Obituary

Cliff Saunders: SABC TV reporter, spy and apartheid apologist

Political correspondent was Pretoria regime's most prominent propagandist

12 May 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron


Cliff Saunders, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79, was a top political correspondent at the SABC in the '70s and '80s and its most prominent apartheid and government propagandist.
His unctuous demeanour and fawning interviews with president PW Botha and his cabinet ministers made him something of a national institution.
His reports and regular "comment" pieces made no pretence at balance or objectivity. They blatantly misrepresented the struggle against apartheid and libelled those pursuing it.
White opponents of apartheid were portrayed as useful idiots of the Soviet Union at best or traitors to SA.
He portrayed ANC "terrorists" as the embodiment of evil, stoking the moral indignation and anxieties of white South Africans whose understanding of the struggle and those engaged in it was influenced to a large extent by him.
His doleful voice and face said "believe me". And they did. According to a 1985 All Media and Products Survey, 70% of whites said they believed all or most of what they heard on SABC radio and television. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council found that 90% of whites in the '80s rated the SABC's credibility as "good".
When anti-apartheid activists died in detention at the hands of the security police, Saunders would inform the nation in solemn tones that they'd slipped on soap or thrown themselves from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square.
MANDELA REFUSES INTERVIEW
Nelson Mandela was "a self-confessed communist and terrorist", white opposition politicians and business leaders who wanted to talk to the ANC were "useful idiots" doing the bidding of "terrorist agitators".
When South African special forces attacked safe houses in neighbouring states, killing women and children, it was a victory over terrorism.
Nine months after Mandela's release in 1990 Saunders was sent to interview him at his home in Soweto. He said he relished the prospect of meeting "this man", who he had "intensely disliked" throughout his career.
"I regarded him as a terrorist and a communist and I was shocked that FW de Klerk had released him from prison," Saunders wrote later.
When he arrived he was told that Mandela refused to be interviewed by him.
He was furious when he saw him being interviewed later on TV by the SABC's Clarence Keyter. Saunders accused the SABC of betrayal and took it as a clear signal that his star at the corporation was waning.
In 1991, after resisting efforts to retrench him, he applied for and was granted a posting to London as the SABC's Europe correspondent to replace Freek Robinson.
In 1993 he went to Oslo, Norway, to cover the joint awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mandela and De Klerk. This time Mandela agreed to an interview.
RECRUITED AS A SPY
At the end of Saunders's contract, in January 1995, he returned to "an extremely hostile" SABC. He resigned soon afterwards at the age of 55.
According to him he was then contacted by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and told that Mandela had recommended he be sent back to London to work for the NIA probing right-wing ... extremism and terrorism, the Inkatha Freedom Party and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
HOLDING GOVERNMENT TO RANSOM
He claimed that after returning to SA he was recruited by the department of intelligence as a spy in various African countries.
Two years later he fell out with the department over his contract, which was then terminated.
All this came to light when a letter he'd sent to intelligence minister Joe Nhlanhla threatening to sue the department for unpaid expenses was leaked to the media. There was no official comment but a source in the ministry accused him of trying to hold the government to ransom by threatening to tell all in court.
According to the source, Saunders had worked as a spy for apartheid-era intelligence services for years. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings former government agents claimed they had paid Saunders to plant or distort stories. He was also accused of informing on colleagues.
'TARGET TERRORISM'
Apartheid spy Craig Williamson told the TRC that a "special relationship" existed between the SABC and the intelligence community. He said the SABC was used to present cross-border raids by the South African security forces in a positive light.
In 1992 Germany's Top Secret magazine linked Saunders to disinformation and intelligence-gathering activities by South African military intelligence. Later that year Cyril Ramaphosa, who was then secretary-general of the ANC, referred to SA Defence Force documents that showed that Saunders was "a willing party to a covert attempt by [SADF chief] General Georg Meiring to smear the ANC by linking it to the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organisation".
Saunders was born in Pretoria on October 22 1939. After matriculating at Pretoria Boys High he majored in Afrikaans-Nederlands and geography at Wits University, and completed a postgraduate diploma in journalism through Unisa before joining the SABC. In 1984 he won an Artes award for a documentary programme titled Target Terrorism.
In 2006 he accused the SABC and other TV channels of censorship and a "deliberate and cynical suppression and manipulation of South African history" when they refused to air an interview he did with a 90-year-old PW Botha.
In the interview Botha told him that "looking back, if I have to do again what I've done, I'll repeat it!" - and that his favourite song was Amazing Grace.
Saunders said this revelation caused him to read the lyrics of the song carefully and reassess Botha's character.
Saunders, who died of heart failure, is survived by Ria, his wife of 57 years, and five children. His son Dudley, a TV cameraman, died in 2013 after being hit by a train in Soweto while working for UK film company Arrow Media.
1939-2019

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