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14 Dec 2001 00:00
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.
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
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