The strange career of Tony Heard

Andrew Donaldson remembers the esteemed editor turned PR man for the ANC regime


THE exact date escapes me but, back in the noughties, I boarded a flight to Cape Town from Johannesburg and, shortly after settling down for take-off, nose-deep in a book, heard a voice telling me I was in his seat. I looked up. It was Tony Heard, the former editor of the Cape Times who passed away last week at the age of 86. It turned out, bizarrely, that we had been allocated identical boarding passes.

Heard was my old boss, and this was the first time I had seen him in years. We had not parted in the most agreeable of circumstances, back in the spring of 1987, and this was a rather awkward reunion in the crowded, cattle class aisle of an SAA flight. 

After some mumbled pleasantries about nothing in particular, a flight attendant informed a greatly relieved Heard there was a seat for him in business class. “I’ll be up in front with my minister,” he said. With that, the media advisor for Kader Asmal, the then education minister, was led away. 

How sad, I thought: once a celebrated journalist, now a lowly government flunky. This, I now realise, may have been unkind. (We all must eat, and work is work.) On the positive side, I did console myself that it could have been me who had been bumped up from economy; who knows, but perhaps I’d been spared two hours of blarney from the twinkly leprechaun Asmal . A small mercy, then…

I had first worked for the Times in 1982 as a cadet reporter, and upon completing my internship, was offered a position as a general news reporter in September 1983, an opportunity I eagerly welcomed, and, it’s fair to say, a chequered career in the fishwraps followed.

Heard, meanwhile, was fired as editor of the Cape Times in August 1987. Although it was strongly denied by his boss, SA Associated Newspapers CEO Stephen Mulholland, many felt the dismissal was a direct consequence of Heard’s decision in November 1985 to publish a lengthy interview with Oliver Tambo, the exiled leader of the then-banned ANC. 

This, as the tributes to Heard have made clear, was an act of some bravery. It was the first time in more than 25 years since the ANC was outlawed that South Africans were able to read first-hand the views of a leader branded by the apartheid government as a terrorist. As Anton Harber’s obituary noted:

“[Heard] was just doing what journalists do, or should do, but it took remarkable courage at a time when such provocation contravened both security law and emergency regulations and was likely to lead to imprisonment, banning or the closure of the newspaper.

It was an act of political prescience because he knew the timing was right when South Africans were hungry for meaningful negotiations and would be keen to hear what Tambo had to say — and Heard knew he had some protection as the respected editor of a major newspaper. He used this privilege with aplomb and impact, as the story went around the world.

“Heard's actions presented the state with a dilemma: if they let this pass, then the decades-long attempts to silence the ANC would break down, but if they jailed him, he would quickly become a cause cèlébre. After months of prevarication, they dropped charges against him and fined the company a paltry R300.”

There was, of course, another dilemma: that old maxim about the reporter never becoming the story. Following the Tambo interview, Heard did find himself the centre of the media spotlight as foreign correspondents descended on the Times editorial offices in Burg Street. This, typically, from a United Press International story:

“Under South African law, no banned government opponent like Oliver Tambo can be quoted in the press. But if the story has made the government angry, it has certainly made a folk hero of Tony Heard, the handsome, crusading editor of the Cape Times…

“Sitting in his wood-panelled office, Heard sips a cup of coffee only minutes after his second visit from security police that day and explains his decision to print the interview.

“‘I am nothing other than a professional journalist. There are very few things in life that I would be prepared to risk prosecution and possibly prison for but one of them is the public's undoubted right to know what is going on and I am prepared to go quite a long way down that tube because that is what I spent my whole professional life trying to do.

“‘I don’t see it as particularly heroic. I just see it as a responsibility to our readers. I have never been a Buddhist monk who wants to pour kerosene over his head,’ Heard said.”

Among the other responsibilities, I suppose, is an undertaking not to bore readers. This may be heresy to many but, as important as the Tambo interview may have been, it was fairly pedestrian journalism. Presented in a Q&A format, it ran for 2 500 words — more than twice the usual length of the more wordy Cape Times op-ed pieces. 

It needed work. The meeting with Tambo had lasted for an hour, and Heard’s piece read as a warts-and-all transcript of a tape recording. I remember Times sub-editors saying they’d been instructed not to cut the piece or remove a single word of the interview. No paraphrasing, in other words, and all guff was thus spared.

This was not to suggest that Tambo’s opinions and comments were unimportant. Far from it. But the bloviating and waffle would not have been tolerated in a junior reporter’s copy. Here, for instance, Tambo appears to be making a noise just for the sake of it:

“The ANC, and all of us in the ANC, have always considered and accepted that whites like ourselves belong to our country. They are compatriots, fellow-citizens. We took the earliest opportunity to dispel the notion that we were fighting to drive the whites out to somewhere and we made it clear that they belong to South Africa.

They had their role to play as we would like to think we had a role to play although we are excluded. And so this has been basic. We have asked whites to join us in the struggle to get rid of the tensions that come with the apartheid system.

We have hoped that we could together build the future nonracial South Africa, and by nonracial we really do mean nonracial. We mean a society in which each one feels he or she belongs together with everybody else, where the fact of race and colour is of no consequence, where people serve according to their abilities and their skills, where we together work to unite our people, and we have adopted policies which discouraged the polarisation of our people either into ethnic groups or into white versus black.”

At least half of that could have been dumped without losing sense of its drift, as it were. There are other howlers that could easily have been omitted. No prizes for identifying which of the following three sentences should have been cut:

“It is true that the ANC has members of the Communist Party who are members of the ANC. That has been the case almost since time immemorial. The ANC was established in 1912 and the South African Communist Party in 1921, and so there has been an overlapping of membership all along the line.”

Where Heard did offer an opinion, it was to modestly describe his subject as “an essentially moderate black leader”. Later, in an interview, he said Tambo’s views were “slightly to the right” of Neil Kinnock, the UK opposition leader. Given that, at the time, Kinnock was battling Trotskyites in the Labour Party’s Militant tendency and had opposed the methods of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, this was suggestive of a fairly conservative and rather tame radical. Perhaps more interviews of this calibre in the 1980s would have stripped the ANC of some of its “revolutionary” appeal.

It is understandable but perhaps regrettable that the Tambo interview has dominated the Heard tributes. More, I felt, could have been made of the fact that Heard’s departure from the Cape Times dovetailed with the beginning of the end of an era in South African journalism. The writing was certainly on the wall when the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Express were shut down in April 1985. Both were running at a loss. But they were Jo’burg titles, and their disappearance meant little in the Western Cape.

However, when Stephen Mulholland’s cost-cutting programme hit the Cape Times, it did so in a decidedly brutal manner. He gutted the title, sold off its printing press and laid off about 90 per cent of staff; everyone bar the journalists were now redundant as entire departments, from sales and circulation down to the printers, were shown the door. 

The greatly demoralised editorial staff, meanwhile, were bundled across the road to the Argus building to share premises and printing presses with our biggest competitors in a rather wonky joint operating agreement. Until then, the Times had been a feisty independent daily, now it seemed like a cripple. 

Heard’s sacking has been described as being part of a “rationalising” process, but many believe it was a purely political decision. According to John Battersby, former Sunday Independent editor, Heard was dismissed after refusing a financial offer to resign. “He felt betrayed by his employers,” Battersby wrote, “and the dismissal left a wound that never healed.”

That sense of betrayal was keenly felt on the editorial floor. Heard was greatly admired by his staff, myself included. His leadership style could best be described as quiet and laid-back — he was, for example, nowhere near as driven or as manic as Ken Owen, an infamously tyrannical newspaper editor — but his shuffling amiability somehow earned the fierce loyalty of his reporters. It may have been due to that particular moment in our history, the uncertainty and danger of the times, but working as a reporter for Heard was an experience I’ve come to cherish.

It gives me no joy, then, to reveal how we parted. The Times, it often seemed, was a “work hard, play even harder operation”. Once deadlines were met, staff would regularly gather at the nearby watering hole, the Cafe Royal in Church Street, and proceed to get quite shit-faced. Again, this behaviour may or may not have been due to the uncertainty and danger of the times, but it’s fair to say that I was no stranger to this kamikaze recklessness. 

For some reason, Heard found this amusing and delighted in tales of my after hours exploits. So much so, that at the farewell bash he threw for staff at his Hout Bay home, Heard took me to one side in the kitchen and handed me a full bottle of tequila. In the hope that something interesting might happen. To get the party started, you understand, and the ball rolling. 

It may as well have been a hand grenade.

Some time later, after the impromptu drinking game which involved throwing empty wine glasses over my shoulder and the tipping over of a couch to to improvise a rugby scrumming machine, Heard grabbed a friend by the arm and barked at her, “Take that bloody monster home. Right now. Get him out of here!”

I did bump into Heard on a few occasions after that flight to Cape Town. But this was years later, at Cape Town Press Club meetings in the months before I left South Africa. Again, and apart from a few polite grunts, we had little to say to each other. 

Both of us were of course very much wiser by then. Well, one of us, perhaps.