Raymond Louw knew who he was: he believed in the ideal normative role of journalism, of acting in the public interest and holding power to account; he believed that you could be a journalist, a researcher/writer and activist all at the same time – but they were all consistent selves in his roles as a board member for media organisations, editor, journalist, researcher (he wrote most of the Misa chapters on the SA landscape over the past 10 years) – chairperson and then deputy chair of the media freedom subcommittee. He always held media freedom positions at Sanef and was totally committed to doing whatever he was asked to do.
His days as an editor, especially his invaluable contribution to the Rand Daily Mail, has been discussed already so I will just talk about Ray Louw the Sanef media freedom warrior – which I don’t use loosely. He was more than an activist. Ray was a founder member of Sanef in 1996.
Ten years ago he wrote in a book, The Extraordinary Editor by Guy Berger and Liz Barrett: “Journalists are concerned about the encroachment on their skills and being turned into copy writers.” Ten years later this still worried him deeply and we spoke about it on our trips to Sanef AGMs, Councils and to IAJ board meetings.
In his dry style he continued: “However, all this is far removed from the reverse advertising influence practised by Russian journalists (and others) who demand fees from companies for placing puffery about them in their news pages.”
Ray didn’t believe that he had done his bit and it was time to rest or retire – not from his wine, nor from his activism. He teased that I couldn’t drink as much as he did.
“I would like to see you drink more than two glasses for a change, on the other hand you are driving me home, so stay sober.”
He would phone exactly 15 minutes after I’d drop him off as he had timed it. The call was quick, 10 secs: “You home safe? Thank you for your kindness, all the best.” Hang up.
A few years ago, close to 10 maybe, we had a council meeting in Cape Town and he wanted to march to Parliament and demonstrate there – over the Secrecy Bill. Mathatha Tsedu looked fierce when he said, “Sit down please, you don’t even know how to toyi-toyi nor the words of the songs.” Ray looked at me for support as I had been egging him on. Of course we backed down in the name of the organisation, and I doubted he could lead us in toyi-toyi. But there were other instances when he defended his positions.
Mathatha sent these words:
“Ray was the quintessential liberal whose only extremity was a fundamentalist fight for media freedom. When it came to defending journalism, you always knew Ray would be in your corner. Ray was the boxer for Sanef, the tireless workaholic who would always be the first with a draft statement, even if we would disagree with the line, but he would defend his position. At a seriously advanced age, Ray would never miss a meeting until it was physically impossible for him to attend. His departure is a closing chapter for those journalists who believed in organisations, in being organised and in transnational solidarity in defence of journalism’s right to exist unfettered.”
Thanks Mathatha for these words, and so apt they are.
Ray knew every law that was in the democratic dispensation that should have been thrown out with the apartheid government – he would remind me about this year after year. He could recite them verbatim.
He was not an ideologue who believed that everything government did was bad: in other words, he didn’t have unreconstructed knee-jerk responses. But he watched carefully. He got involved.
According to the book: Part of the story: 10 years of Sanef – in October 1997 when Cabinet started to transform the South Africa Communications Services, which had controlled state information during apartheid, it accepted the recommendations of “Comtask”, a committee which included Ray. The GCIS was a body with which Sanef established a relationship.
Ray visited journalists in jail around Africa, he consulted lawyers on insult laws (which of course he didn’t believe should exist), he was on the committee to discuss and improve the African Peer Review Mechanism on Sanef’s behalf, totally entrenched in him was the fact that SA was not an island to itself, but was as much part of the African continent as any other country. And he was in the first committee in Sanef in 1997 which discussed an editorial charter – which would keep journalism clean ultimately from dirty interference – including from journalists themselves.
Kate and I visited him in Morningside hospital: just before he had his op – with a huge bunch of colourful flowers from Sanef. He said “that’s a rather large basket of flowers”. He stared intently at the flowers; we wanted to discuss his health and he cut this short, didn’t want to talk about himself and instead asked what was happening in Sanef. Kate told him lots, he and I discussed who to nominate for the Steve Wrottesley award – and he looked very pleased about this, as though we had just solved one of the world’s problems. When I said I’m sure you are going to be up and ready for the AGM on the 22 June, he said, “of course, count me in”, and started spelling out the name of the retirement village enunciating every letter: “R, A, N, D, J, E, S, have you got it correctly? Peering intently at us. He wanted to know where the awards evening was and said he would be there too. Jean, all sparkly-eyed, said she would be there too, for the jol.
As we left him my thoughts were: if we follow this great example, if we stay committed to the end, if we know ourselves, if we know what journalism is supposed to be, and if we fight every infringement the way Ray did; that’s how we will move our industry further, to greater heights. My last thoughts that day were this: that life in a sense becomes easier if you stick with principle – there is less angst – and I felt quite joyous about having seen this Ray of hope for what I didn’t know would be the last time, about a week or so before he left us. DM
A tribute from Sanef by Glenda Daniels (chair of Sanef’s Ethics Diversity sub-committee) 18 June 2019, delivered at Media24, Johannesburg.