Hennie Serfontein Obituary

Afrikaner who turned his back on apartheid to expose its secret masters

24 July 2017

South African journalist Hennie Serfontein was a special kind of Afrikaner because he chose to turn his back on apartheid when most whites in his country found the easier option to support it or stay silent.

The veteran Afrikaans political journalist and documentary filmmaker – often known as JHP Serfontein – died peacefully in his sleep on Monday morning in Sandton near Johannesburg in South Africa. Serfontein was 83 years old.

The Broederbond Exposés

He was best known for his exposés while working for South African newspapers in the mid-1960s and 1970s on the Broederbond, the secret organization of select Afrikaners who set government policy before it was debated and agreed by the whites-only parliament.

Thanks to Serfontein’s reporting, the Broederbond with its octopus-like power and influence on the apartheid government was for the first time exposed to the full glare of publicity. It was a path that held its dangers and the South African government of the time did not want him to report on it.
In the late-1980s Serfontein would carry secret messages backward and forward between South African political leaders and the African National Congress, then based in exile in Zambia.

He was a correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Trouw and the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet in the late-1970s and 1980s. He also produced films for several television stations in the Netherlands – IKON, NCRV, VARA – at a time when Dutch journalists were often refused visas to enter South Africa.

Serfontein spent his formative years in Pretoria at the heart of conservative nationalist Afrikanerdom. He was head boy of the prestigious Afrikaans Hoer Skool in Pretoria. He was also a contemporary of the later Afrikaner politicians FW de Klerk and Pik Botha in the leadership of National Party youth organisations, before turning his back on what could have been a brilliant political career and opting for journalism and exposing apartheid.

Serfontein’s sensational exposures of the Broederbond came when he was working for the (Johannesburg) Sunday Times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For years Serfontein was acknowledged as the foremost writer on the National Party and Afrikaner affairs in the liberal English press. For this he was branded a traitor to the Afrikaner cause, and he and his family were ostracized by the Afrikaner community. In 2015 he explained, “I’m not a church person, but I took my decision that apartheid is against the Word of God. Full stop.”

Throughout his life he was a close confidante of apartheid opponent Beyers Naudé whom he first met in 1950 as a student, and their opposition to apartheid followed the same path from the 1960s when they often consulted each other.

Anti-apartheid stance

From the mid-1970s, Serfontein focused on the confrontation between the international community and the apartheid state. He established himself in particular as an authority on Namibia – then under South African control – and the relationship of the white regime in South Africa with other parts of the continent. He made a number of visits in those years to Zambia’s capital Lusaka where the banned African National Congress (ANC) was headquartered, and interviewed Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda.
He visited the banned ANC headquarters and later also carried messages between South African political leaders and the ANC, culminating in 1989 when Serfontein took a group of Stellenbosch students to meet the ANC which caused a backlash on the campus of the Afrikaans university. In 2014, he was thanked by one of the students on that visit, Robert Bricout, “for showing us what real courage is.”

Serfontein was also the first South African journalist allowed into Mozambique after the Marxist Frelimo government assumed power in 1975, and the first to interview its president, Samora Machel.

In the eighties, he reported the rising opposition to apartheid and the repressive measures in dealing with it. Serfontein made several portraits of the anti-apartheid leaders of the time: Alan Boesak, Winnie Mandela, Frank Chikane and Beyers Naudé. In 1987 he filmed the second public meeting between Afrikaners and the ANC in  Dakar, Senegal the only such meeting until then having taken place 29 years earlier with then ANC president Albert Luthuli, in Pretoria in 1958. Hennie Serfontein witnessed most of the important late 20th-century events in South Africa. He was at the gates of Victor Verster prison, near Cape Town, filming for Dutch Television (VARA), when Nelson Mandela walked free on 11 February 1990.

Mandela secret talks

Through his unique contacts on both sides of the political divide, he became the first journalist to break the story a few months earlier that Mandela while still a prisoner had already been talking to the rulers in Pretoria for three years. He carefully concealed his first-hand informants describing them only as "diplomatic sources".

Kobie's months of Mandela secret meetings

In the last decade of his life he lived in quiet retirement. In 2015 a film about his committed journalism, directed by his daughter Anli, “Our Man in South Africa – Onze Man in Zuid Afrika, was broadcast in the Netherlands by IKON television.

Hennie is survived by his wife of 60 years, Hesta, his four daughters and nine grandchildren.

Text by Peter Kenny, edited by Stephen Brown