/ 10 January 1997

The case of the vanished reporter

This week, Vida Heard was given a government payment of R46 000 more than 50 years after the disappearance of her husband, George. He was the Rand Daily Mail’s political correspondent

and a Sunday Times columnist before enlisting in the navy. Their son, Anthony Heard, remembers his father …

In September 1939 South Africa entered World War II on the Allied side by a 13- vote majority in Parliament. It was touch and go, and George Heard was one of those who worked, wrote and lobbied day and night to secure the pro-war vote.

Much of George’s weekly column in the Sunday Times was devoted to ferreting out those who were working for a Nazi win.

Joel Mervis (later editor of the newspaper) said George’s exposure of the fifth column in South Africa, his analysis and his warnings, constituted a “journalistic highlight in the long history of the Sunday Times”.

In late 1939 George exposed what he claimed were security lapses and Hitlerite sympathies in the SABC. After an inquiry, some staff were dismissed and even interned for the duration of the war.

Explaining what was going on, George wrote: “Throughout the country today, aspiring politicians and ‘culture’ leaders are gathering around them the nucleus of a ‘fighting’ commando, pledged to defending the interests of Afrikanerdom and to confound its enemies … South Africa’s ‘private armies’ are not banned: their pamphlets and ‘prophecies’ and threatening letters circulate without let or hindrance. Members of the defence force, the public service and the police are free to join up with them, and there is probably no town in South Africa today where officials of these departments are not actively associated with one or other of the unofficial ‘commandos’ operating in their districts.”

In another report seven months after the start of the war George criticised the Smuts government for its policy of early release of internees: “Men who have been interned on the most devastating police evidence (and who would have faced a firing squad in Germany) are being released because they ‘look nice’, because they promise to be good, or because some of their friends and social acquaintances are satisfied that they are ‘decent fellows’. No doubt many of them are decent fellows. According to some writers, Hitler himself is quite a ‘decent fellow’. It does not occur to the benevolent folk who labour unceasingly for the release of internees that these self-same internees are mainly concerned in wrecking South Africa from within.”

All this made him a marked man. Leaders of the anti-war Ossewabrandwag (OB) peppered their speeches and writings with attacks on him and the then Sunday Times editor, J Langley Levy.

While George and his wife Vida were at a wartime dance in Johannesburg in 1942, they were warned by the commissioner of the South African police that George was number four on the death list of the OB. “I hope you have a gun,” said the commissioner. Vida does not recall George ever carrying one.

George became highly controversial on other counts. He had discovered that he was a gifted public speaker. He began addressing rallies in favour of the war effort. These included calls for the Allies to take pressure off the Russians by opening a second front against Hitler.

His strong feelings against racism and injustices like low black wages would have put him at odds with the capitalist forces in South Africa bent on exploiting black labour while bolstering white privilege.

In 1942 the Rand Daily Mail’s board of directors issued this ultimatum to him: stop your public speaking or leave.

George chose to resign. The news got around quickly. South Africa’s best-known journalist was out.

Ignoring offers of a naval commission from friends in government, George joined up as an ordinary able-bodied seaman and served in coastal minesweepers.

He was away from home for much of the period from 1942 to 1945. He would visit his family at our small house in Kensington, Johannesburg, or in Cape Town if we were staying there with Vida’s mother, Jenny Stodden. George went to Scotland in 1944 with South African naval men to take delivery of three Loch-class frigates presented to South Africa by Britain.

His ship, the Good Hope, arrived in Cape Town on July 2, and a big reception was held in the city hall for the returning men. George’s name was mentioned in the press as one of those who had returned. People would have noticed he had come back to South Africa. His comments on the embryonic South African Navy were widely published and broadcast.

Having been promoted to a full lieutenant with two “rings”, he was the signals officer and captain’s secretary on board the Good Hope. In letters home, he noted that he was persona non grata with the major newspaper groups and that he was nearing 40 and anxious to get back to civilian life.

The Good Hope was in Cape Town harbour being fitted with ack-ack guns to deal with Japan’s kamikaze planes when it went to the Far East. George had permission to sleep ashore at the home of Jenny Stodden because of the refitting. Her modest house was in Green Point, in a terraced row of cottages in Blackheath Road on the slopes of Signal Hill a few miles from where the Good Hope was docked. It was a five-minute bus ride and a short walk up a fairly steep Rhine Road to get there.

‘The court is therefore left with this: that at some time on the afternoon of August 8 1945 (or thereafter) Lieutenant Heard disappeared and that no trace of him has since been found; that no reason of any kind for a voluntary disappearance has been shown, but, on the contrary, evidence exists which makes such conduct on his part most improbable. There is, however, no direct evidence to show either that Lieutenant Heard is dead or the manner in which he did meet, or might have met, his death.” – Acting Justice Herbstein, refusing leave to presume death in the Supreme Court, Cape Town, February 28, 1947.

There was some confusion about dates; but the last day on which he was seen was either August 8 or August 7. The Supreme Court worked on August 8 as the date of disappearance. He did not keep a dinner date with Jenny Stodden: she had specially prepared steak-and-kidney pie and waited for him in vain. He had ridden in a bus from the docks with a fellow officer, turned down an offer to have a drink, and begun walking up Rhine Road … not to arrive at the Blackheath Road address.

Earlier, George had turned up late to a date with a journalist colleague working for the Cape Argus. George gave the clear impression that he was not cheerful.

George was seen that evening under the clock at Cape Town railway station – the most popular meeting spot in the city – by three able-bodied seamen. He was also seen walking in the Main Road, Sea Point, not far from where his mother-in-law lived but away from the direction of her house and his ship.

He seems to have been under some sort of pressure. He had had demobilisation problems; but, after the widely publicised atom bomb dropped on Japan on August 6, he would have known the war was about to end and that he would not have to go east.

In the excited atmosphere of the aftermath of the dropping of the bomb, and also because he was staying ashore overnight, there was a delay of several days before he was posted missing. It led to much confusion as to dates and details. There was also confusion between the navy and the police as to whose responsibility it was to investigate the disappearance.

George was known to have very little money on him. His naval kit was accounted for on his ship, down to his last vest. His shaving set lay untouched in Blackheath Road, ready for use. He had his greatcoat on; he would have needed it, for it was winter and chilly.

Vida flew to Cape Town as soon as she got the belated news. That was about August 14. She walked the streets and questioned scores of people. Newspaper stories were written, and Vida offered a reward.

Mediums, cranks, and sundry experts offered advice. Conmen did so for profit. Almost everyone in Cape Town seemed to have seen George on his last day, but no one could prove it. Friends scoured the city and dug the beaches. The navy sent out special parties to search and drag the seashore. Divers went down beside the Good Hope in case George had fallen overboard.

I discovered years later that a known OB assassin was in Cape Town at the time. There is evidence that he discussed the Heard case with a naval acquaintance later traced to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). That discussion was a short time after the disappearance in 1945. The suspect was not around when I chanced upon the link. He had been hanged in Pretoria Central Prison in the early Fifties for a murder committed in the Eastern Cape.

The bid to get to the bottom of the George Heard story continues …

This is a condensed extract from Anthony Heard’s Cape of Storms, (Ravan, 1991). Heard, a former editor of the Cape Times, is now an adviser to Minister of Water Affairs and Foresty Kader Asmal