A tireless, committed campaigner
Anton Harber David Astor popped into the offices of The Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) one Thursday morning in early 1986 as we were putting the finishing touches to that weeks edition of what was then a fledgling, penniless newspaper with a staff of five. Both parties were embarrassed: Irwin Manoim and myself, the co-editors, because we had worked through the night, had not bathed for 36 hours, were unkempt and undoubtedly odiferous.
Astor because he stood out in our grubby downtown offices in his Saville Row suit, which probably cost more money than the newspaper had in the bank.
We agreed to meet for dinner. At the end of the day, Manoim and I rushed home, borrowed suits and ties and did our best to look respectable enough for the legendary owner-editor of The Observer and heir to one of Britains largest family fortunes. When we arrived to pick him up at his hotel, he was in his shirtsleeves, jacket thrown over his shoulder. We had dressed up; he had dressed down. We got into our car, and Manoim and I immediately took off our ill-fitting jackets and ties and rolled up our sleeves. When Astor got out of the car following us, he, of course, had put his jacket and tie back on. He had now dressed up; we had dressed down. We looked at each other and laughed. The attempts by both parties to match each others dress codes had failed miserably; Astor had cut through any pretension with grace and charm, as he always would. He became one of the most committed and tireless supporters of the newspaper over the next couple of years. International support and recognition played a key role in ensuring the papers survival in the face of government threats, prosecutions, bannings and in 1988 closure. If there was one person constantly mobilising that support, cajoling editors and anti-censorship organisations around the world, it was David Astor. He whipped myself and Shaun Johnson then a youthful assistant editor to London a few months later to raise money and support for the paper. He insisted we had to stay at his home what was considered a modest house for a man of his enormous wealth, but what for us was a huge, rambling, St Johns Wood mansion, with small rooms over multiple floors filled with people like us the representatives of international causes Astor had adopted. Some of them had been there for years. There was an Asian “general” whom he described as head of an army of seven guerrillas. “Hopeless,” he said of his guest, “but his cause is just, totally just” which meant that he never flinched in helping him. David Astor gave us a basic lesson in British society. When you call important people, he said, you have to leave a message saying you can be contacted at the Astor house. How right he was every call, many of which came from people who had ignored my calls for months, was returned in minutes.
For Astor, the point of having money and status was to put it to use for the things he believed in. He was one of those very rare members of the super-elite who show that there can be real value in someone having access to untold resources when their sole interest is to ensure it is used for the greater good. Always self-effacing and even shy, he asked for nothing in return and spurned public acknowledgement. He spent the week introducing us to people with money in London, some of whom like Joel Joffe or David Sainsbury became long-term and invaluable supporters of the paper; others opened their chequebooks, but one had a feeling that they did so only to stop Astor insisting and they never quite knew why they had supported this sharp-tongued, cheeky left-wing rag in a country they had long since written off. It was a turning point for the paper. For once, we had some money in the bank, and we had developed a network which we would call on whenever PW Bothas government threatened us. Over the next few years it only took a call from us to Astor to bring a flood of letters of protest from Fleet Streets best-known editors to South Africa House. More than once, it held off the authorities itching to act against us. It certainly meant that when the paper was closed in 1988, it was for only a month, a period we were able to survive. When David Astor died in his sleep last week in London aged 89, this newspaper, South Africa and Africa lost an important ally, and anti-censorship causes around the world a valuable supporter, funder and campaigner. But what I remember most clearly is his ability to cut through pretension. Taking Johnson and me for lunch one day at the Athenaeum, his fancy London club, he saw me gaping at the awesome scale of the entrance hall.
“Appalling waste of space,” he mumbled. Anton Harber, now Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University, was founder co-editor of the M&G from 1985 to 1997