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  April 2009


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Legacy left by asbestos harms this generation. Busrep of 24 April 2008. 'The most fitting way to respect the memory of my colleague Ronnie Morris, who died suddenly two weekends ago, is to keep alive one of the issues that was closest to his heart - the deadly effects of mining, and in particular asbestos mining. Over many years, Ronnie helped to expose the moral corruptness of mining companies that had to be dragged to court to meet their responsibilities towards the labourers who extracted their fortunes. Ronnie told the stories of miners whose employment contracts often amounted to early and unpleasant covenants with death, and of communities that continued to battle with asbestos mining's aftermath. The mines have now been rehabilitated, but surrounding land and structures have not. There are still families living in houses whose home-made brick walls bristle with asbestos fibre. Children run around in yards where asbestos was worked and bagged. Like the landmines of forgotten wars, the asbestos legacy is maiming a new generation. These environmental rehabilitation costs are not likely to be borne by former asbestos miners such as Cape and Gencor. If and when the state gets round to a co-ordinated clean-up of asbestos in communities, taxpayers will bear the costs. Of course, the communities themselves pay the most in respect of poor health. In telling these stories, Ronnie highlighted the hidden costs of mining in South Africa. No wonder his was not a popular name with mining houses. He gave importance to the experiences of people the companies would prefer we forget, lest they remind us that mining profits are being underwritten by our society at large. If mining houses operate within the ambit of the law, it is a legislative system that absolves them of financial responsibility for lung diseases in exchange for paltry contributions to an inferior compensation system that pays a lump sum of R35 000 to each worker who is fortunate enough to be within travelling distance of a testing centre, who has the financial means to make the trip and whose lung deterioration is deemed great enough. There are no medical or pension benefits. It is a system that over decades has been crafted with the input of mining houses. Less than a year ago, Ronnie wrote about the desperate plight of claimants who had used up their compensation. I never understood properly why Ronnie insisted on using a portion of his annual leave to make his yearly trek up to Kuruman in the Northern Cape to see first-hand the effects of asbestosis. He implied it was so that he could do his work without the constraints of deadlines, but there was always a hint of something else, a more deeply personal attachment to this issue. I may never fully understand his reasons, but I caught a glimpse after reading a moving tribute from occupational health lawyer Richard Spoor, who remembers "Ronnie holding the emaciated hand of an asbestos worker dying in his cot. Ronnie carrying him out to lay him in the cool shade of a mulberry tree." I remember Ronnie being saddened - even sickened - when his impartiality was called into question after the mining entities he was writing about took issue. People are not remembered for so-called objectivity, which by definition exists only in a theoretical world devoid of experience. They are remembered for their humanity, little kindnesses displayed towards others and, perhaps in the case of good journalists, their tenacity in writing about the truths that the powerful prefer remain hidden. It is for those traits that Ronnie remains a role model

A true credit to his profession  April 20, 2008

Ronnie Morris, the Cape editor of Business Report, died suddenly in Cape Town on Saturday last week.

Ronnie was a journalist of a type that is increasingly rare today. He was happiest out in the field engaging with the people afflicted by the injustices he wrote about. I have an enduring image of Ronnie in a remote village in the Northern Cape. A merciless sun, chickens, children and goats, Ronnie holding the emaciated hand of an asbestos worker dying in his cot. Ronnie carrying him out to lay him in the cool shade of a mulberry tree. Ronnie talking, taking time with him, listening to the man talk of his love for his pigeons and his animals his children and his wife, his life that he knew would soon pass from him. A year later Ronnie is back, he is standing at the foot of the grave amid the thorny desert scrub, his head is bowed silently honouring this anonymous worker's memory and dignifying his life. It appears to me that while some think journalism is about presenting "the two sides of a story" in order to give a "balanced and objective" picture, Ronnie was more concerned for the truth and he worked and he went out to find it for himself and then he wrote it. This approach to journalism did not always endear him to his editors or to the corporations he wrote about. There is no truth, or so their indignation implied, unless it is accompanied by a piece of corporate spin, outraged denials and unfounded imputations of bias. This, some seem to believe, puts the reader in a better position to assess the truth or not of what Ronnie saw, learned and experienced first hand. Business Report gave better coverage of the catastrophic impact of asbestos mining on workers and communities than any other paper. This contributed substantially to the creation of a political climate in which the government could impose a total ban on the mining and use of asbestos. Ronnie contributed enormously to that. He was a multi-dimensional man, a connoisseur of wine and a fine dresser, equally at home in the urbane company financial journalists are wont to keep, and in the company of the rural poor he wrote so passionately about. He was a wonderful person, a true humanitarian and a credit to his profession. I wish that I had told him I loved him before he died.

Hamba kahle my friend, my brother.

Richard Spoor
White River

Morris used his pen to give a voice to victims of asbestos. Busrep of 14 April 2008. 'He cared deeply, to the point of taking the side of the underdog. Many times in recent years, editorial management had to rein him in because he had crossed the line of impartiality in his reporting, but his unflinching empathy for the victims of asbestos poisoning always seemed to overpower him. Morris used his pen to paint a human face, giving a voice to those who would otherwise have ended up as mere statistics. Were it not for Morris, David "Buck" Norton, for example, would have become another faceless victim of mesothelioma - the stiffening of the lungs as a result of exposure to asbestos dust. Six months before he died in 2002, Norton told Morris: "It's going to end with oxygen, then morphine and then I'll suffocate to death." Most journalists would have swung from one breaking story to the next; Ronnie kept in touch with the victims of asbestosis in Kuruman in the Northern Cape. Every year he spent a portion of his annual leave recording their progress, which had always been going in one direction - to the grave. On those occasions, when he fused his journalism and his deep sense of social justice into one whole, his prose came alive. Like this introduction to his October 2006 article on the plight of mine workers: "They toiled in the asbestos mines where poor ventilation exposed them to murderous levels of dust and fibres.'' The mines have closed down and years later, these former workers become either ill from asbestos-related diseases or die from lung cancer. What, then, is a life worth?" Morris was, above all, a gentle soul, a wonderful human being, who turned his pen into a megaphone for the poor and the downtrodden. We will miss him, but I suspect it's the people of Kuruman who will miss him most. They will miss his journalism of caring, of empathy and a great sense of social justice.