Deon du Plessis marched into the editor’s office for his interview for the position of trainee journalist on the broadsheet Star, Johannesburg. He was still wearing his army boots after waging war in the name of apartheid. Forty years on, in his obituary, he would be hailed as the king of the red tops, the father of South African journalism aimed at the poor, black working classes. Such was the change that had come over a nation.
Bentley couldn’t help but ponder the irony, and comment on it, as he sat there, reading on the internet of Deon du Plessis’s death, of a heart attack, at the age of 59.
Bentley hadn’t seen du Plessis for a good quarter century, from the time he had left a nation still mired in the policies of racial segregation. The obituaries Bentley were now reading described du Plessis as larger than life and the journalist had certainly loomed large in Bentley’s memories over the years, when he cast his mind back to his days in South Africa.
Deon du Plessis had stood out in the troubled, fractured but fascinating country. You couldn’t miss him, even in a profession known for its extraordinary, even bizarre exponents. He was one of the pantheon of characters that made Bentley so grateful he had found journalism as a career, and had spent a lifetime in a world so far removed from the boring and mundane one that ran in parallel with it.
Du Plessis was big in both personality and physical size, standing close to two metres tall. He was only fractionally taller than Bentley, if taller at all, but when they were together, du Plessis always seemed to tower over him, sometimes thrusting out his chest, which was layered in rippling muscles. Du Plessis worked out, strenuously, in his home gym 40 minutes every day and it was only in later years that Bentley learned this was to keep diabetes at bay, a condition du Plessis had managed to keep a secret until one day passing out at the wheel of his car and coming close to being killed.
Bentley always had the impression that du Plessis, confronted by someone is own size, just had to come up centimetres taller. Du Plessis never looked up to anyone.
It was not just du Plessis’s muscly bulk that made him stand out. He was an Afrikaner and had chosen to make his career, and life, in the English-speaking world in a nation that at that time was dominated by two white tribes.
This career path was easily explained. Du Plessis had always wanted to be a journalist but as an Afrikaans speaker he would have to a join a press that supported the South African government’s apartheid policies. He had grown up in a household opposed to apartheid so he ventured towards the Star, South Africa’s biggest newspaper and one that did not support segregation.
From that first day a scrubbed and shaved du Plessis walked into the Star offices - fresh off a troop train from the South African-controlled territory that would later become an independent Namibia - he presented a figure of curiosity. There were other Afrikaners in the newsroom but none as strident and proud of his heritage as du Plessis. Du Plessis drew attention to himself, the professional Afrikaner.
Bentley warmed to du Plessis when they first met, as young reporters in the Star journalist’s watering hole, the Elizabeth Hotel.
Du Plessis by then had been with the Star for a couple of years and was just back from a stint in its London office, a secondment for keen and rising reporters, filling in at peak holiday times during the English summer, and he regaled those gathered in the pub with his stories of covering a murder involving a South African stowaway on a ship. The young woman had hidden on the cargo vessel with a friend, trying to reach England, only to be murdered by one of the crew, and have her body dumped overboard.
Du Plessis had been dispatched to the port city of Southampton and had not had time to take a change of underwear and socks. His time in Southampton was spent filing copy to meet his South African deadlines, and washing his only pair of socks, hanging them on a radiator in his hotel room. Told with an Afrikaans accident, rolling the ``rs’’ and with Afrikaner curses thrown in, it made a fine story over Castle and Lion lager on a hot Johannesburg afternoon.
All the same Bentley was wary of du Plessis. Bentley had cut his teeth in Fleet Street, where ruthless ambition was the name of the game, and du Plessis displayed the same determination to get to the top, and nothing it appeared from an early stage would get in his way.
Bentley, as a travelling journalist who knew that one day he would drift back to Britain, had no ambitions in the company beyond a good posting within South Africa or its neighbouring countries to expand his adventure and so did not feel threatened by du Plessis as others did, those who were also trying to get on the ladder of promotion.
Bentley, although wary, had another reason to befriend du Plessis. Bentley, as an Englishman, did not have much exposure to Afrikaners and their culture and du Plessis provided a window on it, even if from an early stage it would cost Bentley heavily in drinks at the bar.
Du Plessis was a bully, if an outwardly friendly one, and when he said ``buy me be-er’’ - pronouncing beer in two syllables and rolling the r - the people in his company usually obliged. And later on, when they became travelling foreign correspondents, du Plessis would say ``hand over your foreign currency’’ at various airports where they crossed on assignments, and Bentley would not find it in himself to resist.
Du Plessis in pursuit of his ambition realised a route to the top within the Argus Newspaper group, the owners of the Star, was to join the company’s Africa News Service.
He learned Portuguese and served in Mozambique and Angola before their independence precluded him travelling to their capitals because he had a South African passport, and then an assignment beckoned as head of the Argus bureau in the Rhodesian capital of Salisbury.
Du Plessis’s exploits in foreign places became legend, not least his failure to master the equipment required of such postings, such as tape recorders and cameras. His giant hands seemed incapable of loading film, and Bentley time after time had to come to his rescue when a film, threaded through the sprockets inside the camera by giant and cumbersome hands, had became further mashed and sliced by du Plessis’s violent attempts to wind it on when it was obviously stuck.
``Buy me be-er’’ was the refrain when Bentley went to du Plessis’s assistance in such situations, opening the back of the camera and seeing shards and flakes of film drift to the red African earth.
Du Plessis was one of the few South Africans Bentley had met who said they enjoyed their compulsory miliary service and it followed that du Plessis would warm to the conflict in Rhodesia, with embattled whites resisting black aspirations.
Perhaps du Plessis saw the struggling white minority, battling against all the odds, as a metaphor for his own people’s struggle against the British empire in two Boer Wars.
Du Plessis, especially in Bentley’s company, would rail against the English and their slaughter of Afrikaner woman and children in the concentration camps, into which they were herded to stop them supplying the Boer guerrilla fighters waging war on the English.
Bentley knew the facts, that the woman and children, tens of thousands of them, were not deliberately killed, just victims of disease in such cramped conditions, but he still felt at times ashamed of his English heritage, something fuelled by his growing interest in Afrikaner history and culture.
Du Plessis spotted the weakness. ``Buy me be-er’’ became more frequent. It was usually bought on expenses, but it involved all Bentley’s creativity to hide du Plessis and his drinking from the company accountants.
Du Plessis enjoyed hanging out with soldiers, and for a time had a former soldier, a wild Scotsman, as his number two in the Salisbury bureau. They’d leave the press club to search out soldiers in soldiers’ bars. Usually they mixed with the officer classes in their haunts at night, like the Meikles Hotel, although the Lions Den at the Windsor Hotel, a popular troopie bar known for its fights, was a popular hang-out during the afternoons.
It was not only the Rhodesian military brass who captivated du Plessis with tales of daring-do in the bush. He was also strangely drawn to the Rhodesian police force, perhaps because du Plessis’s own military service had been with the South African military police. He spoke once with pride at being invited to participate of a sacred ritual of the British South African Police, as they were still termed in the aftermath of the British Empires conquest of Northern and Southern Rhodesia. After the annual dinner of the officer corps, the police officers were invited to gather outside their headquarters in a leafy suburb of Salisbury and urinate in unison behind a hedge. It was with great pride that du Plessis had recounted his participation next day, but at the time did express some reservations about being a party to such a practice.
The event also proved a point being increasingly noticed by his editor back at home base in Johannesburg, Wilf Nussey. Deon du Plessis was getting a little to close to the figures of white power in Rhodesia, and was in danger of losing his objectivity in reporting the bush war, and the rising black aspirations behind it.
The editor of the Argus Africa News Service took Bentley aside and said he was worried about du Plessis becoming ``on side’’ and would have to make a replacement. Bentley put up his hand to go, but during his time in Salisbury Bentley was always struggling to resist the influence of du Plessis. Bentley was later miffed that du Plessis should arrive for the independence celebrations, and take over the story, after Bentley had covered the final two years of the bush war leading to elections and black rule.
``How much Rhodesian dollars you got’’ were du Plessis’s first words on arrival at Salisbury Airport, where Bentley had gone to meet him. ``Buy me be-er on expenses.’‘
With the birth of an independent Zimbabwe, du Plessis with his South African passport found it increasingly difficult to travel to the rest of Africa and he now set his sights on moving up the promotional ladder inside South Africa itself. He was offered a position as deputy editor of the Sunday Tribune in Durban, but still Bentley could not escape his clutches, and bullying.
Now firmly in the executive ranks, and married to a member of a prominent Afrikaner family from the eastern Transvaal platteland du Plessis, would begin to assume the characteristics and appearance that would mark him out in later life.
As the South African writer Rian Malan would aptly describe him, ``Du Plessis was the sort of Boer that the English have been caricaturing for centuries: a jovial giant with thighs like tree trunks and a great raw slab of a face. He likes guns and big-game hunting. He eats and drinks to excess, tells dirty jokes, swears.’‘
After his own Africa experience, Bentley had been posted to New York as United Nations correspondent and one day a telex arrived that du Plessis was coming to the Untied States. He had been given a study tour of the US State Department and he made his first port of call New York where he insisted on staying with Bentley, even though hotel expenses were included in the package.
Bentley tried to resist, saying he had a girlfriend staying on a semi-permanent basis, but du Plessis turned up at his Manhatten apartment anyway, demanding Bentley take him out on the town, on expenses.
Du Plessis made Bentley take him to the annual Gay Pride Parade, which happened to be on at the time, and Bentley suspected du Plessis had never seen a gay person before. And a little later du Plessis, writing his weekly column for his newspaper, but with American datelines during his trip, regaled his readers with the story of his stumbling into a gay bar in San Francisco by mistake.
Bentley, under protest, was forced to type the story dictated to him from the West Coast and then transmit it on to South Africa, du Plessis dismissing his suggestion that he file it himself from his hotel.
And de Plessis stayed again on the outward journey, this time making conversation with Bentley through the open door of the toilet while relieving his bowels.
Durban and Natal province was too small for the growing bulk, and growing ambition, of du Plessis. He yearned for the centre of power in South Africa, the Transvaal and he was to secure editorship of a relatively small but nonetheless influential newspaper, the Pretoria News, in the nation’s joint capital city.
Bentley had returned to Britain by this stage but he still kept an eye on the career of du Plessis, fascinated to see how far it would take him in a nation headed increasingly from rule by Afrikaners to black South African tribes.
At independence, the newspapers of the Argus group were bought by an international company, the Irish-based Independent Group, but du Plessis managed to keep a step ahead of the inevitable Africanisation of senior editorial positions to became managing director of the company’s regional operations in a region changing its name from the southern Transvaal to Gauteng.
Here he convinced the Independent to open a quality, Sunday newspaper but another ambitious plan, a tabloid newspaper for urban Africans was rejected. Du Plessis was so convinced of the potential of this second project that he resigned and took his plan to another publisher, and they backed him. The Daily Sun was born and became an instant success. Within a few years it had become the biggest-selling newspaper in sub-saharan Africa, with a circulating approaching 400,000 and a readership at possibly four items that.
Du Plessis had recognised the new dawn for South Africa. It might be a country where the white man had lost power but it also brought forth new opportunities for the Afrikaner. No longer were they the enemy. In the new South African du Plessis could play on his liberal Afrikaner heritage as he had done under the employment of the English-speaking Argus Group.
He was now not just a caricature to the English, but an even larger caricature of an Afrikaner to Africans, who no longer feared Afrikaner rule. There was an accommodation to be reached, in the same way that African tribes had learned to co-exist with the previous dominant tribe of southern Africa, the Zulus, after conflict dating back to pre-European colonisation.
Du Plessis still found time for his hunting and guns. He was called by his African staff the Great White Hyena without a hint of disparagement or malice, the hyena not meant to portray a scavenging beast, but one of power. The animal somehow went with the image of a man, as an African colleague noted in the obituary he penned, who drove the biggest car, lived in the biggest home - a mansion in the exclusive suburb of Houghton once favoured by mining magnates - and smoked the biggest cigars. Du Plessis also had the biggest bodyguards, not that he would have needed them.
On his death he was hailed in an official statement by the South African Government as not only the king of the red tops, but as a pioneer of African tabloid journalism.
The government had long noted the influence of his newspapers in the black townships where Du Plessis appealed in his signed editorials to the common ``guy’‘.
But critics of his racy style of tabloid journalism were sceptical it contributed to black advancement. Sex, crime and black magic stories were staples.
Bentley was particularly interested in the observations of Rian Malan, whom he remembered as a young reporter doing the police rounds at the Star in the mid-1970s.
Malan wrote of the du Plessis editorial process in a 2005 piece for The Spectator, whose introduction described du Plessis as ``the Boer whose racy tabloid has challenged South African pieties by championing such traditional values as witchcraft’‘.
Malan described the morning news conference in the Johannesburg offices of the Daily Sun where Du Plessis and his editor Themba Khumalo were discussing a front page story about an expensive witch-doctor’s potion that was said to render criminals invisible.
Malan wrote that the team started 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 recalled 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 was incapacitated with laughter. The Great White Hyena wiped 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?’‘’
On hearing of du Plessis’s death, Bentley looked for more words about him on the internet. He turned finally to their old newspaper, the Star, and there a story caught Bentley’s eye, not about du Plessis, but a troubling development in the new South Africa.
The High Court in Johannesburg had banned the singing of a protest song of the Youth League of the ruling African National Congress.
The song was a throw-back to the days of anti-apartheid protest and was called ``Dubula iBhunu:’‘, or ``shoot the Boer’‘.