By David O’Sullivan
26 years ago, I remember that I was in the second year of studying for a miserable LLB at Wits, that I was doing my articles at Webber Wentzel and freelancing at Radio 702 to supplement my meagre clerk’s salary. I remember that I was doing the Easter Saturday morning shift at the news desk, compiling and reading the news. I remember that I got a phone call from a woman who told me Chris Hani had just been shot.
A memory that is so vivid as to evoke immediate emotion is known as a “flashbulb memory”. On 10 April 1993, that phone call provided me with one such flashbulb memory. I was sitting at the news desk in 702’s old building on the corner of Rivonia Road and Maude Street, now the site of Nedbank’s offices. I remember it was just after 10am on Easter Saturday. The news shift had been predictably dull, as it always is over a long weekend, with updates on the road death toll being the standard lead story. I was nursing a slight hangover and had my feet up on the desk, contemplating how I was going to find a new lead for the 11am bulletin when the phone rang. It was the main switchboard phone, not the news desk phone so I knew it would be a listener calling in.
The woman at the other end began the conversation quite matter-of-factly, informing me that she lived over the road from Chris Hani and that he had just been shot. My head cleared in an instant. I shot up in my chair. This could be a hoax. I prodded for more information. I asked her to look out the window and tell me what she could see. She started describing how she and her husband had heard shots, saw a white man running down Hani’s driveway and driving off in a red car. She said her husband had run across the road, jumped over Hani’s fence and was now trying to revive him. As she spoke, the hysteria started rising in her voice.
Her amount of detail (the car was red) and her increasing emotional state immediately persuaded me that this wasn’t a prank call. I asked for the address and whether she had phoned emergency services. She said she didn’t know who to phone, but could remember 702’s number which is why she ended up talking to me. Then she hung up.
I knew I was sitting on a story of monumental proportions. I thought briefly about rushing into the studio, screaming to the on-air presenter to get the “breaking news” jingle out. But a nagging feeling held me back. What if I’m wrong, what if this is a hoax, what if I end my radio career as the journalist who prematurely killed off Chris Hani?
So I quickly phoned emergency services and then got on to the police spokesman, Col Frans Malherbe to see if he knew anything. Of course he didn’t. I was the first person to tell him. As we were speaking, the neighbour’s husband was probably still trying to do CPR on Chris Hani. Malherbe was vaguely irritated at being disturbed on Easter Saturday and his detached attitude indicated he didn’t regard the call as worth anything.
Next I phoned the ANC spokesperson, Gill Marcus. I think I may have woken her. She listened to my story, but was somewhat unmoved. We get hoaxes like this all the time, she said. But she promised to check it out.
I then dispatched one of 702’s best reporters at the time, Judith Dubin, to the Hani house. At least she appeared more alert to the importance of the potential story.
And then I waited. I prepared the 11am bulletin in a bit of a daze, and attempted to write the new lead. I realised many people would first hear of Hani’s death from this news bulletin, so I needed to get the language just right. Chris Hani is dead. Too abrupt? We’re getting reports from Dawn Park that ANC leader Chris Hani has been shot. Too vague? In the back of my mind was the thought that Judy Dubin would arrive on the scene to find Hani mowing the lawn and my anguished newswriting efforts would have been in vain.
Now I was facing another dilemma. 11 o’clock was upon me and I had to go and read the news. But I still didn’t have confirmation of whether the story was true or not. I mulled over making a vague reference about “reports of an incident” at Chris Hani’s house, but in the end decided to simply leave it out. So I read the 11am news that morning in the full realisation that I was sitting on a shattering story and was making no mention of it.
As I walked out the studio, the news phone was ringing. It was Frans Malherbe. I flicked on one of the big reel-to-reel tape recorders as he said “a body identified as that of Chris Hani…”. I don’t remember ending the conversation. I charged back to the studio, yelling at the DJ to find the “breaking news” jingle.
The next hour was a blur of activity. Jeremy Maggs was the news editor and he had now arrived in the newsroom. Judy Dubin had reached the Hani house and had started filing her story. The 12pm bulletin took shape very quickly, allowing me some time to breathe.
I remember Jeremy and I looking at each other in disbelief as we tried to contemplate how the day would unfold, how the week would unfold, how the future of South Africa would unfold. I remember he said “don’t forget this moment, how we feel right now.” I have never forgotten. At that moment, I feared the worst, that we were teetering off the precipice.
I read the 12pm bulletin and handed the news desk over to Jeremy. I was reluctant to let go of the reins, but my shift was over and there was no better person to handle breaking news than Maggs. I can’t remember what I did next. I probably had a contract law assignment to finish. More than likely I went to the patio bar at the Balalaika Hotel to meet some friends for beers. That was a Saturday ritual.
Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have trusted my instincts and broken that story an hour earlier. But in an age before social media, what difference did an hour make on a sleepy Easter Saturday morning?
The country certainly teetered on the precipice that day before Nelson Mandela went on TV that night to calm the nation, referring to the woman who provided critical information that led to Janusz Waluz’s arrest. I have no idea if she was the same person who had phoned me.
It was a bit strange to go back to Law School the following Tuesday morning and meet up with classmates who asked “did you do anything this weekend?”
“Uh….nah, not much. How about you?”
This morning I visited my old friend the brilliant cartoonist and illustrator Dov Fedler. I told him I was writing this story. So he gave me a picture of Chris Hani to illustrate it.