With a towel in his lap to protect himself from sunburn, a thermos of coffee and some hard-boiled eggs, Frans Hugo, a 90-year-old journalist, sets out on his weekly 1,200-kilometre trek through the South African Karoo desert to deliver his newspapers.
He’s accustomed. For forty years, Charl Francois Hugo, known as Frans, has gotten into his car every Thursday to start the long journey from Calvinia, a city of less than 3,000 inhabitants located in the middle of the wild immensity of the south of the country.
If he stopped doing so, his Afrikaans-language newspapers — The Messenger, Die Noordwester and Die Oewernuus — would likely disappear with him. With his little transistor at the wheel — the car radio hasn’t worked in a while — he starts his drive northeast and then south.
“I stop in all the small towns,” he told AFP during a recent tour. He leaves at 1:30 a.m. and returns 18 hours later, having delivered stacks of newspapers to many locations with the help of his cane. This desert region has seen a recent influx of newcomers, artists or loners fleeing the hustle and bustle of big cities.
“In the Karoo, we talk about ‘pompdonkie’,” says Frans Hugo, referring to a regularly moving water pump that empties the reservoirs. “I have become a ‘pompdonkie’ myself. I go out every week with the regularity of a metronome. I will stop when I can no longer physically do it ”, he assures.
Born in Cape Town in 1932, he worked as a journalist there for about 20 years, and then in neighboring Namibia for ten years. “We worked day and night. I couldn’t take the pressure, so I moved to the Karoo,” he explains. “The owner of the Calvinia printing press asked me if I was interested in him. At that time my daughter was interested, so I thought that with my son-in-law they could run the business and I would help them. After a few months, they got bored and I was done with it, ”he recalls.
The Messenger newspaper was founded in 1875, and the other two local newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century. Frans, his wife, and three of his employees continue this legacy at a time when so many print newspapers around the world are struggling to survive in the digital age.
They come out weekly and are written in Afrikaans, one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, inherited from the Dutch colonists, but they also occasionally include an article or advertisement in English. Frans, with white hair and the appearance of an old sea lion, does not like those who consume his news online.
“We are printing fewer newspapers. But with 1,300 weekly issues, the need for local news is still there,” he says. His newsroom looks like a museum, with its old Heidelberg printing press and its paper-cutting guillotines, which are no longer in use.
He says he is not worried about the future of his small group of press. “I have no idea what will happen to him in five or ten years. But no, that doesn’t worry me.” Actress Charlize Theron caused a stir in South Africa in November when she claimed that her mother tongue, Afrikaans, was only spoken by “about 44 people”.
For Frans, the survival of his newspapers demonstrates, on the contrary, that the isolated inhabitants of this semi-desert region need to maintain a connection. And as long as I have strength, they will receive news every Thursday without fail.