In South Africa, a Journalist Taps...

<i> Anthony Hazlitt Heard, author of "The Cape of Storms," is now a free-lance columnist living in Cape Town</i>

“Attention editors and publishers. CAPE TOWN, Nov. 4 (UPI). The opposition Cape Times newspaper Monday defied security laws and courted prosecution by quoting Oliver Tambo, leader of the outlawed African National Congress, in a full-page interview.

“The Cape Times editor, Anthony Heard, who conducted the interview in London, declined to say whether he had official permission to quote Tambo.

“ ‘You will have to draw your own conclusions about that,’ he said. Tambo, who leads the ANC guerrilla movement’s 25-year-old armed struggle against white rule in South Africa, is ‘banned’ in terms of internal security laws and may not be quoted in the country without official permission.

“Local newspapers last month castigated President Pieter Botha for quoting Tambo during campaign speeches leading up to by-elections in which the government faced a strong right-wing challenge. Botha repeatedly has blamed the ANC for a 14-month-old black uprising in which at least 934 people have died. . . .”


That report nearly knocked my daughter Vicki off her chair when it arrived on the wires at Global TV in Barber Greene Road, Toronto. There was interest elsewhere, too.

First, there was what can best be called an audible official silence. This ensued no doubt while ministers and officials scurried about trying to find out who on earth could have given the Cape Times permission to run a full-page interview with the chief “terrorist” leader.

The phone started ringing at my home at 7 a.m. It was Reuters, checking on a story that we had broken the law and quoted Tambo. Then the editor of the South African Press Assn., Edwin Linington, phoned from Johannesburg to ask for a transcript. The phone rang solidly for two weeks. . . .

(ANC leader Nelson) Mandela had just had a prostate operation in Gardens nursing home. His wife, Winnie, told me later that as he awoke he made a wild grab for the paper when he heard nurses saying: “Oliver Tambo’s all over the Cape Times.” I like to think he concluded that the surgeon’s knife had slipped and he had been transported to another plane.


About 10 miles away, over at Robben Island, where hundreds of political prisoners were still held, the Cape Times did not turn up as usual. A prisoner who was there told me later that this was a sure sign that there was something “hot” in the paper. Eventually it did arrive, and was only available for a short time--while prisoners scrambled to write down as much of the interview as possible before it was whisked away. At Paarl’s Victor Verster prison detainees, I heard later firsthand, were greatly encouraged when they heard of the interview.

The page was torn out, copied, pasted on walls, mailed. Wags wrote “Let Tambo Be Heard” on walls in Cape Town.

The official silence was short-lived. The rumble of authority was heard the next day (which happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, the traditional day when fireworks were let off). Minister of Law and Order Louise le Grange was quoted in the Burger as saying no permission had been given, adding: “I can confirm that the police have opened a docket with a view to the possible prosecution of the editor of the Cape Times.”

Up to that point, when approached by the media, I had declined to say anything. Let the government find out everything itself.

The same day, Tuesday, a lieutenant called at my office to advise that charges were being investigated in terms of Section 56 (1) (p) of the Internal Security Act--quoting a banned or listed person. He had a police docket. A routine form regarding a suspected crime had to be signed. After checking with our company lawyer, Tim McIntosh, I declined to make a statement. Seconds later, Sir Robin Day of the BBC telephoned from London for an interview on the “World at One” program, and he could almost hear the receding police footsteps as I told him of their visit.

Later in the week, there was a visit from security police who took away the tape. No fewer than four big men were sent to take away one small cassette.

The world media made much of the story. Our London office reported “massive coverage.” The story went everywhere from Bolivia to Iceland. The Western Morning News in Plymouth, England, wrongly thinking I was a local because my mother lived there, declared with a Churchillian ring: “Cornish editor defies Botha.” The International Herald Tribune headline said: “Paper prints interview with rebel.” The editorial page of the British Guardian carried extracts from the interview, as arranged, as did the New York Times and other newspapers. Tambo’s peace call got world publicity.

Messages flooded in. In a few weeks there were 3,000, including those from my daughters. Janet, with her friends at Grahamstown where they were studying, telegraphed inter alia , “Get your surfboard ready"--a reference to a family joke that, if I ever was banned, I would try to escape by surfboard. My former wife, Val, a music teacher, aptly sent me Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A school class in California wrote me letters of encouragement.


The messages were overwhelmingly supportive, though one anonymous critic placed a clip of my arrest in the post box, with “ABOUT TIME” scribbled above it.

And there were some other critical ones. A caller to the newspaper’s phone-in service said: “Mr. Heard must be a very simple man when he believes what a terrorist tells him.” (A reader named) A. Parker of Cravenby Estate said: “When the ANC takes over, Mr. Heard will be the first one to leave the country.”

J. O’Brien of Fresnaye took issue with Tambo’s remarks about “soft targets” not being sought out and his admission that they could be hit in “cross-fire.” He said: “Isn’t this exactly what happens when police react to petrol-bombers, etc. and innocent bystanders are hurt? But then it’s made to look like unprovoked police action.” (Another reader) smelled a rat: “The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said: ‘The basis of war is to deceive your adversary.’ This applies to Oliver Tambo--a deliberate ploy along those lines of deception.”

Those critical comments apart, the flood was favorable. A major theme was thanks from readers for being treated like adults and for being allowed to make up their own minds.

Excerpts from others: P. Roberts, of Rondebosch: “Mr. Oliver Tambo is a very enlightened man. It is a great pity we haven’t been allowed to listen to his beliefs before.” H. Wood, Mowbray: “It is reassuring that the ANC is so pragmatic in providing a vision for peace and social justice. This is quite contrary to the destructive politics of this government.”

Then there was the most moving message of all. A group of Africans from the townships passed word to me that if I were threatened by the white right wing, they would organize a protection squad. This, coming from the dispossessed and displaced of society, was passed on in dignity and friendship. Once again, I thought: there’s hope yet for South Africa.

The support made me realize that, beneath the repression of South Africa, lay a yearning to be free.

1990 by Anthony Hazlitt Heard. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arkansas Press.