Stanley Uys, 1922-2014

Paul Trewhela on the passing of the greatest of South African journalists

Stanley Uys - the greatest of South African journalists, whose career stretched from 1943 until his final article on Politicsweb, "Will Zuma go?", on 16 December last year (an appropriate date for such a historically-grounded political analyst) - passed away in his home in London on Saturday 11 January, aged 91, peacefully doing a crossword with his wife, Sarchen. He had been working earlier the same day on a further article for Politicsweb.

We will not read his like again. For 70 years he lived, and died, in the craft.

Through his editing and writing together with a young James Myburgh of the blog from 2005 to 2008, he was the founder of dedicated online political journalism with a focus on South Africa, and the step-father of Politicsweb, having previously been parliamentary correspondent, political editor and assistant editor of the Sunday Times for 28 years.

Before his "retirement" in 1985 at age 62, he had been associated with South African Associated Newspapers for 42 years, having taken up his position as London editor in January 1977.

Ruth First brought him secretly to interview Nelson Mandela in hiding in Wolfie Kodesh's tiny flat in Berea in Johannesburg in 1961, before Mandela's illegal trip to the PAFMECSA conference at Addis Ababa in January 1962. Three decades later, Mandela teased Stan when they met - in a very different political age - that really, Stan had not been very impressed by him....

He saw with his own eyes the assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in Parliament in September 1966.

He was credited by Joel Mervis, the veteran editor of the Sunday Times (and Stan's boss over his entire time with the paper, in an extraordinarily productive collegial relationship), of having finished off the once-governing United Party with a series of articles culminating in an attack on the UP in September 1972 as a "verkrampte Mafia", thus opening space for the Progressive Party - with its more enlightened policy on the franchise - and ultimately for the DA.

As the doyen of political journalists, Mervis later decribed in his book, The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper Story

(Jonathan Ball, 1989), how Stan "built up a network of contacts and connections so extensive that, as often as not, the news came to him. We likened him to a spider, sitting at the centre of a web of communications, confidently aware that something would turn up."  Utterly unusually for a journalist, the Cape Times accompanied his retirement in 1985 with an editorial in tribute to his "exceptional" stature, noting how he wrote with a "maturity and sharpness of vision seldom attained in daily  newspapers. In his long career Stanley Uys has become the best known commentator on South African affairs in the world, drawing on years of experience in the Press Gallery of Parliament. He is a superbly detached analyst of complex, swiftly moving situations...".

Yet the Cape Times could not have guessed how Uys's rigour, experience, inquiring mind and quietly analytical approach would continue to provide South African and world readers with insight into this most complex of societies, through huge changes until after the funeral of Nelson Mandela, more than 50 years after their covert meeting in Berea.

No other South African journalist covered its affairs so comprehensively, over such a long period and across the transition from print to digital media, and with such dignity and human kindness. 

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