The man who was the last editor of the Rand Daily Mail, editor of the Sunday Express, deputy editor of The Star, the founding editor of Mining News among many other roles in South Africa’s newspaper world, has died.
Rex Gibson, who was 89 years old, died on Monday night. “Our beloved father died peacefully last night with all his daughters and his partner, Pat, by his side. What a grand life he lived,” one of his three daughters, Kerry Gibson, wrote on Facebook.
Gibson was editor of the Rand Daily Mail when it published its last edition in April 1985. Long a voice against apartheid, which reported on issues faced by black South Africans, the newspaper was hamstrung by its board in the 1980s, and forced to publish more moderate stories, which ultimately led to its demise 83 years after it was launched in 1902.
Gibson told the story in a book, The Final Deadline (The Last Days of the Rand Daily Mail), published in 2007, which he wrote after he retired from journalism, and moved to Hermanus. It was described as a “tale of corporate manipulation, mismanagement and hypocrisy”.
Gibson was enormously respected by the journalists who worked under him. As the Financial Mail reported in 2010, Gibson was “one of the few editors to face charges under the infamous Official Secrets Act, and also defended himself and his paper against the much rarer charge of criminal defamation”.
Former journalist and author John Matisonn calls him “one of the most courageous editors it was my privilege to know and work for. He stood up for his journalists no matter the pressure”.
He told The Media Online: “I probably had more cause to be grateful for his courage than anyone,” Matisonn says. “He appointed me his parliamentary correspondent and sent me to Cape Town. Within two weeks I was refused accreditation on the grounds that I was a security risk. Rex flew to Cape Town immediately, saw the Speaker and the Minister of Police, Jimmy Kruger, who told him they had evidence about me that would make my journalism unacceptable.
“Rex refused to let the government choose his political correspondent. For three years he sent me to parliament even though I was barred entry into the press gallery. He made it clear he would keep me there indefinitely.
“Later, when I was charged with refusing to divulge a source in the *Muldergate scandal, it was Rex who protected me by ensuring I had legal representation and that he would stand by me when I indicated I would not betray a source to stay out of jail.”
Breaking the Muldergate story
Matisonn said Gibson was “low key” who did some of his proudest work as editor of the small Sunday Express, which had a “tiny” budget. “Yet on the Sunday Express, he took the decision to break the Muldergate story wide open when other editors were still debating what to do. It was his front page lead headline announcing that the government had secretly paid to start a newspaper, The Citizen, and then lied about it, that started the flood of stories that ultimately brought down President John Vorster. I was in the office the day he took the decision despite the nervousness he and his colleagues felt as a small paper with minimal resources taking on the apartheid state.”
Matisonn said Gibson’s death was a sad loss for the country and for journalism, “… but South Africans can take pride that his are among the shoulders on whom democratic South Africa’s great investigation journalists and their editors stand as they expose corruption and impropriety by both government and private individuals”.
Public advocate at the Press Council of South Africa, Joe Latakgomo, worked at The Star with Gibson who was deputy editor at the time, while Latakgomo served as senior assistant editor. “I don’t think there is anybody who knew Rex who did not feel touched by his brilliance as a writer and team leader,” he says.
“He led the leader-writing team, and he was brilliant in stating the publication’s position on issues. He mentored me, and more than anything else, I held him in high regard for the role he played in exposing the info scandal and taking over editorship of the Rand Daily Mail.”
An article that saved lives
Latakgomo says he is unsure what happened to Gibson’s manuscript on the Upington 26, “a story in 1985 which he wrote, first as an op-ed piece…he told us he had planned it as book. Fourteen of the accused were sentenced to death for attacking and killing a policeman on the ‘common purpose’ doctrine. The article probably helped save their lives. I think it was titled ‘Casting the first stone’”.
Latakgomo says Gibson “and others of the time helped shape journalism, and many joined the profession because of their influence. He certainly was a jolly good fellow, too!”
Veteran journalists and journalism trainer Raymond Joseph says while Gibson was small in stature, “Rex Gibson was a giant of South African journalism who fearlessly fought the tyranny of apartheid as the editor of both the Sunday Express and as the last editor of the Rand Daily Mail”.
He says Gibson was “one of the last survivors of a generation of great RDM journalists, including Ray Louw, Allister Sparks and Dave Hazelhurst, who played a defining role in South African journalism and in the history of our country.
One of his greatest battles
“In an industry that was filled with larger than life characters, Gibson was no exception. Outwardly a calm and gentle man, he had an iron will and refused to bend to personal attacks by the National Party against him personally, as the editor of the RDM, and on his beloved paper.
“Ironically, one of his greatest battles, which he sadly lost, was against the owners of the RDM who closed down the paper 83-year-old paper under pressure from the government. He chronicled this final showdown and his time on the RDM in his 2007 memoir, The Final Deadline.”
In a statement, the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) said it mourned Gibson’s death. “SANEF sends condolences to the families and friends of Mr Gibson. He will be sorely missed.”
SANEF quoted adjunct professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, Anton Harber, who described Gibson as a “solid, brave and principled journalist who stood firm under difficult circumstances”.
“He did all he could to save the Rand Daily Mail. He fought a great fight against the establishment. He did what he had to do, and, in a sense, it was unfortunate that the newspaper was dying, and mainstream media was in a low place.”
“I respected him. He always asked for more from journalists in the newsroom.”
*The Muldergate scandal, which was also known as the Information Scandal, involved Prime Minister BJ Vorster, Dr Connie Mulder (Minister of Information) and Dr Eschel Rhoodie (Secretary of Department of Information). They were implicated in plans to use government resources to fight a propaganda war for the then apartheid government. Vorster in 1973 agreed to Mulder’s plan to shift about R64 million from the defence budget to undertake a series of propaganda projects. Plans included bribes of international news agencies and the purchase of the Washington Star newspaper. Vorster was also implicated in the use of a secret slush fund to establish The Citizen, the only major English-language newspaper that was favourable to the National Party. A commission of inquiry concluded in mid-1979 that Vorster “knew everything” about the corruption and had tolerated it. He resigned from the presidency in disgrace. ~ Source: AP Archive
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