OBITUARY: Peter Wilhelm: A truly excellent human
He believed journalism was a craft, and those who worked with him knew he was a master craftsman
Peter Wilhelm was a great journalist and editor, and as a novelist he is in the upper ranks of the premier division. He worked with the legendary George Palmer, the second editor of the FM after John Marvin, and stayed to serve another seven editors in various capacities, including senior assistant editor and head of the Cape Town office.
Before entering journalism, Peter undertook an education diploma and was briefly a science teacher at King Edward VII School. Shy and introverted, glum in his white lab coat and thick-lensed spectacles, he was not suited to the boisterousness of a big boys’ school, and soon fled. (But not before he expressed his contempt for the syllabus that was being taught, as set out in an obsolete textbook by authors “Toon, Ellis & Brodkin” – or “TEB”, as the book was known to teachers and pupils. “Just like TB,” said Peter, “highly infectious and debilitating.”
Yet as a mentor to young journalists, he proved a brilliant teacher. Peter was not academically trained in the field – he learnt the nuts and bolts as a subeditor. He believed journalism was a craft, to be learnt through apprenticeship to experience – and those who worked with him (never “under” him) knew he was a master craftsman.
Journalists who had not been on an ordinary newspaper did not realise how fortunate they were at the FM, in that their stories were not simply cut from the bottom to fit the available space. Rather, they were reworked to make them more muscular, spare and hard-hitting. He tried hard to find exactly the right word – and subeditors knew not to remove, without permission, so much as a semicolon from his own writing. He encouraged other writers to be as confident.
Peter never instructed, never lectured – he simply made changes, and the writer was not offended, only pleased that magic had been worked and shared. The highest accolade was not Peter’s praise, but that he had decided not to alter your piece.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the FM was arguably at the height of its influence in both the political and business worlds, Peter was at the heart of its relentless insistence on excellence – an enduring legacy.
In 1999, in a publication to mark the FM’s 40th anniversary, he referred to the five editors he had worked under as “these doomed men” – an unexpected and enigmatic comment, typical of Peter. Yet he also noted that they had each been capable of acts of personal kindness, not always public.
He himself had experienced such kindness. It is hard to think of two more dissimilar people than Peter and the flamboyant Steve Mulholland, a great editor and arguably the greatest to have led the FM. When Peter was incapacitated occasionally by personal problems, Steve was understanding, showed tough love – and kept promoting him. When Steve was appointed MD to run (and save) the company that was SA Associated Newspapers and became Times Media Ltd, and so ceased to be FM editor, Peter showed a rare burst of visible emotion: “The worst thing has happened – Muldoon is gone.” (For some reason that was his nickname for Steve. He also enjoyed referring to Steve’s house in Saxonwold, the venue of some memorable FM parties, as “Southfork” after JR Ewing’s ranch in Dallas.)
As a journalist, he was sceptical of all ideologies, never politically correct, and had an acute eye for what is now called “fake news”. He understood the healing potential of Nelson Mandela, while refusing to regard him as a saint; he loathed the political morality of FW de Klerk, while admiring his personal courage in releasing Mandela from jail. Peter relished good investigative journalism, but insisted on a proper narrative. His political assessments were always based on facts, judicious and fair – but savage when necessary.
Like many of us at the FM at the time, Peter opposed Steve’s decision that the publication would support a “Yes” vote in the 1983 whites-only referendum on a new tricameral parliament; the justification was that this would be a “step in the right direction” away from apartheid. Unlike many of us, Peter knew better than to challenge the editor on this issue – but he then proceeded quietly to oversee, in all the FM’s political coverage, a steady and merciless attack on the tricameral constitution.
He had courage. Amarnath Singh, a political analyst of distinction and the first person of colour to be employed by the FM, recalls telling the editorial conference one morning in the early 1980s that he was off to Rustenburg to cover a rally of Andries Treurnicht’s right-wing Conservative Party. Peter immediately stood up, put on his jacket, and said: “I’m coming with you.” Peter knew the possible explosive effect of the presence of a nonwhite journalist at a racist rally. In the event, despite “a rumble like rolling thunder” in the hall, the two FM men were not accosted. “He was a great mentor,” says Amarnath, “protective and very sensitive, quietly strong.”
Mischief was never far away. After PW Botha’s disastrous “Rubicon” speech in 1985, Steve asked despairingly if the president was mad. Between them, Steve and Peter concocted the plan of getting a leading psychiatrist to provide a professional analysis of Botha’s unstable performance. This was done, shockingly disrespectful for its time and most embarrassing for Botha. Die Groot Krokodil was furious but could do nothing (though the presidency at Tuynhuys did phone the FM to check if the psychiatrist was real – he was).
When Peter Bruce was appointed FM editor in January 1997, he recalls, “I knew very little about anyone there. I was in a state of high anxiety.” In the second week, his predecessor Nigel Bruce (no relation), who had taken over at rival publication Finance Week, poached four FM subeditors. (Peter Wilhelm enjoyed musing on why he and these FM editors each had two first names, and why the three could muster no more than four names between them – Bruce, Peter, Nigel and Wilhelm.)
So the panicking Peter (Bruce) called Peter (Wilhelm) in Cape Town and told him what had happened with the subeditors.
“‘Yes,’ he said. And for the longest time he said nothing at all, before continuing: ‘It will be fine.’
“And it was fine,” continues Peter Bruce. “More people left and more lessons were learnt, two of which were that Peter was 1) immovable under pressure and 2) very funny. He was a great colleague and when he wasn’t being funny, he could turn around a brilliant political leading article in what seemed just a few minutes. A genius and a truly excellent human.”
As a writer of fiction, Peter’s intellectual tendency was grimly dystopian; instinctively, though, his prose searched for warmth, love and generosity of spirit. Many of his prize-winning works were set in a future country, more or less SA. Now, in our 2021 landscape of endemic government corruption, power cuts, collapsed municipalities, ruined railways and unchecked riots, his “science fiction” of the 1970s and 1980s seems precisely prophetic.
Peter was interested in science, astronomy and the art of the cinema no less than in the theory and practice of fiction. Writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, John le Carré, George Orwell and Kingsley Amis were strong influences – or at least strong enough for him to consider before being rejected. He was deeply impressed by Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune, and swam against a torrential critical mainstream by praising the 1984 movie based on it. If Peter’s own writing was indeed occasionally science fiction, it was probably closest to the work of Ray Bradbury – fantastic but intensely human.
His first collection of fiction, LM and Other Stories, was published in 1975 by Ravan Press, which had been founded by Beyers Naudé and Peter Randall (another Peter). Randall recalls being impressed by Peter’s “clarity of vision and the sheer quality of his writing, which were rare in the context of SA at the time. Most writers avoided anything that was politically controversial, anything that didn’t fall into what we called ‘veld-and-vlei’ writing. Until Ravan started, there were very few black published writers, and the agents of the state went to enormous lengths to discourage us – to put it mildly.” Randall himself was placed under a banning order – in effect, house arrest – for two years in the late 1970s. He was also the first to publish JM Coetzee, later to win the Nobel Prize, after many mainstream publishers had rejected Coetzee.
Peter produced several more novels, most of them acclaimed by critics and academics. Especially notable was At the End of a War (1981); and of Some Place in Africa (1987), one critic wrote: “Lyrical yet powerful prose … characterisation is sure and swift … he can deeply penetrate the human and especially the African psyche.”
Perhaps most powerful was The Healing Process (1988), set in “the remotest part of SA, a disease-ridden homeland subject to violent political events, where a small group of doctors struggle to maintain themselves and their craft”. For this book he acknowledged his debt to his mother, Dr EK Wilhelm, for her written memoir of her work at Manguzi Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
The recent Whirlwind in the Thorntree (2017) is an ambitious attempt, while depicting a violent and decaying society in a region “not dissimilar to Cape Town”, to penetrate the consciousness of animals, who are innocent of future threats yet tenacious in surviving. One feels that if a dog could write, this is how it might be done.
Though Peter disliked some people, he was slow to condemn. Perhaps he was influenced by the ambience of the Transkei mission school at Clarkebury, run by his grandfather Reverend Harris (Nelson Mandela had attended the school under Harris in the 1930s). Apart from school holidays spent at the mission, influences on Peter were diverse. Though he attended the private St Stithians College in Randburg, his early childhood was in Florida – more genteel than neighbouring Roodepoort and (even worse) Krugersdorp, but challenging nonetheless to a sensitive young boy.
Stephen Spender wrote a famous poem which starts: “My parents kept me from children who were rough …” Peter noted that such an intention would have been hopelessly unrealistic on the West Rand of the 1950s and 1960s. There were fights in the streets between English and Afrikaans children, who never played together and chanted “Afrikaner, vrot banana!” and “Rooinek!” at each other. The SA War was within living memory, and a “mixed marriage” did not refer to a union between black and white.
Peter was also aware, as his sister Janet recalls, that his father had come from a poor family – perhaps regarded as “poor whites”, to use the dreaded term of the Depression years – in the Eastern Cape, in Burgersdorp and East London; he wore shoes for the first time at the age of 12. He served in World War 2 and was a great rugby man – Janet recalls how the children had to wait in the car for hours after a big game at Loftus Versfeld or some such stadium, waiting for their father to finish in the pub.
This may explain Peter’s utter lack of interest in sport, but also his extraordinary capacity for empathy. He used to quote with approval the opening lines of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticising anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He also liked quoting (perhaps after interviewing some wealthy Joburg CEO) a comment in a Fitzgerald short story: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” And then Peter would relate, with a chuckle, Hemingway’s rejoinder: “Yes, they have more money.”
Peter often appeared inscrutable; he had no appetite or aptitude for small talk; but he was not out of reach. He formed deep and lasting friendships, and even when he was blunt, he was not offensive. When I told him of my father’s death, he was silent and then said: “I am sorry to hear that. It brings the void closer.”
He approved of a comment by the English politician Enoch Powell: “Unhappiness, like grey hairs, is part of life. I am as happy as the human condition allows.”
Williams is a former deputy editor of the FM, and is a contributing editor
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