Fredo and Janey got married 12 days after Steve Biko died! We are now getting ready to celebrate our 40-th anniversary – but cannot help feeling that what happened to Biko four decades ago now somewhat clouds what was such a memorable year in our lives.
Not that we can claim that we ever met Steve Biko or that we knew him. For that matter we also did not know Chris Hani, who also died violently so many years later on an Easter Weekend as South Africa prepared itself for freedom and democracy. Somehow, Fredo wonders what our country would have been like if the two of them would have been around today. From what we have read about Biko, and the way we all change when we get older and become wiser, Fredo believes that he was a man of principle and would not have tolerated the abuse we are suffering from our leaders at the moment. Perhaps either Biko or Chris Hani could have been our president?
Back in 1977 Fredo was a radio journalist in Cape Town and had no idea what happened to Steve Biko. John Vorster was Prime Minister and known for his ruthless methods to control his opponents.
Sadly and ironically, the most memorable moment Fredo can remember of his dealings with John Vorster, was also the day he heard of the ‘Biko case’ for the first time. Fredo writes the full story about this in his book, A Life worth Living’ which is due out next year.
We all accept now that Steve Biko, the young activist from the Eastern Cape, was murdered by security police. Initially the story was suppressed, but it finally started leaking out and led to the then Leader of the Opposition, Sir De Villiers Graaff, issuing a statement on the matter. He called on the Prime Minister to set up a commission of enquiry into Biko’s death in detention.
The story about this came from our Parliamentary team on the afternoon during which Fredo was due to do an evening shift. The shift started at five o’clock and up to seven o’clock it was rather hectic to get the evening bulletins out of the way. The Biko story was send to Johannesburg for the national bulletins but we carried it several times on our Radio Good Hope bulletins.
It read: “The Leader of the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to appoint a commission of enquiry into the death of the black consciousness leader, Steve Biko.” One of the radio news colleagues in Johannesburg had to translate the story into Afrikaans for the Afrikaans news bulletin. We had to do everything exactly the same in English and Afrikaans in those days, never mind the fact that the majority of people in the country spoke different languages. Our colleague in Johannesburg took a bit of license in doing his translation. The translation stated: “Die leier van die Opposisie het vandag by die Eerste Minister besoek afgelê” – (The Leader of the Opposition VISITED the Prime Minister today).
One must understand that in those days the Nationalist Prime Minister of South Africa would never ever contemplate the idea of the Leader of the Opposition visiting him in his office. Certainly John Vorster would never have wasted his time on something as trivial as that. The Leader of the Opposition was someone he as Prime Minister would only occasionally viciously and with great hostility glare at across the floor of Parliament.
So, to put it mildly, Fredo’s colleague in Johannesburg made a major mistake. Most of us would never ever have even thought twice about this, but certainly not John Vorster. Fredo can imagine him sitting at Groote Schuur, in those days the Prime Minister’s Cape Town residence, in the company of Mrs Vorster, listening to the early evening national news bulletin and hearing the unthinkable.
The Leader of the Opposition, that Englishman with the title of Sir, visiting him in his office! This is something he simply could not tolerate.
[divider]In the SABC News Room in Cape Town Fredo was happily settling into his dinner brought down from the 5-floor kitchen before tackling the next bulletin. The internal telephone rang, a call from outside was being put through to the news room. Fredo answered! “Who is speaking?” asked the voice on the other side. Fredo identified himself, and from the other side came a short “Hold on for the Prime Minister.”
Fredo must briefly deviate, because he almost made a career-ending mistake. A friend of the Cape Town media, Tiny Neethling, who played rugby for South Africa, but later became a key executive at Rothmans International and the Rupert Group, had the habit of imitating the Prime Minister. Previously he phoned Fredo on several occasions for a chat. He always tried to trick you by pretending to be the President. That evening Fredo first thought that it was him again and almost politely asked him to go away and leave him to his dinner.
Something cautioned Fredo when the bulldog-like voice came on the line: “Goeienaand Meneer,” (Good evening Sir) as only the then Prime Minister could say it. Then he followed with “You broadcasted a story which is not completely correct! You said the Leader of the Opposition came to visit me today, but I haven’t laid eyes on the man at all!”
There was some tension in the voice. Having seen the story in English earlier, Fredo immediately grasped what happened. Fredo clicked – this was John Vorster alright! Fredo explained that as best he could and that he would immediately get in touch with the news team in Johannesburg to ask them to fix the mistake. The gruff voice interrupted him: “But I am speaking to you!” He was telling Fredo to fix it and was not interested in what he had to say. He would give the orders – as he always did – and Fredo was expected to get it done. Fredo responded the only way he could – by saying “Yes Prime Minister!”
Later the story of John Vorster calling Fredo became a legend amongst journalists.
That is how Fredo heard about the fate of Steve Biko for the first time. So, as Fredo and Janey celebrates 40 years of marriage, the shadow of Biko still looms large in the background. It was a real tragedy that we lost such good men that today would perhaps have shielded us from the abuse of leaders who completely lost their way.
Some years later, when John Vorster had long passed on, Fredo drove through Kareedouw on Route 62 between Humansdorp and the Langkloof. He decided to stop at the local Dutch Reformed church and in the church grounds found the grave of BJ Vorster. At the height of his power he witnessed the state burial of his predecessor, Hendrik Verwoerd, in Pretoria’s Hero’s Acre.
Yet the man who presided over such a ruthless state persecution machine and was feared by all, found his final resting place in this modest garden in a remote little rural town. How ironic is that!
Fredo knows that while people across the country hold Steve Biko in high esteem, John Vorster is perhaps at our anniversary a bad memory which we would like to forget.