CAPE TOWN July 3 1997 - SAPA


A former Afrikaans newspaper editor on Friday revealed he received death threats during the apartheid years for propagating political reform.

Hennie van Deventer, chief executive of Nasionale Koerante, said in a personal submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that at times he also worried about the safety of his family.

He was editor of Die Volksblad in Bloemfontein from 1980 to 1992.

Van Deventer said he pursued reform and reconciliation in editorials, columns and speeches since taking up this position. The general reaction was anger, rejection and open enmity, especially from rightwing Afrikaners.

"Personally, I was for a long time the target of never-ending telephonic venom and veiled threats against my life, daily and nightly," Van Deventer said.

"There were times when I was on the verge of fear, also regarding the safety of my family."

He said his submission was not an initiative on behalf of Nasionale Pers, publisher of newspapers such as Beeld, Rapport, Die Burger and Die Volksblad.

Instead, it was a recollection of his own career as editor to counter what Van Deventer described as a misconception that Afrikaans newspapers had been "slavish echoes" of the National Party.

A recent presentation to the Truth Commission by the Freedom of Expression Institute presented Afrikaans newspapers as having been campaigners for the preservation of white privilege.

"Their key role as drivers of political change within the broad Afrikaans-National community is simply ignored," Van Deventer said.

"It is too easily forgotten what price Afrikaans newspapers, as well as the people behind them, had to pay for their efforts to persuade their readers of the need for new political views."

Die Volksblad took the lead in efforts to break down barricades which kept Indians out of the Free State. It also did not hesitate to start creating an atmosphere for the release of Nelson Mandela, Van Deventer said.

"The first leading article in that vein was published on August 7, 1987, nearly a year before the leading article of Willem Wepener in Beeld (asking for Mandela's release) which had so many repercussions."

Van Deventer said when former State President P W Botha began publicly opposing the reform moves of his successor F W de Klerk, Die Volksblad confronted him in an open letter on the front page.

"The result was a bitter clash and the permanent disturbance of a long, hearty relationship between him and Die Volksblad, and also on a personal level."

In the late 1980s, Van Deventer said he met senior African National Congress figures such as Thabo Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, Steve Tshwete, Trevor Manuel and Jay Naidoo at conferences abroad.

"With several of them I am on first-name terms. Mr Mbeki was a dinner guest in my house in Bloemfontein. What critics will find perhaps even more surprising, is that he made a special phone call to this 'apologist for apartheid' to congratulate him on his 50th birthday."

Van Deventer said Die Volksblad could claim much credit for the way in which the Free State voted in the March 1992 referendum. Almost 55 percent of voters in the traditionally conservative province came out in favour of power-sharing with blacks.

"I think the foregoing suffices as background to my submission that Afrikaans newspapers and their editors who were in the political trenches during that time do not need to be repentant," he said.

South African Press Association, 1997
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