A legendary figure in journalism, who edited the largest and arguably most influential newspaper of the day, was a “mole” working in the interests of the apartheid government, according to a book released this weekend.
God, Spies and Lies: Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past is written by veteran journalist John Matisonn.
He says Tertius Myburgh, who edited the Sunday Times between 1975 and 1990, was the editor whom apartheid secret service head General Hendrik van den Bergh boasted he owned.
Gordon Winter, who worked as a government spy in several newsrooms, set tongues wagging when he disclosed that Van den Bergh had told him the Bureau of State Security (Boss) had 37 journalists on its payroll.
They included three parliamentary correspondents, eight who worked on news desks and one editor in chief.
Through the decades there was speculation about who this English-language newspaper editor could be.
Matisonn writes in his book that it was Myburgh, and that in exchange for his co-operation Myburgh received not cash, but secret information.
Myburgh succeeded Joel Mervis who, with a mix of political exposés, sex and sport, had built the paper into a national Sunday tradition with a circulation of about 500 000.
Matisonn says Myburgh for the most part put a stop to the Sunday Times exposing further details about the Broederbond, a secret Afrikaner society to which most influential Nationalists belonged.
Myburgh also blocked publication of reports about calls for the release of Nelson Mandela, unrest in the country, and meetings of the internal and external opposition.
He had special access to the cabinet and key figures in the Nationalist government establishment.
Matisonn places no small measure of blame on Myburgh for contributing to the demise of the left-wing newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, where Matisonn worked as a young journalist.
While all of this constructs a damning case against Myburgh as a “conservative and protector of the white establishment”, it does not in itself prove that he was an agent of the state, Matisonn acknowledges.
He writes that Myburgh was one of four senior figures who had access to the Sunday Times’s new high-security computer system at the time when someone got in and deleted four files of Broederbond members’ names.
Matisonn argues that the finger of suspicion points at Myburgh.
He says the apartheid government’s former spin doctor, Eschel Rhoodie, in confidence named Myburgh as the mole in the English press.
According to Matisonn, Rhoodie said Myburgh was a “first rung” informant - someone who did it for information, ideological reasons, comfort and the advantages that lead to advancement.
Matisonn writes: “His reports and omissions, blocked stories and reporters were a golden contribution to the regime, an unpaid flunky more effective than any paid snoop. Since no money changed hands, there would be no paper trail.”
Myburgh was first fingered after then-Cape Times editor, Tony Heard, learnt that an editor of an English newspaper was keeping the government informed about how much the media knew about the Infogate scandal that rocked South Africa in the late 1970s.
Matisonn writes that Heard learnt from Rhoodie, the former secretary of the Department of Information, that Van den Bergh had told Prime Minister John Vorster he had an editor as an informer, who in return for help was given “secret information”.
Heard confirmed this weekend that he had met Rhoodie at the Café Mozart restaurant in central Cape Town and that Rhoodie had named Myburgh as the government snoop.
He said he had regarded Myburgh as a friend and had confronted him about the allegation. Myburgh had denied it.
Myburgh told him: “One day when I am gone and they open my papers, they’ll find I was completely above board.”
Heard said it was difficult to ascertain the truth about alleged spies unless they confessed.
His view was that Myburgh, an Afrikaner, would have acted out of personal conviction rather than being motivated by gain.
It would be fair to say Myburgh had been “over-close” to the government of the day, Heardsaid.
Heard pointed out that it was unusual for journalists to get a plum ambassadorial post like Myburgh, who was offered the Washington posting during the early 1990s. However, he could not take it up because of ill health.
Matisonn’s book also reports that Rhoodie and another senior government figure, David Abramson, had said they had been advised they need not worry about the Sunday Times as Myburgh was a “government man”.
Rhoodie also told Sunday Express investigative reporter Kitt Katzin, who wrote about the Info Scandal, that Myburgh was “one of ours”.
John Horak, a former spy-journalist at the Rand Daily Mail and other papers, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that when rumours about Myburgh began to circulate, his handler, General Johan Coetzee, the head of the security police, called on him to offer protection to Myburgh even at the risk of blowing his own cover.
According to Horak, Myburgh had been expecting him and said there was no need to worry as everything was under control.
Matisonn damns Myburgh as “a traitor to his staff, profession and readers”.
Acting Sunday Times editor S’thembiso Msomi said at the weekend it was “unfortunate that the allegations emerge 25 years after Myburgh retired as editor of the Sunday Times and after his death”.
“It would have been a different story if he was still in our employ.”
Msomi pointed out that, as documented in Matisonn’s book, there were “many other Sunday Times journalists, before and after (Myburgh’s) tenure, who used their investigative skills to expose the evils of apartheid”.