ON TUESDAY, September 7, 1976, I was working as an industrial relations intern in Johannesburg. I was sitting at my desk reading the Rand Daily Mail, when a tabloid-sized newspaper landed on my desk. It was the very first edition of a brand new newspaper called The Citizen.
The headline, under a banner that read “CITIZEN EXCLUSIVE” was “Red rockets aimed at South Africa.” The first paragraph read “Top secret rocket bases, capable of firing atomic missiles deep into South Africa, are now being erected in Tanzania by Chinese rocket experts.” The sensational story, verified by a “Danish nuclear expert”, carried a picture byline. The author was Gordon Winter.
Winter was of course, an agent of the notorious apartheid Bureau of State Security. As the publisher’s blurb on the first page of his book, Inside Boss reads: “In 1976 (Winter) was appointed Boss propagandist on The Citizen, an English-language newspaper secretly funded by Boss”.
Not strictly correct – the plan to launch and fund The Citizen was a joint venture thought up by Boss head, General Hendrick van der Bergh, Secretary for Information, Dr Eschel Rhoodie, Minister of Finance, Dr Nico Diederichs, and Prime Minister Balthazar John Vorster. Fertiliser and beer millionaire, Louis Luyt, agreed to become the front man and apparent funder of the Citizen.
Much of this was aimed at negating the influence of a handful of fiercely anti-apartheid, anti-government newspapers, among them the Rand Daily Mail, Cape Times, Daily Dispatch, Sunday Times and the Sunday Express, all owned by South African Associated Newspapers, SAAN. The apartheid government was convinced there was a concerted and co-ordinated “hate South Africa crusade” on the go, and wanted their own newspaper that would publish “positive” news about the country.
Before the launch of The Citizen, Luyt first tried unsuccessfully to buy a controlling share in SAAN. As former Sunday Times editor, Joel Mervis documents in The Fourth Estate, “a bid by a well-known Nationalist supporter like Louis Luyt to take over a large non-Nationalist newspaper group could hardly fail to create a stir. Luyt faced a barrage of questions, which he answered casually and frankly. He denied any link with the National Party and made it clear that he was acting ‘in his personal capacity’ in order to gain control of SAAN.”
That bid was thwarted at the last minute by a hastily cobbled together group of liberal financiers under the banner of the Advowson Trust, co-ordinated by Max Borkum, and with a substantial contribution from Gordon Waddell, chair of JCI (the irony, given JCI’s modern history) and also including Issy Maisels, Frank Robb, Eric Tenderini and Graham Beck. The hidden hand of Harry Oppenheimer loomed large.
According to Mervis, Raymond Louw, then editor of the Rand Daily Mail – and still today one of South Africa’s most staunch defenders of media freedom – wrote a leading article which denounced the bid as “the right-wing attempt to grab the SAAN newspapers and mould their vigorously dissenting voices into unquestioning catspaws of the Nationalists.”
The rest is history: Luyt, with the secret backing of the Nationalists, and with R35 million from a government slush fund, launched The Citizen. When the Rand Daily Mail and other newspapers suggested that it was government-funded, the newspaper hit back, saying “we dismiss with contempt this rotten smear by the left-wing Rand Daily Mail about the finances of The Citizen. The Rand Daily Mail and its associates have tried, ever since this newspaper was published, to destroy it by a whispering campaign of the most vicious kind.”
The Citizen was soon after launch claiming a circulation of 70 000 copies a day. But this figure was never audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the official body that verifies these figures. The Sunday Express later revealed that 30 000 copies of the newspaper were being dumped every day. Thousands of copies were distributed to civil servants and government officials as “subscriptions”.
In 1978, the scandal, by then known as The Information Scandal, or Muldergate, after Minister of Information, Connie Mulder, brought down the government of BJ Vorster, brought PW Botha to power, and led to the formation of the Conservative Party.
It is a parable for our new age.