mubarak down. It took millions and millions of people – babies and children, men and women, old and young, the lower, upper and middle classes, businessmen and beggars, Christians and Muslims and agnostics, and finally even soldiers. It took rolling news coverage, Twitter and Facebook. It took an army divided within itself. And it took one old, frail man to release his grip on his people, who ultimately treated him with far more dignity than he did them.”

Just months later, Daily Maverick’s then occasional contributor and now associate editor Ferial Haffajee would hold a vigil in a piece dedicated to slain South African newsman Anton Hammerl and other conflict photographers, who ensure through their lenses that the truth survives.

“Momentarily, I did again tut-tut away at ‘those people’ when I saw that Anton was in a tumultuous Libya,” Ferial wrote. “Who the hell goes into a war-zone without the armoury of a big media company behind you? Who doesn’t wear a flak jacket (he wasn’t wearing one in the as-usual, über-cool pre-capture images of him from one of the Libyan rebel strongholds); who leaves a six-week-old baby in London?”

“These people brought these places into global consciousness, into our front rooms, onto our front pages, our Twitterverse.”

But she knew the answer to the question she’d posed: “These people do, because they have a higher calling. They give meaning to places named Misrata and Bhengazi and Tahrir Square, all now seared into our consciences in this year of the Magreb and the Middle East revolutions. These people brought these places into global consciousness, into our front rooms, onto our front pages, our Twitterverse.”

By the time Ferial’s piece was published, Hammerl had been dead for a month, shot by pro-Gaddafi troops outside Brega, while documenting the Libyan Civil War.

Hammerl’s wife, Penny Sukhraj, would only learn of the circumstances around his death two weeks after Ferial’s tribute – when Libyan authorities released the captured journalists who witnessed the shooting.

The relentless news cycle moved on. In May, South Africa went to the polls to vote in the local government elections: a ballot often viewed as the uninteresting junior cousin of the general elections, but of tremendous significance to those seeking insight into the shifting political landscape.

“Years ago astronomers and Nasa scientists painstakingly put thousands of individual photographs of the Moon together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to produce a final detailed image of Earth’s satellite,” wrote Grootes. “Tallying up the votes from Wednesday’s local government election is not dissimilar – and it’s only once all the pieces are in their right places that we will get a picture of the mind of South Africa.”

When the picture of that mind emerged, it showed one thing most clearly. Although the ANC had won a comfortable majority with 62% of the vote, the governing party had lost support in almost every province – with the DA the greatest beneficiary.

It was, a politically intoxicated Stephen noted, “a message the ANC needs to heed carefully”.

Back to the future

Source: Daily Maverick

August 2011 saw the launch of Daily Maverick’s brave new sister edition, iMaverick – the English-speaking world’s second tablet-only newspaper after Rupert Murdoch’s US-based The Daily. It was the very first in South Africa.

For Branko and Styli, this was the culmination of a significant conceptual dream – “The answer to driving our readership,” says Branko. After all, the future of news journalism, it seemed, relied on its evolution from newsprint to the tablet, by now rapidly penetrating the market. iMaverick aimed to be a magazine-quality daily news source of in-depth analysis, insight and opinion, designed from scratch for the tablet.

In order to launch, an iMaverick app needed to be built, which meant hiring more people and bringing Styli onboard full-time. Demand for content was also going to go up, so with Alan Knott-Craig’s seed money long gone, more investment needed to be raised. With the additional funds, iMaverick became a reality: a 100-page high-quality daily read.

iMaverick was visually exceptional. The ads it carried were as big and striking as those in a print magazine, while the app format allowed for the design of covers unlike anything you’d get on a normal website. Branko, a Photoshop king, was in his element. One particularly memorable cover poked good-natured fun at Stephen Grootes.

When erstwhile ANC spokesperson Mac Maharaj interviewed Grootes at the launch of Grootes’ book SA Politics Unspun in Joburg, the veteran spin-doctor landed some painful punches on Grootes over a number of details he contested from the book. Taking the iconic poster from the documentary Facing Ali, Branko superimposed Maharaj over Muhammad Ali’s face, walloping Grootes as the helpless Joe Frazier.

Created by Daily Maverick

Beyond the publication’s unusually high production values, iMaverick had another revolutionary twist to it: the magazine subscription was bundled with the device on which it was read. It amounted to a smart incentive to commit if you were already in the kind of LSM category to be considering buying an iPad. For R395 per month, for 24 months, readers received iMaverick and an iPad 2.

The Daily Maverick website would publish a limited amount of content from iMaverick. In Branko’s vision, the arrangement corresponded to M-Net Open Time’s relationship with the full M-Net package.

But while luck had already been on the side of the Mavericks many times, on this occasion they got a taste of the opposite. Just weeks before the launch of the iMaverick iPad deal, something unforeseen emerged to scupper much of its appeal.

“We had got about 1,000 people to pre-order and sign up for the iPad deal, having arranged financing with a small moveable asset financing company,” Styli remembers. “Then a month before we were going to launch, FNB came out with a zero-interest iPad deal. Our motivational carrot was shredded.”

In retrospect, Styli can see the funny side: “We had told then-FNB CEO Michael Jordaan about our iPad idea, and he couldn’t tell us that FNB were already planning something very similar. He just kept quiet and smiled.”

But the episode was also evidence for Styli that the Mavericks were bang on trend. “I guess, in some way, it’s great that with our tiny team our thinking was right,” he says. “FNB would have had entire departments dedicated to this, as well as access to low-cost funding.”

iMaverick may have been ahead of the curve in terms of the South African media industry, but it also played a role in setting trends within the Daily Maverick franchise that endure to this day. Not all were positive. In the “bad habits” ledger: a decidedly generous approach to nightly deadlines.

“The kind of stuff we do is analyse the news of today and explain it to people tomorrow,” Styli says. “In effect that’s kind of like what traditional newspapers do, except that they have a cut-off time to go to print. Of course, we don’t have that cut-off time, so there’s that loose flexibility which can run over to 2am most nights. With iMaverick, we got into this late-night production cycle that exists to this day.”

Another aspect of operations that became entrenched during this time was that of staffers working remotely. Although in 2019 Daily Maverick has offices in both Joburg and Cape Town, Styli says: “The hangover exists where a lot of the senior writers still don’t come into the office”.

But iMaverick also helped set a vital pattern: the production of large quantities of original, feature-length content on a daily basis. The benefits of this were felt by Daily Maverick even at the time as its readership grew, although it was not yet clear how to monetise the audience’s growth.

There was one more significant win from the tablet publication: it committed Styli to the business full time. At the time of iMaverick’s launch, he was working two jobs. After the launch, he had only one.

The thinking had been that iMaverick could support Daily Maverick – not just through paid subscriptions, but by selling adverts at magazine rates in a digital publication, per page rather than per impression. As it turned out, almost nobody was ready for it: not South African consumers, not brands, and not the digital magazine market as a whole.

iMaverick was the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future, complete with gullwing doors and time-travel capability. Which meant that Branko and Styli were Doc and Marty, stuck without fuel, between two space-time continuums.

The lucky iPad

Even if iMaverick didn’t strike it lucky, Branko’s own iPad would still deliver him a stroke of good fortune in the same year. On 2 May 2011, Branko was finally asleep after another late night of editing. But at around 4am, his iPad pinged him awake with a notification of breaking news from The New York Times: “President Obama is to make an important announcement in half an hour”.

Branko says: “I jumped on Twitter and saw that it looked like Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Literally 24 hours earlier, Phillip de Wet had left on a media trip to the US. I managed to get hold of him immediately. He was in a hotel two blocks away from the White House, exhausted from the arduous journey. I told him Osama bin Laden was dead, and he woke up instantaneously, then ran to the White House.”

By 7am, Daily Maverick had already published three stories by Andy Rice, Phillip and J Brooks Spector – “while our competitors were scrambling for scraps from Associated Press and Reuters”, says Branko. It was one of the days that created the impression that the journalists of Daily Maverick simply never slept (a notion which is only partly true).

Reflects Branko: “You need luck as well. Our coverage was huge. All because I forgot to turn the sound off my iPad.”


Meanwhile in the land of Julius Malema, the conflict between the ANCYL leader and the governing party was about to reach boiling point. From the ANC’s perspective, Malema had repeatedly revealed himself to be simply ungovernable.

From making racially polarising comments in public, to his outspoken admiration for Robert Mugabe’s land reform policies, to his labelling of Botswana’s then-President Ian Khama as a “puppet of the USA” – Malema caused chaos by consistently bucking the party line. He declared that South Africa’s mines would be nationalised, and then attacked both the minister of mineral resources and the South African High Commissioner to the UK when they refuted his claims.

As Malema’s volume intensified, he became a problem both for the ANC government and for his former liege Jacob Zuma, who feared the ANCYL would campaign against him getting a second presidential term at the Mangaung conference in 2012.

After years of hate speech trials, public spats and rebukes, 2011 marked the beginning of the end of the road for Malema within the ANC. A disciplinary hearing in November 2011 – not his first – found Malema and his fellow Youth Leaguers Floyd Shivambu and the late Sindiso Magaqa guilty of sowing divisions within the ruling party. A few months later the three would be officially suspended from the ANC.

But even before the formal findings of the disciplinary process, the writing had been on the wall for Malema. Violence erupted on the streets of Johannesburg in late August, with Phillip on the scene to chronicle the events that unfolded when ANCYL supporters protested against the ANC’s forthcoming sanctioning of their leaders.

Inside Luthuli House, the ANC’s national disciplinary committee was giving Malema the third degree at the time. Phillip brought the reader a photo-reportage essay that caught the epicentre of the violence: his images captured protesters in chains, placards vowing to take up arms for Malema and calling for a reopened probe into the multibillion-rand arms deal.

The groundswell notwithstanding, few foresaw the drastic outcome of the disciplinary committee’s deliberations. “That screeching sound you hear is the shifting of tectonic plates in South Africa’s political landscape,” wrote Sipho: words more prescient than he could have imagined at the time.

Stephen described this historical moment as the “end of a chapter in our politics” – but noted that it presaged the opening of a new, very much unknown chapter.

Indeed, Malema’s political obituary was written by most media outlets. As representatives of the ruling party like to remind the public: “It is cold outside the ANC”.

But as Daily Maverick’s Pauli van Wyk would reveal some eight years later, Malema and his cronies always seemed to find the money for well-padded jackets to keep them warm.

Secrets and lies

Malema might have been in political trouble, but the South African media had headaches of its own in 2011. One particular migraine, in fact: a proposed new law officially termed the Protection of State Information Bill, but soon known to all and sundry as the Secrecy Bill.

In the face of mass protests, Parliament’s National Assembly would pass the Secrecy Bill in November. South African media was united in outrage at the legislation’s potential misuse – including providing for the imprisonment for up to 25 years of anyone intentionally accessing, possessing, disclosing and/or publishing classified information. Branko campaigned vociferously with the former Mail & Guardian editor Nick Dawes, and the current City Press editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya.

Writing for Daily Maverick on the day the bill was passed, Cosatu founding general secretary Jay Naidoo did not mince his words: “As a citizen I am deeply disturbed by the battering-ram approach towards passing the Protection of State Information Bill into law. It fails to realise that transparency is a foundation of the democracy we fought for. Our struggle against apartheid was a struggle for voice. That principle should not be betrayed.”

Daily Maverick’s Scorpio investigative unit would never have been able to bring the public one of the most pivotal plot-twists in post-apartheid South Africa, #GuptaLeaks, had the Secrecy Bill been promulgated in its current form. To this day, it thankfully still lacks the presidential signature needed to pass it into law.

Daily Maverick was beginning to find its feet alongside the big players. But by the end of 2011, some of the publication’s founding friends would depart for less risky climates: media outlets that seemed more financially stable than the always precarious DM.

By the end of the year, Daily Maverick had regretfully bid farewell to not just Branko’s right-hand man, Phillip, but also to its senior political journalist Stephen Grootes. Grootes, upon reflection today, describes his departure in self-flagellating terms as his “career low”, and an “idiotic, inexplicable, incomprehensible and incorrect decision”.

2011 was the year shit got real, placing strain on both the editorial and business sides of Daily Maverick. But there was neither time nor appetite for self-pity. To quote Richard Poplak: “I have zero patience for the ‘woe-is-me’ school of journalism. Go spend a week with a paramedics crew - you haven’t lived until you’ve hosed human brains off your boots during lunch break. Every asshole thinks their job is stressful. We chose to enter this profession, and a much more remunerative career in PR waits for us all.”

Those were words Daily Maverick staffers could have usefully cross-stitched onto a pillowcase before entering the bloodbath of 2012.