This month an icon of African journalism that I once briefly worked with, died. Hannes Smith born March 17, 1933, died August 5th, 2008 at age 75. He was affectionately called Smithie, an English nickname I think he would have preferred over the Afrikaans version of Smittie which many people used.
I knew him as the founding editor of the Windhoek Observer but he always thought of himself as its chief reporter — and indeed he was. My consultancy, Intelligent Ideas, converted his paper to desktop publishing in the late 80’s (early in 1989 as best I can recall).
He was a bright articulate man who didn’t mince his words. Working only from his notes and memory, he dictated stories to his Compugraphic operator to the precise column length required to fill a news hole. Something only he was sure of. We had to wait for the galleys to be played out on bromide, cut into columns and stripped up on the tables to witness the magic of his mental casting. He did this for years before we had write-to-fit text editors.
Caption: Hannes Smith dictating one of their last photolithographic stories to his Compugraphic operator, in the week we converted Windhoek Observer to desktop publishing.
Speaking of stripping, the only casualty of my converting the Windhoek Observer to electronic page makeup was a “coloured” man called Eddie. He stripped up the galleys on inclined tables using hot wax. Incredibly he was illiterate. He managed to do this feat by being organised. He’d cut the long galleys into column lengths and kept the separate pieces in sequence on the pasteboards until each was needed. He wasn’t able to read the material he was stripping but they told me he never made a mistake sequencing the columns. Like the rest of us Eddie got to hear most of the day’s news being recited by Hannes to his Compugraphic operator. Because Hannes dictated-to-fit so precisely, Eddie never had to play the role of a stone editor, cutting off sentences to line up the columns. Unfortunately his inability to read meant he could not cope with the pull-down menus of PageMaker and he was forced into an early retirement from the newspaper business as a consequence.
There was a salacious side to Smithie which earned him the alternative nickname of Smutty. He included raunchy nudes in the Windhoek Observer, often lifted from old copies of Playboy and sometimes, it was rumoured, he personally photographed the local “ladies of the night”. One day, the staff told me, a policeman from the security branch came to complain about the topless woman in print without nipple caps. Local laws prohibited exposed nipples. Hannes explained that the two black stars offset by an inch or so from the subject’s nipples were in fact a bona fide attempt to cover up the lady but that they had been mis-registered at the press, no fault of their’s he explained. It seemed like a plausible explanation which the policeman apparently bought. The inside joke here is that the nude was printed on a monochrome page where, unlike colour pages, registration does not apply. The stars were deliberately offset. Hannes had used print jargon to flaunt draconian censorship laws and boldly print a topless woman in a mainstream Windhoek newspaper — and got away with it!
Hannes will be remembered, however, for his more serious side: He was a fearless opponent of any abuse of authority, apartheid included, the South African occupation of Namibia and even the government of independence which succeeded the South Africans. He managed to scoop most of the regional papers with stories of graft, corruption and political ineptitude. He was a newspaper man second to none.
I came to work for Hannes in Windhoek after helping to resurrect Gwen Lister’s newspaper The Namibian in late 1988 after it was firebombed by a para military white supremacist group called Die Wit Wolve (the white wolves), but that’s another story for another time.
Suggested reading: Journalism.co.za’s article Hannes Smith – the end of an era | Afrik.com’s article Founder of Windhoek Observer, Hannes Smith, dies at 75 | An institution amongst journalists, Hannes Smith – alias Smithie – passes away | Gwen Lister