So if I look back at my life and my career and I ask myself why did I not travel the same route as most other Afrikaans young men of my age, of my time, I would say it’s because I went into journalism, because it made me see things—although I must also add I recently wrote my memoirs and struggled with this very question. Why did I not become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church or a politician or a soldier or something in the old apartheid system? And I think my father had something to do with it.
My father was a member of the Broederbond. He was an Afrikaner nationalist. He supported apartheid quite strongly. And yet he had a fundamental sense of justice. He came from a poor background. His parents suffered greatly in the Anglo-Boer War and were victims of the scorched earth policies. And so he came—he made good, but he came from the poor background, and I think where his sort of sympathy with the underdog came from.
[The Afrikaner Broederbond, or Afrikaner Brotherhood in English, was a South African secret society composed of Afrikaans-speaking Protestant, white men over the age of 25 that was established in 1918. The Boer Wars of 1880-1881 and 1899-1902 were fought between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers (Afrikaners) of the Transvaal and Orange Free State located in Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The British were ultimately victorious and established the autonomous Union of South Africa in 1910, including the Afrikaner territories.]
So I really remember walking the streets of my town where black people were—you know, if you walked down the sidewalk they would go to the sides because the white—it’s just the white man has the right of way. And my father was no different, and yet my father would pick conversations in Sesotho, the local language, with those people, and sometimes take up their battles for them, which they would then—because he could understand their language and he seemed to be sympathetic.
He would then help them, and I didn’t think of much of it at the time, but in hindsight that kind of fundamental sense of justice and decency, bizarrely within this framework of apartheid, had a very strong influence on me.
I remember, for instance, my father was a very religious man also, and he was at the local congregation in charge of the black minister of a neighboring congregation, of his payment and doing his books and helping him along, because the white church sort of financially supported the black church. And this man—the Reverend Ernest Bhuti was his name used to come once a week to our home in Kroonstad to bring the books and the invoices and stuff.
Now I’m talking about the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In those days the practice was that he would stop at the back, go through the backyard, and knock on the door of the kitchen because he’s a black man. Somehow this didn’t happen. He stopped in the street—we had a very big property—and he would walk the 200 meters to the front door where he would be greeted by hand by my parents, and they would either sit on the front veranda or they would go inside the home where my mother would serve tea and whatever. And I did not find this very strange because that’s how my parents behaved with anybody else.
The community didn’t think so and charged my father for alien conduct—conduct unbecoming an elder in the church. And I remember I took notice of this when someone was sent to come talk to my father about this, and I somehow overheard this—I was sitting there. And they said, “Well, why—we hear that you serve this black dominee with the same cups and from the same teapot. Why would you do that? And why doesn’t he come in the back door? Why do you make a spectacle of him walking through your front garden and then you greet him by hand?” And I remember my father getting extremely angry, saying, “So do you agree that this man is a messenger of God?” and the guy said, “Yeah, he’s a minister.” [“Dominee” is an Afrikaans word for a minister.]
And he said, “And do you want me to tell God that his messengers are only good enough for a chipped cup and for the back door?” And that’s what I remember. And my father paid a bit of a social price for that if I remember.
So this little bit of stuff stuck with me, and when I became a journalist they made the mistake of—because I was doing quite well in journalism. I think it was what I wanted to do. It was my talent. I was a good writer and I was naturally inquisitive and fairly confident. And so I became the youngest person to be sent to the parliamentary press gallery of the white parliament of South Africa—the whites-only parliament.
And I thought this was very exciting, so I sat there and the shock was tremendous because I grew up being taught about the fathers of the folk that God had sent to us and we have to respect them and they know better and don’t argue. And I looked at them up close because now I was working for a sympathetic Afrikaans newspaper, sympathetic to the government, and I’m in this inner sanctum as a journalist and I was supposed to be one of them. But I didn’t get the note. I didn’t understand the code and I went there as a reporter. And I saw the decadence and the amoral conduct and the lies from inside, and I was really—I didn’t expect this. I must’ve been very naïve.
And the crux came when once I was reporting on a minister—he was the Minister of Water Affairs or something. And I walked out to file the story on what the minister had just said, and my team leader, a fellow journalist, said, “No, we have to take your story to the minister first.” And I said, “Well, I reported him correctly.” He said, “No, but the minister always has to see the story to see if it suits him.” And I said, “Well, what if what he wants me to write is different from what Hansard writes, the official record of parliament?” And he said to me, “Who do you think Afrikaners will believe, Hansard or the minister?” And I said, “Well, I’m out of here. I can’t—this I can’t do.”