Hennie Serfontein

26.8.1933 - 24.7.2017

South African Investigative Journalist & Documentary Filmmaker


(c) Anli Serfontein

JHP (Hennie) Serfontein spent his formative years in Pretoria in the heart of conservative Nationalist Afrikanerdom. The son of a senior civil servant he also went to primary school in Cape Town when Parliament was in session. He was born in 1933 and matriculated in 1949 from the prestigious Afrikaans High School in Pretoria where he was the head prefect in his matric year.

A law graduate of the Universities of Pretoria and South Africa, he was a leading member of the Youth wing of the National Party before breaking with it in the 1950’s on the issue of its racial policies. He became chairman of the Pretoria Political Study Group which among other things in 1958 organised a meeting addressed by Chief Albert Luthuli, then president of the African National Congress (ANC) and the predecessor of Mandela and Tambo. That meeting was violently broken up by white Afrikaans nationalists and both Luthuli and Serfontein were assaulted in an incident that reverberated around the world.

Dismissed in 1960 as a Judge’s registrar because he had become involved in opposition politics, he went to Namibia where he stood as an opposition Parliamentary candidate. For three years in the early Sixties he was the publicity secretary of the Progressive Party, working closely with Helen Suzman. During this time in 1963, while still employed, he started his Broederbond exposés for the Sunday Times with no by-line. In 1965 he joined the Johannesburg Sunday Times as their political reporter, officially starting his journalistic career.  He left in 1976 to join the more liberal Rand Daily Mail where he served for 18 months before being retrenched, along with 11 other left leaning journalists because of his outspoken views. In early 1978 until his retirement in 2003, he worked as a freelance journalist and filmmaker.

For years Serfontein was acknowledged as the foremost writer on the National Party and Afrikaner affairs in the liberal English press. In the Sunday Times, in the late sixties and early seventies, he made his name in a series of sensational exposés of the top secret Afrikaans organisation the Broederbond. For the first time ever the Broederbond with its octopus like powers and influence on the apartheid Government was exposed to the full glare of publicity.

From the mid-seventies onwards Serfontein concentrated on the international confrontation in South Africa and established himself in particular as an authority on the Namibian issue and the white regime in South Africa’s relationship with Africa. He made a number of visits in those years to Lusaka where he interviewed president Kenneth Kaunda and where the banned ANC was headquartered. He visited the banned ANC headquarters and later also carried messages to and fro between South African political leaders and the ANC, culminating in 1989 when he took a group of Stellenbosch students to meet the ANC. He was also the first South African journalist allowed into Mozambique after the take-over by the Marxist Frelimo government in 1975, and the first to interview its Marxist president Samora Machel.

In the eighties he reported the rising opposition to apartheid and the repressive measures in dealing with it. He made several portraits of the anti-apartheid leaders of the time – Alan Boesak, Winne Mandela, Beyers Naudé. In 1987 he filmed the second meeting between Afrkaners and the ANC in West Africa, the first meeting having taken place in Pretoria in 1958 with Luthuli.

On 4 August 1989 he became the first journalist to expose the fact that Nelson Mandela, then still a prisoner was talking to the apartheid Government in an article: Kobie's months of secret Mandela meetings he carefully hid his first hand sources behind "diplomatic sources". His scoop dramatically started: "Nelson Mandela, has been involved in "serious dialogue" with senior members of the government for almost three years."


In the early nineties he was again able to write for an audience at home working for the left leaning Afrikaans weekly Vrye Weekblad, which at the time made a great impact by exposing the existence of death squads within the security apparatus. His most prolific filmmaking time producing documentary films was after 1995 when he finally made documentaries for South African audiences – including portraits of Desmond Tutu, Zanele Mbeki, Breyten Breytenbach and anti-apartheid theologian Beyers Naudé. From 1999-2000 he also did documentaries on the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and for the first time exposed the effects this “white” war had on black woman and children, who also died in the concentration camps.


Hennie Serfontein is the author of four books:


·      Die Verkrampte Aanslag (1970) which deals with the split within the National Party in the 1960’s

·      Namibia? (1976)

·      The Brotherhood of Power (1978) – an exposé of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond.

·      Apartheid, Change and the NGKerk (1982) – on the role of the white Dutch Reformed Church in introducing apartheid based on the Old Testament scriptures and upholding it. This book was used at the Assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Ottowa in 1982 to expel the white Dutch Reformed Church from the body and to get Dr. Alan Boesak the moderator of the so-called Coloured Dutch Reformed Church elected.