The most engaging raconteur I have ever met

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

I first met Deon du Plessis at the Sunday Tribune offices in Field Street during the early 1980s where he was deputy editor. He was a giant of a man – I stand close to 6 feet tall, but he towered over me and was almost twice as broad as I am. By the time I returned to the country in 1994, he was by then editor of the Pretoria News. He was widely expected to become editor of The Star in Johannesburg, but instead became the editor’s boss – as Managing Director of Independent Newspapers Gauteng.

It was at that stage of his career that I renewed acquaintance with him in 1996 when he interviewed me for the position of deputy editor of the Pretoria News. He did not give me the job, which left me slightly miffed, but called me thereafter to offer me another job. “Editing is for peepee jollers,” he said. “I'm creating a position for you and want you to work with me.”

I quit my job in Durban and moved up to Jo’burg. Deon was waiting for me on my first day and showed me to my new office right in front of his. He then took me on walkabout through the massive Star building with its hundreds of employees. He walked me through every single department, and wherever we went, he introduced me to every single employee he came across by name, telling me who that employee was and what he or she did at the company. It was my first astonished insight into just how hands-on he was with everything that went on under his leadership.

At the end of the day, I heard his voice bellow across the passage: “Boet! Come in here and let’s drink like white men!”

I walked into his office where he had whipped out a bottle of Bell’s which he poured over ice into two lead crystal glasses. “What’s this about ‘white men’, Deon?” I asked him. “I thought I came here on a promotion!”

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“Ja, ja,” he gestured to the seat in front of him passing a glass to me. “Now look here, my good fellow…” (In the months to come, I would learn that this was a signature phrase of his to indicate something important.) “I’ve got one instruction for you. Don’t f*** the help.”

“What?”

“Don’t pomp the peasants!”

“Deon, what are you talking about?”

“Listen boet. There’s a lot of attractive women here. They will look at you, see that you are young and moving up in the company. Don’t do it! Keep it outside!”

And thus began what was to be a whirlwind mentorship with the most engaging raconteur I have ever met. I became a regular dinner guest at his Houghton home where he and his wife Vanessa wined and dined guests with genuine warmth that is generally the cultural purview of Indians and Jews. Deon, for all his outward boorish bluster, was astonishingly well-read, particularly on military history and strategy and would constantly draw life lessons from the successes and failures of the past.

During the day, he led by example. We went into annual wage negotiations with the unions with Deon representing head office, me representing Gauteng, and two other colleagues representing KZN and the Cape. “I don’t want any raised voices!” he cautioned us. “We are the voice of reason. We are sweetness and light. If any of you raise your voices, you will buy dinner for all of us out of your own pocket.” (Wage negotiations were concluded promptly and in our favour!)

Deon was passionate about the idea of starting a national tabloid newspaper catering to the lower end of the market. We put together the business plan and presented it to the board. They shot it down, saying it would never work. Deon’s resignation announcement came the following year: “I'm 47 and I want to spend the next bunch of years doing things that I could not have done in a big corporation like this. … I'm not leaving Johannesburg because this is the city I love, and I'm not leaving newspapers because it is the industry that I love.”

The rest is history. The Daily Sun became the biggest media success story of the 21st century. Amidst the “Tokoloshe ate my testicals” headlines, the newspaper provided genuine down-to-earth advice on how to get an ID document, how to open a bank account, how to apply for a loan. In the foyer of their offices stands a life-size cardboard cutout of a black man wearing blue overalls carrying a copy of the Daily Sun. “That’s our reader,” Deon told me. “We must always be reminded of that.”

Deon du Plessis is dead. The words do not roll easily off my tongue because it is akin to saying there will be no high tide today. The man who by sheer force of personality built The Daily Sun into the biggest newspaper in the country is no more. There are some who will say that 59 is too young to die, but then as Ridley Scott says, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

Tot siens, groot baas. With much love and respect.