Afrikaans editor Schalk Pienaar was the ultimate verligte – that brand of Afrikaner who opposed the extremism of hard-core apartheid, writes former Cape Times editor Tony Heard on the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) being awarded to him.  He laid the basis for the historic settlement that brought democracy to South Africa.

Tony Heard writes in Beeld:

Schalk Pienaar was not the exclusive possession of Afrikaner nationalism.

He was a prince of journalism whose influence went way beyond the confines of his language and his culture. He helped make the difference in South Africa in the lost years of apartheid, and nurtured the climate for change more than any other Afrikaans journalist.

He was the ultimate verligte, who inspired journalists across the board as, in their own very different ways, they sought to challenge injustice in the dark years of post-war South Africa.

I was standing with Pienaar when the Nationalist Party caucus elected Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd Prime Minister in 1958. We watched as the grim men of apartheid, members of the caucus, filed out of the NP caucus room on the first floor of what is now the Old Assembly building.

As it became obvious that it was Dr Verwoerd, the Netherlands-born racial zealot, who had been chosen – since it was he who led the members out of their meeting – Schalk turned to me, then a rookie parliamentary reporter for the Cape Times, and observed:

“This man’s mind is too tidy.”

In those few words, Schalk put his finger on the tragedy that was to unfold in South Africa. The man with the tidy mind sought to sweep the African majority into their own homelands, to bleach the political system of anyone of colour at all levels, to turf tens of thousands of coloured and Indian people out of their homes under the Group Areas Act, to pry and probe into private lives in ways reminiscent of Nazi Germany and the Inquisition, and to defy world opinion  which was moving diametrically away from the racist assumptions which the Allies had destroyed in 1945.

Schalk was in no sense pro-British. In fact, the Rhodes Scholarship which he had won on merit took him to a (Oxford) University and country which he found uncomfortable as an Afrikaner Nationalist; and he left early. Like many young Afrikaners of his day, he dallied with the andi-war Ossewabrandwag, not because he was ideologically pro-Nazi but because he was anti British imperialism.

Old conflicts die hard. I recall the flaming rows between Pienaar and his colleagues and the members of the English press in the corridors of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in the 1960s, dwelling as they did  on the  long-past conflicts of Boer-Brit times. On the other side were renowned liberals like Anthony Delius, the brilliant Parliamentary satirical note-writer and poet, Stanley Uys, George Clay and others.

Yet the new issue that loomed around the time of Sharpeville was the position of black South Africans in the South African state, then firmly locked out. And Schalk showed, more than anyone else on his side, that he realized the time of apartheid was up.

It  was Schalk, more than any Afrikaans journalist of standing of his age, who began to show an independence of spirit which made him the first verligte in the Afrikaans media, and to inspire a whole string of young journalists such as Ton Vosloo, Louis Louw and Paul Greyling, who would play a critical role in influencing public opinion, while remaining within the Naspers fold, yet increasingly questioning the basis of white power. It was Louw who, in a debate at UCT at which I was present, conceded, when it was not at all popular to do so, that sanctions were having a major effect in bringing apartheid down. It was Pienaar who, when he edited the new Johannesburg-based Sunday paper Die Beeld, later Rapport, challenged authority over issues like corruption, racist orthodoxy and  unnecessary offence given to blacks in their daily lives, and so on.

He became famous for his remark opposing the Angolan invasion with the understatement, that it was a ligte mistakie  (a slight mistake). The sharpest irony dripped from his pen, and was not lost on people like P W Botha as defence minister and later Prime Minister, who deeply resented such challenges to his authority – and who, as a member of the Board of Nasionale Pers, must have demanded Schalk’s head on a charger many times.

But it was the professional management at Naspers which stood its ground, and Schalk was, through to his final illness and untimely death, able to write with a freedom that few in that stable had enjoyed previously.

When the time came for Afrikaners to compromise, and to put their racist bigotry behind them in the interests of securing a historic understanding with Black nationalism and a democratic South Africa, Schalk had already passed from the scene.

But he had laid the foundations.

* Tony Heard was Editor of the Cape Times, 1971-1987, and worked in the Press Gallery of Parliament from 1958 to 1966. This article appeared, translated into Afrikaans, in Beeld on 28 September.