Since news of the death of founding editor and publisher of the Daily Sun, Deon du Plessis, made headlines early this week, the journalism fraternity has been awash in stories as robust as the man’s attitude to life and newspapers.
Du Plessis died on Sunday, at the age of 59, after suffering acute bronchitis.
Just a few months before his death, The Media magazine interviewed the man about his career and the choices he made. After all, he launched two newspapers in his career, and they couldn’t have been more different in character. Asked what attracted him to newspapers, Du Plessis said: “Newspapers are a powerful form of communication.”
Under his leadership at Independent Newspapers in Gauteng, the highbrow Sunday Independent was born. And later, he was convinced there was a huge need for a middle market tabloid that would talk to a mass readership. And so his idea for the Daily Sun was born.
“The powers at Independent didn’t buy into that vision,” recalls Sandra Gordon, publisher of The Media and TheMediaOnline. “He touted the idea for the tabloid all over the place but it was only Koos Bekker at Media24 who understood his vision and supported him in launching the Daily Sun.”
It was that vision that turned him into one of the most powerful publishers in the country. The Daily Sun hit the spot, and brought millions of new readers into the newspaper world. It has over five million readers and those readers, Du Plessis told The Media, are where the country’s power and money base resides. “The fact that political leaders like Helen Zille campaign in townships and not suburbs like Parktown North, proves this point,” he said.
As media consultant Raymond Joseph said on Twitter, “Deon Du Plessis was the father of South African red tops. He proved tabloids don’t have to be cheap and nasty, but can be a force for good”.
Of course, Independent Newspapers were forced to rethink their stance on a mass-market tabloid, and not too long afterwards, the Western Cape’s Daily Voice was born to try and counteract some of the power of the Daily Sun in that market.
“Deon’s death leaves a huge void. He was a consummate journalist and a taskmaster of note,” Daily Sun’s editor-in-chief Themba Khumalo said in a statement shortly after news of his death broke.
In June this year, The Media magazine wrote that “Deon du Plessis is the quintessential image of an old school newspaperman, with his thick cigars, Klippies and Cokes, booming voice and larger-than-life appearance.”
In the story, The Media noted that writer Rian Malan once aptly described Du Plessis as “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.”
Born in 1951, Du Plessis grew up in Afrikaans home in Johannesburg and went to King Edward High School. Ironically he has never worked in Afrikaans media. “I think Afrikaans is a wonderful speaking and writing language, but I grew up in a house that was opposed to the government of the day,” he told The Media.
Because he couldn’t accept that the Afrikaans media supported the Nationalist Party, he chose to do a cadets course through the Argus Group instead. After a solid base in the newsroom, he became deputy editor of the Sunday Tribune, editor of the Pretoria News and eventually also managing director of Independent Newspapers in Gauteng.
Peta Krost Maunder, editor of The Media, recalls working for him during the launch phase of the Sunday Independent. “He was head of Independent Newspapers in Gauteng when we launched the Sunday Indie. Boy, did we have fabulous parties at his house! He really was a larger than life person, with his big cigars, Klippies and Coke and his fabulous laugh. RIP Deon!
Krost Maunder’s post on Facebook when she heard news of his death unleashed a flurry of memories from journalists and media colleagues across the country.
Tara Turkington: He gave me one of my first jobs, at the Diamond Fields Advertiser. RIP.
City Press’s Babalwa Shota: “His people equally loved and feared him, but most importantly they respected him. May he rest in peace.”
Nicole Johnston: My most vivid image of him is when he was at Independent and I was with MWASA – we used to lock horns a lot. One day after WEEKS of wage negotiations, I was giving him stick about maternity leave and he lost it. Got up, walked to the wall, and started banging his head against it, shouting ” I CANNOT take Nicole Johnston ANY more!” 😀
The IAJ’s Shelagh Foster: On Thursday he went on ‘sabbatical’ (for health reasons, I gather) and he died of a heart attack yesterday afternoon. He’d had bronchitis for a couple of months. I know that he was liked and disliked in almost equal measure, but he was a genius of a publisher. My condolences to his family and friends.
Ann Donald: The scariest day of my career was when I had to resign from the Pretoria News to take up the editorship of Longevity. He crapped all over me for wanting to go to a ‘magazine for wrinklies’, didn’t speak to me for the month of my notice or the next 10 years, then told me at a Media24 conference when I was editing Fairlady, the I ‘did good’. An enormous man in so many other ways than the obvious. What a loss to the industry and to his family.
James Mitchell: A real people, that one. I once returned from a long lunch at Kapitan’s (remember that) with a mate: phoned the wrong number and got Deon. He invited my mate and I to come on up: there was a bottle of whisky waiting on his desk and he told us told us to go down to the far end of his office and drink it (quietly, if possible).