Rian Malan

The Great White Hyena

Rian Malan on the Boer whose racy tabloid has challenged South African pieties by championing such traditional values as witchcraft

Cape Town

‘This is a goer,’ declares Deon du Plessis. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the Great White Hyena is presiding over a news conference in the Johannesburg offices of the Daily Sun, the largest daily in Africa. Mr du Plessis is publisher and part-owner. Seated before him are his editor, Themba Khumalo, an amiable Zulu in a baseball cap, and a cheerful menagerie of subs and reporters. Some weeks ago they ran a story headlined ‘Dark Secrets of Crime Terror!’ which revealed that unscrupulous witch-doctors were charging up to £8,000 for magical potions (almost) guaranteed to render thieves and armed robbers invisible to police. Now fate has delivered a follow-up in the form of two criminals caught at a Soweto roadblock with 19 stolen credit-card machines in their boot and a bag of magical potions dangling from their rear-view mirror. There are photographs. ‘I like it,’ says Deon. ‘This is front-page.’

It’s also a cue for a bout of reminiscing about similar stories, of which the paper has carried many. ‘Penetrated by a python’ featured a woman ravished by a snake that came out of the toilet. ‘Raped by a gorilla’ told the story of a witch-doctor who sent a giant ape-like creature to punish a woman who had spurned his love proposals. Rewrite man Denis Smith, formerly of Paddington, recalls a story about ‘stuff in a bottle’ that was ‘supposed to give you a permanent hard-on’ but instead rendered a Sun editor unconscious for four days. By now everyone in the room is incapacitated with laughter. The Great White Hyena wipes tears from his left eye (the right is covered with a piratical eye-patch necessitated by recent surgery) and says, ‘What on earth will they make of this at the Dorset Echo?’

Well, yes. Du Plessis may sound like a joker, but he’s also the central figure in a tabloid revolution that has outraged the pious, shaken corporate monoliths, lured three million virgin readers into the newspaper market and triggered a furious battle about questions of national identity.

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