South Africa

OBITUARY

Raymond Louw: A Journalist’s Editor

Former Rand Daily Mail editor and press freedom champion Raymond Louw. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Werner Hills)

Raymond Louw was the courageous editor of the Rand Daily Mail during the era of apartheid prime minister John Vorster. He was the right editor for his time — his term almost exactly matched Vorster’s 12 years in office. Vorster was a ‘jackboot’ premier and Louw stood up to him as editor from 1965 until he was fired by the newspaper’s board in 1977. In the four decades since, he made a niche for himself based on one consistent principle — press freedom is inviolable, no matter who is in the government.

The death of Raymond Louw around 2am on Wednesday 5 June, less than 24 hours after his wife, Jean, marks the end of an era for generations of South African journalists touched by his unshakeable support for media freedom and journalists, no matter from where the threat came.

During Raymond’s editorship of the Rand Daily Mail, studies found more than 70% of the United Nations’ material on apartheid came from his newspaper. It was that important. It was the source of information before the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), before New Nation, before Vrye Weekblad, before Grassroots. There was nothing to match it. Its material appeared in the Cape Times, the Daily Despatch and other sister papers across the country every day.

He was the right editor for his times: His term as editor almost exactly matched John Vorster’s 12 years as prime minister, from 1966 to 1978. Vorster was the “jackboot” premier, and Raymond stood up to him as editor from 1965 to 1977, when the newspaper’s board fired him while he was presiding over a firm rise in the paper’s circulation.

The Rand Daily Mail was started in 1903 by Edgar Wallace, who came to Johannesburg as a war correspondent covering the Anglo-Boer War. Wallace would later be world famous as a novelist, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, but in the decades up to and after World War 2 the Mail was not a great paper. It was Laurence Gandar who took it over in 1957 and turned it into a globally admired force.

Gandar was an intellectual, courageous but excruciatingly shy in public. Raymond was among the team who would later be called “Gandar’s kindergarten”. They came in and cleaned the place up, putting it on to a footing of principle and fight. Louw drove the news, Gandar the opinions.

Gandar was the intellectual who challenged Hendrik Verwoerd’s arguments as he was weaving the apartheid fantasy, trading arguments, point for point. Gandar, and later Louw, had his supporters in management, but there were always compromisers or racists ready to take advantage of a misstep, and eventually they got Gandar out. Raymond’s appeal was his professional strength in news. He was only 39.

In the office, he proved every bit as clear as Gandar when it came to principle. But he had the toughness to win every fight on the merits. That proved crucial: Raymond’s term as editor almost exactly matched Vorster’s as prime minister. And it was Vorster who backed the intellectual deceit of Verwoerd with the jackboot, changing the laws, promoting General Hendrik van den Bergh to the newly created Bureau of State Security (BOSS), further eroding legal protections he had promoted as Minister of Justice.

Everyone who encountered Raymond found him larger than life. Engaged, exuberant, interested, principled. But he was not an editor the public automatically knew about — he was a journalist’s editor. He wanted you, the reporter, to shine, not him.

And he had courage.

Ray never backed down. I felt those were the best years of the Rand Daily Mail, but I came after Gandar, so I’m not qualified to compare.

A key to his success was his grasp of the detail of every story and his sound judgment on what was needed to make it lawsuit-proof. He would call the duty editor and question the final version of every story there were concerns about.

When Cabinet ministers challenged our facts, he sent us to the telephone switchboard to call names in a telephone directory until we found confirmation we had got the event right. He once made me do that, and when I found confirmation he wrote a bold front-page piece telling the relevant minister he stood by our story.

His career as a journalist was delayed because of prejudice against his Afrikaans name. The paper he joined did not have black reporters. He would be the first to concede more could have been done. Yet, as he ascended the ladder, he opened the door to become crucial support to the careers of Peter Magubane, the photographer, and Zwelakhe Sisulu, later editor of New Nation and CEO of the SABC.

It’s hard to believe, but he was removed as early as 1977, while circulation figures were rising. In the four decades since, he made a niche for himself based on one consistent principle — press freedom is inviolable, no matter who is in the government.

With his wife Jean, he crafted a new career by starting a newsletter, Southern African Report, which they produced every Wednesday for worldwide distribution. It survived several decades into the internet era. He spent the rest of the week fighting the fights of his life, for free media. He visited a Cameroon jail to meet an imprisoned editor, then met the president to call for his release. He went to President Mandela for help in freeing journalists in other countries, when he could.

He was a founder and pioneer of successive anti-censorship bodies including the Freedom of Expression Institute, training bodies like the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, as well as school boards and Ifa Lethu, which looks after the art bequest of two Australian former diplomats, Dianne Johnstone and Bruce Haigh.

He received two honorary doctorates, countless other awards, and served on the boards of PEN, the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).

But Raymond never accepted that the Mail needed to die. He made repeated efforts to save it, searching for new owners or funders, leading delegations to the shareholders to try to persuade them that the paper was in trouble because of bad management decisions, not its anti-apartheid policies.

He loved life. In hospital days before his death, he demanded that his son Derek take him home so they could have a whisky.

He was admitted to hospital about a month ago with a kidney infection. After a minor operation he was shifted to intensive care.

Last week his wife Jean had a fall and fractured her right elbow. She was operated on and returned home. On Tuesday her doctor examined her, but she weakened and died. Raymond was told the news that day. He was sedated, but understood. Around two the next morning, his heart gave in. He was 92, Jean was 87.

Friends and family thought it fortunate they died within a day of each other — we could not really imagine either without the other. They are survived by his son Derek and daughter, the actress Fiona Ramsay. DM

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