28 January 2016

South Africa: God, Lies and Spies - A Journalist's Story

book review

Cape Town — God, Spies and Lies, John Matisonn's blend of memoir, political reporting, analysis, media history and lively anecdote demonstrates that although it may be clichéd to say that a reporter has a front seat to history, it can be true if you choose the right bench in the right stadium.

His personal scan of the events which he witnessed over four decades in journalism covers a large swathe of contemporary South African history. In doing so, it reflects not only the insights of a reporter passionately committed to the free flow of information and ideas in a democracy, but also wide reading and in-depth research - both sorely lacking in much of the journalism churned out by today's understaffed newsrooms.

Before listing a couple of Matisonn's achievements, a caveat and a criticism.

First, as welcome and as valuable as his contribution is, it underscores the absence of in-depth accounts of the struggles and achievements of leading black journalists of the era, among them the Joe Thloloes, the Percy Qobozas, the Zwelakhe Sisulus, the Aggrey Klaastes and others. That's not Matisonn's fault and it's not to say he ignores them - he makes every effort to record not only their contributions, but those of others in his and earlier generations, going back to the beginnings of black journalism. But they or their contemporaries need to tell their stories too. Perhaps the fact that three of the four I have listed died too young hints at the pressures they lived under. One hopes that scholars at today's journalism schools will fill the gap.

The criticism is that some of the earlier chapters of the book could have done with more strategically vigorous editing. Nothing is lost through the lack of it - you probably won't notice it if you dip into it as a bedside reader - but some of his story-telling could have had more dramatic impact if the punchlines had been better placed.

Once Matisonn gets into his stride, however, the book flows into a seamless read, telling stories of the deeds of the apartheid-era government, liberation movement politics, Washington manoeuverings over apartheid, the transition to democracy, trying to change apartheid's state broadcaster into an independent public broadcaster, and towards the end, his service - ending in disillusionment - as a broadcasting regulator in the Mandela administration.

(There's also an intriguing story about how Thabo Mbeki deployed apartheid-era chemical warfare experts to try to stop the Iraq war, an insider's analysis on why South Africa missed out on the information revolution, and some ideas about how the country can escape its current malaise.)

One of Matisonn's most satisfying achievements is his recording of the roles of either too-little recognized or forgotten South African journalists of his era.

Sylvia Vollenhoven's pioneering work as a black woman in Cape Town, constantly under suspicion of being “too close” to the anti-apartheid story, is recorded, including the “brief but eventful” life of the free newsletter without a name which she and Zubeida Jaffer put together, using copy spiked by their bosses.

Those who knew Charlie Bloomberg, the muckraker who fled the country after breaking open the Afrikaner Broederbond, the secret society which underpinned ruling party politics, will recognize in Matisonn's description the wryly deferential demeanour he cultivated to wheedle confidences from his contacts. (How many people are there in different countries who, years after hosting him in spare bedrooms, still had in their storerooms boxes of Charlie's jumbled sweat shirts, notebooks and broken tape recorders, a legacy of his itinerant lifestyle?)

Then there is Hennie Serfontein, who migrated from defending Chief Albert Luthuli against physical attack by his fellow Afrikaners to following Charlie in continuing to unveil the Broederbond's secrets in the Johannesburg Sunday Times. We read too about Raymond Louw, Matisonn's mentor, as doughty a fighter for press freedom today as he was in the 1970s, but whose role as the consummate hard news journalist who edited the liberal Rand Daily Mail is inadequately recorded.

Deliberately left to last in this review is the issue raised by the “Spies” in the title; deliberately because it has already been covered extensively in South Africa. For readers who might have seen the controversy Matisonn's book has kicked up, and decided to ignore what appeared to be a clutch of squabbling old men arguing over the past, the context is quickly sketched.

South Africa's English-language press at the time, like the mining houses which owned it, styled itself in the main as anti-apartheid. But it was anti-apartheid in the sense that Margaret Thatcher was anti-apartheid, which is to say that its owners did not appoint editors who supported effective action, for example stringent economic sanctions, which might have had a chance of bringing it down quickly.

When the hardline defence minister P. W. Botha became prime minister in 1979, and cozied up to English business by signalling his readiness to scrap some policies which were hindering economic growth - but without giving up an iota of political power, a cleavage opened up. Some white editors, broadly speaking those who were willing to give space to anti-apartheid journalists such as Matisonn, opposed the political elements of Botha's “reforms” as hopelessly inadequate. Others backed them on the grounds that half a loaf was better than none.

One of those who supported Botha's changes was Tertius Myburgh, the editor of the Sunday Times, the country's biggest-circulating newspaper. He had been brought in to edit the paper from outside the company which owned it, and he quite openly associated himself more closely with Botha's security policies than other editors in the group.

For example, he once helped to organise a trip for his fellow editors to the bush headquarters of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, who was backed by the South African military in his war against the government in Luanda. And when the South African military launched a raid on alleged ANC residences and offices in Botswana, his newspaper glorified the attack under the banner headline, “The Guns of Gaborone”.

Against this backdrop, the “revelation” in Matisonn's book that has generated the heat has been the suggestion that Tertius Myburgh was an apartheid spy.

Matisonn names a number of journalists from the 1970s and 1980s who collaborated with apartheid's various security agencies in degrees varying from acting as reporters exchanging information with intelligence contacts to being paid to spy on their colleagues. But he doesn't in fact say that Myburgh was a spy or a paid agent in the conventional sense.

He says rather that Myburgh was on “the first rung” of “informers”, someone who shared information with his contacts in exchange for “information, ideology, comfort zone, and advantages that lead to advancement.” That, Matisonn concludes, “does not make him any less of an agent... he was an agent, one of theirs.” Notably, when white business decided to close the Rand Daily Mail, whose coverage in spite of shortcomings nevertheless infuriated the forces of apartheid, Myburgh was in on the kill.

The consequences of that decision, and that to close another newspaper in the company, the Sunday Express - which had led the way in exposing the secret use of government money for pro-apartheid propaganda at home and abroad - were arguably as damaging as the activities of spies and agents to the role the established white press played in exposing the worst depredations of apartheid.

And one of the saddest effects of the business establishment's collaboration with Botha was the loss to South African readers of a generation of anti-apartheid journalists who had to seek a living abroad or as local correspondents for foreign media - among them Sylvia Vollenhoven, Hennie Serfontein and Matisonn himself.

Disclosure: The reviewer has known the author since they worked together in a South African journalists' union in the 1970s.

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