Newspaper spies and hypocrites


THOSE of us who aligned ourselves with the liberation struggle in the 1980s were well aware that the apartheid state had spies in newsrooms throughout the country.

Of course, we did not know who they were, but this didn’t stop us from speculating – certainly in the newspapers circulating in Cape Town. Thus, speculation was particularly rife (in my eyes) one day, when the head of the “riot” police, Major Dolf Odendaal, held an impromptu “discussion” with a group of journalists after a day of running battles between protesters and police in the centre of the City.

It was vintage Odendaal – shouting, peppered with threats. Eyes bulging. Spit flying. 

Suddenly, a Cape Argus journalist managed to squeeze in a question – and Odendaal’s tone changed completely. He responded like a police liaison officer wanting to curry favour with the newspapers would respond – the epitome of reasonableness.

“Hmmmm,” I wondered as I watched. “Could it be?” I asked myself. “Or is this a game of double-bluff?”

The claim by Vic McPherson, the head of the shadowy Stratcom, that he had 40 journalists working for him in newsrooms around the country – and that one of their campaigns was to feed information to these journalists designed to discredit Winnie Mandela – would not come as a surprise to many media veterans of that time.

In many ways, though, newspaper spies – and few, most notably, former Sunday Times editor, the late Tertius Myburgh, have been outed as impiempi, are side issues.

To me, what was much more serious was the generally sickening attitude of the English language press towards their black journalists in general, and workers in particular. Even as they criticised the apartheid policies of the government, they were practising apartheid of their own in their newsrooms and works departments.

Under previous owners, the Cape Argus and other newspapers in what was then called the Argus Printing and Publishing Company was as culpable as the state….

Shortly before I began working in the Cape Argus building (now known as Newspaper House), just before the decade of the Eighties, the company made one of its “great leaps of faith”: it decided to employ its first coloured apprentices in its works department on the third floor of the landmark St George’s Street building.

It was a decision that did not meet with general approval. To begin with, there was a small matter of the lavatories.

The “white” toilets were on the third floor of the building; the “coloured” loo was on the second floor. Picturing coloured bums on their toilet seats was too ghastly to contemplate for many of the white artisans.

One of my friends, Shero Pathon, the fourth apprentice to be taken on by the Cape Argus, told me years later: “Like so many of the racists of those times, the white workers at the company didn’t have the guts to go beyond whispering in little groups.” “They wanted us to go to the second floor to shit and pee – like the coloured works assistants and admin people had been doing for years.”

“But someone in management must have insisted that we use the same toilets as the people we were now working with were using.” “We were also allowed into the works canteen, which many of the whites didn’t like either.” “For some reason we were told to walk straight ahead when we got out of the lifts on the way to the canteen. They didn’t trust us near their changing rooms.”

And he added: “There were a few things that the black apprentices and artisans were not allowed to do. It was in fact cast in stone, to begin with: They made it very clear to us that we were not to touch the front page of The Cape Argus … and its leader page (the page containing the editorial comment),” Pathon said.

Jimmy Atkins, a former sports editor of the Cape Herald added: “When we moved to the Argus building I don’t think we gave a damn which toilets we used.” “In fact, a colleague, Warren Ludski, and I caused the first big stir when we demanded service at the cafeteria in early 70s. We were told to go to the “coloured” side but we refused. Argus management at first balked, but then agreed we could be served. There was much tut-tutting and raised eyebrows when we sat and used tables. Apparently the white staff thought we would do takeaways. However, we didn’t seek permission and eventually the grumbling stopped.”

Of course, coloured messengers were miffed because we were playing white. They too demanded and received the same service. White printers downed tools in 1978 when, as Herald deputy editor, I first started appearing on the stone.

“They said they didn’t want darkies telling them what to do. Argus management stood up to them, but for weeks afterwards they would deliberately mess up the type on our Commie editorial pages. It stopped when Argus/Herald lawyers read them the riot act.”

As a senior journalist, I ached for a face-to-face confrontation with the company’s white artisans. I’d been told a number of times by black apprentices that artisans were referring to me as “The Communist”, whenever they laid out one of my anti-apartheid columns.

With visions of a big lawsuit being instituted against them, I’d strain to hear what they said whenever I entered the works department. But they knew when to shut their mouths.

Most white journalists in the company – and, indeed, the newspapers themselves – stayed well clear of stories dealing with the fight against apartheid. Interestingly, although most of these dinosaurs have left the company (now known as Independent Media), many of them have elevated themselves into experts on democracy.

Yet, in October 1980, when Cape Herald journalists went on strike after finding they were being paid less than half the salaries of their white counterparts at the Cape Argus, not a single white journalist came out in support of them, either in word or deed.

Moreover, during a stint as a foreign correspondent for the company in Fleet Street, London, I ran into trouble when I started writing regularly on the activities of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc).

My stories were met with undisguised hostility by the head of the Argus Bureau, Cliff Scott. He eventually summoned me into his office and demanded that every Sanroc story I wrote had to be “balanced” with opinion from an apartheid-leaning organisation known as the Committee for Fairness in Sport, headed by a former England rugby player named Jeff Butterfield.

I was overjoyed when I found out afterwards that this committee was a South African front organisation set up by the SA Department of Information head, Eschel Rhoodie.

The Cape Herald sports policy, which I drove, was miles apart from the sports policies of the “white” newspapers.

For example, in supporting the English rebel cricket tour, Michael Owen-Smith of the Cape Times wrote in February 1990: “In the 15 years in which I have been covering international sport, I have never been involved in an event in which there has been so much antagonism between the players and certain elements of the media. Hopefully cricket will come into its own in the next few weeks.”

And Own-Smith was not the only reporter who supported apartheid sport….

In my opinion, most newspaper groups continue to pay lip-service to transformation, in a country that has long been on the cusp of major change.

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features. He is also the Opinion Editor for the Independent Media Group