OBITUARY

Laurence Owen Vine Gandar

(1915 -1998)

Editor, Rand Daily Mail 1957 to 1965, Editor-in-Chief 1966-1969



The features that impacted on one when confronted by Laurence Owen Vine Gandar as he presided over the evening news conference at the Rand Daily Mail was the ascetic profile, the piercing hazel eyes, the air of reserve and the economy of words as he ticked off items on the news diary.

There was an aura of cool remoteness which appeared to defy attempts by his staff to get to know him better and which, on occasion, infuriated the authorities who were trying to intimidate the English-language Press in general -- and the Rand Daily Mail in particular.

This was the man who changed the face of South African journalism at a time when the National Party government was getting into its stride with its programme of apartheid. As the Nationalists were legislating for separation of the races to the ultimate degree, Gandar, whose editorship began in 1957, stood out as a firm and loud solitary voice in the establishment opposition, denouncing apartheid, pleading for the political emancipation of the blacks and urging economic integration.

Indeed, Gandar was on a crusade. He wrote leaders and articles under his byline exhorting white South Africans to make the inevitable, ineluctable choice. Whites could not have the best of both worlds, enjoying the fruits of economic integration and ignoring their political obligations.

They had to make a choice, on the one hand of political separation which would require enormous economic sacrifices, and on the other, economic integration which would demand extensive political concessions.

It was an argument which upset whites, especially those in government -- but also members of the board of the owners, SA Associated Newspapers, who grew increasingly restive when circulation figures dropped and advertising revenues began shrinking. Rand Daily Mail readers were also upset as well as the advertisers.

Some people complained that Gandar was ahead of his time, but clearly he helped condition the mindset of white South Africans to accept that the only just and equitable solution for the country was majority rule. His liberal philosophy of non-discrimination, of freedom, tolerance and justice for all, forcefully injected into the thinking of white South Africans at that time, helped prevent this country from sliding into civil war, a circumstance that regretfully has not been acknowledged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He introduced to South Africa investigative journalism, or journalism which lifts off the lid on issues and matters of public concern rather than merely reporting around them. He concentrated on exposing the government's attempts at social engineering which invariably meant the removal of black people from homes they had occupied for generations to generally bleak and inhospitable areas of the country, the iniquities of the ``pass laws'' and the abominable treatment of blacks in prison.

This last subject resulted in a series of articles about prison conditions (in 1965) that reverberated around the world and which resulted in Gandar and the reporter, Benjamin Pogrund, undergoing an eight-months' trial after which they were convicted and fined (with Pogrund being given a suspended jail term as well).

The authorities removed Gandar's and Pogrund's passports and on one occasion, thugs fired shots at the Rand Daily Mail offices. But the impact of the newspaper exposure -- one of the most courageous and far reaching of its kind ever published in South Africa (the only other of a similar dimension were the later Afrikaner Broederbond exposures in the Sunday Times and the Muldergate revelations) -- was international surveillance of SA's prison system and the forced revamping of the conditions under which prisoners are held in jail.

These events and the growing unease of the board resulted in Gandar's dismissal as editor of the Rand Daily Mail and his eventual retirement, in some disillusion, to the South Coast of Natal.

Laurence Gandar was born in Durban in 1915 and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree at Natal University after which he joined the Sunday Tribune and later the Natal Daily News and the Pretoria News. During World War II he served in North Africa and Italy in the Royal Durban Light Infantry ending up as a Brigade Intelligence Officer in the 6th Armoured Division's 12th Motor Brigade with the rank of captain. In 1953 he joined Anglo American Corporation's public relations office from which he was plucked by SAAN General Manager Henri Kuiper to be editor of the Rand Daily Mail. The only directive he was given was that the Mail traditionally supported the United Party, but he insisted on and was given ``complete editorial independence'' -- which he interpreted as giving him the right to support the United Party offshoot, the Progressive Party (now after several mutations, the Democratic Party), in 1959. It was this support that helped Helen Suzman's long tenure as the only liberal voice in Parliament and the eventual rise of the party and finally the demise of the United Party.

He won many international awards both for the paper and himself, the most prestigious being the American Newspaper Publishers' World Press Achievement Award after the prison series in 1966.

But the image of the remote Gandar in the newsroom was misleading. Behind the aloofness was a warm, friendly and generous spirit with a captivating and lively sense of humour, a most hospitable host and a man who loved the arts, good food, wine and good companionship. He died in Pietermaritzburg yesterday, a few months after the sudden death of his son Mark, leaving a grandson, Owen.


By Raymond Louw, Editor and Publisher of the weekly current affairs newsletter Southern Africa Report and Editor of the Rand Daily Mail 1966-1977.