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[BOOK EXTRACT] Breaking News An Autobiography

In 'Breaking News An Autobiography', journalist and former Sky News anchor Jeremy Thompson recounts reporting from South Africa in 1994.

CHAPTER 21 AFRICAN SKY

It was a hell of a start to Sky’s new Africa bureau. One minute we were having a quiet Sunday lunch, putting steaks on the fire. The next thing, we were under fire. I won’t forget the date. It was 9 January 1994. My very first assignment for Sky News.

I’d invited my new bureau team and their families round for a summer Sunday, lazing round the pool in Johannesburg, cooking steaks on the braai (the typical South African barbecue). But I just had this nagging feeling we should check out an apparently small event in a township some fifteen miles south of the city.

South Africa’s first democratic election was just four months away and the country was still riven with tension and violence, as rival factions waged turf wars ahead of the vote. The ANC wanted to show the media how they’d brought peace to Katlehong, a ramshackle black community on the frontline between ANC supporters and a workers’ hostel that served as the local Zulu Inkatha stronghold.

ANC leading lights, Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Slovo, were planning a brief walkabout and speeches at a local stadium to prove how peace had come to this troubled township.

No sooner had they stepped out of their car onto the hot, dusty streets than shooting broke out. We filmed as the two ANC chiefs were hustled away to safety by their bodyguards. Many of us journalists were left diving for cover in the devastated and deserted homes on the frontline in this urban war zone. The rattle of automatic gunfire echoed round the broken walls of this frightening no man’s land. Local ANC guys claimed the shooting was coming from Mazibuko hostel on the slope above us. ANC self-defence unit comrades rushed past us with AK47s at hip level, spraying bullets wildly at their Inkatha enemies.

For a few minutes, I was one of several hacks trapped in the empty shells of houses. Someone shouted for us to make a run for it. We dashed, low and weaving, away from the metallic mayhem. Rounds were fizzing and pinging all around us. Suddenly, AFP photographer Abdul Shariff cried out in agony as he fell to the ground just a few feet in front of me. He’d been shot in the back. More rounds whined over our heads. A radio reporter right behind me screamed. She’d been clipped in the arm. The rest of us hit the deck and crawled for cover under a hail of gunfire. Others dragged wounded colleagues to safety. But it was too late for Abdul. He died before they could get him to hospital. Another victim of South Africa’s mindless, unstoppable and often indiscriminate violence.

My cameraman Ian Robbie had filmed the whole, awful incident, with amazingly steady focus. I know I was shaking. We were all in shock. Somehow, we got ourselves back into work mode. Such events have to be reported. Still spattered in blood, Ian and I quickly recorded a piece to camera. I can still remember the words: ‘For journalists like us, we only occasionally glimpse scenes like this, but for the people who live in this battlefield of Katlehong this is an everyday occurrence.’ It was another harsh reminder of the daily existence of so many black South Africans in those last days of apartheid. This township was on a virtual war footing, but at no time was there any sign of the police.

Back then, live links were pretty rare. So, I phoned my first eyewitness reports from the scene and then drove to the bureau in Johannesburg to edit and satellite the dramatic images back to London. It led the news that evening.

The next day Sky’s head of news Ian Frykberg rang to say well done, in his own droll Aussie way. ‘Mate, I hired you to win awards, not end up dead,’ said Frykers. ‘Go easy, mate. And, by the way, not a bad story.’

The violence in South Africa was unrelenting in the following months leading up to the election. It felt like almost every political faction was conspiring to derail the country’s first democratic vote. Mandela even accused the government of exploiting this carnage to frighten blacks from voting.

But throughout this mayhem, Nelson Mandela somehow managed to radiate an inner calm that gave people hope. On 11 February 1994, the fourth anniversary of his release, we joined him as he returned to Robben Island where he’d spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in jail. This bleak, rocky outcrop, known as the Island of Seals, is barely five miles from Cape Town across Table Bay. Yet it must have felt like being chained up in the middle of the Atlantic for Mandela and his fellow political prisoners. No one ever escaped. The beauty of Table Mountain and the Mother City were within clear sight, yet unreachable.

Now the whole of South Africa was tantalisingly within Mandela’s reach as he made this emotional trip back to prison. I watched him carefully aboard the ferry boat. For a while he seemed lost in his own thoughts, staring at the island as it drew closer, breathing in the familiar salty air, maybe trying to comprehend the enormity of his journey from prisoner to would-be President.

As he stepped onto this stony outcrop in the ocean, he was greeted by a sound that had haunted him for eighteen years – the wailing of the siren. But this time he was back as a free man.

Inside the jail he strode down the once familiar concrete corridor and into his old cell. I asked Prisoner 46664 what his emotions were as the memories came back to him. ‘I’d forgotten how small it was,’ he told me as he spread his arms out to touch the walls of a stark room that was just six feet square.

The barred window faced out onto a yard where the prisoners exercised. He looked wistful as I showed him old, sepia photos of his days of manual labour. The jail was built from stone and lime hewn from the island’s quarries. Madiba recalled how they sweated here seven hours a day. His eyes were permanently damaged by the glare and alkalinity of the limestone.

I asked him and his comrades whether they ever sang. With a laugh, Madiba and his old ANC allies gave us a rousing rendition of Shosholoza, a folk song that embodied the spirit of the Struggle. It was a poignant reminder of South Africa’s past. But Mandela’s trip down memory lane had a serious purpose, providing powerful images to boost the ANC’s election campaign. Madiba had been sent to this island by the architects of apartheid so that he would be forgotten by the world. The experience turned him into a legend who could never be truly caged.

The big question we were asking was whether twenty-seven years in jail had prepared him for the presidency and the pitfalls that lay ahead in those early months of 1994. The dying days of apartheid were turning into a self-destructive drama.

South Africa was close to anarchy, in danger of tearing itself apart. The Zulus were on the warpath. Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party was threatening to boycott the election. A state of emergency was declared in KwaZulu-Natal. Some moderate whites were emigrating, others were on shopping sprees, stockpiling supplies in case of the worst. Hardline Afrikaners were digging trenches and hoarding weapons ready to defend a white republic. Several black homelands were in revolt. Amid all the violence, volatility and uncertainty, it seemed impossible to hold an election.

On the fourth anniversary of his unbanning of the ANC, President F. W. de Klerk gave me an exclusive interview on Sky. He was remarkably confident about the future considering the chaos across the country. I remember he told me how resourceful and resilient South Africans were. That was why they’d find a way of making the election work. Though he couldn’t resist a dig at the ANC, telling me they weren’t fit to govern.

Once the camera stopped rolling, F. W. was in amicable mood and surprisingly open about his thinking. It was a rare off-the-record insight. He told me it was the events of 1989 – Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin Wall – that had persuaded him change was inevitable in South Africa. He realised he could no longer hold back the tide of history. He just hoped he could still have some role in the future of his country.

As we parted, F. W. shook my hand firmly and said: ‘Now, you’re a keen golfer aren’t you? Let me know when you’re ready for a round.’ Then he added with a wry smile: ‘I might soon have a bit more time on my hands.’ As always he wished me: ‘Alles van die beste.’ This translates as: ‘Everything of the best.’

But his optimism seemed misplaced, as I stood in downtown Johannesburg not long after, reporting on rampaging mobs and fierce gun battles. The Zulus of Inkatha had taken their fight to the heart of the nation’s largest city. There were few more scary sights than a Zulu impi, a battle group, dressed in tribal gear, wielding assegais and clubs called knobkerries, shields and guns, as they stomped and chanted their way into combat. We’d filmed them many times over the years. But I still found them way more intimidating than any modern army. It was almost as if they were in an invulnerable trance as they surged towards an enemy. They’d already rampaged through townships, firing on commuter trains and paralysing parts of Joburg.

Brandishing their traditional weapons, they attacked Shell House, the ANC headquarters. They were driven by the fear that the Zulu national and cultural identity would be lost if their deadly rivals, the ANC, won the election and ruled the land. This was a political and a tribal statement. And, once again, it left blood on the streets. We spent the day dodging behind cars and buildings, filming the firefights as the central business district turned into the OK Corral.

Soon afterwards, Chief Buthelezi told me he wanted to find a way for his people to participate in the ballot – but he left it late. It was just a week before polling day when his brinksmanship ended. De Klerk and Mandela called his bluff, leaving him facing political isolation if he didn’t join in. It wasn’t the only threat to the election. Now it was white South Africa’s time to ‘cry freedom’. Hardliners saw the only solution as an independent Volkstaat, a people’s state. The irony was that they were proposing a white homeland in a black majority country, in effect reverse apartheid.

Some just talked big, but others built barricades and bombs. Eugène Terre’Blanche, the firebrand leader of the Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (AWB), the Afrikaner resistance movement, warned that his people were willing to use violence to stake their claim in the new South Africa.

It all came to a head in the tribal homeland of Bophuthatswana just six weeks before the election. When its President, Lucas Mangope, threatened to boycott the ballot, there was a popular uprising with demonstrations and labour unrest as his people demanded they become a fully integrated part of South Africa. Civil service strikes and army mutinies led to violent protests and looting. The scale of theft from the major supermarket chain Pick n Pay earned it the nickname ‘Pick, Don’t Pay’.

Things were made even more complicated by the unlikely sight of white extremists from the AWB coming to Mangope’s rescue. It all went horribly wrong when three AWB militants were shot dead at point-blank range by a black Bophuthatswana police officer right in front of TV news cameras. The cop said he was enraged when he saw white extremists driving through the streets of his homeland recklessly firing at black citizens.

It was a PR disaster for the AWB. They were left humiliated and demoralised, forced to withdraw from Bophuthatswana, with tails firmly between their khaki-clad legs.

I sensed that much of this blundering bravado from the white right was borne out of fear. About the same time I went deep into rural Free State to meet Eddy von Maltitz, a proper Boer farmer, whose family had worked this land for generations. Normally he’d have been tending his prize dairy herd, but in the run-up to the election, I found him down in the woods by his dam running a boot camp for his teenage sons and his neighbours’ youngsters. Armed with guns, knives and a zeal for Boer independence, these boy soldiers were training for guerrilla warfare. Eddy called them his ‘Resistance Against Communism group’.

Now Eddy was a charming and amiable fellow. But he was deadly serious when he told me that whites might have to fight for their very existence. He painted a vivid, if slightly exaggerated, picture of South Africa’s nightmare scenario – tranquil farmlands transformed into battlefields. It all seemed rather extreme. But it merely underlined the anxiety and uncertainty felt by those who’d long been protected by apartheid.

As well as disquieting moments, militant Afrikaners provided some comical twists in the tense final weeks before polling day. Lydenburg is a stunningly beautiful town in the Drakensberg Mountains, built by the Voortrekkers, who’d come here in wagons pulled by oxen a century and a half before. The Boers had tamed the hostile bush, turning it into lush farmlands, threaded with trout streams.

Now I’d come to listen to their fears that a Communist ANC government, as they saw it, would destroy it all, taking back their land and turning the country’s bread basket into a basket case. Lydenburg had become a symbol of Afrikaner nationalism. And right-wingers had declared it part of the Volkstaat, the white Boer homeland.

So cameraman Rolf Behrens, producer Pearlie Joubert and I arranged to meet some of the more militant locals. We were instructed to wait in a lay-by on the outskirts of town. After a while a bunch of large men in khaki drove up in a bakkie, a pick-up truck, and told us we’d have to be blindfolded. They made it all sound very hush-hush and hugely important, like they were going to take us into a top-secret intelligence bunker. But there really wasn’t a lot of intelligence to be found here.

They drove us round the small town of Lydenburg several times, with black scarves over our eyes, presumably to confuse us. Then we stopped under cover. When they removed our blindfolds they told us with great pride that we were in their Volkstaat ‘nerve centre’. Frankly, it looked more like a garage with some extra shelves along the walls stacked with essentials: sugar, flour, tea, coffee and toilet rolls. And, of course, cases of the Boer’s favourite tipple, Klipdrift brandy. We dutifully filmed the stockpiles that were apparently going to sustain the white homeland.

Later, as the light faded, these AWB stalwarts, who now saw themselves as freedom fighters guarding the values of their ethnicity, took us on manoeuvres in the hills outside town. For a while, they wielded their weapons and played out some battle scenarios. But it wasn’t long before they’d got the braai lit and were serving up sizzling boerewors, washed down with Klipdrift and Coke.

It couldn’t have been a more Afrikaner scene. I almost felt sorry for these so-called militants, full of bluster and Boer nationalism. These relics of apartheid, with their beer guts and guns. They talked tough, but really they were just confused. At heart they were farmers who felt betrayed by Afrikaner leaders like F. W. de Klerk, who’d encouraged them to profit from apartheid, but were now preaching multi-racialism.

These Boers portrayed themselves as an endangered species, under siege, making plans for a last battle to save the land they’d helped to build. They’d never been fond of the British. The reasons stretched back to the Boer War. So, after a long night keeping up with the AWB boys drinking Klipdrift, I took it as a compliment when their local leader, Faan Fourie, said: ‘Ja nee, you’re not that bad,’ adding after a dramatic pause ‘for an Engelsman.’

I knew Pearlie despaired of her fellow Afrikaners when we covered these sorts of stories. Although she deprecatingly referred to herself as a boeremeisie (a farm girl) from the Cape winelands, she was one of the brightest and sharpest journalists I’d ever worked with. She was also a fiercely independent and liberal woman who had learned her trade as a reporter on Vrye Weekblad, the first Afrikaans-language anti-apartheid newspaper. She had no time for the heel-dragging white resisters. A wonderful character and a great friend, Pearlie spent many a long hour explaining to me the subtleties of the Afrikaans language and the Afrikaner’s mind.

We were soon to see a nastier side of white extremism. The Iron Guard, the AWB’s elite corps, made one last bid to scupper the election with a bombing campaign that targeted Joburg’s international airport, black businesses, election offices and pipelines. But to no avail.

Against the backdrop of violence and political turmoil, a nationwide education campaign was being rolled out to teach millions how to vote. Nearly 80 per cent had never had a chance before. We drove up to the remote, rural homeland of Venda on the Zimbabwean border to find out how it was going.

It’s worth bearing in mind that at the time most of Venda’s 400,000 population didn’t have access to newspapers let alone television. Radio and word of mouth were the main methods of communication. It led to some surprising results as they took part in mock elections to get the hang of the ballot process.

At one polling station where we filmed, the victorious candidate was none other than General Constand Viljoen, the last of the Boer army generals and one of the founders of the Afrikaner Volksfront. He couldn’t have been more white or more conservative. Bear in mind the ballot paper presented you with nineteen different parties to choose from, each with a photo of their leader to help the less literate pick the right party. When questioned about their choice, the black voters told us that their tribal elder had advised them to put a cross beside the picture of the nice old man with white hair. He meant Mandela. Confusingly, General Viljoen also had a shock of white hair and his picture was above Mandela’s.

On Tuesday 26 April 1994, somehow it all came together. The long road to freedom and democracy finally arrived at the polling station door. I was in the heart of Soweto on that historic day. As the sun rose in a hazy shroud over the vast, sprawling township, there was an autumn chill in the air and a shiver of excitement. They’d begun arriving hours before the 7 a.m. opening time, anxious to be among the first. Senior citizens and the disabled were given priority.

Neither age nor infirmity could keep them away as they shuffled up the slope to the ballot boxes in Holy Cross Church. Simon Kunene, a blind man of eighty, held my arm as I guided him towards the polling station. There were tears in his unseeing eyes as he whispered to me: ‘I never thought I would live to know this day when we would finally be allowed to vote.’

Nearby an elderly woman was clutching her identity document. ‘I couldn’t sleep a wink last night thinking of this moment. I just held onto my ID,’ she confided to me. ‘I was so scared that I might lose it and they wouldn’t let me vote. I have waited all my life for this day. Now I am here,’ she beamed. ‘Can you imagine what this day means to us – black people being allowed to vote in our own land? At long last I feel like a complete human being.’

It was impossible not to be touched by the joy of these elderly voters, the feeling that they had finally been made whole by having a say in their country after all the years of repression. I felt myself welling up as I listened to their stories.

Over the next couple of days, my Sky colleagues Peter Sharp, Alex Crawford and James Forlong filed similarly moving reports from ballots across South Africa. Though it wasn’t without incident. Sharpy told us later of the chaos at the polling station at Inanda in KwaZulu-Natal when Mandela voted.

The throng of media trying to capture pictures of the historic moment of Mandela’s very first vote was so deep and so desperate that it turned into ladder wars. Dozens of aluminium steps were erected by TV cameramen and newspaper photographers keen to get the shot. Inevitably there was jostling for the best position. And in no time at all ladders were being pushed over and punches traded among the harassed hacks. Luckily Mandela didn’t witness the uglier side of election day. Though, as he passed near the press phalanx, one cheeky reporter shouted out: ‘Who are you voting for Mr Mandela?’ With a laugh, he shot back: ‘I’ve been agonising over that choice all morning.’

For many foreign reporters this was their first taste of Africa. At times it was pretty obvious. Like the day an American TV correspondent arrived at our media base and asked if it was safe to travel to the nearby Sandton City Shopping Centre.

Pearlie and Rolf, seeing a golden opportunity for a wind-up, advised him to wear his flak jacket and helmet. The sight of this naive journo going shopping in full combat gear was priceless. He didn’t see the funny side of it when he got back. Ag shame! as they say in South Africa. I always remember the scene as a famous US TV anchor stomped off to the airport two weeks before the election insisting: ‘This story has no traction.’ Two bombings, the Bop uprising and a riot later he was back, looking slightly chastened.

The voters themselves were far better behaved than the media: patient, proud and positive as they waited their turn. I’ll never forget the footage of Zulus walking many miles through the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu to reach a polling station. Or the voters who queued patiently for hours in the Highveld heat to have their say. The desire for democracy had overcome all the stumbling blocks of South Africa’s past.

Jeremy Thompson was one of the longest-serving journalists and news anchors in the UK until his retirement at the end of 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @JTtvnews

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