Two significant figures in the South African media landscape died this week. One, Ronnie Mamoepa, was the consummate political spokesperson, a man who was able to represent his principals in a way that also left him genuinely liked and respected by journalists – something relatively rare among government spokespeople, sadly.
The other was Hennie Serfontein, a journalist who lived up to the highest ideals of his profession. Over more than a decade, Serfontein burrowed into the inner workings of the Broederbond, the secret society in the white Nationalist Party that sought to direct the future of Afrikanerdom, and thereby the future of South Africa under an Afrikaner ruling class. Serfontein helped to change that future by revealing, chiefly in the Sunday Times, how that structure drove and sustained the white supremacist agenda. His revelations came to an end only when someone very close to the apartheid security police became the editor of the paper.
As fellow veteran journalist John Matisonn wrote, Serfontein suffered the consequences of undermining the ruling class he was born into. He worked little for the South African media after these stories and more as a foreign correspondent (besides writing books and making documentaries), but he also broke a key story about Nelson Mandela’s exploratory dialogues with his captors in 1989. In the same year, he led a group of students and teachers from Stellenbosch University, the intellectual home of Afrikaner nationalism, to go and talk to the then-exiled ANC in Maputo.
Today, journalists doing the kind of hard work Serfontein did are still at it, as we see from the ongoing media revelations of corruption and state capture. Like Serfontein, journalists today are operating in a fairly hostile climate: those who speak truth to power are always going to be in for a difficult time. At least today there is a greater protection of freedom of speech and the media – something people like Mamoepa and Serfontein fought for, and which we must continue to defend.