IF YOU'VE ever thought how brilliant it might be to own a newspaper, spare a thought this morning for Koos Bekker, the CEO of Naspers, the owners of City Press. A few years ago it was an also-ran, a poorly edited and rather bleak Sunday paper aimed at middle-class Africans. Today it is the centre of the known media universe in this country, the object of a hate-filled boycott led by the ruling ANC and its government and adored by a significant band of readers who you could classify as "new" South Africans.
It is now edited, with considerable genius, by a woman, Ferial Haffajee, who is not an African at all. With lots of support from her bosses, she has quite fearlessly rebuilt the newspaper in her own image - making it more open to debate and to non-Africans - and become probably the country's first celebrity editor in the process. The electronic media loves her and she loves them back. Thoughtful, conciliatory and gentle, she is, for an editor, wildly popular. This is Koos Bekker's problem, because Ferial has now planted him firmly in the political spotlight by refusing to bend to ANC demands that she remove from the City Press website a photograph of the painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals hanging out of his trousers.
I don't think she should ever have put the picture up in the first place. It was a clear and conscious decision, though, and you could almost plot what was going to happen. In 1999, as editor of the Financial Mail, I also incurred the wrath of the ANC by endorsing Bantu Holomisa ("Put This Bantu Back in his Place" ran my oh-so-witty cover) in that's year's election - the result was the most harrowing two months of my professional life.
With hindsight, as I am sure she will find, it was not worth it. You survive. Time passes. Nothing changes. The Holomisa thing will make it into my obituary, if anyone bothers to write one. The president's penis will be in hers.
But as Zuma's supporters prepare to march on the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg tomorrow to "defend" the ANC as its leaders have called on them to do (in Alliance speak this can involve the throwing of rocks so let's hope the gallery is insured) the space in which this issue can be dealt with calmly is shrinking.
Although the original painting has been defaced, the City Press website continues to show it. Koos Bekker's problem is that his star editor cannot now take it down in the face of threats, no matter how severe, without looking like a coward. Had Zuma's advocate not broken down in court the other day, the judges might have come to his (Bekker's) rescue by ordering it removed, which would have had the beneficial result of making the newspaper look like a victim and Zuma triumphant. Alas, it has been delayed.
It isn't, of course, the newspaper that matters. It's MultiChoice, Bekker's huge and incredibly profitable pay-TV business that keeps Naspers as profitable as hell here that matters. And MultiChoice lives off a licence regulated by, um, Jacob Zuma's government. What to do?
In my humble opinion, Bekker would be within his rights to ask his editor to remove the threat to the wider business, though it would do his image as an amiable publishing wizard little good. But there are palpable signs of his unease. Naspers could have dramatically raised the print run of City Press in the face of the ANC boycott threat yesterday but it didn't and the paper sold out in many areas it normally doesn't.
And with every new threat, Ferial's instinct not to be pushed around will harden. She can be fierce, if at times disapproving - she whipped up the moral posse that cost journalist-cum-socialite Kuli Roberts her column on Sunday World and it would probably have been the same compulsion that carried the presidential penis onto her website.
But the issue and its resolution one way or the other lies now in her hands.
Zuma won't help. He has been strengthened by the row over the painting and looks more politically assured than ever. He and his advisers have cynically used it to their benefit.
The true story of his Presidency, though, was laid bare on the front page of the Sunday Times yesterday - a school in Limpopo where children are still taught under trees. There are many of those around the country.
The fact is that, his private life aside, Zuma has failed this nation many times over and the painting row means he might get to carry on doing so for another seven years. It is an unbearable prospect, and in the national interest I think Ferial Haffajee should remove the picture from the City Press website.