THE ERSTWHILE editor of the Weekly Mail, one Anton Harber is suing a local political party. Alongside SABC journalist Thandeka Gqubule, both are fingered by Winnie Mandela in a documentary carrying allegations of Stratcom activity in apartheid-era newsrooms, the same claims repeated by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party.
Gqubule claims to have gained access to ‘declassified records’ held by the state allegedly ‘proving her innocence’. Instead of being a spy for Stratcom, she alleges she was rather the ‘object of an intelligence gathering exercise’ and thus seeks to have her day in court where the records will no doubt be examined to determine which version is true.
The EFF have been given one week to provide evidence supporting their own allegations. Like South Press, Grassroots and New Nation, I have no doubt that the former Weekly Mail was the target of a dirty tricks campaign. The gory details are not the subject of this piece, but rather, the opportunity to examine the failure of Harber to uphold any of the values he purports to serve.
Hence the criticism below that what comes around, goes around. Harber himself has used similar smear tactics. The Mail & Guardian, the successor to the parochial Weekly Mail resoundingly failed to defend the historical record of struggle journos and has gone so far as censoring my own writing (see here). One has therefore got to challenge Harber’s tacit claim to being the sole representative of the struggle press in South Africa.
Like Max du Preez, whose position as former publisher of the Afrikaans duel-medium Vrye Weekblad, who then turned himself into a monument made from apartheid-era granite at News24.com, ( a racist rag if ever there was one), Harber moved on from publishing out of Houghton, and the nascent white counter-culture of Johannesburg, to rooting for Remgro, Big Capital and ENCA.
If one reads Harber, these days you could easily make the mistake of thinking the old Weekly Mail was the only periodical of its time. The trouble with having unchallenged opinion and editorial conceit writ large by the likes of Harber and du Preez, is that the truth and reality are rather different.
The all-white newsrooms of the ‘white alternative press’ though allies of the struggle, only operated because they enjoyed privileges gained from decades of race segregation, and separate development. Harber et al, were nowhere close to the coalface of activism as the black press on the frontlines and barricades. Black periodicals such as Grassroots which bore the brunt of Stratcom dirty tricks were closed down, without the funds needed to secure any legacy defense.
Significantly, Harber was never detained as such, nor imprisoned for his views, on the contrary, this treatment was regularly meted out by the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) upon editors who dared to defy the Botha government whilst being black, and guilty of insurrection.
Time for a radical re-assessment of the period.
READERS may remember the controversy surrounding the banning and destruction of material published by Medialternatives. In particular the circumstances surrounding the elimination of my book review of A Secret Burden by none other than M&G editor Ferial Haffajee.
The book itself was a collection of prose and poetry “written anonymously by young, white South African conscripts deployed during the so-called ‘Border War”, and my review brought attention to the problem of embedded journalists, the manner in which the SADF had literally paid for material published by the former Argus Group and Naspers, in the process lavishing pro-War attention via Scope, Sarie and Huisgenoot.
It is telling that in the aftermath of the Winnie Stratcom revelations, that one Terry Bell, lately of Media24, another outlet responsible for the destruction of material, including photographic images, is defending the track record of journos implicated in dirty tricks, at the former Argus Group, whilst referring to a list of as yet unpublished names. According to Bell, the problem remains, that State operative, turned TRC witness, John Horak is also dead. We beg to differ, since the TRC report exists, alongside credible records still in the possession of the commission, entered into evidence but only referred to in passing by the final report.
Readers should therefore be reminded that the following testimony does appear in the TRC report into the media under apartheid. One can only hope the Minister of Justice will take the opportunity, presented by the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to release evidence which are now classified documents. Information referred and alluded to in testimony to the general public, if only to set this matter straight. The group photo opportunities taken during the Border War, for which many journalists accepted junkets, will certainly make for interesting documentary and archival history on the subject, whilst providing all-important context:
“Williamson gave information about another STRATCOM-type operation which involved taking senior members of the media to Special Forces bases on the South African border for a bosberaad with the highest ranking officers of the military and intelligence agencies. The state’s relations with the media were, he said, seen as a “macro continuum” from the owners of the media, to the editors who controlled the newspaper, right down to the dustbin cleaners who cleaned the dustbins at night and stuffed material in an envelope to be collected by agents.” TRC Report Vol 4, Ch6, para 68, pg180
“Williamson also provided a photograph, taken on the Angolan border in July 1987, which contained virtually the entire general staff of the defence force, various government ministers and staff and Williamson himself, together with a number of highly placed journalists. The focus on that occasion was how South Africa and the newspapers would respond to what the Soviets were doing in Angola.” TRC Report Vol 4, Ch6, para 69, pg180
“State operative John Horak explained that there were four basic categories of media spies: agents, informers, sources, and ‘sleepers’. Craig Williamson confirmed this. An agent was a professional police officer with a job to do. Informers gave information either voluntarily or were recruited. He identified two categories of informers: those who were ideologically totally opposed to what the organisation was doing and those who did it for the money. There were also those who did it to get at colleagues for reasons such as competing for promotion. ‘Sleepers’ were long-term plants, people who knew things but would only provide information if their consciences were bothering them.” TRC Report Vol 4, Ch6, para 93, pg184
NOTE: In 2016 Naspers directors promised to investigate the whereabouts of several articles and images relating to South African jazz music history produced under my own byline but in their possession. At this time, the company has not responded. The items have in all likelihood been destroyed.
REVELATIONS that South Africa’s media were the targets of a dirty tricks operation at the behest of the apartheid government, named Operation Romulus, and that the victim was the late Winnie Mandela, were bound to cause a sensation. More so in the aftermath of her death. Embedded journalism is highly problematic. The least of which is the impact, it has had on several titles that may be implicated.
The untested claims attributed to Stratcom agent, Vic McPherson are all contained in the documentary on Winnie by Pascal Le Marche. The Citizen however, was forced to remove an article entitled “Stratcom Reporters at the Weekly Mail”, issuing an apology to then editor, Anton Harber, as did the Huffington Post.
Readers may remember the circumstances in which the apartheid government bought and paid for the Citizen in what became known as the Information Scandal, and the manner in which both South Press and Medialternatives itself were banned, the latter by none other than Mail & Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee, after yours truly exposed the problem of apartheid embedded journalism at the Independent Group (formerly Argus Group).
“We failed to seek out comment from Harber, Gqubule and Mathiane before publishing untested allegations. We are deeply sorry and apologise without reservation” wrote Huffpost editor-in-chief Pieter du Toit. A title, which is also the subject of some controversy surrounding its inclusion in the Naspers stable. An apartheid corporation, responsible for Stratcom and whose newsrooms until recently carried portraits of editors such as D F Malan and HF Verwoerd.
Thus it came as no surprise that Weekly Mail, along with its former racist bedmates, was now being implicated. After a sterling run as the bastion of progressive politics, the successor to the Weekly Mail, threw its lot in with 24.com, while the online version of the newspaper under Chris Roper, became the proving ground for former apartheid spies and journos.
Winnie Mandela repeats many of the claims in a recent interview conducted before her death. The result ended up in a takedown of posts at two media houses, both themselves implicated in the apartheid regime. The original Citizen article is only available as a cached page on google.
It may seem a little too convenient then, that Politicsweb, responsible for banning Medialternatives on Black Wednesday, rose to the defense of Harber, apparently quoting a 1995 Weekly Mail expose of Stratcom and thus the words of one Paul Erasmus
The article pictured to the left, by
embedded investigative journalist Stefaans Brummer, fails to examine the implications of a stratcom operation aimed at the Weekly Mail newsroom, and its NIA successors under the new regime.
Was Harber in fact also the target as many newsrooms were during the struggle? The full extent of Operation Romulus is only now becoming public record.
A fuller investigation into the many skeletons housed and embedded within South Africa’s press and their shortcomings during apartheid, is most certainly warranted. Declassifying documents may be the first step according to Open Secrets’ Hennie van Vuuren.
Watch eNCA below reflect on the media during this period.