IN MEMORIAM | Days of treachery and terror in the newsroom
To mark Jeremy Thomas’s death, we are republishing his column in which he looks back to being a journalist in the 1970s
Jeremy Thomas, our much-loved former colleague at Sunday Times Daily, died after a long illness on Wednesday. He wouldn't have wanted us to make a fuss about him but it needs to be said that he was a master headline writer and finding faults in his sub-editing was near impossible. In his memory, we are republishing one of his columns that were a weekly highlight both online and in Business Day.
In 1979 I had my first brush with the company known as Times Media. It was a holiday job at the Sunday Express, a title that along with the Rand Daily Mail would shortly be killed off. Big sister the Sunday Times would live on, in due course joined by Sowetan, Business Day and others.
Now, 40 years later, the company has been bought by a consortium of people who happen to be black, which makes a nice change. Arena Holdings takes over from Tiso Blackstar Group, which will fall off the JSE.
The man who told us what stories to write at the Sunday Express was news editor Peter Wellman, who had been harassed and imprisoned for his political views. Wellman gave off a ferocious aura, all hedgehoggy moustache and eyebrows, pipe smoke and brandy fumes, and he knew there were rules of give and take in the newspaper trade.
For instance Wellman set me up, his dewy neophyte, his Gramscian cub, for a collision with the scariest cop in Joburg. Brigadier Theuns “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel, former chief interrogator of the security police, had thrown a teargas canister into the room of a man with a gun who was threatening suicide. The guy duly shot himself in the head.
Wellman’s brief was that Rooi Rus had directly caused the suicide. Then he fed me grisly detail for the story about Swanepoel, how he’d been called an “out and out sadist” by someone detained by him under the Terrorism Act.
And there was Swanepoel himself bragging about how he had converted “many a sworn communist as well as sympathisers to another way of thinking”. He described the Soweto uprising in 1976 as “the best example of communist exploitation of the masses”. He complained that he had been presented overseas as “a Gestapo interrogator”.
Not the kind of goon a naive little long-haired baby-steps neo-Marxist student should be provoking, in other words.
Swanepoel phoned me at the Sunday Express in a bellowing fury, promising every sort of detention and retribution. At the time he was district commander of Johannesburg North, with unspeakable licence to do just as he pleased.
Wellman stepped in. In the course of a career of devoted resistance to pig-snouted fascists, he had somehow developed a weird kind of mutual understanding with the likes of Swanepoel. At any rate he was able to placate the horrible man, to get his sulphurous breath off my neck.
Not long afterwards I was given to wondering exactly what twisted games the apartheid powers forced Wellman to play. Was he let off on the Swanepoel hit-piece because they knew they’d get a pound of flesh in return?
Whatever the motivation, fellow reporter Barney Mthombothi and I were sent off to Ermelo, in the far east of what we now know as Mpumalanga, near Swaziland. This was a terrible assignment. Two grenades had been thrown into a house, maiming five children.
On the face of it a “human interest” story, the incident had an uncomfortable edge because the father of the kids was a security policeman named Willie Ngobeni.
“I’ll sacrifice my family if I have to. I won’t rest until justice is done,” said the cop. “I’m not going to forgive the terrorists. They must suffer. From today I’m going to be really harsh. I’ve been too kind to the people, but now I’m going to tell the whites to be stricter than ever before.”
The story obediently noted that the grenades were “Russian-made” (how did anyone know?).
I still wonder if there was a quid pro quo underlying the story, payback to a certain brigadier. Among Sunday Express readers there would be sympathy for the poor injured children – but perhaps also for Lieutenant Ngobeni, their father, no matter what he said: “I have brought political people to trial. There may be retributions.”
That was all 40 years ago, though. My Sunday Express alumnus Mthombothi is now a grandee of journalism, a Sunday Times columnist and former Financial Mail editor. No doubt he remains as conflicted as I about that Ermelo story and the man who made us write it.