Obituary

Hennie Serfontein: Journalist who helped expose Broederbond

Inquiring mind took young man born for high Nat office into progressive politics

30 July 2017 - 00:02 By CHRIS BARRON

Hennie Serfontein, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 83, was responsible for one of the greatest pieces of investigative journalism in the history of the Sunday Times, and South Africa, when he exposed the Afrikaner Broederbond, the country's most secret and powerful organisation.
In front-page pieces over about 12 years he revealed the frightening extent of the Broederbond's power and influence in every facet of public life, including government.
The ruling National Party reacted with fury. The sinister and dangerous head of the Bureau of State Security, General Hendrik van den Bergh, made it his mission to track down Serfontein's sources.
The offices of the Sunday Times were raided and boxloads of documents carted off. Although Serfontein and Sunday Times editor Joel Mervis had securely hidden much of the material, the security police found enough to identify the source of the original leak: pro-ANC cleric Beyers Naudé.
Prime minister HF Verwoerd, whom Serfontein exposed as a senior member of the Broederbond, attacked the Sunday Times in parliament.
His successor, prime minister John Vorster, whose Broederbond membership number the Sunday Times published, attacked Serfontein at public meetings on the platteland - while the reporter sat at the press table in front of 1,500 farmers baying for his blood.
Of course, they were as riveted by Serfontein's revelations as the rest of the country, and avid readers of the Sunday Times.
Warning
Serfontein received a terse warning from a Pretoria attorney he knew well: "The Afrikaner volk never forgets and never forgives." He and his family were ostracised in their Linden, Johannesburg, community, and the Dutch Reformed Church they belonged to refused to baptise his daughter.
But his Page1 exposés kept coming.Serfontein was born into a staunch Afrikaner nationalist family in Pretoria on August 26 1933. His father was a Nazi-supporting senior civil servant and during the war years the young Serfontein enthusiastically followed German victories and despaired when they started losing.
He was a top achiever at the prestigious Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria, where he became head boy. After matriculating in 1949 he graduated in law at the University of Pretoria.
He supported apartheid and was leader of the National Party youth wing of the southern Transvaal. But he had a questioning mind and his doubts began to grow. He walked out of a party congress in 1955 in protest at the scrapping of coloureds from the common voters' roll.
In 1958 he invited the president of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, to address an Afrikaner political study group he chaired.
Serfontein had barely begun introducing Luthuli when a group of about 30 thugs yelled that "the Afrikaner volk" would not allow "a k****r" to address them. They stormed the stage and assaulted Luthuli and Serfontein, who was trying to protect him.
Luthuli tried to speak but Serfontein had to hurry him, bruised and battered, from the stage. His wife, Hesta, took him to a doctor.
Serfontein, who as a student leader had entertained the by-no-means-unrealistic notion of one day leading the Nats and becoming prime minister, did a 180° turn politically after meeting Luthuli, and joined the fledgling Progressive Party, which was started by Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin and others in 1959.
The gruff, blunt but also exuberant and gregarious Serfontein, who remained an Afrikaner to the core and never quite forgave the English for the Anglo-Boer War, about which he would one day make a documentary, even spent three years as the Prog publicity secretary after being dismissed as a judge's registrar because of his involvement in opposition politics.
Piercing the veil
The first person to pierce the veil of secrecy around the Broederbond was Sunday Times journalist Charles Bloomberg, who asked Serfontein to help translate the top-secret documents he received.But when Bloomberg had to leave the country hurriedly in 1963 after receiving threatening visits to his home, Serfontein took over, using well-placed contacts from his days as a Nat youth leader. His stories appeared without a byline until Mervis recruited him full-time in 1965.
Mervis would put him up at a good hotel for days at a time so that Serfontein could wine and dine his impressive network of connections in comfort and privacy, and piece his stories together.
His sensational disclosures continued until Tertius Myburgh became editor of the Sunday Times in 1975, and stopped the flow.
Myburgh told him the Broederbond was a spent force, that Serfontein had been exaggerating its importance, and that it no longer had news value.
Serfontein, who believed Myburgh, like him an Afrikaner, was a government spy, was appalled and left the Sunday Times in 1976. He never forgave Myburgh.
After 18 months on the Rand Daily Mail he covered the increasingly volatile political situation in South Africa as a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, mainly for Dutch newspapers and TV.
His relationship with the anti-apartheid Dutch media came under pressure when word went out that Serfontein was a government spy. After asking his colleagues in the field, they were satisfied it was government disinformation designed to discredit Serfontein and stop his highly critical reports from appearing overseas.
The smear coincided with a rift in his otherwise close relationship with Beyers Naudé.
Serfontein was close to former Progressive Federal Party leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and was part of a group of Afrikaner intellectuals Slabbert took to Dakar for talks with exiled ANC leaders.
He continued to have excellent ANC and South African government contacts, which enabled him, in August 1989, to break the momentous news that Nelson Mandela had been in talks with senior members of the government for three years.
In 1989 Serfontein led a group of Stellenbosch University students to meet the ANC in Maputo, and he made several visits to ANC headquarters in Lusaka.
Serfontein, who was ill for several years before his death, is survived by Hesta, his wife of 60 years, and four daughters. 
1933-2017

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.



Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.