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Tony Heard’s final wave: A fighter for social justice and media freedom

Tony Heard’s final wave: A fighter for social justice and media freedom
Tony Heard interviews exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo in London in 1985. (Photo: Supplied)

Anthony Hazlitt Heard, who died on 27 March aged 86, was an indefatigable fighter for social justice and media freedom with an impish sense of humour and an innate human empathy. 

Tony Heard’s loathing for injustice of any kind combined with unshakeable idealism was based on the belief that South Africa would overcome its post-apartheid challenges and that a nonracial democracy based on fair play would prevail in the long run.

One of the two key drivers in Heard’s life was living through the horror of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and witnessing and then reporting on the historic protest march nine days later from Langa township to police headquarters in Cape Town led by Philip Kgosana, a UCT student and regional leader of the Pan Africanist Congress

The second was Heard’s lifelong quest to resolve the mystery of his father, George’s disappearance in Cape Town while he was on active service against Nazi sympathisers during the closing days of World War 2. Heard was seven at the time of his father’s disappearance.

But the defining moment in Heard’s professional life was his decision to travel to London in October 1985 to interview Oliver Tambo, the outlawed leader-in-exile of the banned African National Congress in defiance of the banning laws in South Africa.

I had been writing a column from London as bureau chief for the Morning Newspaper Group.

On several occasions I pointed out to readers in South Africa that I was prevented by South African security laws from quoting what the leaders of the liberation movements were saying in the UK at a time when domestic resistance and international sanctions against South Africa were escalating rapidly.

Heard, who was editor of the Cape Times, was the only editor in the group who consistently published the column while others found it too overtly political.

I mentioned to Heard on one occasion that I was planning to set up an interview with Tambo and would leave it to editors to decide whether to publish.

One day in October 1985 I received a cryptic call from him to say that he was coming to London having taken leave from the newspaper. 

We travelled together to the Tambo home in Muswell Hill.

Heard conducted the interview using a small tape recorder; it lasted more than an hour. Tambo answered the questions in soft and measured tones.

After the interview Heard bade me farewell and headed back to Cape Town without letting on what his plans were.

Two days later the 2,500-word interview spread across a whole page was published in the Cape Times on 4 November 1985 under the headline, A Conversation with Oliver Tambo of the ANC. 

There was a front page cross-reference: Tambo Urges: Create Climate for Talks.

It was a premeditated act, which took courage born of a strong and independent spirit. 

It was the first time in more than 25 years since the banning of the ANC that South Africans were able to read first-hand the reasoned views of a leader stereotyped in the South African media as a blood-thirsty terrorist.

Heard was arrested and released on bail after being charged with contravening the Internal Security Act for quoting a banned person.

Time passed and the case fizzled out with the newspaper company having to pay a nominal fine.

Heard won several press freedom awards including the Golden Pen Award of Freedom from the World Association of Newspapers.

He was dismissed two years later when he refused to accept a financial offer from the media owners to resign.

He felt betrayed by his employers, and the dismissal left a wound that never healed.

It fuelled what was already a strong professional relationship between us and developed into a close friendship spanning four decades.

Our careers had followed similar paths and we were always there for each other, evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of words exchanged in messages and calls over 40 years.

Seminal moment

Tony Heard John Battersby tribute

Tony Heard, pictured far right, with his mother, Vida, father, George, and brother, Raymond. Naval officer Lieutenant George Heard disappeared without a trace from Cape Town in 1945. (Photo: Supplied)

On 30 March 1960, Heard had covered the historic anti-pass Langa march led by Philip Kgosana, nine days after mass police shootings at Sharpeville, and Langa had brought the wrath of the world down on prime minister and architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd.

It was a seminal moment in his career and set the course for his future trajectory as editor and later government adviser.

He had learnt the meaning of courage and glimpsed that racial reconciliation was possible by witnessing how two men – Kgosana, who led a peaceful march of 30,000 protesters, and Colonel Ignatius (Terry) Terblanche, who had been given orders to open fire – could reach agreement swiftly to avoid a bloodbath at Caledon Square police station. 

“Few knew then that Terblanche had fallen to his knees to pray in the police station just before going out unarmed with a small party of colleagues to parley with Kgosana,” Heard wrote 57 years later in an article in the Daily Maverick marking Kgosana’s death and revisiting the historic significance of that moment.

Tony Heard

Tony Heard at the Langa anti-pass march in 1960. (Photo: Supplied)

“Terblanche resolved rather to defy ministerial orders given him over the phone to ‘just shoot’. He risked his career for peace,” Heard recalled. 

He had heard the negotiation between the two men first-hand. Kgosana would pull back the crowd on the grounds that he would be promised an interview with the justice minister.

The minister did not honour the pledge to meet Kgosana, despite the student leader leading the crowd peacefully back to Langa.

Six decades later Heard lobbied successfully for the De Waal Drive motorway – which the crowd had used – to be renamed Philip Kgosana Drive. 

Heard lobbied until his death for Terblanche to be publicly honoured for his act of courage.

Heard was born in Johannesburg on 20 November 1937 to George, an anti-fascist activist who disappeared without trace in August 1945, and Vida, a journalist.

He was educated at Treverton College in KwaZulu-Natal and Durban Boys High, matriculating in 1954. He graduated from the University of Cape Town with a BA Honours degree in philosophy.

He became a parliamentary reporter in 1958 and later political correspondent.

Heard joined the Financial Mail as Cape editor in 1964, went to London in 1966 as senior correspondent in the SA Morning Newspapers Group office, and returned to South Africa in 1967 to take up the position of leader-page editor of the Cape Times

He was appointed editor of the Cape Times in 1971. He served until his dismissal in 1987.

Thereafter he worked as an internationally syndicated freelance columnist, with contributions to the Los Angeles Times among other newspapers.

Surfer, beach bum and devoted family man

Tony Heard

Tony Heard with two of his daughters, Vicki (back) and Janet. (Photo: Supplied)

Tony Heard, far right, up and riding on the same wave with some of South Africa’s first surfers in the early 1950s at South Beach in Durban. (Photo: Supplied)

In 2000, he was appointed as special adviser to the Minister in the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, quitting at the end of January 2010, months after Jacob Zuma became president (in 2009)

Tony had a lifelong relationship with the sea as surfer, swimmer and beach bum with his elder brother Ray in their youth.

He loved his family dearly. He is survived by his beloved life partner Jane, his four children Vicki and Janet from his first marriage to Val (nee Hermanson)
and Pasqua and Dylan from his second marriage to the late Mary Ann Barker, and by his grandchildren Jessica, Tyler and Ella, and brother Raymond.

Heard is the author of two published books: The Cape of Storms: A personal history of the crisis in South Africa (Ravan Press, 1991) and 8000 Days: Mandela, Mbeki and Beyond: The inside story of an editor in the corridors of power (co-published with Missing Ink, 2020). His daughter Janet has been entrusted with the manuscript of what will be his third book, about his quest to find the truth about his father’s disappearance. DM

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  • Errol Price says:

    What an unspeakable tragedy that a moral giant such as Tony Heard has had his lifelong work so callously and cynically betrayed by the appalling Mafia, the ANC which masquerades as a political party.
    The fatal mistake which Mr Heard and others made was to believe that if the appalling system of Apartheid was dismantled , anything that replaced it would have to be better.
    Africa has proved over and over that that is not the case.

    • ST ST says:

      Here’s why: The colonialists philosophy & self-fulfilling prophecy

      First

      Occupy a foreign land
      Physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually subdue natives
      Disrupt native way of life until they’re not sure who they are anymore
      Deny them any useful rights, assume they don’t matter and educating them is pointless, they’re too stupid
      Assume you’re doing them a favour
      Assume it’s your God given right rule them forever

      Then

      Install a new way of life
      Don not teach the natives how to run the new systems in place
      Continue to oppress them
      See them try to liberate themselves
      Predict that will never successfully run the new system you deliberately didn’t teach them about
      And voila! Your were right!

    • Bill Gild says:

      Agreed!

    • ST ST says:

      The fatal mistake was apartheid itself. It set in motion perpetual misery that most today would rather deny and focus on the last 30 as troublesome years. True only for those who were protected during apartheid.

      At the end of apartheid, was an ill equipped group now at the helm of democracy with little or no knowledge of how to govern. Combine that with unlimited access to money and human nature from a group of people who’ve lived in exile or hiding somewhere enduring days/weeks of hunger and desperation

      • ST ST says:

        I must take some of this back. Presidents Mandela and Mbeki actually gave it a respectable go given their novelty at government at the time. Yes mistakes were made…but seasoned politicians have and do make them too. We all do

        • Errol Price says:

          Thank you ST for your considered remarks.I am always happy to engage in civilised disagreements and to reconsider when I am wrong.
          It seems,however from the thread here that and unhinged and vile racism does not fall foul of DM precepts.
          On your points I would simply say that the Arms Deal which was initiated under Mandela at a time when S.A was crying out for money to be spent on social I upliftment set the tone for how the ANC would loot the public purse. And so has it been ever since.

          • osita okafor says:

            Mandela for God’s sake should be left alone. He paid the price for the good of unappreciative people. If you guys think he did nothing, try spending 27years in jail and losing your family,
            okay?

          • Bill Gild says:

            Exactly!

  • James Hamill says:

    A marvellous life, well lived, and a marvellous tribute too

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Notwithstanding the jaundiced Zionistic cynicism of the Errol Prices of this world, a worthy, deserving and heartfelt tribute to a rare individual of integrity. It was not a “fatal mistake” on the part of Heard, but the requisite and necessary courage … to do the ‘right’ thing at the right time. Cheap political grandstanding of the Price variety aside .

    • Bill Gild says:

      Where and how “Zionistic cynicism” fits into Kanu’s comment is beyond my comprehension, but my guess (and it’s ony a guess) is that Kanu and his ilk would be hard pressed to resist firing another arrow at Israel.
      It’s a shame that a tribute to a great man has to be polluted by the likes of Kanu.

    • Agf Agf says:

      What a truly horrible comment.

  • Bernard McG says:

    Thanks John for filling in more detail of Tony’s courageous life and his career after the Tony Weaver tribute.

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    Thank you, John, for another fine tribute to add to Tony Weaver’s. Tony Heard was a warm, loyal and inspirational man with a well-honed, impish chuckle even in the darkest times. His ideals have indeed been betrayed by the ANC that he once had so much hope for; he deserves every tribute offered.

  • Geoff Hill says:

    “How fond men are of justice when it comes to judging the crimes of former generations.”

    French dramatist Armand Salacrou

  • Jan Vanheukelom says:

    Thanks John. And what powerful stories too. The story of the 1960 Langa march with Kgosana and Terblanch, which gives a kind of sneak preview of some of the human qualities that would prevail thirty years later in finding a negotiated alternative to apartheid violence. The story of the Tony’s interview with Oliver Tambo that appeared in the Cape Times at the height of the repression in 1985. And the broader story of Tony, whose brave and principled journalism – together with that of many others – reverberated far beyond South Africa. It informed and inspired many of us in the numerous anti-apartheid organisations throughout the world. So thank you Tony. And good luck to all those who continue the hard and principled work of independent journalism. Jan. Kessel-lo, Belgium

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