Larger than life: Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis, who died at the weekend, was a larger-than-life figure in every sense of the word. He was also a paradox.

A giant former body builder with an appetite for good company fuelled by copious amounts of liquor, he was also an incredibly private and shy person. He had a coarse turn of phrase, yet chose his quips with the care of Winston Churchill, of whom he was a great admirer.

Du Plessis will be forever remembered for creating South Africa’s highest-selling daily newspaper, the Daily Sun, nine years ago, which he initially conceptualised as the inaugural managing director of Independent Newspapers Gauteng, a subsidiary company of Independent News and Media South Africa which publishes The Star and Pretoria News, among 17 other titles.

Yet it was during this same tenure that he also oversaw the launch of the Sunday Independent, and the group’s massively successful daily financial newspaper, Business Report.

There was no stomach, though, for a working-class tabloid, so Du Plessis left Independent and – after being hospitalised for a triple bypass – went to Afrikaans newspaper group Media 24, who partnered him in the launch of the paper.

Immortalised at Media Park, News 24’s Auckland Park head office, by “the man in the blue overalls”, its success set teeth on edge, especially in academic and intellectual circles who derided it for what they claimed was its staple diet of witchcraft stories and soccer reports pandering to the lowest common denominator in the market.

Du Plessis was undeterred by the criticism, pointing to the number of new readers who would never have read a newspaper before and pointing out all the good the paper had been able to do, particularly in sorting out readers’ problems.

While the Daily Sun will always be his testament, Du Plessis had a glittering career at Independent Newspaper’s predecessor, Argus newspapers, working in many of the group’s offices, Durban, Cape Town, Joburg and Pretoria.

Du Plessis joined the Star as a 18-year-old cub reporter fresh from his national service as a military policeman and became an Africa correspondent in the group’s erstwhile Argus Africa News Service that he made his name.

Deon du Plessis at the 120th birthday of the Diamond Fields Advertiser.

He reported on the independence and subsequent wars in Angola and Mozambique as well as on Zimbabwe’s independence, where he was the group’s bureau chief. On his return to South Africa, Du Plessis narrowly avoided getting jailed under the Official Secrets Act for a manuscript he’d written on South Africa’s illegal arms supplies to the then Rhodesia. He was detained and then prosecuted in a secret trial.

Following a string of promotions over the years, he was offered the editorship of the Pretoria News, long a springboard to editing one of the group’s top three titles.

With the advent of democracy, a controlling interest in the Argus company was sold to Irish entrepreneur Tony O’Reilly, who took a shine to the raconteur in Du Plessis, leapfrogging him over far more senior colleagues to become one of three regional managing directors at the age of only 43, an immediate consequence of which was the highly publicised resignation of The Star’s editor-in-chief, Richard Steyn, who refused to report to a man who had previously been his junior.

Du Plessis forged on regardless, creating an operating unit that stretched from Pretoria to Kimberley in his inimitable gruff way.

His parties were the stuff of legend – guests at his Houghton home were once memorably treated to him singing Ek Bly ’n Blou Bul to the accompaniment of a Steve Hofmeyr CD as he impaled a bread roll on the end of a cavalry sword – as was his love for military history and martial verse.

He once recited Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade from memory to a Pretoria News team on their way to Holland to check out a new editorial publishing system.

On Friday, writing in his online blog of his impending three-month sabbatical awarded by Media 24, he said he would go to Portugal to sharpen up his rusty Portuguese that he had learnt in Angola and Mozambique, following in the footsteps of the “Duke of Wellington as he kicked the French out of Portugal in the early 1800s. That, I prophesy, will lead me to the bigger battlefields of the same peninsular campaign in Spain. Then I will probably go to Cadiz because it sounds romantic and I want to hear the Atlantic crashing on the sea-walls”.

It was not to be. He died at home on Sunday of acute bronchitis.

A private funeral will be held on Friday.

Originally published on 14 September 2011 by IOL.