South Africa

South Africa

God, Spies and Lies: How journalists, spooks and politicians shaped South Africa

While confirmation that the charismatic and influential former Sunday Times editor, Tertius Myburgh, was a voluntary spy for the apartheid government is one of the more sensational revelations in veteran journalist and editor John Matisonn's just-published book, the work is also a detailed and unflinching examination of the symbiotic relationship between business, journalism and politics. By MARIANNE THAMM.

(Disclosure: Marianne Thamm edited the manuscript of God, Spies and Lies)

Journalism offers those who are drawn to its beguiling embrace, and who manage to survive its gruelling challenges and demands, the ultimate reward of a ringside seat to history. John Matisonn, who began his professional career at the iconic Rand Daily Mail as an enthusiastic young reporter in 1974, has spent much of his life in the thick of some of the most tumultuous events that unfolded in the 20th Century.

In his various incarnations as a political journalist and editor, foreign correspondent, head of the SABC’s election coverage in 1994, and later as a councillor on the newly-formed Independent Broadcast Authority (IBA), Matisonn found himself perfectly placed and in close proximity to an astounding gallery of major and minor players in the grand sweep of the pre- and post-apartheid landscape. Figures whose lives intersected with Matisonn’s include Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Thomas Sankara, John Vorster, PW Botha, Pik Botha (and many more) as well as various men (for there were no women) – some courageous, others not so much – who edited some of the country’s most influential English-language newspapers that shaped public and international opinion at the time.

While this forms the core, or at least the scaffolding, for Matisonn’s just-published book, God, Spies, Lies – Finding South Africa’s future through its past (Missing Ink) it is by no means the only view from the hill. In his author’s note Matisonn writes; “I wanted to cut across all segments and political strands, to link people’s anti-apartheid stories with their lives in the democratic era. Knowing the rulers when they were in the wilderness and then in power adds insight, likewise, those then in power, now in the political wilderness”.

The almost 450-page book is also a meticulously researched account of the history of South African media, including the little-known story of its early independent black newspapers and the editors and journalists who ran them before these were finally crushed and snuffed out by forces who viewed them as a threat to the established political order. It is also the story of The Rand Daily Mail, the influence of its various editors and how it came to be an iconic anti-apartheid publication, only to be shut down just as the political tide was turning.

Over and above this, the book tracks the beginnings of broadcasting in South Africa, the currents and political ideologues who came to shape what is today’s SABC, and which set a trajectory for the public broadcaster – apart from a few years of independence – to come full circle as the current ruling party, the ANC, has all too easily slipped into the habits of Broederbond Nationalists who ran it as a full-fledged state broadcaster for most of its existence. As such God, Spies and Lies is permeated with an eerie sense of deja vu, a feeling that the once optimistic and idealistic Matisonn deliberately conjures for the reader. For it is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This is a massively ambitious and substantial book and folded into the two narratives as set out above is yet another important one; the secret history of the remarkable relationship between a young Nelson Mandela and one of the unsung heroes of South African journalism, Charles Bloomberg. Bloomberg, who worked as a political journalist for the Sunday Times, was the first to crack open the clandestine and powerful Afrikaner Broederbond (AB). It was Bloomberg’s investigations that revealed just how far and wide was its influence and reach, and how the AB came to dominate Afrikaner Nationalist politics, business, religion culture and social life. In so doing it affected not only the lives of the white Afrikaans and English-speaking minority, but most importantly, that of the dispossessed black majority.

Matisonn regards Bloomberg as “one of South Africa’s most interesting and influential forgotten figures”, a man who lived most of his life in a financially precarious exile pursing his life’s work researching exactly what the Broederbond was and how it came to be.

He begins the book with an account of Mandela’s risky meetings with his “secret friend”, Bloomberg. Mandela, who was 43, was on the run, in hiding from the security police in journalist Wolfie Kodesh’s Johannesburg flat. Mandela, recounts Matisonn, would pull up to the curb in Kodesh’s car where Bloomberg, then in his thirties, would hop into the back seat. With Mandela driving, two men would talk for hours, but Bloomberg did not publish a single word.

Bloomberg and Mandela’s discussions pivoted around the Afrikaner Broederbond and a search for the roots of apartheid. If Mandela was going to fight this enemy, he wanted to know exactly what he was dealing with. Bloomberg and Mandela, Matisonn adds, shared “a strong intellectual and political interest in understanding the sources and ideas behind apartheid and the white Afrikaner nationalists who invented it”.

Matisonn goes on to honour Bloomberg’s work, drawing on his wide knowledge gleaned over the years while researching the Dutch intellectual, religious and ideological origins of apartheid – comparing these with European fascism – and how exactly these ideas were able to be imposed and structurally implemented for so long by a small, influential minority. Part One of the book is dedicated to a detailed and fascinating excavation of how this political and economic hegemony was achieved. Here Bloomberg (and Matisonn) exposed the nuts and bolts of it all.

Of course none of these ideas could have been transmitted without media and Matisonn – whose blood is ink – turns his keen mind and eye to the history of newspapers and broadcasting in South Africa in order to frame and contain the much bigger and rich tapestry his book weaves.

One of the little known facts Matisonn discovered was that the first newspaper to be published in South Africa, The Cape Town Gazette and African Advertiser, and its Dutch version Kaapse Stads, were “conceived in sin” by two “substantial” Scottish slave traders, Alexander Walker and John Robertson, who were “granted the monopoly in both printing and newspaper publishing at the Cape by a corrupt British governor, Sir George Younge.

Both newspapers did not challenge the government and, writes Matisonn “advertisements for the sale of slaves were a regular feature.”

From these early origins Matisonn then traces the establishment of an independent black press and the exceptional men who drove this.

The most remarkable of these path-breakers was the prolific Sol T Plaatjie” writes Matisonn. Later John Dube was the first to establish an independent Zulu-English paper, Ilanga lase Natal while Mohandas Gandhi (later Mahatma Gandhi) established Indian Opinion. These early black intellectuals, including Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the convenor of the ANC, and who launched Abantu-Batho the first paper of national reach and using Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu and Tswana, as well as English, serve today as shining examples.

It was political pressure and takeovers by bigger white newspaper groups, coupled with the ravages of the depression in 1929, that were to wipe out the political voices of black-owned newspapers. Considering the contemporary debate about the transformation of media in South Africa, this chapter offers particular insights and is a valuable reminder of what was lost not only politically, but historically as so few records of these early ground-breaking newspapers remain. Matisonn revives this vital history.

In Part Two of the book titled “Slugging it Out” and which covers 1966 to 1990, Matisonn not only investigates the local political currents of the time but also the external international political allies who propped up the apartheid regime. His access to US documents, unseen until now, confirms various backroom deals and manoeuvres by a succession of US political administrations.

Of course the chapter that is bound to rock the (Old) media establishment is one titled “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Editor’ (with obvious reference to the 1974 John Le Carré spy novel about attempts to uncover a Soviet mole in British Intelligence) and in which Matisonn confirms that the charismatic and well-loved (in some circles) editor, Tertius Myburgh, was a willing and voluntary spy for the apartheid government. While rumours that Myburgh was among several editors suspected of selling out have circulated for years, these have never been proved. That South African newsrooms were populated by spies and agents during the apartheid years is common knowledge and in the book Matisonn refers to many of those already known, including the murderous Craig Williamson. But it is the shock of Myburgh’s political betrayal that will sting many. Matisonn is uncompromising in his opinion that Myburgh “betrayed his staff. He betrayed his profession. Most important of all, he betrayed his readers who were dependent on the media to tell the truth.”

By the early 1980s the fortunes of South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), which owned the Rand Daily Mail, which had been their highest profile element in the white English-language South African establishment, were in decline. SAAN’s commercial flagship was the Sunday Times which enjoyed the biggest circulation in the country catering to a wide spectrum of readers and income groups. In 1974, then editor, Joel Mervis, had managed to push up circulation to 500,000. Myburgh, who had been the editor of the Pretoria News, the smallest paper in the country, took the helm when Mervis retired in 1975. Matisonn himself had recently joined the Sunday Times and was present at Myburgh’s inaugural staff meeting where he (Myburgh) stated “Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Myburgh was, says Matisonn – like Eschel Rhoodie, Secretary of the apartheid state’s propaganda wing The Department of Information and a key figure in the “Infoscandal” – “a charismatic modern Afrikaner, who fitted in well in conservative Pretoria, a rising member of the same Dutch Reformed Church parish that cabinet ministers attended.” Myburgh seamlessly navigated, says Matisonn, many cultural milieus.

The Sunday Times, with Bloomberg driving investigations, had been the first to break stories on the Broederbond, and this work was taken up by investigative journalist, Hennie Serfontein, after Bloomberg was forced into exile.

The first signs that something was amiss was when Myburgh began spiking Serfontein’s Broederbond stories, charging that he was giving the organisation far more credit than it deserved. There were many other incidents involving “smiling death”, as Myburgh was known, including his unusual access to cabinet members of the Nationalist government, and Matisonn doesn’t hold back.

But the agent is not necessarily the most obvious. And Myburgh, though distrusted by leaders of the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, moved through much of white liberal Johannesburg with ease. A social friend of the Oppenheimers, he was admiring of Helen Suzman.”

The fact that Myburgh was brought in to edit the decidedly left Rand Daily Mail after Alistair Sparks was fired in 1981, was a supreme coup for his apartheid handlers who now had their man in the heart of a newspaper vehement in its opposition to government, and which openly supported the opposition Progressive Federal Party as well as extra parliamentary anti-apartheid resistance. Myburgh remained editor of the Sunday Times, while he oversaw the demise of the RDM.

In part three of the book, titled “The Ancien Regime faces the People’s Tribunes 1994-1996” and part four, “Democracy: 1994-2005” Matisonn explores the end of apartheid, the change of regime, the return of exiles, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the glimmers of hope in the wake of democracy including the establishment of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. One of the gifts of this earliest incarnation of the IBA, on which Matisonn sat as a councillor, was the freeing up of the airways, the issuing of licences to community radio stations, facilitating the establishment of e-tv, and thus breaking the monopoly of the SABC.

Matisonn’s chapter on his time at the IBA reveals what he says were the first manifestations of the corruption that was later to infest the body politic of the ANC. Once again, the author (who was a whistle-blower in 1997) does not hold back and names those who allowed themselves to be compromised. Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, how Bush and Blair were duped into invading Iraq ignoring solid South African intelligence, how intelligence failed in Zimbabwe and why South Africa missed the Information Revolution, are explored in depth in part four. Matisonn ends with Jacob Zuma’s presidency – Zuma incidentally was a guest at Matisonn’s home in the early 1990s – a man he compares to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and who “is willing to use the parliamentary system to keep himself out of court”.

God, Spies and Lies is a work of mammoth scope and importance. And while it is scholarly, it never reads as an academic work as Matisonn’s engaging journalistic style keeps this sprawling, but never messy narrative firmly on course towards where we now find ourselves, carefully linking all the dots along the way. The author is careful to keep himself out of the narrative where it does not require him to be present. This is a work about history, but also of ideas, how these are circulated and controlled. It is one of the most significant books of our time, along with Padraig O Malley’s 2007 exhaustive Shades of Difference – Mac Maharaj and the struggle for South Africa. If you’re planning on catching up with your politics this holiday be certain to pack this one in. It will explain much of what is happening around us. DM

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