Business, Media

Deon du Plessis: a man truly larger than life goes on the great sabbatical in the sky

By Mandy De Waal 12 September 2011

The white hyena, the gun-loving boer, that great newspaper man who gave SA’s blue-collared hordes news worth reading is no more. In his place a giant of a legacy – a tabloid every flailing newspaper’s trying to copy in a sector where the Daily Sun remains unrivaled. By MANDY DE WAAL.

“Everything changes all the time…the one constant of life is that nothing is…constant.” Two days before he died of acute bronchitis at his Johannesburg home on Sunday, Daily Sun publisher Deon du Plessis’ words of farewell to his readers were published on the tabloid’s blog.  “Your good natured and mostly-cheerful (except in winter) columnist is bailing out of these woods from next week.”

Du Plessis was due to take the first sabbatical of his lifetime and was planning to enjoy three months off from the world of news and attention-grabbing headlines, but unfortunately passed away before that became a reality. “I have never had a holiday like this before… so actually I have no idea what I’ll do with it,” Du Plessis wrote in his column.

His brainchild, Daily Sun, is an unrivaled phenomenon in the South African newspaper world. After close on ten years, the Daily Sun remains SA’s biggest selling daily by far, with sales of some 380,000 plus.

Du Plessis was the managing director of Independent Newspapers Gauteng region when he came up with the idea of a local tabloid for the masses. He twisted the media group’s arm as far as he could and even produced a dummy of the tabloid, but Independent didn’t appreciate his vision.

What Tony O’ Reilly and Independent’s Irish press owners couldn’t value in the man who was to become the king of local tabloid journalism, Naspers readily recognised and was only too happy to snap him up. The Irish got egg on their face when Du Plessis launched the Daily Sun and the circulation just wouldn’t stop rising. It gave the Sunday Times a kick where it hurt, and in 2004, stormed into local publishing history by averaging over 300,000 sales daily, and reaching 2.3 million people. The tabloid then became the best-selling and widest read daily newspaper in sub-Saharan Africa.

When asked to describe The Daily Sun, the man the industry called “The Great White Hyena”, but who at the tabloid was referred to as a “super editor” said: “We’re hard as nails. We’re like our market. Don’t give us any shit, we’ll come for you. We stand for the guy in the blue overall”.

The ruddy faced newspaper man that the Washington Post called a “a brash, hulking white Afrikaner” may have been the antithesis of his black working class readership, but he knew at a gut level what people wanted to read. And read voraciously they did.

Author Rian Malan wrote of Du Plessis’ editorial process in a 2005 piece for The Spectator subtitled “The Boer whose racy tabloid has challenged South African pieties by championing such traditional values as witchcraft”. Malan describes the morning news conference in the Jozi offices of the Daily Sun where Du Plessis and his editor Themba Khumalo are talking about a front page story about expensive witchdoctor’s potions that render criminals invisible.

Malan writes that the team start reminiscing about “similar stories, of which the paper has carried many. ‘Penetrated by a python’ featured a woman ravished by a snake that came out of the toilet. ‘Raped by a gorilla’ told the story of a witch-doctor who sent a giant ape-like creature to punish a woman who had spurned his love proposals. Rewrite man Denis Smith, formerly of Paddington, recalls a story about ‘stuff in a bottle’ that was ‘supposed to give you a permanent hard-on’ but instead rendered a Sun editor unconscious for four days. By now everyone in the room is incapacitated with laughter. The Great White Hyena wipes tears from his left eye (the right is covered with a piratical eye-patch necessitated by recent surgery) and says, ‘What on earth will they make of this at the Dorset Echo’?”

Malan makes a telling point in this piece about a post-Mandela nation where white-owned newspapers are transformed by BEE deals and black management, but where the only daily to grab three million virginal readers from a predominantly black audience was headed by a white gun-loving hunter who drank abundantly, swore and had a business philosophy, that as Malan put it, was cleaved from Conan the Barbarian.

Under Du Plessis’ direction Daily Sun quickly became the social currency in townships too often ignored by a more elitist mainstream press much to the annoyance of people like Joe Thloloe, SA’s press ombudsman who once said the tabloid “exhibits contempt for black South Africans”.

Du Plessis didn’t give a shit. Nor should he have. Alongside sensational headlines, Du Plessis and his team have covered local news in Diepsloot, Mabopane, Khujawana Village and so on where other press don’t venture into unless there’s a public execution, xenophobia or violent insurrection.

Pythons, witchdoctors, aliens – Du Plessis was the first local publisher to unashamedly give South Africans a daily they wanted to read, and is a legend for being the first newspaperman to make news relevant to the working class. DM



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Photo: Sally Shorkend

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