Obituary: Dave Hazelhurst, master journalist who helped lift lid on the ‘Info scandal’

27 December 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron
Dave Hazelhurst
Dave Hazelhurst

Dave Hazelhurst, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 77, was probably the greatest all-round journalist South Africa ever had, and handled one of the biggest news stories in the country’s history.

Although he could write brilliantly, it was as a production specialist that he made his mark on the industry and commanded such huge respect in the newsrooms of the country’s most famous newspapers.

He was a master of design, layout and headlines. He had a visceral understanding of news, what stories were important, how they should be covered, what weight they should be given and how they should be presented.

As chief assistant editor of the Rand Daily Mail, he played a typically behind-the-scenes but pivotal role in its coverage of the information scandal in 1977 and 1978.

Also known as “Hazy”, he wrote one of the most momentous headlines  in the country’s history — “IT’S ALL TRUE” — which finally destroyed all the denials by the Vorster and PW Botha governments.

That headline, on Friday November 3 1978, was the culmination of two years of painstaking, dangerous work, most of it contained in memos by investigative reporters Mervyn Rees and Chris Day and locked up in a safe waiting for the right moment to be unleashed.

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Hazelhurst led the team that collated this mountain of material and prepared it for publication — one bombshell after another, until on  November 2 1978 Judge Anton Mostert defied the instructions of then prime minister PW Botha and exploded the biggest bombshell of the lot.

He released an avalanche of evidence from a commission of inquiry he had led in which the main players came clean on the abuse of taxpayers’ money, never dreaming it would be made public.

Hazelhurst had about six hours to ready the evidence for publication. When the Rand Daily Mail came out the next morning, there was enough copy to fill a book.

In their account of the scandal — Muldergate — Rees and Day called Hazelhurst’s achievement the greatest production exercise in the newspaper’s history.

Hazelhurst was born in Barberton on January 31 1938. He matriculated at age 16 from Jeppe Boys High School and enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He passed his first year but  dropped out in his second after being so absorbed as a stage designer for the Wits operatic society that he failed his mid-year exams.

 He joined the Mail in 1956 as crime reporter on the night shift.

After being suspended for being drunk and insubordinate, he resigned and spent what was in his pension fund on second-hand books, including those by his favourite authors, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and John dos Passos, which he still had when he moved home  in 2013.

After a stint at Golden City Post, he became, in 1963 at the age of 25, the youngest editor of Drum magazine.

He had an uneasy relationship with the owner, Jim Bailey, who was irritated by his battle with deadlines.

He remarked that Drum under previous editors was pedestrian, but made the deadline. Under Hazelhurst, he said, it was brilliant but always a cliffhanger. After two years, Hazelhurst said he could not  take Bailey any more and resigned.

His close friend Hugh Lewin, a subeditor on Drum and the Post, and member of the African Resistance Movement, stayed with him briefly after serving a seven-year sentence for sabotage. As a result,  Hazelhurst found himself the object of close surveillance by the security branch.

Sunday Times editor Joel Mervis asked him to build the newspaper’s township edition, called Sunday Times Extra, which he did so successfully that its black readership boomed to the extent that people joked that it was the white edition of the Sunday Times that would soon have to be called the Extra.

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From the Sunday Times, he rejoined the Rand Daily Mail and was chief subeditor under editor Raymond Louw. It was during this period in the early ’70s that he started becoming a legend in the industry. When Allister Sparks became editor of the Sunday Express, he asked Hazelhurst to be his deputy editor. When Sparks became editor of the Rand Daily Mail, he asked Hazelhurst to follow him  there too.

He became managing editor. When the Mail  closed in 1985, he joined the Sunday Star as deputy to   “Buller” Hildyard. The two became inseparable. When Hildyard resigned for health reasons in 1991, Hazelhurst became editor and converted it into a short-lived tabloid.

He spent the rest of his career as creative director for The Star.

He attached great importance to photography and his expertise was recognised when he was asked to serve seven consecutive terms on the then Ilford Press Photographer of the Year judging panel.

He had Alzheimer’s but was killed by cancer of the oesophagus. He is survived by his wife, Ethel, a former financial journalist who  he met when she was a librarian for SA Associated Newspapers, and two children.

1938- 2015