Journey into the Heart of Darkness
By Les Payne
National Association of Black Journalists
Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne in South Africa with Nelson Mandela shortly after his release from prison, February 11, 1990.
By Les Payne
My career as a reporter was briefly entwined with the release of Nelson Mandela.
When I covered the revolt of Mandela’s people, the apartheid government took offense, and then revenge. The encounter was mainly the stuff of happenstance, but allow me to set it down all these years later.
Back during the apartheid days, reporters had a tough time getting into South Africa, especially black reporters. After Soweto erupted on June 16, 1976, the consul general in Manhattan made it damn near impossible for reporters like me. Certain visa requests were turned around in two weeks, while the applications of the few blacks who applied were put on automatic hold. One such reporter for a major U.S. daily was kept waiting for more than a year.
Shortly after the rebellion erupted, Newsday Editor Dave Laventhol approved my request to parachute into Johannesburg, provided I could get a visa, which would not be a given. Before risking a rejection, I sought out assistance from tennis great Arthur Ashe who had made nice with the Boers. The international star, who had won Wimbledon, the French and the U.S. Opens, had played tennis in South Africa before stadium crowds — desegregated, at his insistence — for the first time in the nation’s history. Still, the sports-crazed Boers considered it a coup to have lured Ashe to play in their apartheid republic. Other world-class sports figures had targeted the republic for a growing international boycott in protest of its racist state policies.
Under the advice of U.S. Congressman, and later U.N. Ambassador, Andrew Young, the impressionable Ashe saw himself somehow as striking a blow for racial fairness, but his cooperation nonetheless drew sharp criticism from Africans as well as Americans, black and white. His chief contact, and benefactor, in South Africa was Piet Kornhof, the Minister of Sports and Education. He owed Ashe, big time.
Using his cachet, Ashe cabled Pretoria and requested that Minister Kornhof intercede in my behalf. Only then did I dare risk applying for a visa to Johannesburg.
The first Afrikaner I met was an earthy redhead working the visa desk at the South African consulate in Manhattan. Startled at my approach, she quickly clutched and buttoned what had been the cleavage of her blouse. The rustle of the two dozen Afrikaners in the room fell to a whisper, and I felt like the investor mentioning his broker’s name in that old E.F. Hutton commercial.
"I’d like to apply for a visa," I said in my most polite register. Fumbling with my Newsday request papers, the redhead deadpanned, without looking up: "You’ll have to come back…the Consul General will have to speak with you…this could take months."
"Dr. Kornhof is awaiting my visa in Pretoria," I said, figuring that the name of a Member of Parliament might get some respect. "You know Minister Kornhof?" the redhead replied looking up at me for the first time. "Yes, Arthur Ashe cabled him in Pretoria."
"Oh, you know Mr. Ashee?"
Still, the South Africans assigned Andrew Hatcher, a black agent from the Sydney Barrons PR firm to check fully and report back to the government. Upon discovering that I was an investigative reporter with a Pulitzer Prize, and a penchant for race related stories, Hatcher recommended strongly that South Africa deny me entrance. However, the clout of Minister Kornhof, as triggered by Ashe, overrode the resistance at the counsel general’s office. Hatcher was assigned to fly over with me.
At the Johannesburg Airport, Hatcher turned me over to a dark-suit in sunglasses who introduced himself as Mr. Cloete, from the Department of Information. My agent warned me sternly that Soweto was off-limits, period. Pretoria instead had scheduled me in a month-long, guided program that included a tour of the gold mines, the friendly black homelands, the independence ceremony of Transkei, and the factories where they made the jet planes used "against the guerrillas."
After a few weeks, with the shadowy Mr. Cloete as bored with me as I was leery of him, I dropped out of the government "program," and hit the forbidden streets of the black townships.
Soweto marked the point of no return on the Africans rugged road to freedom and democracy. It had been preceded by the 1960 Sharpsville Massacre, where white cops gunned down 69 Africans protesting the infamous pass laws. However, the Boers cracked down furiously and, for the next 16 years, clamped a lid on the challenge to racist, white minority rule of the European settler colony. Hundreds of African leaders were killed, driven into exile or locked away in Robben Island as were Godwin Mbeki (father of the current president,) Walter Sisulu, PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and ANC head Nelson Mandela.
The silence was broken in June 1976, when 20,000 students protested the use of the Afrikaans language in their Boers-run Bantu schools. Hector Pierterson, 12, was the first to be dropped dead — and martyred — by police gunfire. For weeks and months, the school children set their bodies against police truncheons, tanks and automatic weapons. It was this war against the children that the South African government was so determined to keep away from the eyes of the world. White correspondents, the only ones U.S. media assigned abroad, were routinely barred from Soweto and other off-limit black townships. Most of their "facts" came directly from the government.
I took every advantage of indistinguishable skin-color and spent most of my days and nights reporting among the African residents of Soweto, Langa and Guguleto.
"We decided that if we didn’t take action to liberate ourselves, we would be the longest-oppressed nation on earth," student leader Khotso Seatholo told me during a clandestine interview the fugitive gave that November. "The trigger-happy police work 24 hours a day looking for us; we work 25 hours a day staying ahead of them." Not all of the leaders and certainly not all of their followers stayed out of rifle-fire range of the South African police.
One of the troubling stories that nagged me making the rounds concerned the actual number of Africans police killed during the disturbance. The U.S. media had settled on a figure ranging from 250 to 300, a figure they got directly from the Minister of Justice. However, Soweto residents assured me that the numbers were much higher but they had no way of documenting this. Rumors flew that bodies were taken out to sea and dumped from helicopters. I caught the Boers repeatedly lying about specific cases of Africans they had arrested and tortured. The number they killed was a state secret.
To get at a concrete figure, I spent three weeks knocking on the doors of undertakers, morticians, Inquest Court clerks, eyewitnesses and relatives. My shoe-leather reporting wasrewarded with specific names, ages and circumstance of the police killing of more than 800 Africans. My death list contained some 300 percent more names than the figures the government had released to the American media that carried the government’s water by running the undercounted death toll as official.
My reporting earned me the votes of the 5-person selection committee for the 1978 International Pulitzer Prize — however the Review Board overturned the panel’s decision, without explanation, and awarded it to the New York Times entry that had been the selection board’s fourth choice. (The angry panel went public and for the first time the preemptory option of the board was publicly exposed, roundly criticized and, subsequently, reformed somewhat.)
More importantly, my reporting got Newsday and me — banned from South Africa for more than a decade. Several Newsday editors, photographers and reporters of diverse race and gender applied for visas to cover the rebellion raging in that republic throughout the 1980’s. Each was rejected with the caveat that if Newsday got rid of Les Payne it would do the applicant some good. Toward the end of the 80’s the U.S. Congress and much of the Western world had imposed effective sanctions against South Africa until it freed Mandela, turned irreversibly away from apartheid and moved toward one-man, one vote.
Then, around Thanksgiving time, 1989, the South African counsel general telephoned me at the Newsday office and asked if I would like to go to South Africa. Shocked but undeterred, I assured him that were his government to grant me a visa my newspaper would immediately allow me to travel as a working journalist to South Africa.
After fumbling through his calendar, he suggested that I prepare to depart the first week in February. We were among the first to determine that on or about February 10, Pretoria would release the most famous political prisoner on earth: ANC leader Nelson Mandela.