By David O’Sullivan
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations in a famous speech to Parliament by then-President FW de Klerk. At the time, I was the News Editor at Capital Radio. There’d been much anticipation for some time that FW de Klerk would make a big announcement about the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, and journalists expected he’d use the opening of Parliament to give some indication of where the hell he was going with his reforms. I had gone to sleep the previous night expecting something of a busy news day.
I was woken by a call from Janet White (now Janet Whitton of SAFM fame), who was then a junior reporter in the newsroom. “I think you’d better get here – we’ve got the speech.” A bunch of Parliamentary journalists were in a lockdown with the speech in Cape Town. This is often done, and the provisos are that they’re not allowed out of the room, aren’t allowed to phone anyone, and aren’t allowed to report anything until the embargo is lifted. But we had a very reliable contact who thought we might like a little bit of advanced notice, snuck out the room and found a fax machine.
So, with a few hours to go before FW walked up to the podium, we had a copy of the speech, and we scanned it for the dramatic news. It wasn’t on the first few pages, but near the end of the speech where we finally found the good stuff. To our amazement we read the line “the prohibition of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party…is being rescinded”. We scrambled to find a dictionary to double-checked the meaning of the word “rescinded”, satisfied ourselves that the organisations were about to be unbanned, and sent our reporters out to shove microphones under the noses of various political, church and trade union officials. I recall Janet went to sit next to Jay Naidoo, then the Cosatu general-secretary. Carmel Rickard, our Durban correspondent, was with the heavyweights in Durban. We went to the houses of as many anti-apartheid activists as we could.
Everyone was under strict instructions not to say a word about the contents of the speech. We wanted the raw reaction as de Klerk made the announcements.
We then started writing the 11 o’clock bulletin. Because the speech didn’t stipulate “embargoed on delivery”, meaning the embargo would be lifted line by line as he spoke, but rather “embargoed until 11am”, we were happy that, at 11am, the whole thing was fair game for us and we could quote from the speech as we wished.
And so, at exactly 11am to the split second, John Maytham (now afternoon drive host on Cape Talk), was sitting in the news studio, turned on his mic and said: “Capital News at 11, I’m John Maytham. The ANC, the PAC and the Communist Party have been unbanned”. When I looked up at my TV, I noticed that FW had just arrived at the podium.
There were some tense moments as we waited to see if FW would renege on the speech, as PW had done with the infamous Rubicon speech, but we were quite confident things would be different this time.
Our reporters came back with the jubilant reactions we wanted. An enraged Presidency underling phoned claiming we had broken the embargo. We pointed out the error in phrasing the embargo and he hung up never to call again.
We got on the phone to the ANC in Lusaka. This wasn’t uncommon for Capital News. The ANC spokesman Tom Sabina was used to getting our calls. There’d always been an element of tension in contacting the ANC. We knew our phones were tapped, and the security police had been round before to threaten us. Now we had no qualms.
The day passed quickly as always happens when big news breaks. The story shifted from Parliament to the spontaneous marches that were springing up around the country. Political gatherings were suddenly legal. ANC flags, which previously made furtive, defiant appearances at political gatherings, were being waved with even more defiance. Political songs were sung with gusto in the faces of the police who were suddenly powerless to do anything.
I remember hitting the pub as we always did that evening. I can’t remember where we gathered. It was a Friday night, so it might have been Jameson’s. Or Dawson’s. Or King of Clubs. Or any of the pubs in Yeoville or Melville. I remembered crowing about Capital Radio being first with the story. No one really cared. Scoops are only important for other journalists. Everyone had a war story to tell. But we were all acutely aware that life in South Africa was never going to be the same again and our lives as journalists were about to get a whole lot more interesting.