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Vlok falls from political grace

Or some time, The Weekly Mail and other papers had been publishing the odd bit of evidence suggesting an organised force behind attacks on trains and, perhaps, an illicit relationship between the security forces and Inkatha.

But the information was circumstantial and fragmented. The shadowy “third force” was as elusive as it was destructive.

When The Guardian‘s 10 pages of documents proving a link between Inkatha and the police came through the fax, the investigation was handed to a team headed by Anton Harber and Eddie Koch.

For 24 hours reporters in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town pursued every detail of the allegations in the documents. They determined that policemen mentioned were indeed where the documents said they would be.

They confirmed meetings had happened when the documents said they had, that the telex numbers were police telexes, that Major Louis Botha had been in close contact with Inkatha at the time in question. To prove that the bank account where police had deposited money was Inkatha’s account, a Weekly Mail reporter went to the bank and deposited R50.

On Thursday, July WHATEVER, The Weekly Mail and The Guardian were ready to publish simultaneously. Sound journalistic practice as well as the law required the newspaper to ask those mentioned in the story for comment, specifically Inkatha and the police.

But occasionally in the past Inkatha and the police had responded to requests for comment on stories concerning them by trying to keep the newspaper off the streets, so The Weekly Mail left it to The Guardian to run the allegations past lnkatha and the police and ask for comment — which was not, in the end, forthcoming.

The paper was on the presses when the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) Agenda invited The Weekly Mail to join in a debate that night with the police and Inkatha on the story that would lead the newspaper the next day.

Harber showed up, and so did police spokesman Craig Kotze, who took one look at an early copy of the paper and disappeared to use a telephone. Five minutes later, the producer told Harber that her decision to run a debate had been overridden.

On Friday, when The Weekly Mail appeared on the streets, none of the other South African newspapers seemed interested, nor did any radio station, except Radio 702, which ran with it.

Then at 5pm Kotze read a statement over the radio: the government admitted the entire story was true. Agenda phoned at midday on Saturday.
The debate had been rescheduled for Sunday. This time, Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok would represent the police.

The Weekly Mail and its lawyer, David Dison, set all sorts of conditions, some of them not particularly reasonable: Harber would speak to Vlok directly, not through the good offices of the presenter, the questions would be asked in English: the interview would be unedited.

‘To our surprise and horror,” Harber says, “they agreed there and then to them all.” The insert — scheduled to last for 17 minutes only — was recorded at midday on Sunday.

It began predictably: an SABC interviewer fed questions to Vlok along the lines of ‘Tell me, Mr Minister, why you gave money to Inkatha” and “Isn’t it true, Mr Minister, that foreign governments give money to fire ANC?”

Eventually, Harber leapt in and began asking the minister his own questions – about what had been in The Weekly Mail story, and what the paper had held back on until it could be checked. Why had the police given money to Inkatha? Why had they paid for a rally staged by the United Workers’ Union of South Africa, a conservative union set up in opposition to Cosatu? Who else were they funding?

At 16 minutes, the producer signalled to Harber to wrap up, but he simply bulled ahead — the agreement had been that the interview would be unedited, and he knew the SABC wouldn’t cut it, even if he ran overtime.

Finally. Harber accused the minister of lying and asked whether Vlok would resign if it were proved that he had lied. Vlok said if he was proved to be an embarrassment to the government, he would resign. It was the sort of exchange viewers had never seen on the government-controlled television channel, and are quite possibly never going to see again, and it wound up Harber’s 22 minutes of fame.

A day or two later, Kotze, two senior policemen and a lawyer asked to see what documentation The Weekly Mail had. It had very little — what it could prove, it had published. But a response was required, so The Weekly Mail offered to show police what it had if they would guarantee that neither the newspaper nor its staff would be harassed or persecuted and that the police would provide further information on the matters raised in the documents.

To the newspaper’s relief, the police declined, and The Weekly Mail carried on publishing what it bad. Although it wasn’t much, it was enough.

Within a fortnight, Vlok had been removed from the Law and Order Ministry and given a less sensitive portfolio. As for Inkatha, it never completely recovered from the exposé.

Agenda staged a debate between Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, The Weekly Mail’s Shaun Johnson and Vrye Weekblad editor Max du Preez. Buthelezi came off third-best; and for a time it looked as if he would resign, but he held on to power.

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Barbara Ludman
Guest Author

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