Brave move saw Tambo’s views heard

Tony Heard interviews Oliver Tambo from the banned ANC in November 1985. The article appeared in the Cape Times on 5 Nov 1985. pic unknown

Tony Heard interviews Oliver Tambo from the banned ANC in November 1985. The article appeared in the Cape Times on 5 Nov 1985. pic unknown

Published May 20, 2016


Lisa Isaacs

“We are not fighting against people, we are fighting against a system and we can’t kill people. Why? Why would we kill them? We cannot even kill whites because we are not fighting whites at all. We are fighting a system.”

This was one of the points made by teacher, lawyer, president and national chairperson of the ANC from 1967 to 1991, Oliver Tambo, in a ground-breaking interview with Cape Times editor Tony Heard.

Heard was with the Cape Times for 30 years, 16 of which he served as editor. He opposed government press restrictions and published the interview with Tambo, an anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary on November 4 1985 in full.

It was illegal at the time to quote Tambo or other ANC officials without specific government permission. Heard met the exiled 68-year-old in his north London home and asked about imminent violence, the future of whites in South Africa and the ANC being portrayed as a “communist terrorist” organisation, among a range of topics.

“I acted on my own, representing my newspaper and profession. It had to do with journalism. No one in South Africa, up to that point, had been able to know what the ANC stood for. That was the job of journalism, to put right, to shed light in dark corners,” Heard later said of his decision to conduct the interview in his book The Cape of Storms, a personal history of the crisis in South Africa.


Tambo had been asked about the ANC’s attitude on violence against civilians.

“Why will you hold back, because often in a guerrilla war the limits do get more and more extended. Is it a moral feeling about killing citizens or what?” Heard asked, adding that it seemed, in his view, that the ANC had held back to a great extent on what one would call indiscriminate violence or going for soft targets.

“I’m glad you put it that way,” Tambo replied. “Because it is often forgotten that we have been on the receiving end all the time, and we have held back.

“And it is not conceivable that we could go on like that indefinitely without anything changing.”

Heard said later that Tambo had struck him as a “somewhat reluctant revolutionary”.

“With what measure of enthusiasm did you turn to accept that there had to be violence? How did you personally respond to this?” Heard asked.

“I suppose I was angry and frustrated like we all were, and I continued to be angry and frustrated, to feel that this system must be fought.

“But I was in full support of the policy of non-violence because we thought it would bring us the fulfilment of our objectives. When that failed then we had to look for an alternative. We found the alternative in combining political and armed actions and it is one of those things that you have to do as there is no alternative. I think that many people in the ANC would be glad if there was no need for violence, but the need is there and we have got to go ahead with it, bitter as it is…

“As individuals and certainly as an individual, I don’t like violence,” Tambo said.

“Tambo was courtesy itself, conveying an old-world charm. Tambo spoke in slow measured tones, and he never got a word or thought misplaced,” Heard recalled.

“He knew exactly what his attitude was on the many subjects I raised, and the result was a comprehensive outline of his position on violence, the economy, a future South Africa’s diplomatic stance and so on. His message was moderate but firm. He urged the South African government to create a climate for talks with his organisation. He spoke of the possibility of a truce with the government and was of the view that serious negotiations could start at short notice,” Heard remembered.

While the Cape Times wrote that the interview was published in full as a contribution to peaceful solutions in South Africa, Heard said the rumble of authority was heard the very next day, with media clamouring for answers to Heard’s brave decision.

Heard was charged with violating the Internal Security Act by publishing the interview. The charges were withdrawn in July 1986 and the then South African Associated Newspapers group paid a small admission-of-guilt fine.

In August 1987, Times Media Ltd dismissed Heard without explanation, saying only that “after 16 years as editor it was felt that the time had come for a successor to be appointed”.

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