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Tribute to Raymond Louw: a great SA editor and determined activist

- Anton Harber

Veteran journalist Raymond Louw (93) passed away recently - a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and tireless press freedom campaigner and mentor.

Anton Harber delivered the eulogy at his funeral. This is an edited version.

There are dictators and autocrats who are breathing a little easier today. The intolerant, the narrow-minded, the scared, the defensive, the haters of freedom and particularly freedom of speech, are watching us lay to rest the man who never left them alone.

Like a mosquito on a hot summer’s night, Raymond Louw buzzed around the heads of those who challenged our right to speak our minds. They cursed him and tried to swat him away, but he persisted, circling, watching and settling wherever he could to disturb and irritate them. Today, they hope they can rest a little easier, because Ray is gone.

There are lawmakers who are thinking: perhaps now we can slip a Bill through without “Oom Ray” (“Uncle Ray”, as he was known), noticing that it has implications for media freedom. There are political leaders who will be thinking, maybe now I can get in a swipe at journalists without him giving me a hard time.

And, if we are to be honest, there are also many of Ray’s friends and colleagues who feel that they might get a brief rest. Because the man who cajoled and prodded them, who constantly reminded them of the need to be alert and vigilant for new threats to our freedom, the man who volunteered first and then obliged you to follow him, who wrote countless petitions, memoranda and policy documents, who never slowed down, has left us.

Yet Ray was the one with the energy, the steely resolve and the staying power. Even at 93 years old, until the last few weeks, Ray was the most solid, consistent and reliable activist in the world of anti-censorship, putting to shame younger men like me. When we were exhausted, Ray would keep going. When we wanted to give up, Ray would not let us.

There are a number of parts to Ray’s legacy.

Oom Ray’s legacy

If we just think of him as the finest editor of one of the finest newspapers, it would be enough for a legacy. There are others who were more ostentatious and quicker to claim credit for the international reputation of the Rand Daily Mail as the newspaper which covered the brutal horrors of apartheid better than any other media of the time, an often lone liberal voice in a cacophony of reactionary hostility and white paranoia.

But I can tell you, as someone who has spent time going through the newspapers of that period, the paper stood out from its peers for its commitment to fine, critical and independent journalism – and that it was at its best and its strongest during Ray’s 11-year editorship. When he took over from Laurence Gandar, the man who had turned it from a right-wing rag to a powerful and important critical liberal voice, he told the board of directors he would continue with that tradition. That was Ray – he would not mislead or disguise to get the position; he was straightforward, scrupulously honest and firm in his views. And it was under Ray that the paper reached its zenith in circulation, impact, and was even in profit.

Ray oversaw the Rand Daily Mail’s coverage of the June 1976 students’ uprising, during which apartheid police killed unarmed schoolchildren. The paper covered those epochal events better, fuller and quicker than its rivals. Ray was first and foremost a hard news man who placed the highest value on getting the story and, above all, getting it right. Journalists who worked under him will tell you that he was a demanding task-master who set high standards, but if you got it right, he would back you to the hilt and stand between you and those who would attack you.

It was Ray who brought the first black reporters and photographers into the newsroom. When a white photographer objected to sharing a darkroom with the now legendary photographer Peter Magubane, Ray’s hands were tied by the law. So he set up a special darkroom for Peter on the roof of the building to get around the segregation laws and ensure Peter could continue working. Peter will tell you that he enjoyed the solitude of his out-of-sight darkroom, and that Ray stood by him during his lengthy spell in detention.

Journalist’s journalist, editor’s editor

If we think of Ray as someone who rose from the bottom ranks of newspaper to reach the pinnacle, self-made and self-taught, that would in itself be a legacy of note. Rejecting the path of engineering, he found himself a position as what was then called a copyboy, the lowliest newsroom person who ran with the copy from typewriter to typesetter. He worked his way through the newsroom, step-by-step, reporter, sub-editor, news editor, night editor, and then editor.

It is important to remember what a time it was. The apartheid government was at its strongest, most ruthless and most authoritarian. There were few voices within the country standing up against it, and the Rand Daily Mail’s was one of the most consistent of them. It is true that the newspaper operated within the constraints and limitations of the time, within the framework of the law, commerce and the white parliamentary politics. But it constantly pushed at these boundaries, covering black politics, township life and the horrors of apartheid more than any of its competitors.

When Ray was retired as editor, and later as a manager, it was an early sign of the assertion of short-term commercial interests over a longer-term vision for South Africa and its journalism.

If we just considered the period after Ray’s editorship, when he gave his time to the cause of anti-censorship, his extensive work there would also present an admirable legacy. For around 65 years in journalism, he had our backs. He didn’t have to like you, or agree with you, and if so he would certainly let you know, but if you produced good journalism, he would defend you and your work with passion and determination.

He read every Bill, he scoured all the news, read every court document, he was vigilant in seeking out any hint of a threat to freedom of speech, and he would be on it: consistently and relentlessly.

An editor and an activist

So we will remember him as a great editor and a determined activist. But Ray was also a man of unbending principle: you never had any doubt about what he believed, what he thought and what he stood for. He was firm, consistent and solid as a rock. He had a spine of steel. And he was an impeccable gentleman.

Every now and then there is a death which gives us pause, a legacy which makes us stop and reevaluate our own lives and values, that has us thinking how much more we can do with our time and our resources and the balance between our public and our private lives. Every now and then there is a model of a life lived to the full that we have to stop and ponder, and see if we could possibly match up to it.

Ray’s life was one of those.The Conversation

Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.