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Ryland Fisher

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A tribute to the ‘Judge’

There are many people who are probably more qualified than me to speak about Ronnie Morris, who died in his sleep early on Saturday evening.

However, I have my memories of him that I feel I want to share.

Ronnie was a legend in the newspaper industry and was hugely respected by just about every body in the legal fraternity for his work as a high court reporter over many years for the Cape Times.

He was, in my opinion, easily the best high court reporter in the country. I remember walking with him through the high court (or supreme court, as it was then called) in Cape Town and how he greeted everyone, from judges to cleaners and court orderlies.

This was probably one of the reasons why he was able to get so many good court stories and quite often exclusively.

Our nickname for Ronnie was “Judge” because of his extensive knowledge of the law. In fact, we used to believe that judges consulted him before delivering their verdicts in certain key cases. Of course, we will never know whether this was true, but this was an indication of the esteem in which he was held.

I seem to recall that Kanthan Pillay, who was then managing editor of the Cape Times, came up with this nickname.

Ronnie later became Cape editor of Business Report, a position he held at the time of his death. While I was pleased with his promotion, I felt that we were losing a major asset in court reporting, something that is not given enough seriousness in South Africa.

I met Ronnie for the first time in about 1980, or even earlier, and our paths crossed several times over almost 30 years, culminating in my editorship of the Cape Times when he was the high court reporter.

Ronnie covered most of the big legal stories and it is testimony to his abilities that, even today, there are judges who felt comfortable if he covered their cases. These same judges sometimes felt nervous when other, less experienced journalists covered their cases.

On Sunday I bumped into a respected Cape High Court judge who told me he had wanted to speak to Ronnie about a case that was coming up in his court. He said Ronnie was the only journalist who would have understood the significance of the case.

But Ronnie was more than a journalist. Because of his immense legal knowledge, he also became a tireless trade unionist in Newspaper House, where he worked. Over the years, he was often the leading light in the South African Society of Journalists, which later became the South African Union of Journalists.

I remember being one of the founders and leaders of the Association of Democratic Journalists in the mid-1980s. The ADJ was going to be a rival to the SASJ, which we saw as a mainly white organisation while the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa was an exclusively black organisation. I was one of the journalists who felt uncomfortable in both organisations.

Ronnie remained committed to the SASJ but helped us tremendously with establishing the ADJ.

About a week ago, I bumped into Ronnie and a Newspaper House colleague at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and they told me how Ronnie was assisting his colleague in a case against his employers. Ronnie was confident that he was going to win the case.

Since the demise of the journalists’ unions, Ronnie had effectively been working as an unpaid consultant to journalists in trouble with their bosses.

Ronnie was by far the smartest dressed journalist I knew. He was of the old school in this regard, always wearing a suit. He belied the myth that journalists could not be smartly dressed.

His big weaknesses, apart from his passion for the poor (which was, in fact, a strength) were wine and women (and not necessarily in that order). He always used to joke that he was the chairperson of the “Celibate Society”, a claim that not many believed.

One of the big stories Ronnie covered under my editorship was corruption in the Western Cape department of labour. His stories tremendously upset the then director general of labour, Sipho Pityana, who got a very senior government official to call me. The government official told me that he was calling on behalf of Pityana who was upset at the stuff that Ronnie had been writing.

I called Ronnie to my office and asked his whether he was absolutely certain of his sources. He told me he was and that he had more revelations for the next day’s paper. I told him to go ahead and write the new allegations.

I then called the senior government official and told him that I stood by my reporter and warned him that we were publishing more serious allegations the following day.

I had enough confidence in Ronnie not to doubt his word.

Hamba kahle, my friend and comrade. Journalism, indeed the world, is poorer without you around.

This article originally ran on my ThoughtLeader blog.

 

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