The career of a maverick

2010-11-17 00:00

DENIS Beckett, then a clerk, was once called a “cheeky little bugger” by Justice Oscar Galgut for (mis)using the judges’ car park. Such irreverence has characterised a long and maverick career in journalism. Never one to choose the conventional route, his professional rule — “I talk to anyone, upfront independence is my armour” — produced a colourful working life.

He was employed by Weekend World at the time of its banning in 1976 and then by Voice, which faded into oblivion. Beckett did not and founded Frontline. Amazingly he produced, sometimes erratically, more than 100 issues over eleven years. He printed what he felt was important and attracted a substantial readership. Predictably, Frontline attracted malign attention from the government and several issues were banned.

Famously, Beckett was involved in two defamation cases, losing to Mangosuthu Buthelezi and triumphing over Johnny Johnson, editor of the Citizen. But Frontline was often also the object of rage from the politically correct extraparliamentary opposition, which was regularly less than attentive to democratic norms in its pursuit of democracy.

The unfashionable often looks more plausible in retrospect. Beckett’s scorned campaign for a spoilt vote in the 1982 white referendum on the tricameral system had considerable virtue. His worry that the anti-apartheid movement was too absorbed in what it was against at the expense of what it was actually for, has returned to haunt us. And his ideas about grass-roots democracy, while wacky, were an early warning against cadre deployment. If more people took his advice that voting is as much about opposition as approval, South Africa would be a different and more successful place.

Radical Middle sums up Beckett’s unusual career perfectly. He is a free thinker par excellence and when he gets hold of an idea he knows how to keep your attention. Writing much as he speaks can be a little trying for the reader, but perseverance is duly rewarded. Christopher Merrett


Radical Middle: Confessions of an Accidental Revolutionary

Denis Beckett


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