As SA seeks Thuli’s replacement, Ed Herbst remembers the Harksens

By Ed Herbst*

It was a hot summer day in Constantia but, despite this, the lithe, lissom and attractive blonde beside me, Jeanette Harksen, was manifesting, in her impeccably tailored but skin-tight dress, what is described in contemporary celebspeak as “pokies”.

I am an ascetic man and if you Google “Images for pokies” you will understand my dilemma.

Ed Herbst, former television journalist
Ed Herbst, former television journalist

One does what one can in such circumstances and, inwardly reciting Psalm 121, I averted my eyes, focused on the distant Constantia hills shimmering in a heat haze and tried to concentrate as she droned on about her husband’s love of koi.

It was with some relief that I asked my colleague, cameraman Brian Uranovsky, to take over and he accompanied her on a cinematic tour of the beautifully maintained garden and the expensively furnished house which she shared with her husband Juergen, an alleged conman of note.

Composure rocked

My relief was of short duration and my composure was rocked when Uranovsky came to call me for the interview and let me know – with what I felt was unseemly enthusiasm – that if Mrs Harksen were to change her name by deed poll, Nicholas would not be an inappropriate choice.

Fortunately, I am not only an ascetic man, I am also a short-sighted one and I focused on my shoes as we sat down for the interview. The room suddenly seemed oppressively hot and, as my spectacles misted over, I did what I felt was my duty.

“Ma’am”, I said, somewhat hesitantly, “I offered you this interview because the image created in the media of you and your husband has been somewhat one-sided … but I feel your cause would be better served if you changed into less revealing clothing before we start.”

With a delighted grin she got up to comply, returning in an impeccably-tailored, pleated grey flannel skirt which decorously covered her knees, the sort of restrained elegance which made Elzbieta Rosenwerth the doyenne of Cape Town couturiers.

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In retrospect, although I try not to think about it, the situation could well have been reminiscent of the justifiably notorious scene in a Sharon Stone movie which, for obvious reasons, I have only heard about – and that in passing.

For Cape Town media folk the Harksen era provided some halcyon days and a bonanza of one front page lead after another.

Darker side

There was, however a darker side to the Harksen saga which dragged on for nine years as he used his ill-gotten gains to hire some of the best lawyers in the country to fight a losing battle against extradition. I was reminded of this when I saw Judge Siraj Desai testifying during the interviews in Parliament to choose the next Public Protector.

During the late 1990s the Democratic Alliance was relentlessly crucified by newspapers for months on end when it was revealed that the party’s provincial leader Gerald Morkel and its convivial local fundraiser, the late Leon Markowitz, had fraternised with Harksen. The Mail & Guardian, described what happened then (dubbed Morkelgate) as a ‘media fest.’

Here’s how R W Johnson described the subsequent ANC witch hunt against the Democratic Alliance – and the role of Siraj Desai – in his book, “South Africa’s Brave New World – The Beloved Country” (Allen Lane, 2009)

“Once the ANC/NNP coalition took over the province Peter Marais set up the Desai Commission with the mandate of inquiring into spying on the provincial government. When the Harksen scandal broke he broadened the terms of reference to go into that too, for the Commission’s real job was simply to rake whatever dirt it could find on the DA. Judge Desai, a former ANC branch chairman and a close friend of the Western Cape ANC leadership, was only too happy to do this. Having initially stated that it was not within the Commission’s terms of reference to determine whether Harksen had given money to the DA, he then proceeded to lead witnesses to precisely that question. When it emerged that Harksen had given at least equal amounts to the ANC., Desai showed no interest.” (P262).

Siraj Desai. Pic: Twitter @dailymaverick
Siraj Desai. Pic: Twitter @dailymaverick

I never covered the Desai Commission hearings at the time but colleagues who did said it was an out and out witch hunt against the DA with clear political intent.

“Heart of darkness”

When the Desai Commission had run its course the judge had to acknowledge that although he had found no concrete evidence of corruption against the DA, the evidence nevertheless “seemed to lead into an immense heart of darkness”. Nobody was ever prosecuted but the Scorpions, using the SABC to give maximum publicity, constantly leaked information saying that the arrest of DA politicians such as Gerald Morkel and Leon Markowitz for money laundering was imminent. Predictably, such arrests never happened but saturation coverage by the SABC kept the DA on the back foot – which was the intention.

Ironically, once Harksen had been extradited to Germany he confessed to giving much more money to the ANC than he had given to the DA but if Judge Desai was looking for the “heart of darkness” he should have called for a commission of inquiry into the amounts donated to the ANC by Brett Kebble and, in particular to ANC Youth League members in the Western Cape.

  • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.