Ed Herbst: Cape Times journalism compared + my response to its Walter Mitty

By Ed Herbst*


All the President’s Men

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst
Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

The moment which defined investigative journalism from then on.

In our own history there have been many examples of the role that investigative journalism has played in making our country more just, more democratic.

I think of Helen Zille’s exposure of the reasons for the death in detention of Steve Biko.

Of the rivalry between the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Express which proved so significant in exposing the National Party’s role in the Info Scandal.

Of the dogged refusal by Greg Marinovich to accept the official line in the Marikana massacre.

Society expects the Fourth Estate to play a watchdog role and in my last article I questioned why there had been so little investigative journalism of note at the Independent News Media company since the Sekunjalo takeover three years ago and I used the Taco Kuiper awards as a benchmark.

This article looks at an example of investigative journalism at the Cape Times which played a significant role in bringing to international public attention the true story of the Gugulethu Seven who were killed on 3 March 1986.

It is the story of two Cape Times reporters, Chris Bateman and Tony Weaver and the part they played in that chapter in our history.

Chris Bateman began his newspaper career on the Natal Witness and his parents ran a trading store near Kranskop in the KZN midlands which meant that he learned to speak Zulu as a child – something that was to prove vital on the day that the Gugulethu Seven died in a hail of gunfire.

At the end of Bateman’s testimony on these murders before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for a round of applause for Bateman and his Cape Times colleagues.

Gugulethu Seven Memorial

It was Bateman whose command of Zulu and Xhosa blew wide open the horrendous story of how a Cape Town police unit, liaising with Vlakplaas had led to the ambush and murder of the Gugulethu Seven. And it was Tony Weaver whose links with the BBC’s Q&A and Africa Service television programmes led to a Cape Town story making headlines around the world and him being prosecuted under the notorious section 27B of the Terrorism Act – and acquitted.

(horrendous story)

My favourite Weaver story occurred in the late eighties when he was a local television news correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Low level insurrection had gripped the country and when Thohoyandou teachers went on strike in Venda, P W Botha sent in the army and Pik Botha arrived by helicopter to monitor what was happening. The rotors were still turning as Weaver, camera rolling, doorstopped Pik as he emerged. “Oh f#ck, it’s Tony Weaver!” Botha said and that recording became one of the defining news statements of the era and was broadcast around the world.

Botha’s words were emblazoned on a tee shirt subsequently produced by CBC.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 11.32.25Here is Chris Batemen’s account of how he experienced the events which unfolded on 3 March 1986:

As crime reporter for the Cape Times, I arrived at the Thomas Boydell building, headquarters of the SA Police in the Western Cape, shortly after 9 am on March 3, 1986, for the routine daily crime briefing given by their public relations division.

Their offices were, however, bereft of people and I immediately suspected I was missing out on something big. As I was about to ask around, the telephone rand on the office desk of the police press liaison officer, Lt Attie Laubscher. As there was nobody present to answer I picked it up. It was SABC television news reporter Charl Pauw and when I identified myself he asked if I’d heard about a shoot-out near NY1 in Gugulethu.

I ordered a car from our office pool and a photographer and I raced out to the   township, arriving outside the three-story Dairybelle Workers’ Hostel to find a large and restive crowd gathered around a cordoned-off area in which several police vehicles were parked. I could see police cleaning up pools of blood or at least throwing dirt over the blood near a large roadside gumtree, besides which an army Casspir troop-carrier was parked. Speaking Zulu and Xhosa, I asked people in the angry crowd what had happened.

While nobody had any detail or eyewitness accounts, the consensus seemed to be that police had shot and killed some young township residents. I saw Lt Attie Laubscher on the outskirts of the cordon and immediately pressed him for answers. His guarded reply was revealing; “Chris, I can’t tell you anything, you’ll have to phone Pretoria for this one, its political”.

I decided the best eyewitness vantage point would have been the upper storeys of the nearby Dairybelle Hostel which overlooked the scene of the shooting. I managed to slip through the closed hostel gates and scoured the mostly empty upper dormitories. Eventually on the second floor I found an eyewitness who told me there had been a grenade thrown from a vehicle in the street below, followed by a fierce exchange of gunfire.

One combatant had collapsed near a large gum tree and police had walked up to him and “finished him off,” shooting him in the head, while another emerged from bushes in a nearby field, with his hands above his head. A policeman approached him, kneed him in the stomach and turned to another policeman before turning back and firing a shotgun at virtual point blank range at his head.

The person who had given me this account gave me his name and said he was a cleaner in the hostel block. I then encountered a resident downstairs who repeated the story and took me to his eyewitness vantage point on the third floor. His detail was strikingly similar to the first witness. I seem to remember him showing me a bullet hole in one window and him saying that at the height of the gun-fight he spent some time ducked below the window sill. A third witness gave a very similar version of events. I specifically mentioned to all of them the seriousness of their allegations, but they were emphatic and I remember thinking it was too much of a coincidence, them being at different places, hardly knowing one another, and their stories being so similar.

I can’t remember how I heard, but I was told that the Cape Town Murder and Robbery Squad were somehow involved and I later went to their Bishop Lavis headquarters where I was regaled by some of the actual police combatants about their fierce gun-battle with ‘terrorists’ and shown an array of ‘guerilla weaponry’ spread on a table top. (A few grenades, an AK47 and a Tokarov pistol, if memory serves me correctly). They said they received ‘intelligence’ that a police van carrying change-over shift staff to the Gugulethu police station would be attacked early that morning and had set up a counter-ambush.

I deliberately avoided confronting them with my eyewitness version as it would have immediately compromised my informants, but we later officially put it to police who predictably asked for the names. After my editor, Tony Heard, had closely quizzed me, the Cape Times the next morning carried my eyewitness version as a top-of-front-page strap, with pictures of the police ‘heroes’ and their ‘weapons haul’ below as the lead story (which I had based on the police combatants version). The police made no mention of any close range shootings, but made much of a policeman whose R4 rifle butt and cheek were nicked by an AK47 bullet as he sat in his vehicle.

The ensuing days became a game of cat and mouse between us and the police in securing affidavits from my eye-witnesses – which we eventually won after days of my staking out the hostel to see when one in particular would appear. His co-workers said he’d gone to the (then) Transkei homeland, suffering from a tooth infection, which left me sceptical. Eventually he did return, sure enough with jaw strapped tightly with a cloth and complaining of an infected tooth. We got him and his fellow eyewitnesses to sign affidavits with the help of Cape Town advocate and parliamentarian, the late Tiaan Van der Merwe.

Apparently the absent one had escaped the clutches of the police. Not so another colleague who was pulled in, interrogated and asked why he ‘told lies to the Cape Times,’ with the interrogation room door ominously closed behind him.

A few days later, a Major Mostert entered our newsroom, marched up to my desk and tossed an affidavit in front of me, asking me to ‘just sign it’ to avoid being ‘Section 205’d’ (a Criminal Procedure Act law requiring people with information pertinent to a criminal case to reveal their sources or face an indeterminate period in jail). I refused, saying we had our own lawyers advising us.

What followed was an aggressive and ugly police and government propaganda campaign denouncing the Cape Times, myself (I was banned from the police crime conference and a police news blackout was imposed on the Cape Times), my colleague Tony Weaver, a hardened reporter of the Namibian freedom struggle (who reported my story on the BBC’s Africa Service and also did several follow up probes on the family of the murdered seven), and our progressive editor, Tony Heard.

We were labelled, a ‘Communist rag’ by national police minister, Louis le Grange. In parliament he waved around our cutting-edge daily reports of the civil war being waged in the townships as evidence, he suggested, of our ongoing anti-government, pro-ANC campaigning.

Apparently with our reportage of the Gugulethu Seven we’d gone ‘a bridge too far,’ and they were determined to exact punishment, serving Weaver and I with Section 205 subpoenas and charging Weaver, a ‘known activist reporter’ under Section 27B of the Police Act (‘Publication of untrue matter about police without having reasonable grounds for believing it to be true ‘– a piece of legislation that put the burden of proof on the accused). We both got off, myself because the diligent lawyer Tiaan van der Merwe had secured watertight affidavits from my witnesses who felt confident of proper legal protection and were thus willing to be identified.

Tony Weaver triumphed after a lengthy court case in which we pitted a top-level duo of forensic pathologist, David Klatzow and renowned Advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, against the police and virtually put them on trial. The magistrate found our version to be the more likely account.

It was but a foretaste of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to reveal more than a decade later, this time putting the entire Western Cape police leadership and the Security Police’s covert operatives from the infamous Vlakplaas headquarters, in the deeply uncomfortable and inescapable glare of public indemnity hearings. A far more sinister tale was to unfold there of how the Cape Town murder and robbery squad, hoping for a budget increase, deliberately set up a sting operation to entice young township residents into an ambush. They did this with Vlakplaas assistance.

So that was the sort of investigative journalism that thrived when Tony Heard was the editor of the Cape Times in the 1980s.

I will cite three examples of the “investigative journalism” which the Cape Times indulges itself in now that Aneez Salie is editor.

  • On 5 March 2015 the Cape Times published an article alleging that foetal alcohol syndrome was rife on Western Cape wine farms because employees were often paid in liquor rather than money. I challenged Salie, in my article Truth, Ethics and Plagiarism, to call a press conference and produce witnesses who would testify to such abuses. He did not respond because the article was not just a lie but also, in substantial measure, plagiarised. The article was simply an attempt to denigrate and demonise the white farming community in the province.
  • In my article, The ‘Tiger Tiger Five’: Story of a race hoax posted on 16 October 2015 on Politicsweb I revealed how Chad de Matos ended up in Pollsmoor Prison without having committed any crime simply because he was a white UCT student and those two factors made him anathema to the newspaper. The SA Press Council ordered the Cape Times to apologise for this utterly nefarious journalism.
  • The Cape Times was also ordered by the Press Council to apologise for an eight-month smear campaign against Western Cape premier, Helen Zille in which she was falsely accused of hiring a spy.

You can decide who the moral victor is in this Editor vs Editor contest – Tony Heard or Aneez Salie.

Dr Iqbal Survé – a response

Dr Iqbal Survé has published an article on the IOL website and in the newspapers which he owns in which my name is mentioned.


The essence of the article is that research by his previously unknown ‘Journalism Intern Investigative Unit’ has revealed a recent increase in negative articles about him and his newspapers.

There are several reasons for this recent increase.

  • 9 May 2016 – The affidavit which decided Dr Survé to settle with Alide Dasnois rather than to testify under oath in the labour court is posted online
  • 10 May 2016. Questions raised in parliament force the PIC to acknowledge that its billion rand funding of the purchase of the Indy titles was politically motivated.
  • 28 June 2016. Veteran labour journalist Terry Bell reveals that many of the claims that Dr Survé has made to promote his personal and business interests are devoid of truth.
  • 29 July 2016 – One of the most senior news executives at Independent Newspapers, Karima Brown, resigns without giving reasons.
  • 1 August 2016. The Press Council orders the Cape Times to apologise for its brazenly biased article published about Alide Dasnois after Survé effectively reneged on a settlement he reached with her.
  • 11 August 2016. Details of looming retrenchments at the newspapers owned by Survé are revealed.

The article mentioning my name carries no by-line so its author is unknown – but the tone reminds one of a telephone conversation which Dr Survé had with Mail & Guardian journalist Craig McKune on 22 August 2013, a conversation which the newspaper described as his “bloody agent” moment, a reference to Julius Malema’s rant against BBC journalist Jonah Fisher.

Whenever McKune tries to gain clarity on who is funding his purchase of Independent Newspapers, Survé refuses to let him finish his questions, telling him on 13 occasions in the eight minute interview that his reporting is “bullshit” on seven occasions that it is “rubbish” and on seven occasions that it is “nonsense”.

Constantly interrupting McKune, Survé says that he should rather investigate links between the CIA and Mail & Guardian owner Trevor Ncube. He says that he has “high level” “factual information” on these links and assures McKune that there will be a “follow-up which, three years later, has still not transpired.

You can hear McKune chuckling as he ends the conversation.

The article hints darkly at foreign funding.

Dr Iqbal Survé
Dr Iqbal Survé

I am quite happy to reveal my bank details if Dr Survé reveals his and such an audit will clarify the question of his monthly salary from the Indy newspapers.

My bank account reveals that I have two sources of income, my SABC pension and about R3000 a month from a retirement annuity which I funded through a monthly stop order over 40 years.

I live alone in a single room in a very average old age home that caters for the frail aged.

Crippled by a neurological illness I spend much of the day in front of a computer writing on subjects that interest me, from farm murders to philandering politicians but mostly on the interface between media and politics.

Thanks to Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin I am able to continue to work as a journalist and I do so on the strict understanding that I do not want payment for the articles I write.

An audit of my bank account will reveal no income from any website that has posted my articles.

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